Popular Nonviolent Resistance in Bil’in: the Interfaith Peace Builders Interview with Ayad Burnat

by Douglas Kerr

Ayad Burnat speaking to Israeli soldiers in Bil’in; courtesy ifpb.org

Interfaith Peace Builders Preface: Bil’in is a small, peaceful Palestinian village 7 miles west of Ramallah. It has continued its struggle to maintain its existence by fighting to protect its land, olive trees, resources, water and liberty. Its population of 1900 live in an area of approximately 1000 acres or 4000 dunams. The residents of Bil’in depend on agriculture as their main source of income, but close to 60% of Bil’in’s land has been annexed to build Israeli settlements and Israel’s Separation Barrier, destroying more than 1,000 olive trees in the process. Israel began construction of the illegal Separation Barrier in April 2004 by appropriating 570 acres (2300 dunams) of Bil’in land. Residents resisted these injustices despite the increase in night raids by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), arrests and injuries of its residents and activists, and two fatalities. Indeed, Bil’in’s residents, joined by Israeli and international activists, have peacefully demonstrated every Friday in front of the Separation Barrier and the IDF have responded with both physical and psychological violence. Working side-by-side with international and Israeli activists, the people of Bil’in managed to achieve recognition by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2007, when it ruled that the route of the Separation Barrier was illegal and must be changed. The Israeli Defense Force, however, toughened its oppression by systematically arresting members of Bil’in’s Popular Committee, namely, those in charge of organizing the nonviolent demonstrations. In 2009, Abdullah Abu Ramah, coordinator of the Popular Committee Against the Wall in Bil’in, was arrested in his Ramallah home. Despite his recognition by the EU as a “human rights defender,” he was found guilty of “incitement” and “illegal protest,” and imprisoned for 16 months. In June of 2011, in accordance with the 2007 Israeli Supreme Court decision, the Separation Barrier was re-routed and 300 acres (1200 dunams) returned to the village. The Wall and settlement projects to date (2015) still occupy 270 acres (1100 dunams) of Bil’in land. Bil’in’s residents continue steadfastly to demonstrate each Friday. They are the subject of the film 5 Broken Cameras, the 2013 Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary film, directed and narrated by Emad Burnat, brother of Ayad Burnat. R.H. Tracy

Douglas Kerr: How did the nonviolent popular resistance to the Occupation first start in Bil’in?

Ayad Burnat: It is now nine years, in December 2004, since we started nonviolent resistance, when the Israeli bulldozers started to destroy the land, the olive trees of the farmers. All of the people went outside, without prompting, to try to stop the bulldozers from destroying their land. Bil’in is a small village with a population of around 1900 and about 4000 dunams [c. 1000 acres] of land. The Israeli government confiscated 2,300 dunams. This land is full of olive trees. It is the life of the farmers in the village, and most of the people in the village are farmers. This land is their life. We started our nonviolent struggle in Bil’in when we saw these bulldozers destroying the olive trees, and we continued. Between December and February 2005, there was a demonstration every day.

We organized ourselves and we formed the Popular Committee in the village to lead the farmers in these actions and demonstrations. When the people saw these things happen to their land and life, they wanted to go outside and start to march against these bulldozers. From 2005, we started weekly demonstrations. We decided to have our demonstrations on Friday after prayer. There are a lot of people in these demonstrations. It is important that if you want to build these actions, you have to give your people hope to continue in these marches. For nine years now we’ve had weekly demonstrations in Bil’in, and we are still continuing. Every week the international solidarity movement and Israeli activists come and participate with us in our actions.

Kerr: What are the goals of this popular resistance?

