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Building a different Middle East

Joel Beinin | The Nation

15 January 2010

Like every other woman in her village Umm Hasan wears a headscarf. Her husband and other male relatives are not on the scene. But this is not an obstacle to her animated interactions with the sixteen Israelis and foreigners she has never previously met but welcomes into her home. Among the visitors are a German and a Serb who are making a film about Palestinian hip-hop. Everyone has come to participate in the weekly demonstration against the separation barrier organized by the local Popular Committee.

While the Israelis make preparations for the demonstration, Umm Hasan tells the filmmakers about the current situation in the village. Neria, a young Israeli woman who attended a bilingual primary school, makes a poster in Arabic and Hebrew, “so the [Israeli] soldiers will know what it means” with the slogan: “They destroyed the wall in Berlin; tomorrow we’ll destroy it in Palestine.”

As the visitors arrive, Umm Hasan’s oldest son, Hasan, from whom her name is derived, is leading Friday prayers for a “dissident” congregation. His congregants support the weekly protests. The imam of the “official” village mosque does not. The consensus is that the imam and his followers fear that if they join in they will lose their permits to work in Israel or in the nearby quarry owned by a rich Palestinian who sells stone to Israeli contractors.

Hasan and his brother Muhammad are leaders of the Popular Committee of Ma’asara. Another leader, Mahmud, is currently in France on a political mission. Hasan is a supporter of Fatah, Muhammad supports the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Mahmud supports the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But these differences are of little consequence, because the Popular Committee includes all the factions in the village.

When Hasan returns from prayers, he serves tea to the guests. There is barely enough time to finish drinking before the guests depart to join about two dozen villagers for the demonstration. Muhammad stays behind because he is under a military court order that forbids him from participating. If Israeli authorities saw him attending a demonstration, he would forfeit a bond of 15,000 Israeli shekels (about $3,950).

The demonstrators march through neighboring villages, with a total population of about 10,000, to Umm Salamuna. There, several kilometers away from the separation barrier, twenty Israeli soldiers in full battle gear stand behind a razor wire, which they have stretched across the road to block the protesters’ advance. Haggai, a young Israeli man who was jailed for two years for refusing to be drafted into the army, addresses the soldiers in Hebrew. Showing them a hand-drawn poster-board map of the area, he explains, “You are not in the territory of the state of Israel and you could not do what you are now doing inside Israel. We are demonstrating peacefully on Palestinian land. You are violating international law. Don’t be surprised if, when you repress peaceful demonstrations, some Palestinians resort to violence. You can choose not to obey your orders.” Jum’a, a member of the Popular Committee, addresses the crowd in Arabic and English, emphasizing that this is a nonviolent demonstration.

Nonetheless, Rami, one of the villagers, is arrested. His apparent offense was stepping on the razor wire. Umm ‘Iyad, an older woman wearing a headscarf and a shawl in the colors of the Palestinian flag, crosses over the razor wire, undisturbed by the soldiers, and proceeds to negotiate for Rami’s release. During the negotiations a drum corps of five young Israeli women and one man and the Palestinian boys they have been teaching to drum sustains a steady succession of beats punctuated by chants in Arabic, Hebrew and English.

The soldiers do not deny that they are holding Rami hostage to force the demonstration to end. Eventually, an arrangement is reached. The soldiers release Rami with his ID card, which he must have to cross any of the more than 500 barriers and checkpoints the army maintains in the West Bank. The demonstration ends.


In mid-2002 Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon authorized the construction of a separation barrier (known in Israeli parlance as the “fence” and in Palestinian parlance as the “apartheid wall”). About 85 percent of the barrier’s trajectory is to the east of the Green Line that marked the border between Israel and the West Bank from 1949 to 1967–i.e., inside the West Bank. The construction of the barrier is incomplete and its final trajectory is still contested. But if there is ever a negotiated resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Israeli consensus supports annexing Palestinian agricultural lands and Jewish settlements lying to the west of the barrier. This region is now designated as “the seam zone” (kav ha-tefer)–an indeterminate area that is not (yet) legally in Israel proper, but which has been effectively detached from the West Bank.

On July 9, 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that “the construction by Israel of the wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and its associated regime are contrary to international law.” In Israel this was widely considered yet another confirmation that “the whole world is against us” and that Israel “shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.” Most Israelis do not care to know what happens on the other side of the barrier.

