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MER: “The Only Place Where There’s Hope”

An Interview with Muhammad Khatib, Jonathan Pollak and Elad Orian, Middle East Report

Beginning in December 2004, and then every Friday since February 2005, Palestinians, Israelis and internationals have converged on the West Bank village of Bil‘in to demonstrate against the barrier that Israel is building there, as part of the chain of walls and fences (the Wall) that the Israeli government hopes will be Israel’s unilaterally declared eastern border. The protests in Bil‘in have been among the most effective and sustained of any in the Occupied Territories. In July 2006, Robert Blecher, an editor of this magazine, sat down with three key activists in this effort: Muhammad Khatib of the Bil‘in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Jonathan Pollak and Elad Orian of Israeli Anarchists Against the Wall. Blecher translated portions of the interview from Arabic and Hebrew.

What is it about Bil‘in that has made the demonstrations here successful?

Muhammad: There are a number of reasons. First, the popular committee has built a close relationship with members of the community. Second, we’ve managed to achieve a balance between protesting and living our daily lives. Yes, we need to demonstrate, but kids also need to go to school. We’ve cut the demonstrations down to once a week—in other places, they were daily—because more than that is not sustainable. Third, there is the relationship between Israelis, Palestinians and internationals. We all work together and share in the decisions, since this is a joint struggle. We have come to know each other better and trust each other.

Fourth, there is the originality and creativity of our demonstrations. Peaceful struggle has been present in Palestine for a long time. But what we’ve done here is adopt new approaches that have developed that struggle and strengthened our relationship with the media into one of trust. If five people were wounded at a demonstration, we say five; if nobody was wounded, we say none. There’s no need to inflate the numbers. The media, in fact, has come to trust us more than the army spokesman about the number of wounded.

Fifth, we know what we want to do and understand the possibility of doing it. International law gives Palestinians the right to use armed resistance, but this path isn’t useful or helpful to us in our struggle here. Our struggle is a truly popular one. The simplest action gives the Israelis a security pretext to use against us, and so we don’t even use stones. That distorts the story. The discussion becomes about who began the violence, and we lose the opportunity to stop the bulldozers and send a message that there is an occupation here. From the media, you would think this is a war between two armies. It’s not. We are the victims, and the Israeli army is an army of occupation.

The occupier, to be clear, is everyone who represents the occupation. Our problem isn’t with Israelis or with Jews. We welcome anybody who comes to us as a partner in the struggle, but we are against anyone who represents the occupation, whether settler or soldier.

Jonathan: Bil‘in cannot be understood as an isolated case, as a single village that is fighting the Wall. There’s nothing fundamentally different here. This part of the West Bank is agriculturally productive, and so all the villages protested when they were cut off from their lands. The struggle against the Wall started around September 2002 in Jayyous, and ever since, it has continued with greater or lesser intensity. Israelis have been involved almost from the beginning, from about November 2002. This is how the relationship with Bil‘in was created, through personal connections.

In most other villages, before Bil‘in, demonstrations were daily. We’d go out to the bulldozers and try to stop them, but the repression was very intense. There were something like 10 people shot dead. People could sustain that pace for one, two, three months. But in the end, they had to stop. That’s how we started in Bil‘in, too. We used to go daily, or say three times a week, but it ended up being only Friday to try to make it sustainable. Work on the Wall in Bil‘in started at a relatively late stage, when there was already a lot of experience accumulated from protesting in other villages. After seeing what happened there, a different strategy was adopted.

Elad: To put it in Marxist terms, the conditions here were ripe, from an Israeli point of view. Sometime before the protests started in Bil‘in, an Israeli was shot for the first time. And it’s relatively easy to get here. It’s not very far north, about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, so Israelis can come here easily. They don’t have to spend half a day traveling in each direction.

Jonathan: Also, politically, Bil‘in is a very clear case where the Wall was built to facilitate settlement expansion. The extension of the Modi‘in ‘Illit settlement, which is being built on land that belongs to Bil‘in, is illegal even according to Israeli law.

I’ve seen your demonstrations described as “non-violent” and as “direct action.” What is direct action and how does it relate to non-violence?

Muhammad: Direct action in this case is about not allowing any room for doubt that your demonstrations are peaceful and popular, that there isn’t any use of violence. At first, the demonstrations were spontaneous. Confronted with a wall, we went out to say “No!” This refusal wasn’t about the Wall per se, but about the route of the Wall and the settlements—Palestinian society would agree to the Wall if it were on the 1967 border. But the media wasn’t interested, since our demonstrations looked like all the others. Even when we started to get more organized, our message still didn’t get through, since the media only wanted to talk about violence and non-violence, focusing on the number of wounded on each side.