Burnat: We have simple people in the village, mostly farmers. Their goal is to have their land, to have their life, because when you destroy the land of the farmer, they have no work. People were looking after the land, and you know that Bil’in is the same as all the villages and cities in Palestine; it is under the occupation from 1967. There was resistance against the occupation before, and there were a lot of villages before Bil’in that resisted the Wall [also called the Separation Barrier], so our other goal is that we are against the Wall. You do not want to see the Wall if you speak about peace, justice, and equality. We have to resist against the Wall, because the Wall has killed these things. You do not talk about peace and then build the Wall between you and other people, between the people and their land. This affected the people. So our goal that we have been fighting from a long time in Palestine is against the Israeli occupation, to have our freedom. You know the message from the Israelis and their propaganda that this is a security wall. The people didn’t believe that. Our message for all the people in the world is that this is not the security wall that Israel says it is. It is a way to confiscate more land, to build more settlements, to steal the water of the Palestinians, and to put the Palestinians together in jail. So our goal is to get people to start to think more about this wall, and why they really built it. It is not just the land and the olive trees. The goal at the start got bigger, for people to start to understand more about this wall and this occupation.

Kerr: So the resistance has moved beyond the land of Bil’in to the Wall in general?

Burnat: Yes

Kerr: You have been doing this for a long time; what keeps the movement active for so long?

If it is not this week, we will have our freedom next week.

Burnat: Look, this is important! The important thing in nonviolent struggle is to continue. If you do two or three or four or one month demonstrations, nobody knows about it. So you have to continue. And this is our success in Bil’in village, that we have the people all the time continuing, every week. The Popular Committee and the people who lead the actions and demonstrations are teaching the people how to continue. They meet every week with the people, to have a good connection between them, and because we want the people to continue every week, every Friday, to demonstrate. Continuing is important to have success. The people have hope all the time; every week they have hope. And they have their event, to march to the wall, to have their freedom in the next week, so they continue. If it is not this week, we will have our freedom next week. This is how the people are thinking and why they are working.

Kerr: Which actions and demonstrations over time have you felt have been most successful and why were they successful?

Burnat: There were demonstrations in many villages before Bil’in. In Salfit, Jayyous, Budrus, in Bido, in many places. The Israelis did not care about that, the media did not care about these demonstrations, because there was the same story every time for the media. We did not want to have the same story every time. We decided in Bil’in that we have to do a new thing, to push the media, the internationals, the Israeli activists, the people to participate and join us. Because, you know, the media is very important, and the Israeli media is very strong, so you have to deal also with the Israeli media. We had direct action, creative ideas, to use in our actions. Every time we had a meeting we decided what we wanted to do. We were looking at the situation in the whole area, in Palestine and outside. We had to make a message about that, to let more people know about the struggle in Bil’in and the real goal of the wall and the occupation, because people did not know about this. For example, when we put ourselves in a cage in front of the bulldozer, it was the first time that happened, and it was a new image for the media. We invited the media to come and see what we were going to do, and all the media came, including the international media, the Israeli media, and the Palestinian media. All the media publicized that event. That is how it started. After this, the media called us every time and asked what we were going to do. Now they call us, not us them.

So what is the next thing to do? It would not be on a Friday, because you cannot do it with a lot of people in the afternoon. The Israeli Army would know about this, so they would stop us before we got there. So these new actions were in the early morning, before the bulldozers came to work, and with only a small group of people. We didn’t publicize this on the Internet or in the media beforehand. We just called the media. “We have a new thing in this area at six in the morning, so you can come and see what’s new”. It was the best way to push the media to come and see what we were going to do.

Kerr: Can you give some more examples of what you thought was most successful?

Bil’in resisters as “Nasi avatars”; photo by Hamde Abu Rahmah; courtesy australiansforpalestine.com

Burnat: There were a lot of media ideas that we used. Every week we were sitting in a meeting and started to think of new ideas: What goes on in the news? What is our message to the people? What do we want to do? For example, we put ourselves in barrels, and we tied ourselves to the olive trees. Some of this is in the documentary film my brother made, which won many awards, 5 Broken Cameras. Before this, there was a decision from the Israeli court to take all the olive trees from that area. What can we do, we asked? We went and tied ourselves to these olive trees. This was published in the Israeli news. We have a lot of ideas for Friday demonstrations. We were looking for something that is similar in Palestine and a lot of people know about. For example, the Blue Men in the movie Avatar. Most people in the world know about Avatar, and it is similar to the Palestinian situation, and gives a message to the people. In the first day, after we finished the demonstration and the next two days, more than a million people saw us on YouTube photos from these actions. A lot of people started to know about Bil’in, and Bil’in became famous. It scared the Israeli army, these actions, these media reports, these struggles.

