Rumbling in the West Bank: A nonviolent resistance movement is growing
Share with others:
If we want to see a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we may have to shift our attention from Washington to the West Bank. While plans for peace talks remain on hold in Washington, the business of occupation continues: land confiscation, home demolition, movement restrictions, settler violence.
The Palestinians I met on a recent trip to Israel -- clergy, teachers, lawyers, businessmen -- were pessimistic about the prospects for a viable Palestinian state and had lost faith in political leaders on all sides. But this disillusionment, it seems, comes at a time of growing grass-roots opposition to the occupation.
When it comes to protesting the occupation, Palestinians haven't many options.
Acts of armed resistance are condemned as terrorism. Passively waiting for a political settlement has been a disaster -- as one cleric remarked, "Seventeen years of negotiations have given us nothing but more settlements."
A third option, emigration, has had a devastating impact, especially on the Christian community. The Palestinian Christian population in the occupied territories has shrunk to 60,000 -- not enough, one Palestinian said, to fill a football stadium.
But there is a fourth option: nonviolent resistance.
Daoud Nasser, a Palestinian Christian, has lived on his family's 100-acre farm all his life. The Nasser farm, a few miles from Bethlehem, is encircled by a flimsy fence. A sign at the gate reads "We refuse to be enemies." His family has owned the farm, and paid taxes on it, since the Ottoman era, and he has the papers to prove it. He never considered selling it.
"This land is my mother," he says. "My mother is not for sale."
But his farm is now surrounded on all sides by settlements, and the Israeli government has designated it as state land; most of it has been marked for annexation. For almost 20 years he has been fighting that decision in the courts.
Mr. Nasser, who holds degrees in Bible studies and tourism management, has responded by turning his farm into a peace center, which he calls the Tent of Nations. He channels his energy into organizing projects that, in his words, connect people with the land and with each other: tree planting in the spring, summer programs for children from nearby refugee camps; olive harvesting in the fall.
Women from the nearby Muslim village of Nahalin come to the Tent of Nations for accounting and computer classes. Bible study groups, "Peace Circles," poetry workshops and theater programs have attracted visitors from around the world. Mark Braverman, an American Jewish activist, is its executive director.
On a recent visit, Mr. Nasser showed us the grape arbors, almond and fig trees and olive groves on his land. He calls them his "facts on the ground;" as more settlements are built, he plants more trees.
Denied a building permit, he has turned caves on his property into furnished living quarters, meeting rooms, a chapel and a garage. His electric lines have been cut, and he has no access to a public water supply, so he uses a diesel generator and has "gone green" with compost toilets and cisterns to collect rain water.
Friends abroad have helped. When settlers uprooted 250 of his olive trees, a group called European Jews for a Just Peace planted new trees in their place.
But Mr. Nasser's style of nonviolent resistance has its limits. On May 27, officers from the Israeli Civil Administration, accompanied by soldiers, arrived at his farm with demolition orders for nine structures, including tents, rest rooms, and two of his caves. He has filed an appeal.
"We must expect the best but prepare for the worst," he says. "We are not allowed to give up hope."
You can find Daoud Nasser on Youtube, Facebook, numerous blogs and the Encyclopedia Britannica online. There's an article about the Tent of Nations on the World Council of Churches website. But he has yet to be discovered by the American press.
"Nonviolence doesn't sell," explained Israeli filmmaker Ronit Avni, founder of Just Vision, an organization that documents nonviolent protest movements. "If you want to make the news you need violence or a celebrity in the story."
Nonviolent resistance in the occupied territories is nothing new. In fact, it's part of the living memory of every Palestinian adult.
The first intifada began in Gaza in December of 1987. What started as battles between soldiers and stone throwers evolved into a campaign to disengage from the Israeli economy and create the framework for a future Palestinian state. Civil disobedience took many forms, including strikes, tax revolts and a boycott of Israeli goods. I witnessed these events while working as a physician at a Gaza hospital.
The Israeli government reacted swiftly, closing schools, imposing curfews, confiscating ID cards and collecting taxes by force. Mubarak Awad, who headed the Center for the Study of Nonviolence in Jerusalem, was deported by the Israeli government, despite protests by the U.S. State Department.
Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land intensified in 2002 when construction began on a barrier separating Israel from the West Bank. Village committees in the West Bank organized protest demonstrations, inviting Israeli activists to join them.
Today there are weekly demonstrations in several villages against settlement expansion, land confiscation, restricted access to water and other occupation policies. Every Friday Israeli protesters gather in East Jerusalem to demonstrate against the settler takeover of homes in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
Unfortunately Israel's separation barrier isolates the occupied territories from the public eye, making protesters more vulnerable and easier to ignore. Demonstrators have been shot by soldiers and policemen using live ammunition. On May 31, Emily Henchowicz, a 21-year-old American Jewish student, suffered a broken jaw and was blinded in one eye when she was hit by a tear gas canister.
But there are some successes: The village of Bil'in, which has held weekly demonstrations for the past five years over confiscation of some of its land, recently won its case in court. Budros, a conservative Muslim village, won a change in the route of the separation barrier, which would have split it in half.
Last December, a group of Christian theologians in Jerusalem issued The Kairos Palestine Document, a meditation on the occupation and the appropriate Christian response to it. The document has been endorsed by the heads of all churches in Jerusalem and translated into a dozen languages. It describes at length the "reality on the ground" that has brought the Palestinian people to a "dead end," holding all parties responsible, including the divided Palestinian leadership.
The Kairos document calls the occupation "an evil that must be resisted," but resisted in creative ways that "engage the humanity of the enemy." Its advocacy of divestment and "a commercial boycott of everything produced by the occupation" has unleashed a storm of criticism from members of the Jewish community and from some churches, as well. But many Palestinian and international activists see it as the only remaining nonviolent option for opposing the occupation.
Daoud Nasser, the protestors in Bi'ilin and Butros and the authors of the Kairos document have several things in common: self-reliance, a fierce attachment to their land, a search for potential allies among their adversaries and disenchantment with a top-down solution to the conflict.
"Our future will never be given to us as a gift from others," says Daoud Nasser.
Or, in the words of Hillel the Elder: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"
First Published July 11, 2010 12:00 am