It is dark and quiet in the home where several of us are being hosted by a Muslim family in the town of Bil’in in the Palestinian West Bank. As I write these words, seated on my sleeping mat on the floor and covered with a blanket to ward of the chill, I hear the predawn call to prayer from the loudspeakers of the mosque in the center of the village.
Bil’in, along with a dozen or so sister villages, is arguably the world capital of the nonviolent direct action movement in the world. Last night, as twenty-eight of us crowded into the living room of Iyad, the president of the local committee of resistance, we watched nearly an hour of short video clips from the weekly, nonviolent vigils that have taken place here each Friday for nine years.
Bil’in is nearly seven kilometers inside of the green line that supposedly marks the beginning of the Palestinian territory. However, when the wall was built in the early two thousands, it snaked all the way to this village, cutting its territory in half, in order to include two new Jewish settlements. The people of Bil’in lost their land, and many their livelihood, in the process.
As the people of Bil’in responded with weekly, nonviolent demonstrations, they actually forced the Government of Israel to tear down the twenty eight foot high concrete wall and move it fifteen hundred meters back toward the edge of the two Jewish Settlements.
Though this is a story of creativity and a remarkable success and affirmation of the people of Bil’in for their faithfulness in adhering to strategies of nonviolent resistance, it has come at a high cost. There were moments of laughter as our delegation applauded the creativity of the people who were documented in the video. In one instance, three people dressed in remarkable likenesses of King, Gandhi, and Mandela to lead the march. In another, villagers chained themselves in their olive trees in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the trees from being bull-dozed.
But the laughter faded and the group grew serious as we also saw the brutal repression of the nonviolent resistors by the Israeli Military. They were sprayed with “skunk water”, a euphemism for a dangerous concoction of chemicals that smells like rotten corpses and feces. They were routinely tear-gassed, which sounds unpleasant but harmless, until one watches someone who is shot directly with a tear gas canister from as a high pressure projectile. They were shot with “rubber bullets” that are actually lead balls about half an inch in diameter and coated with a thin layer of rubber. We saw video footage of a demonstrator being shot twice in the head with these so-called rubber bullets, and there is nothing innocuous about it. They are beaten with clubs and arrested – women, men and children taken away for two to three weeks to be held without charge in a ten by fifteen foot room with thirty to forty other people, and released only upon the payment of fines that are the equivalent of seven hundred to five thousand dollars.
And then our sense of outrage changed to horror as we watched the footage of Bassem, a local leader in the nonviolent resistance movement, being shot in the chest and killed by the soldiers as he yelled to the military captain to stop shooting people in one vigil that turned particularly violent.
Lest we think of these as unusual events of the past, Iyad was shot in the leg at one of the demonstrations in the last month, and he described a young guy who was shot in both legs just three weeks ago. The nonviolent resistance continues, he explained, because the illegal expansion of the settlements has been a daily reality, continuing without ceasing even through the moments in which peace negotiations are being carried out and the Israeli government has insisted that they have temporarily stopped construction. The people of the two settlements built on the land of the people of Bil’in, and controverting both Israeli and international law, now number more than 60,000.
Later in the evening, I talked with Iyad about the challenge of raising his nine year old daughter, Myar, who had clung to his arm throughout the evening and stolen the hearts of everyone in the group with her coquettish antics. “She seems brave during the day,” he said, “but her terror comes in the night.” She has been raised on night raids and watching her father get arrested repeatedly. She was born as the struggle of the people of Bil’in to resist the wall began, and her nine years mark both the struggles and the successes of that movement.
This is what principled nonviolent resistance looks like. There is a high cost, and successes are typically measured in the smallest of increments. May we find the courage to show similar creativity, courage, and commitment as we struggle to support these people in the United States.
The story of the people of Bil’in has been documented in an Academy Award-wining film called “Five Broken Cameras.”