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Counter Punch: “From Bil’in to Birmingham”

A Missing Link in Support for Palestinian Human Rights
From Bil’in to Birmingham

One of the latest in the long series of unpublicized Israeli attacks on civilians took place on August 25 in the West Bank village of Bil’in, a longstanding bastion of nonviolent Palestinian resistance. It occurred during the weekly protest against the Israeli de-facto-boundary wall being constructed in their midst. About 100 protestors — Palestinian, Israeli and international activists — were walking to the site of the wall when, without provocation, soldiers in riot gear waded in and began clubbing demonstrators and firing rubber bullets at close range.

An Italian, an Israeli and two Palestinian activists were beaten so badly they had to be taken to hospital. One American suffered a concussion and another sustained hand injuries, in addition to taking a rubber bullet in her back and another one in her hip. Besides being clubbed, a Palestinian coordinator was shot with three rubber bullets in the back and one in the leg.

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, this mayhem remains an unknown reality for mainstream-media consumers in North America. Despite the long-running nature of such activity and the graphic brutality of Israel’s response, coverage of these actions in Canadian and U.S. media is scant to non-existent. And, of course, the public invisibility of such activity abroad contributes to making it such a tough sell on the ground. The media blackout was dissected by Patrick O’Connor in October 2005, his report pointing out that the New York Times had published only three feature reports on Palestinian nonviolent resistance in the previous three years — “this despite the fact that Palestinians have conducted hundreds of nonviolent protests over the last three years throughout the West Bank against Israel’s construction of the Wall on Palestinian land, and despite the fact that the Israeli army killed nine Palestinian protesters, wounded several thousand protesters, harassed and collectively punished villages that protested, and arrested hundreds of protesters, including nonviolent protest leaders.”

Palestinians have grown used to a prevalent refrain in expressions of support received from international well-wishers: If only you guys acted like Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi, the whole world would jump on your bandwagon. That message, of course, is superfluous–indeed, counter-factual. Organized non-violent Palestinian resistance has been going on for decades and continues to be actively exercised in the struggle against the occupation and the separation wall. Israeli products and services have been boycotted; military orders have been refused; confiscated properties have not been vacated. “Newsworthy” incidents gain sporadic attention, as when Israel was obliged to bring in the bailiffs in 1989 to deal with Palestinians’ refusal to pay taxes in the town of Beit Sahour. Higher profile was Israel’s 2003 siege of the Church of Nativity to crack down on Palestinian priests who were protecting fellow Palestinians.

Yet the exhortations continue. In fact, Palestinians have gotten the Go-Gandhi message from only two generations away from the horse’s mouth. It was delivered in 2004 by Arun Gandhi, 70-year-old grandson of the Mahatma, a naturalized American citizen who directs the Institute for Non-violence in Tennessee. While standing next to Israel’s separation wall in Abu Dis, Gandhi framed the non-violent option in terms of necessity: “I don’t think Palestine has the economic and military capacity to confront a huge state like Israel, which has not only a powerful military arsenal but powerful friends.”

Back in North America, socio-ecumenical rabbi Michael Lerner is explicit about the homegrown icon of nonviolence. “Imagine,” he told Al-Jazeera, “a parallel with Martin Luther King Jr: if blacks had been adopting violent methods at the same time as he was giving speeches in Washington, could he have achieved what he did? Peaceful protest is the only way the Palestinians can ever win.” And Lerner sets the bar high: “It will have to be an all or nothing. It cannot be that some sections of the community resist non-violently while others do not.”

A parallel between Palestinians and African Americans seems to have occurred to at least one American president. In Perceptions of Palestine, Kathleen Christison reports that Jimmy Carter made the explicit comparison in arguing against the view that the Israel-Palestine situation was hopeless. (She offers a contrapuntal reality-check by pointing out that Carter didn’t actually meet a real live Palestinian till a few years after leaving office.)

Among African Americans, since the days when Dr. King took pains to position himself as supportive of Israel, a perceived parallel between their human rights struggles and those of Palestinians has been more widespread at the grass-roots than at the elite level, with certain notable exceptions. Of course, all such perceptions are filtered through the convoluted multi-level interface that exists between African Americans and Jewish Americans. But, in a nutshell, Israel has turned out to be a bridge-burner. Jews were highly active in the early civil rights movement, but many of them felt rudely shaken when Martin was eclipsed by Malcolm. Things have never been the same. Any rekindling of Black-Jewish solidarity will probably take place outside established channels and, psychologically, will entail cornerstone realignment towards Israel on the part of North American Jews. Potential role models are the courageous Israeli Jews who have joined with Palestinians in direct action campaigns for decades–not to mention “righteous gentiles” from abroad like Rachel Corrie, the young activist from Olympia, Washington who was bulldozed to death while trying to prevent a home demolition.

The raw material for a North American shock of recognition exists. If the Bil’in confrontation were played out on TV screens in the United States and Canada, memories of historic King-related TV newscasts would undoubtedly be evoked. These would certainly include unforgettable images from spring 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, when a “Bull” named Connor turned police dogs, fire hoses, stun guns and tear gas on civil rights protestors. Advocates for Israel would respond by brandishing a handful of quotes where MLK praises Israel for its democracy and supports its right to protect itself. But those guarded remarks would likely be overshadowed by the visual flashback, supplemented perhaps by a rereading of King’s celebrated “Letter from a Birmingham jail.” That missive lays out the operational dynamic of passive resistance (“nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue”) and confronts the law-and-order crowd (“everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal'”).
The King legacy is certainly a homegrown influence on the many brave Americans and Canadians who have asserted their own spiritual “birthright” by going to Palestine and joining in nonviolent direct action against the Israeli occupation. Rachel Corrie’s unacknowledged but ongoing presence hovers over the U.S. State Department, which is doing its best to discourage Americans from joining such actions. According to a recent advisory: “Those taking part in demonstrations, nonviolent resistance, and ‘direct action’ are advised to cease such activity for their own safety.”

While Bil’in has become emblematic of non-violent resistance, it is far from alone, as pointed out by Mohammed Khatib, secretary of the Bil’in village council and resistance committee member. During an interview in France last fall, he mentioned Budrus as another “notable” example of resistance, attributing Bil’in’s visibility to operational originality and media coverage. Khatib sees the presence of supporters from abroad as natural and inherent in the situation: “It is the international community which created the state of Israel, and, through its tribunals, has also condemned the construction of the wall, settlement activity and the Occupation. Together we must make Israel comply with international law.”

A mighty thread connects Birmingham with Bil’in. The organic outrage which was channeled into, and given form by, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is the same passion that sustains the International Solidarity Movement, Ta’ayush, Gush Shalom, Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement, Holy Land Trust, and others. It animates a trans-national community of purpose for which, as is the case with Zionism, overall outlook is more important than organizational structure. However unlike Zionism, it bears the mark of a defining restraint and self-discipline that gives it unique built-in credibility.

Dave Himmelstein is a writer and editor in Montreal. Reachable at [email protected]