After one year, the court decided that the wall was necessary for security for the settlements. It made it difficult for the people to have hope, because they hoped that the Wall would be demolished. The [court] said the wall is security for the settlement Matityahu Mizrah. Later, we found through our friends and lawyers that these settlements were illegal by Israeli law. You know that all the settlements are illegal by international law. But this one was illegal by Israeli law. The plan of the settlements and the permission for the settlements from the court, from the government, was to build 1600 apartments. The mayor of Modin Ilit and army and company who were working in this area formed a company. It was the biggest company in Israel. They decided to build 3600 apartments. They changed the plan of the settlements, they changed the map, they changed the road, they changed everything, so it became illegal by Israeli law. After we knew this, we started to fight against the settlements and the Wall together.

First we took a trailer and put it near the settlement, and we put ourselves inside the trailer, and we closed it. And they came and took it away. Another night we brought another trailer and we put ourselves inside. We ask the police officer, why did you take our trailer and let the settlers build their illegal houses, illegal by the Israeli court and the Israeli law? And we showed him the papers. He said, this is another kind of building; their buildings have doors, ceilings, and windows, and we cannot demolish it or take it, without permission from the court. So the next night, we bring our workmen and tools, and we build our house, the same type of building, windows, doors, ceilings, and everything. It was crazy when the soldiers saw that; they were crazy, shooting tear gas, calling on their cell phones. We built 3 rooms. The first one was in February 2006. It was raining at night. We built it in 3 hours, and we put up the ceiling by our hands at morning to get it to drop. We made some camp fires here and there.

It was six years, from 2006 to 2012, before there was a decision from the Israeli Supreme Court to demolish the wall. But during this time we were building one-room structures near the first one. Our goal was to build more rooms in that area where we have our free land. For example, we take our families and lived inside these “settlements”. By these actions we succeeded to stop the company building these room/settlements. They built one part, but there were still two parts, and these two parts were too near the village, the houses of the village. We succeeded to stop building them. We succeeded to stop them from living there. But after a while, on the fifth of September 2007, the court gave the company permission to build this part of the settlement, and they gave permission to the settlers to live in these houses. But during that time, we also succeeded to help bankrupt the big company, Heftsiba, the biggest company in Israel; we did it by our actions, because they had to stop building. It was taking the company more than three years to sell their houses. Some were never built, so they had to give back the money to the people who bought these unbuilt houses, and it was a big success against this company.

The other thing is the “room” we built, and called the “Peace Center”. We were there twenty-four hours, sleeping, staying there, inviting people there, holding our meetings there, with international groups, with Israeli peace activists. We changed the life of people all around Bil’in. Sometimes, in World Cup football, we watched it there. All the time, it required a lot of Israeli security guards to be there; the security guards had to be awake all night. We made them work every minute. This was also very important, I think, that we did by our actions.

Kerr: How do people in Bil’in feel about the length of the struggle? Do they get discouraged, because there has been some progress, but not complete progress? Do they get frustrated and want to end their individual participation?

Burnat: I think if you succeed once, you don’t get tired; you have more hope to succeed. From the beginning, the Bil’in people succeeded, succeeded to bring all the people, the media, the internationals, the Israeli activists to this small village. And this was a success for us, to have all these people and all the media to come and see what we were doing. When the route of the Wall was moved, we got back more than 1200 dunams (c. 300 acres) of our farm land, which we replanted with olive trees and other crops, and we made a playground for the children.

To succeed is to break the fear of the people of the Israeli army and of the settlers. Before, the Israeli army scared the people, scared the farmers, and when someone wanted to go to work in his land they were shooting at him, to scare him. So people were scared to go to their land and scared when the soldiers entered the village, because of the violence. The Bil’in people, and in other areas, started to ask, Why are we scared? This is our right! This came by the nonviolent way. Because they saw all the people participate, women, men, the children, everybody. You have all the media there, the internationals. This encouraged the people to continue, have success after success.

Kerr: Are there some people who want to use more violent confrontation with the Israeli soldiers?