So we changed tactics. We did things like putting ourselves in barrels and tying ourselves up with olive branches. In this situation, how could we possibly use violence against soldiers? This way the message got through about who was the victim and who was the executioner. Against our non-violence, against our peaceful actions, the violence of the soldiers became clear to outside observers.

The media coverage shifted. People began to ask themselves: Why are the demonstrators tying themselves up? This helped make the Wall itself a topic of conversation, but that conversation remained as it always had been: When we protested the Wall, the other side responded that it was necessary for security reasons. We needed to take our demonstrations to a third stage to show the connection between the Wall and the settlements. We needed to show that the Wall in Bil‘in was expropriating our land for the expansion and protection of the Modi‘in ‘Ilit settlement.

Our new plan took our demonstrations beyond the Wall. We put a caravan—the same kind of tract housing unit that the settlers use when squatting on Palestinian land—on the other side of the Wall, on the land seized for settlement expansion. The army removed the caravan and arrested us after 36 hours. We returned four days later with another one. Before they cleared us out again, we asked, “Why are you kicking us out? You say Israel is a state of laws, and a state of laws needs to explain why it’s kicking us out, why it is taking away our right to be here on land that we own.” They answered, “You need to get a permit to move a caravan from place to place. We are not kicking you out because of an issue of land ownership. You didn’t get a permit, and that’s why.” So we said, “What if we had a house, as opposed to a caravan? How would you deal with that?” They replied, “A house would need to have certain specifications, rooms of a certain size and a certain kind of roof.” We were able to build a structure by the next morning at 8, the deadline they had given us to evacuate. That’s how we succeeded in stopping settlement construction.

Jonathan: I don’t like the term “non-violent.” I prefer “civil” or “popular.” Just having to state that the demonstration was non-violent has racist assumptions behind it. You wouldn’t say the “non-violent peace demonstration in Israel.” You would just say “demonstration.” Also, “non-violence” implies that violence is illegitimate and I don’t think it’s our role as Westerners, or my role as an Israeli, to tell Palestinians what’s legitimate and what’s not. If you notice, in Arabic, people say “popular struggle.” Nobody says “non-violent” struggle. It’s hardly ever used. If Palestinians want to describe what they do as ghayr ‘anif (non-violent), I’m the last one to say no. My point is that we should keep in mind that a judgment is inherent in the use of the term “non-violence.”

The Western press doesn’t consider the civil resistance movement significant because it doesn’t fit within its discourse. When I was in the US, I would show crazy footage that nobody ever sees on any of the networks—and not because it’s not good footage and not because it’s unavailable. To the contrary, AP and Reuters were there when it was shot. The reason is because it doesn’t fit with their preconceived assumptions about the role of Israel and the role of the Arab world, and Palestinians specifically. CNN, BBC and Fox have adopted an Israeli discourse that says Palestinians are terrorists and Israel is defending itself. This is the opposite of the real situation: Zionism is a colonial presence in the Middle East that is trying to manage the entire region unilaterally by force, according to its needs. That causes reactions, some more brutal than others.

I can’t help but notice the similarities between the demonstrations in Bil‘in and those of the “anti-globalization” movement, which have popularized a kind of anarchist protest that works against the sternness of traditional Marxism. Using art, bringing in a Basque band and holding a wedding ceremony: These playful, almost joyful activities that you have used in Bil‘in are typical of a new kind of protest culture that has spread around the globe.

Muhammad: The point of our creative direct action is to present something original each time, something media-worthy. Every journalist finds something new to report about, something that attracts attention, not the same old, same old. The media typically wants to film violence, and in the end, it gets the violence it wants, but it gets it from the other side, not from us. The idea to do it this way didn’t come suddenly; it was the product of our accumulated experience. None of us has studied media or art. The style comes from the need to be original; it’s the fruit of necessity.

Educated and aware people come from around the whole world to cooperate with us and participate in the demonstrations, each of which I consider an international conference of sorts. When you participate in over 200 “international conferences,” no doubt your mind will open up to new ideas and your thinking will evolve. That’s happened here, with the presence of Israelis and foreigners.

Jonathan: The funny thing here is that you would expect, from a Western perspective, that the Israelis and Westerners would bring the funny, playful ideas. Actually, these usually come from Bil‘in. The Israelis usually push for more straightforward, let’s-cut-the-fence kind of activities.

Who comes up with the ideas?

Jonathan: It’s Muhammad. He has an exhibit at an art school in Tel Aviv of certain items used in the demonstrations—like a huge snake, representing the Wall, swallowing a white dove.

Muhammad: No, I don’t want to claim credit for the work of others. Okay, maybe I started it, but it’s not just one person who sits and thinks. We work together. Maybe the soldiers are stronger than us, but we use our minds and can overcome them that way. They don’t think; they take orders. If their officer says to hit, they hit; if he says to smash our stuff up, they smash; if he says to shoot, they shoot. If we use our minds, we will be stronger. So we spend time thinking about how to do this.

