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The Peaceful Way Works Best

By Gideon Levy

There’s a remote little village in the West Bank that decided to behave differently. A village whose residents decided not to lament and not to blow themselves up. They chose another way between violence and surrender. The residents of the village of Budrus, west of Ramallah and close to the Green Line, chose to wage a nonviolent struggle against the separation fence that is being built on its land. The whole village has pitched in – the Hamas and Fatah members, the old and the young, men and women, and for three months they have been going down by the hundreds to their olive groves every week, to demonstrate against the uprooting of their trees and the encircling of the residents.

The IDF and the Border Police have been faced with an unfamiliar phenomenon: What are they supposed to do about hundreds of unarmed, nonviolent residents slowly descending toward the bulldozers, with women and children leading the pack, and a handful of Israeli and international volunteers sprinkled among them, approaching to within touching distance of the armed soldiers? Should they shoot to kill? Shoot to injure?

So far, the IDF has fired, but less – no one has been killed, and about 100 people have been injured, most of them lightly, in the course of about 25 demonstrations over a two-month period. Most of the injuries were from batons and rubber bullets, like in the old days. Twelve villagers have been arrested, and nine of them are still in jail, for participating in clearly nonviolent demonstrations. This, too, is a violation of the IDF’s rules, as one military judge noted when he refused to send one of the leaders of this pacifist revolt to administrative detention. The arrested man’s brother, however, was sent straight to administrative detention by another military judge. But the most important point is that the construction work on the fence near the village has been stopped, for now.

Budrus against the occupation. Budrus against the separation fence, which will encircle the village on all sides and cut it off, like eight other villages slated to be enclosed in fenced-in enclaves opposite Ben-Gurion Airport. The fence could have been built along the Green Line, several hundred meters from the present route, but Israel had other ideas – about the vineyards, about the olives, about life. Today, or tomorrow, the quarrying and paving work will resume, and so will the protest demonstrations.

Will this remote village become a milestone in the struggle over the fence? Will the residents of Budrus herald a change to nonviolence in the Palestinian struggle against the occupation? Or, in a week or two, will the separation fence cut off life in this village, too, and show that nonviolence doesn’t pay, with the scene in Budrus soon becoming a forgotten episode?

Cacti wherever you look. Old stone houses standing alongside half-built ones that will never be completed. Things look promising as you enter the village, but the further inside you go, the more the reality hits you. After the last house, from within the olive groves, is the sight that is frightening the residents: the rising orange of the bulldozers, blotches of color in the wadi cutting into the rock, digging up and scarring, and after them the steamrollers and the heavy trucks. Olive trees whose tops have been cut off stand in mute testimony to the work of the bulldozers so far.

This is where the fence will pass. Through these olive groves. One fence to the west of them and another to the east of them, leaving them stuck, imprisoned in the middle. Why? Because.

“If the fence were on the mountain, it would give more security,” ventures Iyad Ahmed Murar, a leader of the protest in Budrus, whose two brothers are in administrative detention. “But they want a fence in the wadi. Common sense says that if you want a security fence, put it on the mountain and not in the wadi. But they want to destroy the land and the olives. What difference would it make if they moved 200 meters toward the Green Line?”

Before 1948, Budrus had approximately 25,000 dunams. Of that, 20,000 went to Israel and the village was left with about 5,000. Now, according to Murar’s calculations, about another 1,000 dunams will be stolen. The construction work near the groves has stopped for now, but is continuing not far away, toward the neighboring village of Qibiya. But it’s not just the fate of the land that is worrying the village, which hasn’t had a resident killed since 1993. What’s more worrisome is how the fence will effectively choke off the village.

Murar: “The fence will be around nine villages. Ramallah is our mother and only one gate will lead to it. And what if the soldier is on a coffee break? Or off smoking a cigarette? Maybe he’ll lock the gate so he can go to the bathroom. Maybe there will be a problem in Tel Aviv and they’ll close the gate. And then you won’t be able to get to the university, to the hospital or to work, and in the end, people will start to live where they work. If someone gives me a job, and I come one day and not the next, in the end he’ll tell me to stay there where the job is or be fired. People will start thinking about having to stay where their job is. And the student and the sick person will start thinking the same way.”

This is what the village is the most afraid of – a “willing” transfer; of life being made so difficult that they’ll be compelled to move east. A 1,000-year-old village. That’s why the fence is here. In Budrus, they’re convinced that Prime Minister Sharon is continuing what Captain Sharon began: In Qibiya, he tried it with dynamite, now he’s trying it with a fence. The objective is the same: to move them away from the Green Line, especially in the vicinity of Ben-Gurion airport. What can they do? “Demonstrate in a peaceful manner,” says Murar the rebel.

