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Letter From Budrus

By Mark Sorkin
Originally published in The Nation

The van drops us off at the top of a hill and rattles around the bend. It is the middle of the afternoon in Budrus, a tiny village in the occupied West Bank ten miles northwest of Ramallah, and the neighborhood seems deceptively quiet. A few boys and girls linger outside their homes, picking at cactus bushes. Others peek out from second-floor windows to watch the visitors walking by. A dirt road winds down to an expanse of olive groves that stretches for about 700 dunams (175 acres) to the Green Line, the internationally recognized border with Israel. It’s a bucolic scene, violently interrupted by the razor-wire fence on the outer edges that threatens to tear through the middle of the groves. If construction here continues, the 1,200 residents of Budrus–the vast majority of whom depend on agriculture for work–will lose a large portion of their fields. An Israeli bulldozer has already carved a preliminary path, and uprooted trees lie in its wake.

According to the official map released by Israel’s Defense Ministry, the proposed route of the separation barrier will not only pass through this patch of land but will also loop around to encircle Budrus and eight nearby villages, creating a closed enclave with a population of 25,000. Once the area is sealed, access to fields, offices, construction sites, university classrooms, friends and relatives outside the enclave will be restricted. Even those who need emergency hospital care will be subjected to the caprices and bureaucratic diktat of the soldiers guarding the gates. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem estimates that the completed barrier will create eighty-one such enclaves and will expropriate almost 1 million dunams east of the Green Line, affecting a total of 875,600 Palestinians, or 38 percent of the population in the West Bank.

Many residents in Budrus fear that conditions in the enclave will become so dire that they will be forced to abandon their land. This alarming possibility has prompted them to mobilize en masse, and they have succeeded so far in stalling construction and calling attention to the dubious legality of the plan. They’re not alone: Since the first bulldozers broke ground in August 2002, thousands of Palestinians throughout the West Bank have teamed up with Israeli peace activists and international humanitarian groups to stage nonviolent demonstrations against the barrier (which, it must be noted, is built as a fence in some areas and, elsewhere, a monstrous wall made of thirty-foot concrete slabs). Confrontations between protesters and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have become increasingly chaotic, leading to hundreds of injuries, detentions and at least seven deaths. But the residents in Budrus haven’t taken up arms, nor have they appealed to the Palestinian Authority or other factions for support. Doing so, they believe, would only strengthen Israel’s claims that a barrier is necessary to deter attacks. Instead, they have organized an autonomous, highly disciplined campaign to prevent construction until Israel agrees to build on the Green Line.

Anticipating a struggle in their area last fall, village leaders got together and formed the Popular Committee Against the Wall. By the time the IDF arrived on November 12, the committee had developed a strict set of rules: Everybody in the village was expected to participate in the protests, and nobody was allowed to throw stones. “The soldiers were prepared with their weapons,” says Ayed Murar, 42, head of the committee. “But when they saw all our people sitting peacefully on our land–old men, women, children, everyone–they turned back.”

Ayed’s brother Muhammed, a thin, mild-mannered sheik, invites me into his home to talk. We’re sitting in his spacious living room, which is furnished with two couches and a dozen plastic green chairs arranged in a circle. The space seems to double as a play area for Muhammed’s children, two of whom hover timidly in the corner, and a conference room for committee meetings. As cups of coffee cool on the table, Muhammed explains, “To have a confrontation locally, you want it to be totally apart from the politicians. We didn’t want to wait for instructions from the PA in Ramallah. The threat was so great that people were prepared to move from their houses to live in the fields. When we saw a bulldozer, we wanted to be able to move immediately.”

The IDF returned at the end of December and declared Budrus a closed military zone. Demonstrations continued on a regular basis for the next few months, often in defiance of curfews. Ayed and a third brother, Naim, were arrested in early January following Israeli intelligence accusations of “terror-supporting activity,” but the charges were dropped once they were determined to be baseless. According to a report in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, the military court issued a statement upon Ayed’s release, declaring, “It is out of the question for the military commander to use his authority to order a person’s administrative detention [arrest without trial] only because of his activity against the fence. This is a mistaken decision that does not stem from security considerations.”

Over the course of about thirty demonstrations, more than 100 people were injured by batons, rubber bullets and tear-gas inhalation. Some youths, after seeing their parents wounded, tried to fight back with stones. But the committee leaders discouraged this activity through a series of public discussions and lectures in the schools, insisting that they would lose the struggle if resistance turned violent. “There was a constant discourse about nonviolence and a tight sense of control,” says Max Shmookler, an American peace activist who lived in Budrus for seven weeks as a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement. “The general prohibition on stone-throwing was well understood and respected.”

Protests came to a halt on March 3, when the IDF presented a revised map showing that the route of the fence had been moved to the Green Line. But in early May, leaflets appeared in homes and on shop windows around town with a foreboding message. Muhammed pulls a piece of paper from his pocket, unfolds it and begins to read: “We are calling on the residents of Budrus to be present tomorrow at a meeting with officers of the civil administration.” Later I stop to talk to a cluster of men standing outside a small grocery store, where the same message is taped to the window. They are concerned that activity in the area is scheduled to resume and that construction will, in fact, cross through the olive groves. The rumors are confirmed the next day, and protests resume immediately.

“Instead of taking 1,200 dunams, now they want to confiscate something like 200,” says Ronit Robinson, a human rights attorney representing Budrus. Robinson filed a petition to Israel’s High Court of Justice on May 23, claiming that there is no legitimate reason to cut through the groves. This will buy some time for the residents of Budrus–once the case enters the system, construction will stop until the court reaches its decision–but generally speaking, matters involving the occupied territories haven’t fared well for Palestinians in the past. Nine petitions regarding the barrier have already been rejected (five have settled, two were withdrawn and seventeen remain in process).

Rachel Naidek Ashkenazi, a spokesperson for the Defense Ministry, insists that the path has been suitably adjusted in response to the citizens’ complaints. “The new route is in Israel’s territory prior to the ’67 war, a change that necessitated uprooting of an Israeli forest in the area,” she explains. Does this mean that the precise location of the Green Line is in dispute, or that Israel is reluctant to recognize it? Ariel Sharon’s highly publicized meeting with President Bush on April 14, during which Bush assured the Prime Minister that a final peace agreement would not require Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders, suggests an answer to that question. As envisioned by Sharon’s Likud Party, the barrier will not only deter suicide bombings by preventing Palestinians from entering Israel but will protect settlements as well. The current map reveals a tortuous line wrapping around these “new realities on the ground,” folding settlements and strategic resources into an expanded Israel.

As the International Court of Justice considers the case against the barrier, Israel’s security claims are being weighed against potential violations of international law. Indirectly, the ICJ proceedings could strengthen the case in Budrus, an area without a noticeable concentration of militant resistance or any geographical rationale for encroaching beyond the Green Line. “We’re now in a sort of post-Hague stage, where humanitarian issues are very much in the spotlight,” says Ray Dolphin, a fence analyst with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. “Civil groups are getting involved, Israeli communities are joining in and injunctions are successfully causing the construction to be rerouted or delayed.” All these things combined, Dolphin adds, could pressure Israel to adopt a more delicate approach toward villages like Budrus.

Robinson is holding out hopes that the High Court will rule in the village’s favor, but she is skeptical about the likelihood of rerouting that section of the fence a second time. Residents, meanwhile, are bracing for another confrontation with the IDF. Ayed says he is prepared to keep struggling, peacefully and with international help if a new round of protests becomes necessary. “They decided to build this wall in order to protect themselves,” he says. “But now they need twenty soldiers just to guard the wall.”