How do you see the relationship between the anti-globalization movement and protesting the occupation?

Jonathan: As an anarchist, I feel connected to the anti-globalization movement, and I participated in big mobilizations in Prague and Genoa. Obviously, the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza has economic ramifications. Just to take one example, look at the World Bank, which is trying to make the Occupied Territories into a Third World export economy. The World Bank has attacked Israel’s plans for the Wall and how it executed Gaza disengagement because these are hurting the ability of global capitalism to cash in on the cheap labor market available in Palestine. The World Bank would prefer a Wall with terminals on the Green Line that will serve as transit points in a free trade zone.

The limits on the mobility of people and goods get in the way of free trade.

Jonathan: Limits on the mobility of peasants are not a problem for the World Bank. It’s just that the community here is always on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. That is not profitable, and they have to send aid. The World Bank needs something that is poor but sustainable, something that still has a market to cash in on. Israel has gone too far and is preventing this from emerging, but the World Bank’s intent is clear from how it pushes a Middle East Free Trade Area. Its reports on Gaza talk about free trade zones and industrial zones, and the only way they mention agriculture—traditionally, the main sector of the Palestinian economy—is for export. All the projects that are funded—either privately through [former Quartet envoy James] Wolfensohn, or through the World Bank itself—are, in fact, one and the same, since Wolfensohn used to be the World Bank president. Take the greenhouses in Gaza. The people in Gaza won’t ever be able to buy the produce grown there, since the water is too expensive. The produce is only for export.

How would you rate your success, both in media coverage and on the ground?

Jonathan: It depends on how you think about the media. Yes, we’ve gotten a certain amount of coverage, but with the international media, it’s been very scarce. If you check the archives of the New York Times, Bil‘in has only been mentioned once or something like that.

Muhammad: If you ask somebody from Palestine, he’ll say we have succeeded. The Palestinian media has picked up our activities, printing supportive articles and cartoons that show that they appreciate the uniqueness of what we do. The name Bil‘in is well-known. Once someone, a Palestinian, asked a friend of mine, “Which is bigger, Nablus [population 187,000] or Bil‘in [population 1,700]?” Or another example: On al-Jazeera, they report on Bil‘in by name. You would expect them to say that it’s a small village near Ramallah, without mentioning its name. When the main headline is about Bil‘in, when the news mentions that tomorrow there will be a demonstration at Bil‘in along with the fact that Bush will be giving a speech in Washington, that means something.

On the ground, we’ve had success, too. We stopped a settlement. They were putting in new residents. We did the statistics, and from early 2003 to the end of 2005, every day, a new apartment was finished, ready to live in. And if you can force them to stop, that’s an accomplishment.

To do this, we worked on the popular track and the legal track. The popular track served the legal one, which profited from the reputation of Bil‘in. It influenced the articles that were written about the case and the way it was talked about in general. Popular committee members and Israelis did good legal work. They got the documents that proved that the settlement was illegal according to Israeli law and won at the Israeli Supreme Court.

Elad: The fact that an Israeli court stopped the construction of a huge neighborhood of 3,000 units is important. The main legal issue was that according to the plan, they were supposed to build 1,500 units but built something else. You might say this was a technicality, but it was an unprecedented decision. The contractors are losing millions of dollars. The technicality wouldn’t have been invoked without the political action.

Muhammad: Just like they use settlements to impose their politics on our reality, we imposed our politics on their reality. When we built beyond the Wall, we were saying, “Okay, I will deal with you like you deal with me.” If the government is not going to let us build, it can’t let them. The Israeli Civil Administration canceled the work, and then the decision came down from the Supreme Court.

Jonathan: We ask ourselves all the time about on-the-ground achievements. Yes, we have had cosmetic achievements, a few meters here and there. But when I travel around the West Bank, all I see is my failures. Much of the Wall has been built and it’s getting harder and harder to cross. Places where we used to enter the West Bank from Israel are closed now, or in the last stages of construction, which is the hardest thing to see.

In this atmosphere, the mere existence of our movement is an achievement. The fact that there are Israelis who are crossing the line in such a clear way, against everything we are supposed to believe, is an achievement. The fact that Israelis and Palestinians are able to act together in an anti-colonial and self-aware way, with Palestinians taking the lead, and where politics of privilege are considered, is an achievement in and of itself.

Has the Bil‘in protest style spread to other areas in the West Bank?

