The village of Bilin in the West Bank has transformed from an anonymous farming village into a symbol of Palestinian civil disobedience. During their visit to the village, the Elders talk to Ethan Bronner of The New York Times about achieving freedom through nonviolent struggle.
BILIN, West Bank — Every Friday for the past four and a half years, several hundred demonstrators — Palestinian villagers, foreign volunteers and Israeli activists — have walked in unison to the Israeli barrier separating this tiny village from the burgeoning settlement of Modiin Illit, part of which is built on the village’s land. One hundred feet away, Israeli soldiers watch and wait.
The protesters chant and shout and, inevitably, a few throw stones. Then just as inevitably, the soldiers open fire with tear gas and water jets, lately including a putrid oil-based liquid that makes the entire area stink.
It is one of the longest-running and best organised protest operations in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it has turned this once anonymous farming village into a symbol of Palestinian civil disobedience, a model that many supporters of the Palestinian cause would like to see spread and prosper.
For that reason, a group of famous left-leaning elder statesmen, including former President Jimmy Carter — who caused controversy by suggesting that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank amounted to apartheid — came to Bilin on Thursday and told the local organisers how much they admired their work and why it was vital to keep it going.
The retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also on the visit, said, “Just as a simple man named Gandhi led the successful nonviolent struggle in India and simple people such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King led the struggle for civil rights in the United States, simple people here in Bilin are leading a nonviolent struggle that will bring them their freedom.”
Mr Tutu, a South African Nobel Peace Prize winner, spoke on rocky soil, surrounded by the remains of tear gas canisters and in front of coils of barbed wire, part of the barrier that Israel began building in 2002 across the West Bank as a violent Palestinian uprising was under way. Israel said its main purpose was to stop suicide bombers from crossing into Israel, but the route of the barrier — a mix of fencing, guard towers and concrete wall — dug deep into the West Bank in places, and Palestinian anger over the barrier is as much about lost land as about lost freedom.
Bilin lost half its land to the settlement of Modiin Illit and the barrier and took its complaint to Israel’s highest court. Two years ago, the court handed it an unusual victory. It ordered the settlement to stop building its new neighbourhood and ordered the Israeli military to move the route of the barrier back toward Israel, thereby returning about half the lost land to the village.
“The villagers danced in the street,” recalled Emily Schaeffer, an Israeli lawyer who worked on the case for the village. “Unfortunately, it has been two years since the decision, and the wall has not moved.”
The village is back in court trying, so far in vain, to get the orders put into effect.
Ms Schaeffer was explaining the case to the visitors, who go by the name The Elders. The group was founded two years ago by former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa and is paid for by donors, including Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, and Jeff Skoll, founding president of eBay. Its goal is to “support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.”
Both Mr Branson and Mr Skoll were on the visit to Bilin, as were Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland; Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil; and Ela Bhatt, an Indian advocate for the poor and women’s rights. Their visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories has also included meetings with young Israelis and young Palestinians.
Mr Cardoso said that he had long heard about the conflict but that seeing it on the ground had made a lasting impression on him. The barrier, he said, serves to imprison the Palestinians.
Like every element of the conflict here, there is no agreement over the nature of what goes on here every Friday. Palestinians hail the protest as nonviolent, and it was cited recently by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, as a key step forward in the struggle for a Palestinian state. Recently, one of the leaders here, Mohammed Khatib, set up a committee of a dozen villages to share his strategies.
But the Israelis complain that, along with protests at the nearby village of Nilin, things are more violent here than the Palestinians and their supporters acknowledge.
“Rioters hurl rocks, Molotov cocktails and burning tires at defence forces and the security fence,” the military said in a statement when asked why it had taken to arresting village leaders in the middle of the night. “Since the beginning of 2008, about 170 members of the defence forces have been injured in these villages,” it added, including three soldiers who were so badly hurt they could no longer serve in the army. It also said that at Bilin itself, some $60,000 worth of damage had been done to the barrier in the past year and a half.
Abdullah Abu Rahma, a village teacher and one of the organisers of the weekly protests, said he was amazed at the military’s assertions as well as at its continuing arrests and imprisonment of village leaders.
“They want to destroy our movement because it is nonviolent,” he said. He added that some villagers might have tried, out of frustration, to cut through the fence since the court had ordered it moved and nothing had happened. But that is not the essence of the popular movement that he has helped lead.
“We need our land,” he told his visitors. “It is how we make our living. Our message to the world is that this wall is destroying our lives, and the occupation wants to kill our struggle.”