There are currently also weekly demonstrations in the villages of Bil’in and Ni’ilin. There, the demonstrators can actually reach the separation barrier, climb on it or open the gate to it. These actions are “illegal,” so the army uses considerably more force to disperse them than in Ma’asara, firing volleys of high-velocity tear gas canisters, percussion grenades, stink bombs, rubber-coated metal bullets and live 22-caliber ammunition. While the demonstrations are nonviolent, in some villages youths throw stones at the Israeli soldiers after the official demonstration is over.

Bil’in (pop. 1,800) has held weekly demonstrations against the separation barrier since March 2005, the longest continuous nonviolent popular mobilization in Palestinian history. Bil’in has achieved international renown and is the subject of a film, Bil’in, My Love, made by Shai Carmeli Pollak, one of the regular Israeli demonstrators. Since 2006 the village has hosted annual solidarity conferences attended by luminaries who also participate in the Friday demonstrations. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan was shot by a rubber-coated steel bullet at a demonstration during the April 2007 solidarity conference. European Parliament vice president Luisa Morgantini and other dignitaries were injured in a demonstration in June 2008. In August 2009 six members of “The Elders,” a group of widely respected, retired political figures–Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ela Bhatt, Gro Brundtland, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson–visited Bil’in.

Bil’in is also the symbol of a certain victory for popular struggle against the separation barrier. On September 4, 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered that the barrier, whose current trajectory cuts the village off from about one-quarter of its remaining agricultural lands, must be redirected. Chief Justice Dorit Beinish’s opinion stated that the court was “not convinced that it is necessary for security-military reasons to retain the current route that passes on Bil’in’s lands.” Despite this unequivocal ruling, the Israeli army has failed to implement the court’s order. The barrier remains, and hundreds of olive trees uprooted to make way for it have not been replaced.

Therefore, the weekly demonstrations have continued, and the Israeli reaction to the mobilization at Bil’in has become more fierce. In April 2009 a tear gas canister shot by the army during a demonstration killed Basim Ibrahim Abu Rahmah. In December 2009 Basim’s cousin and the coordinator of the Bil’in Popular Committee against the Wall, Abdallah Abu Rahmah, was arrested. He was charged with possession of weapons because he maintains a “museum” in his home displaying spent tear gas canisters, percussion grenades and bullets fired by the Israeli army at unarmed demonstrators. In response, the Elders’ chair, Desmond Tutu, released a statement saying, “My fellow Elders and I met Abu Rahmah and his colleague Mohammad Khatib in August when we visited Bil’in…. We were impressed by their commitment to peaceful political action, and their success in challenging the wall that unjustly separates the people of Bil’in from their land and their olive trees. I call on Israeli officials to release Abu Rahmah immediately and unconditionally.”

On November 6, 2009, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, some 300 demonstrators at Ni’ilin (pop. 4,600) toppled a section of the eight-meter-high wall that separates the village from part of its lands. The demonstrations have been particularly violent there during the past year. Five residents have been killed and dozens have been wounded. In March 2009 an American, Tristan Anderson, was severely injured at Ni’ilin. In late 2009 he was still hospitalized with brain damage and a fractured skull.

During 2009 Bil’in, Ni’ilin, and Ma’asara were the most visible part of the story. But there is much more. Village-based Palestinian popular resistance supported by Israelis and internationals began in the fall of 2003, when local Palestinians and Israelis stood together against the separation barrier in the villages of Jayyus and Mas’ha.

On November 9, 2003, Budrus (pop. 1,400) became the first village to organize a formal weekly march from the village center to the site of the construction of the barrier. Two soldiers were wounded by stones in a demonstration at which there were no Israelis and foreigners. Wounded soldiers make news in Israel, so the Palestinian struggle against the separation barrier also received publicity.

Jonathan Pollak, a young Israeli activist, came to Budrus and asked ‘Ayid Mrar, a leader of the recently formed Popular Committee, “How can we help?” ‘Ayid replied, “It’s very important that you come and participate with us.” Relating the story later ‘Ayid recalls, “When foreigners and Israelis began coming to my house, people didn’t like it at first. People had never seen the other face of Israelis. They thought Jews are either soldiers or settlers. Then Israelis started to come to demonstrations. Now people accept and welcome it.”