Jonathan: From going around in the West Bank, I can tell you that Bil‘in has definitely become a symbol of the civil resistance. As the movement progresses, its symbols shift. First it was Budrus. From late 2003 to early 2004, the daily demonstrations in Budrus succeeded in stopping the Wall and changing the path of the barrier. From there, the demonstrations spread; in almost every village where the Wall passed, they occurred daily for almost a year. Then the struggle moved to Biddu with its five martyrs. While those protests were happening, everyone talked about it. Now the symbol is Bil‘in.

Muhammad: When we started, we were thinking about Bil‘in, not about creating a wide popular movement, but today we have become something of a model. Some party leaders may have gotten bored with the old way of doing things and are convinced that at this stage, our way is the way to go. This gives us hope that we have succeeded in generalizing a model that started in one village. But who knows, maybe tomorrow the Wall will be stopped and the model will die.

Who participates from Bil‘in?

Muhammad: People from all political factions and walks of life, from children to adults. Recently, people who previously engaged in armed struggle and former prisoners are joining in as well. This is a new stage for us and another indication of how the demonstrations are becoming a broader-based popular movement.

What about the participants on the Israeli side? What about Palestinian citizens of Israel?

Jonathan: Jewish Israelis obviously have greater privileges than Palestinian Israelis, who in turn have greater privileges than Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Unfortunately, only a few Palestinian Israelis work with us.

Elad: Every step they take in an inherently racist Israeli society is so difficult that they don’t want to create more problems for themselves by being arrested. The choice for Israeli Jews to get involved is harder, in part because we come from greater privilege, but the cost Palestinians are paying is higher.

Are the other demonstrations also using creative strategies to get media attention?

Muhammad: In Bayt Sira they tried something like this. But unfortunately they couldn’t continue. It’s a question of the specificities of each place. We broke the army in. We got through the period in which violence and collective punishment could have broken us. In other places, Israel has threatened to take away permits. The people were afraid to go to demonstrations. The army doesn’t need to do it with violence; the people restrain themselves. There is also the success factor: We’ve had certain successes here that inspire us to continue, but other places haven’t seen the occupation behave respectfully with this model. So that’s another reason that we are determined that this model will succeed in moving the Wall itself, so there will be something to see, something that can serve as a model for others.

Also, more Palestinians from outside Bil‘in are participating. For the last two months, since we brought the caravan to the other side of the Wall, they come every Friday and bring new people. I’ve heard from Palestinians and Israelis that this is the only place where there’s hope. When you talk about Gaza, Nablus, Lebanon, it’s all killing and war. But here in Bil‘in, Israelis and Palestinians are sharing an overall experience, sitting together, eating, drinking, hanging out. There is something outside of the demonstrations, which means this is the way to do things. Maybe in the future, it will do some political good by showing the path toward a shared life. It’s not a matter of studying, giving speeches or expounding theories. Everybody says they want peace—and they do, on their own terms. What is peace? Is it mutual understanding, with everyone having their own ideas and living together and being friends? No, to think about it only this way is a mistake: You can’t leave out the fact that one party is occupying the other.

In Bil‘in, the model is different. Here, people work together on the ground. We have built trust and strong relationships by participating together in the clashes. Israelis are with Palestinians in the front row. When the soldier fires a bullet, the bullet doesn’t discriminate between Jonathan and Muhammad. When the soldier beats the demonstrators with clubs, Jonathan gets beaten one time and Muhammad the next. Muhammad feels that Jonathan is like him, that the same things are happening to both of them. It’s not like Jonathan is at the beach saying how much he wants peace while Muhammad is being beaten. And after the demonstration, Muhammad welcomes Jonathan: they sit, drink tea, have a good time and go around the village together.

Palestinian and Israeli, their relationship is grounded in a shared struggle. It doesn’t spring from a peace center, where everybody talks about peace and how much they love each other. Take the Peres Center. Where is Shimon Peres today? He is on a public relations trip, trying to convince the world that Israelis are humanitarians and want peace. That is to say, he is prettying up the face of the occupation. Operations like the Peres Center take advantage of the presence of Palestinians to say they want peace. But the real action, the true partnership and cooperation, is here in the struggle. It’s not about prettying up the occupation; it’s about breaking the occupation.

It sounds like this is the future of the fight against the occupation.

Jonathan: I don’t know what the future of the fight against the occupation is. I think this is the right way to do things; that’s why I do it. All Israelis have their colonial tendencies, but this is a part of us that some are trying to shed. It’s important that there will be more and more Israelis who will say, “We will not be good Germans,” who cross the lines to do whatever we can to resist, even at some cost. Obviously, the cost for Palestinians is much greater. But at least some Israelis are overcoming their fears. Bil‘in has given Israelis the opportunity to go from protest to resistance, from politely saying within our democratic structure, “We don’t agree, please stop,” to actually getting down on the ground, with nothing but our bodies, to try to stop the bulldozers. Not asking, not trying to convince, but rather saying, “They shall not pass.”