Burnat: Yes. But not from our side! It is from the Israeli side. Soldiers against soldiers, after a while. The Israeli army is used to using violence. They did not know how to deal with these nonviolent demonstrations. They cannot use a plane or rockets against us. They used the violence because they did not know how to deal with these nonviolent demonstrations. The people started to understand, and we taught them all the time, that these soldiers liked the violence, because they didn’t know anything else, just to use violence. They would prefer to use the violence against us. We taught our people about children who would get out their anger by throwing stones and things like this, that the Israeli army was waiting for children to throw stones. So we did not want them to do that. We did not want to give them the reason to attack us, and to show in the media that this was a violent people and to fit into their propaganda.

What they were doing was sending Special Forces to our demonstrations, under cover, to throw stones at the soldiers, and we catch them many times. The first time, they arrested two of our people who demonstrated. And this has happened in Nil’in, Nabi-Saleh, Budrus, and all the areas where they deployed Special Forces, hoping to change the demonstrations to violence. Always the violence came from the Israelis. With popular committees and grass-roots resistance, you are dealing with many ideas. They are not a group of soldiers, you tell him go this way and they go this way. We have a lot of people. To lead the people is more difficult than to lead a big army. Because you have to talk to them all the time to give them your ideas what you are going to do, what is next, what we do before, to learn from what we are doing and what we want to do.

Kerr: Do the same soldiers come every week, and have you seen any change in their behavior or attitude?

Burnat: It is not the same soldiers; they change them every two months, 3 months, 6 months. Always they change them, because they do not want them to start thinking about what we are doing. So they change them all the time, these soldiers. Also before they came, they teach them how to attack us. I think if we have the same soldiers for 8 years, I believe, half of them they will be on our side. But they always change them.

Kerr: You mentioned the helpfulness of international and Israeli activists, by contacting the media and photographing and spreading the word. Do the activists ever interfere and want to do things on their own that you do not approve of?

Burnat: No, that didn’t happen before. We have internationals, under the umbrella of the Popular Committee. We have the Israeli activists. What we want to do, they follow us, because they came to participate with us, to join us in our struggle. Because they know that we are right. For the internationals who want to stay for a long time, we have given them training, so they have training how to behave with the soldiers, with the people in the village when they go there, and about the culture of the Palestinians. There is no problem from the internationals or the Israeli activists. All the time we are working together in Bil’in and in other places.

Kerr: What is the relation of the popular resistance in Bil’in to other villages in the West Bank who have similar actions?

Burnat: Before Bil’in, as I mentioned, it was Jayous, Budrus, Bidu, Kitania, and many other places. So we were in contact with these people. For example, in Budrus with Ayed Morrar, in Jayous with Mohammad Othman. We had contacts and were going and participating with them. We know they have similar actions, because they had some internationals and more Israelis, so we had contacts between them. After we started in Bil’in, we built a steering committee, and now we have a steering committee with people from each place; one from each place. For example, if we want to have the same action in all places, we can do it. We have a meeting and we do it. If we want to have an action in other areas, we will go all of us and we make this action. For example, the closed roads of the settlers; it is not in the villages, so we did not have popular committees there. We go there and we block these roads. So we can block four roads at the same time. So we have contact and sometimes we go and we participate with them and teach them. Not because we are teachers, but you know we have struggled for a lot of years, and we know what the Israelis are going to try to do to defeat us. And what we have to do to defeat them. It is not war, but it is resistance. You have to deal with the people, how you can win with fewer losses.

Kerr: Is the popular resistance supported by the Palestinian Authority?

Burnat: No! (laughter) We invited a lot of them. In our actions, we didn’t work with any parties, with any governments or nothing. We are grass roots resistance. But we invite all to participate with us. All the parties, all the people who want to participate with us are welcome. But also, under the umbrella of the Popular Committee. So we are not under the control of any party. This is our philosophy. Because this way we succeed. So we invite Hamas to participate, Fatah, PLFP, and others. All the parties come and participate, the leaders of them came and they participate in demonstrations, in our conferences. We did not have any support from the PA. Because their aid is in Area A, and we are far away in Areas B and C.

Kerr: So what do you hope will be the future of nonviolent popular resistance in Palestine?