During one of the weekly demonstrations Iltizam, ‘Ayid’s teenage daughter, organized a women’s contingent, which broke through the army lines and stopped the bulldozers from working. Women in Ma’asara did the same, under the leadership of Umm Hasan. Budrus too, is the subject of a film. Budrus, directed and written by Julia Bacha, held its world premier at the December 2009 Dubai International Film Festival, with ‘Ayid and Iltizam in attendance.

There have also been demonstrations in many other villages whose lands have been confiscated due to the construction of the separation barrier. The Israeli army and border police have killed some twenty Palestinians (six in 2009 alone) while attempting to disperse these protests. Hundreds have been injured and arrested. Many of the organizers are under military orders banning them from participating in the weekly demonstrations.

Israelis have joined the demonstrations, in large numbers on special occasions, and in smaller numbers on a regular basis. The most persistent Israelis have been associated with Anarchists against the Wall, a name given to the group by the Israeli media but which they accepted for its provocative character. A good number of the anarchists and other younger Israeli activists have learned Arabic as a result of their extensive stays in West Bank villages or through study motivated by political commitment. They have the wounds to prove that commitment. Jonathan Pollak was hit by a tear gas canister at one of the Bil’in demonstrations and suffered two brain hemorrhages and a wound requiring twenty-three stitches. Matan Cohen was shot in the head with a rubber-coated steel bullet at a demonstration at Beit Sira. He later enrolled in Hampshire College and became a prominent organizer of the campaign there that culminated in the college endowment fund divesting from six companies doing business in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. An Israeli court recently accepted the contention of the border police who shot Matan that his wound could have been caused by a stone with the exact dimensions of a bullet.

Internationals, many organized by the International Solidarity Movement, have spent time in the villages, eaten and slept in local homes and participated in the weekly demonstrations. They have been tear gassed, wounded and killed, most famously Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by a Caterpillar bulldozer in March 2003 while trying to prevent it from demolishing a Palestinian home in the Gaza Strip city of Rafah.

Palestinians, Israelis and foreigners jointly confronting the Israeli army; locally organized and led protests, substantially nonviolent and uniting adherents of all the Palestinian factions; peacefully demonstrating Palestinians, Israelis and foreigners tear gassed, severely wounded and killed by the Israeli army; women wearing headscarves playing an active and independent political role: these are not the common images of Israeli occupation and Palestinian resistance in North American journalistic, diplomatic and scholarly discourse. But they are central components of an ongoing movement deeply rooted in the social fabric of the West Bank. While not necessarily opposed to existing political parties or urban-based elites, this movement has been organized by local forces seeking to unite all the elements of village communities in order to protect their lands from the encroachments of the separation barrier.

Despite its peasant base and leadership, the movement is extremely sophisticated. ‘Ayid Mrar says, “If we resist a bulldozer we aren’t opposing the Israeli soldier. We are opposing the bulldozer [coming to destroy our land.] We are resisting the wall. If the Israeli soldier puts himself between us and the bulldozer, he is putting himself in danger. But we have no weapons, and there is no violence or fighting on our part…. Our problem is not with Israel and not with Jews. Jonathan is a Jew. Our problem is with the occupation. If we want to have a developed, peaceful region, we have to work together. We can have peace on the basis of equality.”

Toward the end of 2009 a national coordinating committee of the local popular committees was being formed. Jonathan Pollak is the media coordinator for Israel and international media and webmaster. His first effort in this capacity was an op-ed on the Huffington Post blog about the arrest of Abdallah Abu Rahmah. Jonathan believes that the wave of recent arrests (over thirty in Bil’in alone since last June) and the escalation of violence against demonstrators are due to Israel’s fear of “a paradigm shift to grassroots resistance.”

The mobilizations are rooted in the particular dynamics of each village and depend on the balance of local political forces, family dynamics and economic factors like the possibility of obtaining permits to work in Israel. Together they form a peasant-based social movement that is becoming increasingly conscious of its political significance and filling the void in Palestinian leadership created by the futile struggle between the Palestinian Authority, dominated by Fatah, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

Is this movement likely to contribute to a resolution of the conflict anytime soon? ‘Ayid Mrar is doubtful. “I don’t know when the occupation will end,” he says. “Not in one or two years. Maybe in a hundred. If the Palestinian people achieve their freedom, we don’t want relations of enmity with Israel. We want to build a different Middle East.”