Speaking Out for Non-violent Resistance: The Story of Bil’in Comes to the UK

LONDON — Anyone who has brought up the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a social gathering will have realized that it has the capacity to elicit violence even among those who aren’t directly involved. So it is easy to imagine how the spiral of violence is an every day occurrence on the ground in the region itself. But non-violent resistance in the occupied territories appears to be gaining a certain momentum, and some Palestinians are coming to the conclusion that this form of resistance is a more efficient way of getting their message across.

Demonstrations and court cases launched by West Bank Palestinian villages such a Boudros or Mas’ha, where the Israeli Wall all scythes across the land have provided inspiration for other villages directly affected by the Wall.

“We benefited from the experience of Boudros.” Says Palestinian Iyad Burnat, head of the Bil’in popular committee. Hosted by the UK non-profit organization, The Peace Cycle, Burnat is on a speaking tour in the UK and Ireland this month along with George S. Rishmawi, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement and a resident of Beit Sahour, a Palestinian suburb of Bethlehem known for non-violent resistance. Burnat and Rishmawi, who is a Christian Palestinian, will be speaking in universities, churches and interfaith groups and showing the documentary Bil’in Habibti (Bil’in My Love), which won an award at the Jerusalem International Film Festival in 2006.

Perhaps more than any other West Bank village, Bil’in has become a symbol of the Palestinian struggle against the Wall, with villagers, and an increasing number of Israelis and international peace activists, including Jewish Voices for Justice and Peace, Gush Shalom and Peace Now, demonstrating on a weekly and sometimes daily basis since 2004. With a population of 1,600, Bil’in, which is situated 16 kilometres west of Ramallah, has seen 60% of its land appropriated by Israel and the construction of an illegal settlement on this land.

Burnat participated in the first Intifada at age 17 and says he was arrested and put in an Israeli prison for two years. He believes in peaceful resistance because “all sectors of the population can participate and you can achieve what you want faster on the international front… Our goal is to send a message to the world that the Israeli propaganda about the Wall having to do with security is a big lie and that it is all about grabbing more land and building more settlements.”

Olives and olive oil production are vital to Bil’in’s livelihood. Villagers own approximately 20,000 olive trees on 1,000 acres, but since the construction of the Wall, most of the trees lie on the other side, moreover the Israeli army has uprooted 1000 of the older, more productive trees. The villagers’ tenacity and commitment to a non-violent approach has attracted widespread attention from peace activists who have participated in various events coordinated by the villagers such as chaining themselves to olive trees, or setting up a cage next to Israeli soldiers. In 2005 Rabbis for Human Rights helped Bil’in villagers with their partial olive harvest. But protesters have not been spared the violence of the Israeli army and have suffered numerous injuries over the years, some of which have been serious. Bil’in has served as a testing ground for the army’s “non-lethal” weapons, which include bean bag bullets, rubber and salt-coated metal bullets, tear gas canisters shot from M16’s, sponge bullets and high frequency sound beams which neutralize targets with an intolerable noise.

On the legal front, Bil’in, represented by Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, won the court case it brought against Israel stating that the Wall had been built on land appropriated from Palestinians with the objective of expanding the nearby settlement of Modi’in Illit, home to 30,000 ultra-Orthodox settlers. This victory, however, has been bittersweet. While the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered the state to dismantle a segment of the Wall “within a reasonable amount of time”, the Defense Ministry has not included these measures in its work outline for 2008 and plans for an alternative route have not yet been made. (Three other areas in the West Bank are in the same situation with the Defense Ministry ignoring High Court of Justice orders).

There have been other small victories, albeit fleeting ones: the attention that Bil’in villagers have drawn to their plight and a consequent Peace Now petition were partly responsible for the financial collapse of Heftzibah Construction, one of Israel’s largest contractors and a primary builder of West Bank settlements.

Bil’in won an injunction to stop the building of a new Modi’in Illit neighborhood, Mattityahu East, however the court accepted retroactive planning permissions and construction soon began again.

Bil’in’s intolerable situation is far from unique in the West Bank but the villagers’ dedication to a non-violent form of resistance is giving Bil’in an international visibility that Burnat and Rishmawi hope to build on. Certain towns in the UK are interested in “twinning” with other West Bank villages and Rishmawi is hoping to promote tourism to Bethlehem and Beit Sahour or accompany delegations from the UK that might tour Palestine. Burnat, of course, will tell the story of Bil’in.

“We are trying to send a message to all Jews in the world that we denounce violence and think we can live in peace with the Israelis. But we must have freedom and we cannot have this Wall.”

Olivia Snaije writes for the Daily Star and is editor of Alef. Read other articles by Olivia, or visit Olivia's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. mary said on May 3rd, 2008 at 5:53am #

    ‘Hosted by the UK non-profit organization, The Peace Cycle, Burnat is on a speaking tour in the UK and Ireland this month along with George S. Rishmawi, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement and a resident of Beit Sahour, a Palestinian suburb of Bethlehem known for non-violent resistance.’

    According to the Peace Cycle website, the UK speaking tour mentioned in the article finished in April.

  2. Mike McNiven said on May 3rd, 2008 at 11:57am #

    the following site has some info about what is going on in London and other places with regard to the Palestinian Rights:


  3. John Hatch said on May 3rd, 2008 at 3:54pm #

    It’s revealing that an America that was so vocal about the Berlin Wall is so silent about Israel’s Wall of Shame.

  4. Hugh said on May 3rd, 2008 at 6:11pm #

    That “wall of Shame” has saved a lot of lives, both Arab as well as Jew since it’s been built. But that’s OK, no one expects you to notice.

  5. Olivia Snaije said on May 4th, 2008 at 12:04am #

    Mary, quite right, this was posted a few days late and Iyad and George are just back from Belfast now. If you’d like to find out more about Bil’in, here’s a website about the village: http://www.bilin-village.org/english (the website is in French as well) and information about Beit Sahour is on http://www.sirajcenter.org
    There’s also general information on http://www.palsolidarity.org/

  6. Olivia Snaije said on May 26th, 2008 at 8:53am #

    Monday May 26, 2008
    Israeli settlers under the protection of the Israeli army started on Monday morning to install homes on lands that belong to villagers from Bil’in, located near the central West Bank city of Ramallah.
    Iyad Burnat, of the local committee against the wall and settlement construction, said that villagers noticed the construction since early morning on Monday. Villagers tried to reach their land in order to stop the settlers but Israeli troops prevented them from crossing the wall.

    A group of men from the village were staying over night in there land managed to come close to the trucks installing the mobile homes of the settlers and stopped them by standing infornt of them, Burnat stated. He added that the men will continue to block the trucks way in an attempt to stop the destruction of the villagers lands.

    In 2007 the villagers of Bil’in won an Israeli high court of Justice decision to remove the Israeli wall that separates the village from its land and move it away. The Israeli army refused to comply with the order for “security reasons.”

    The court ruling also forbids the settlers from expanding the settlement of Mitetyaho Mizrah which is built on the village land. Today settlers came and installed six mobile homes on the villagers’ land in a clear sign that they are going to expand their settlement, Burnat said.

    Burnat demanded more involvement form the Palestinian Authority and he asked for the freeze of negotiations with Israel since Israel refuses to respect any agreements with the Palestinians.

    Last November the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks were revived by the U.S on the basis of the Road Map peace plan. According to the Road Map plan Israel must stop all settlement activity in the West Bank.

    The villagers of Bil’in have been conducting weekly nonviolent protests against the Israeli wall and settlements for a little over three years. Burnat told IMEMC that the villagers of Bil’in will continue their resistance and the legal work in the Israeli court system.