It all began on November 9, when construction work first started here. Since then, they’ve been demonstrating and demonstrating, always in a peaceful manner. Sometimes once a week, sometimes every day; sometimes the entire village; sometimes only the women and children. They walk down through the groves toward the route of the fence and get as close as possible to the soldiers and Border Police officers. Murar likes to describe the little rebellion, stage after stage, almost hour after hour. How they once stood there for a whole day, how they brought lunch and ate in front of the soldiers, how they were beaten with batons and rifle butts.

He records every detail: During one demonstration in December, he counted 15 humvees, six Border Police jeeps, two blue police jeeps and another two military jeeps inside the village, 25 jeeps altogether. At another demonstration, the officer declared the area a closed military zone.

Murar: “They had a letter in Hebrew – maybe about this area, maybe about the whole village, maybe about the whole world, declaring a closed military zone. They said they’d impose a curfew if we did anything.” He also talks about how they managed to go out to the land despite the curfew and to demonstrate in front of the bulldozers.

We decide to go down now toward the route that has already been paved. Murar remains behind. “If there are too many of us, they’ll think it’s a demonstration.” The last demonstration was last Friday; tear gas canisters are still scattered about. The residents know the work is going to resume soon. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow. Here are the red markings on the ground. They have scouts on the balconies of the outer houses of the village, who will report if they see something. The treadmarks left by the bulldozers are still visible in the mud. From here, the route is supposed to ascend toward the olive groves, another four kilometers. The first trees have already been uprooted. Yesterday was Tu Bishvat (Jewish arbor day).

A group of volunteers from the International Solidarity Movement, along with two young Israelis, accompany us through the olive groves, but they do not go down toward the fence route. They are staying in the village now, preparing for what is to come. Today they’re here, tomorrow they’ll be in the next village that the fence is approaching. Young dreamers and fighters who pay 20 shekels a night to stay in a rented apartment in the village. Yonatan Pollak of Anarchists Against the Fence, a 21-year-old with blue eyes, dimples, acne scars, a worldview and a past: Europe is already closed to him because of anti-globalization demonstrations he participated in there. He pulls a black sleeve over the tattoos on his arm. He won’t buy an Israeli soda in the village grocery store. While his contemporaries are standing at checkpoints and deciding which woman in labor to let pass and which not, he is here, with the Budrus residents, in their struggle.

We return to the village. The Amhassein family’s two-story house: the family on the first floor, the chickens on the second. The mother, Suriya, just returned from Mecca and the house has been decorated in her honor. The children play loudly at recess at the school at the edge of the village. The fence will pass right behind the border of the school and the border of the nearby cemetery. Mighty Israel is spread out all around: Modi’in, Ramle, Shoham, Rosh Ha’ayin – and on a clear day, you can even make out the Shalom Tower in Tel Aviv. And on the other side, to the east, Kiryat Sefer, Nili, Na’aleh. “Tell me, could the fence go into the cemetery?,” Murar asks.

A meeting at his home: About 20 women sit in the yard of the attractive house on the edge of the green valley and plan the exhibition they want to stage here on the 23rd of the month, the first day of hearings on the fence in the International Court in The Hague. Half the women came from Salfit and half are from the village. They sit in the shade of the banana tree in Murar’s yard and talk about the exhibit of olivewood products they will present in a tent in the center of the village. Maybe people from all over the world will come to see. A Swedish member of parliament was already arrested here by the IDF. Murar says that the exhibition will include a dove carved out of olivewood. They’re also planning a demonstration of children

Murar: “We’ve learned lessons – where we did good and where we did bad. They [the Israelis] have also learned lessons. Maybe they’ll strengthen the curfew more when they’re working. But our plan is to defend our land and our trees in a peaceful manner. Sometimes among our people there are a lot of ideas about what to do against the occupation. We here have chosen a different strategy. Our strategy in this small village is that we’re turning things over. In the north, from Jenin until Budrus, there were Israeli and international demonstrators, supported by Palestinians. But here, we think that it’s our problem and that we have to defend our land and do something, and the Israelis and international protesters are only supporting us. First the Palestinians, and then the internationals. We are very grateful for Israeli and international support, but the Palestinians have to make a stand. We’re adopting a special strategy, a peaceful strategy. The Hamas here, too. In the beginning, they walked with their green flags in the demonstrations. After the first three demonstrations, we only carry the flag of Palestine. Everyone together. In a totally peaceful way. We also all agreed on one thing: We are not against the Israelis and not against the Jews and not against the soldiers. We are only against the occupation. We are against the bulldozers. And we in Budrus believe that killing is easier than crying. But just crying over the land isn’t enough. A peaceful demonstration is stronger than killing. If you stand before the Israeli soldier, right beside him, you’ll be stronger.

If someone asks: Why peaceful? I tell him: I’ve tried all the ways and the peaceful way works best. The worst thing is to kill the innocent. That’s the worst thing in the world. They kill day and night and say that we are terrorists. But we need all the world to be on our side. I’m against killing people. All people, Jews and Arabs. I’m not afraid or ashamed to say that. That’s why I’m demonstrating peacefully against the fence.”