Burnat: The future. To have nonviolent resistance is not our goal. It is not our goal to be in resistance, nonviolent or violent. Our goal is to have our freedom. The way that we want to be, to have this freedom, is through the global nonviolent intifada. Because you deal with a strong country, supported from the strongest country in the world. So it has to be a global intifada, not a Palestinian intifada. In Palestine, we hope to have these actions in all areas of the West Bank and Gaza. We work for that, and our nonviolent intifada is growing, every day it is growing. Every day you have new places that have an action.

What I wish is to have it continue. So for example, we have a lot of demonstrations at the Qalandia checkpoint, at Offer prison, and many other places. These we built, and they have to continue. We have twenty places now in Palestine, that every week are doing actions. We also have many demonstrations that didn’t continue. They just deal with what happened. We want to help these people to continue also. To continue their actions is very important. Because the creative idea that this is continuous is very important. The international activists are very important. The Israeli activists are very important. Through the internationals, you can spread your message outside, because they are our messengers, and they saw and lived there. They witnessed the Israeli violence, because the Israelis are scared when they saw the internationals or Israeli activists in the demonstration. They didn’t view the demonstration the same as if it was just Palestinian. So we hope to have a global intifada, insha’allah, soon.

The important thing that these people have to understand, is why a nonviolent struggle? Why the people, after suffering a lot of violence from the Israeli soldiers, from the occupation, after suffering all this violence, why do they do nonviolent actions? If you ask many people outside, they resent this. If they had lived under the occupation, they would have been more violent. A lot of people told me, if I live your life, I will be violent or I will be crazy. But it is important to know and to believe that this way is more powerful than violence is.

The Israeli government is standing on three strong legs. And these legs, you cannot break them just by the nonviolent way. First, the media is the strongest leg for the Israeli army. The media, you can waken it, by your friends, your media, the international groups who visit you. The second leg is the economy; it has a very strong influence in Israel. This you can weaken by boycotts, if you focus the same as South Africa. So it is power. You give yourself and your people hope, and a lot of power to boycott the economy of Israel. And the third leg is the army, the military. They have a strong army in the area, and we don’t have the same. By nonviolence you can weaken the leg of the army. Because they cannot use against you tanks, planes, the strongest things in the army. They need a bigger group of soldiers to stop one demonstration. If these happen in thirty or fifty areas, and they need in one area two hundred soldiers, in fifty areas they will then need ten thousand soldiers. They lose more than you. They lose every week in Bil’in, for example, lots of tear gas, hundreds of dollars of tear gas, and rubber bullets, costing about fifty thousand US dollars a week for our demonstrations. And you don’t lose a lot, not the same as violent ways. This nonviolent way you can have all the people participate with you, children, women, everybody. But in violent ways, you have a small group of people who stand up, fighting, and taking the bullets. The Israelis know this about the Palestinians.

Kerr: So you make the occupation more expensive?

Burnat: Yes, you have to do that.

Kerr: What are you most pleased about in the past year, 2013-14?

Burnat: We are very pleased that American Jewish youth groups are visiting Bil’in in the past year. They come in small groups to see what is going on in Bil’in. They ask many questions, and change their minds when they see the situation.

Kerr: Ayad, thank you very much for this interview and for teaching us so much!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Interfaith Peace Builders regularly sends observers to Israel/Palestine to “see the situation with our own eyes” as they attest on their excellent website. As they also state, they do not “sponsor, side with, or promote the interests of any party, individual, or specific organization in Israel, Palestine, the US, or elsewhere. We do not endorse specific solutions for the conflict (such as ‘one-state’ or ‘two-state’). Our work is intended to introduce delegation participants to a variety of opinions, debates, and analyses on Israel, Palestine, and the role of international − and U.S. − civil society in the conflict. However, there are core values that inform our work and are rooted in our long-standing ties with communities of peace-builders, resisters to oppression, and nonviolent activists. We are against military occupation in all forms and places. We believe in the transformative power of nonviolent social change. We work to challenge oppression, racism, and war in all their forms. We believe that many of the misconceptions prevalent in US mainstream discourse on Israel/Palestine can be most effectively confronted by on-the-ground experience of the situation.” Article courtesy mondoweiss.net

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi