Editor’s note: On June 8, 2015, prominent nonviolent resistance leader Iyad Burnat of Palestine received the James Lawson Award for Achievement in the Practice of Nonviolent Conflict. The award, founded in 2011, is given during an annual educational institute on nonviolent conflict, jointly organized by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, USA. During Iyad’s acceptance speech, as well as during an exclusive follow-up video interview with Amber French and Katherine Hughes-Fraitekh of ICNC, Iyad spoke about the motivating factors behind the movement that Bil’in spearheads, key aspects of building and sustaining the movement, strategies and tactics used, the importance of Israeli and international allies, lessons learned, and the way forward.
For Iyad Burnat, nonviolent resistance is as central to daily life as the twisted-trunk olive trees that frame his rural village of Bil’in in the occupied West Bank. An enthusiastic father of five with a large smile and deep, piercing eyes, he is recognized not only in Palestine, but also among scholars and opinion-shapers around the world as a courageous leader among leaders in an exemplary movement of nonviolent resistance.
Over the past decade, images and footage of Bil’in’s resistance have spread across the world, in large part due to the movement’s characteristic use of creative actions, which have increasingly captured the attention of international journalists. The movement also gained significant exposure, especially in the United States, when the film Five Broken Cameras (incidentally filmed by Iyad’s brother, Emad Burnat) was nominated for the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary. It has helped spread the news of the extraordinary efforts of a small group of Palestinian farmers to end the Israeli occupation through nonviolent action and strategies to halt expropriation of their land to expand illegal settlements and build the separation wall.
Iyad first joined the decades-long nonviolent resistance movement in Palestine as a pupil and member of a school committee in Bil’in. Since then, he and his family have experienced significant repression under occupation. At the age of 17, Iyad himself was arrested by the Israeli military and during interrogation was forced to sign a confession in Hebrew he didn’t understand for crimes he didn’t commit. He was then sentenced as a minor to two years in a desert prison which caused him to graduate late and derailed his planned career as a doctor.
In 2014, Iyad’s son was shot point blank in the leg by a soldier while standing next to his father during a nonviolent demonstration and he continues to face physical difficulties from this injury today. Yet throughout his years of nonviolent resistance, Iyad’s message has not waivered: “We are not against Jews; we are against the Israeli occupation.”
The Burnats have lived their entire lives under occupation. Iyad appears second from the left. Source: Iyad Burnat’s Facebook page (with permission).
From Bil’in to the international stage
Bil’in was among the first villages (including Budrus and Jayyous) to organize nonviolent resistance against the wall, deemed illegal under international law, due to its planned route into occupied territory instead of along the internationally-recognized Green Line that is the modern border between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories.
In response to this challenge, in the early 2000s, Iyad and members of his community joined with allies from villages throughout the West Bank, and more recently Gaza. Facing sustained repression — including beatings, arrests, torture, home night raids, kidnapping of children and killing of unarmed participants — from Israeli soldiers and settlers, the Palestinians from Bil’in and their partners have continued their resistance nonviolently, including weekly marches every Friday now for more than a decade.
Loss of land in Palestine (1917-present). Information source: Foreign Ministry of Israel, IHR.org, unhcr.org, Reuters, jewishvirtuallibrary.org and unispal.un.org. Click to expand.
The ever-growing weekly protests are the tip of the iceberg of this increasingly visible and vibrant nonviolent movement which draws inspiration from prominent leaders such as Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, but also Palestine’s own experience in nonviolent struggle beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the first and nonviolent aspects of the second intifada. The villagers are joined in their movement by an increasing number of allies throughout the world, including Israelis, Palestinians abroad, and communities in the Global South and Global North. One of the international visitors, Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu of South Africa said during his visit to Bil’in: “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 Bil’in are leading a nonviolent struggle that will bring them their freedom.”
International personalities who have participated in the weekly protests in Bil’in
- · Nobel Prize winners Mairead Maguire from Ireland and Desmond Tutu from South Africa;
- · Former Vice President of the European Parliament Luisa Morgantini;
- · Former US President Jimmy Carter;
- · Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson;
- · Former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland;
- · Former President of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso;
- · Ela Bhatt, an Indian advocate for the poor and women’s rights.
Some of these individuals, including Mairead Maguire, and Luisa Morgantini, sustained injuries during the protests.
Burnat explains that the impetus for Palestinians to resist is embedded in their daily reality — their lives and environment under occupation teach them to resist. “I learned a lot of methods from Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, but life teaches more. When you struggle and live the life under occupation; when you are suffering and in pain every day, it teaches you how to resist. It comes from the life. Nonviolent struggle comes from the life. We are a simple people and nonviolent resistance is a part of our lives.”
Creativity for countering repression, celebrating success
Iyad discusses the process of coming up with the creative, diverse and ever-changing tactics and methods that are the hallmark of the village resistance movement. Members of the local Bil’in Popular Committee and the umbrella Stop the Wall Coalition hold weekly meetings to discuss and analyze the latest news, key issues on the ground, and the political situation internally and externally and then propose new ideas and actions focusing on achievable and short-term goals that align with broader strategies. These are then implemented at strategic times and locations by a number of the movement members. As lessons are identified, tactics and methods are continually honed. This is very similar to the process used by Palestinians across East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza during the first intifada from 1987-93, which featured a wide array of nonviolent actions supported by local committees all over Palestine.
Decision-making in the Bil’in Popular Committee
Decisions for the movement are made in a horizontal manner with input and decisions made in local popular committees representing each member village, such as the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall, then passed on and distributed through an umbrella committee, the Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, comprised of representatives from the 12 active villages in the West Bank, including Budrus, Nabi Saleh, and Nil’in, and the newest member, Khan Younis, Gaza.
Bil’in has become known for its weekly marches and for originating creative ideas and diverse tactics of nonviolent resistance. Examples include protesters tying themselves to olive trees that are being uprooted by bulldozers to make way for the wall; locking themselves in cages which then must be hauled away by cranes; or chaining themselves to steel pillars on the ground. They haul in trailer houses and place these to reclaim their stolen land, barricading themselves inside in response to the same tactic used by the illegal Israeli settlers. The farmers of Bil’in also seek to win over the soldiers, offering flowers or joking with them to find the human connection, even as the soldiers continue to arrest, beat and sometimes kill them.
Mondoweiss co-editor Adam Horowitz’s 2009 eyewitness account of nighttime raids
“On July 7th at 3:30 am soldiers disrupted the tranquility of Bi'lin by forcing their way into several houses. Israeli soldiers came with a list of 10 names for arrest. When Palestinian, international, and Israeli activists arrived at the scene they were subjected to violence and intimidation by the Israeli occupation forces… When activists and community members responded, they were beaten back with batons and forced to dodge a large number of percussion grenades. Meanwhile, activists tried blocking the jeeps from leaving by erecting makeshift barricades in the street. The Israeli occupation forces responded with a number of percussion grenades and then rammed their jeeps through. They forced their way up the street and to several other houses. While there, they arrested a young man and issued nine summons to families of youths who were not present. This was done without explanation or warning. The jeeps had to make an escape through a second set of erected barricades and they exited into the night.”
In one of the most memorable marches yet, villagers painted themselves blue and dressed as the indigenous Na’vi people who triumphed over repressive human colonizers in the popular movie Avatar, gaining international press coverage and stunning Israeli soldiers sent to disrupt the event. Iyad appears second from the right. Source: Australians for Palestine (2010).
Another method of nonviolent resistance that Bil’in has developed is in direct response to a form of repression that Israeli soldiers began to use extensively in 2009 and 2010 — nocturnal raids of villagers’ homes. These nighttime raids instill fear in families and involve targeting and arresting children with the aim of breaking the families’ will to resist. To counter this tactic, Iyad and the popular committees developed the idea of increasing their demonstrations and holding them in the evening, thereby exhausting the soldiers who then had to protect the wall construction by day and protests by night. This tactic ended in a small but critical victory for Bil’in — although the night raids did not end entirely, they decreased significantly from a daily occurrence to once or twice a week, thereby giving the families and children some relief and less daily trauma.
To help counter the violence and prepare the children for a life under occupation and struggle, Bil’in teaches its children the context of the conflict and how to resist nonviolently. This is achieved through modeling nonviolent action and attitudes, and counseling against revenge. Parents also try to de-escalate and funnel uncontrollable anger and frustration into symbolic acts such as throwing stones and water balloons. (In the literature of civil resistance, stone throwing is not considered a nonviolent tactic. Many Palestinians argue that it is a symbolic act that is not meant to hurt Israelis, since they have superior military capacity and armoured vehicles. For them, stone throwing shows agency and an unwillingness to submit.)
The children are also empowered to organize their own marches, including one pictured in Five Broken Cameras where the children march alone holding signs saying “let us sleep” and “we want to sleep,” messages directed to the Israeli soldiers against the nighttime raids. In the movie, there is also a heartrending conversation between a father and his child who is confused about why his parents are not fighting back with violence or protecting themselves and others with force against violence by Israeli settlers and military.
“Freedom for the prisoners. Our hearts with you.” Source: Iyad Burnat’s Facebook page (with permission).
Interim goals: disruption, media coverage and getting international actors involved
Interim goals of the nonviolent resistance were to drive up the material costs of the wall, reduce the legitimacy of it and its supporters, and delay its construction so that complementary legal challenges and media strategies would have more time to work. These goals were achieved, as the financial costs increased exponentially. Much of the world now questions the legitimacy of the separation wall, and the construction of the wall was delayed years longer than planned. While construction was being disrupted, the cause in Bi’lin gained supporters in Israel and the international community, gaining support in the “court of public opinion.” Simultaneously, Palestinian activists worked with Israeli lawyers who were allies to argue their formal legal case against the wall in Israeli civil courts (known for relative independence when compared to the Israeli military courts functioning in the Occupied Territories). They argued that it was illegal to build the wall inside the internationally-recognized borders between Israel and the Occupied Territories and cited international rulings in their favour including the critical July 9, 2004 Advisory Opinion by the International Court of Justice, supporting the Palestinian position.
In September 4, 2007, Bil’in had a major victory when the High Court of Justice in Israel ordered the government to change the route of the wall near Bil'in. Chief Justice Dorit Beinish wrote in her ruling: "We were not convinced that it is necessary for security-military reasons to retain the current route that passes on Bil’in’s lands." The Israeli Defense Ministry said it would respect the ruling, but it was not until 2011 — after four years of continued nonviolent action and pressure to enforce the order— that they began dismantling a section of the barrier to relocate it along an alternative route. This ruling and rerouting forced Israel to return 500 dunums (4 = 1 acre) to farmers in Bil’in.
Even after the court case was won, activists in Bi’lin continued to gain media coverage and sympathy. Their flare for creative actions, use of visually compelling images, skill in framing their message, education of journalists around the world, and international speaking tours by community leaders, as well as the film Five Broken Cameras, has significantly increased the number of media outlets and audiences aware of the existence of nonviolent movements in Palestine and correspondingly, increased active allies.
Another key strategy of the Stop the Wall Coalition is to engage external actors and international citizens, including Israelis. Iyad explains that in the beginning, villagers were not always clear on their importance, but over time the presence of international allies in Bil’in in protests, including protective accompaniment in homes, resulted in less use of deadly force by the Israeli military against protestors, less destruction of houses and property during night raids, independent documentation of violence and other repression used against villagers, and greater visibility to the rest of the world of the struggle going on in Bil’in and other villages. This in turn brings increased international solidarity and understanding of the reality of life under occupation in Palestine.
Unity counts, both locally and among Palestinians abroad
Iyad understands the importance of unity among the movement and continually talks about growing the movement, the significance of shared goals and values, and the importance of connecting and unifying with other Palestinians. He is very aware of “divide and conquer” strategies that have been used by Israelis against Palestinians, dividing Palestinians residing in the Holy Land — those inside the 1948 borders, Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem — from each other through checkpoints, blockades and administrative processes. Iyad says sorrowfully: “I have never been there. I can’t go inside. I’ve never been to Jerusalem, I live only 25 kilometres away; nor to the sea, nor to Gaza.”
“I learned a lot of methods from Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, but life teaches more. When you struggle and live the life under occupation; when you are suffering and in pain every day, it teaches you how to resist. It comes from the life. Nonviolent struggle comes from the life. We are a simple people and nonviolent resistance is a part of our lives.”
His story is common among Palestinians of his generation. Israeli law and actions have aimed to exacerbate divisions in Palestinians among ethnic, religious, geographic and political lines. Bedouins, Christians, Druze, Jews, and Muslims from historic Palestine; supporters of different political parties and factions; urban, rural, and refugee dwellers; and Palestinians inside 1948 boundaries, residents of the Occupied Territories and East Jerusalem and Gaza and those living in diaspora — have all been given different status, and coerced with benefits or sanctions at various times. The Christian Palestinians inside Israel recently refused a plan proposed by an Israeli Knesset member to give them special privileges in order to set them against their Muslim compatriots. Yariv Levin, the leader of the government coalition in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, explained his objectionable proposal this way: “My legislation will grant separate representation and treatment for the Christian public, which will be separated from the Muslim Arabs.”
Iyad also points out the division among the Palestinian refugees living outside of historic Palestine in refugee camps or in exile in various Arab countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and Palestinians dispersed in diaspora communities around the world. He states that: “Palestinians all over the world need to stand with Palestinians inside, because we have to be together and united in the same struggle. For example, Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria are affected by the regimes and have to stand up and say no. I want my freedom, I want my right to return to my home. Sometimes you have to be willing to lose something. Freedom doesn’t come on a plate of gold [old Arab proverb]. This is the right for everybody, human rights to live in freedom, justice and equality.” In reaction to repressive tactics, he feels that Palestinians must resist oppression and find a way to unify.
Pushing for a third intifada with global support
When discussing the way forward and their grand strategy, Iyad stresses his vision and his movement’s vision — the start of a third intifada in the West Bank and broader Occupied Territories. “We’re looking for a third intifada like the first intifada. A third intifada in Palestine will lead the Palestinian people to be united in Palestine. There are many problems inside the Palestinian community, between the West Bank and Gaza and between political parties, Fatah/Hamas and others. We have to lead the third intifada, so everyone can be together against the occupation, not each other.” Palestinians are feeling more divided than ever before and understand that without unity, they lose the power in numbers they need to stand up against the Israeli government. It is key that Iyad is calling for a third intifada first, and foremost, to unify themselves.
Burnat continues: “I wish to build a global movement to end the occupation. I wish all the world will put pressure on the Israeli government to follow the rule of law to stop the occupation.” He mentions major avenues for internationals to assist Palestinians nonviolently. The first is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, (BDS) movement which is based on a call for assistance by a broad coalition of over 100 Palestinian NGOs in July 2005 modeled on the South African BDS movement and calls for action against Israel until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights. Second, Iyad calls for involvement with the Students for Justice in Palestine at universities in the United States, Canada and New Zealand where 100 now exist in the US alone. Third, he mentions supporting or joining groups providing unarmed civilian protection and protective accompaniment to Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Bil’in welcomes and relies on nonviolent solidarity activists such as the Israeli Gush Shalom and Anarchists against the Wall, and global International Solidarity Movement (ISM) to provide a modicum of protection and documentation during many of their actions. Since 2005, Bil’in has lost two core members of its community, Bassem Abu Rahmeh’s death by a high velocity teargas canister fired at his chest on April 17, 2009, at the age of 29 — documented in Five Broken Cameras — and his sister Jawaher Abu Rahmah, 36, who died a year later in December 31, 2010, after a teargas attack.
“We have to have hope to resist”
As the Stop the Wall Coalition demonstrates, steadfastness (sumud) in Arabic and nonviolent discipline are essential ingredients of a successful movement. Members of the village communities have learned that they must continue to struggle, day by day, week by week, despite the violence directed at them. Freedom does not come easy. “You have to be willing to sacrifice for freedom, and above all else, believe in your cause and what you’re struggling for. If you believe, you will continue, if you continue, you will succeed.”
Spend but a few hours in Iyad’s company and you’ll figure out where his hope and drive come from — his children, especially his youngest, 15-month old Mohyialdeen who shares his father’s dark, penetrating eyes. Iyad says, “We have hope to change the situation. Hope to have a better future for our children. I don’t want my children to live my life. I’m looking for a future for my children and all children that is without occupation and violence. We have to have hope to resist.”
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