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(en) Israel-Palestine, Media, The joint nonviolent struggle against the apartheid wall/fence - Gandhi Redux By Meron Rapaport

Date Sat, 11 Jun 2005 12:58:20 +0300


Last Friday Laser and Hassan walked side by side along the main
street of Bilin. Laser Peles (who was born in Kfar Chabad,
abandoned religion, came out of the closet, was the spokesman for
the gay-lesbian faction in Meretz and one of the most devoted
activists of Anarchists Against the Fence) has made Bilin, a small
Palestinian village adjacent to the settlement of Upper Modi'in, his
second home. Sheikh Hassan Yusuf, who also has an
ultra-Orthodox background, but contrary to Laser maintained a
close connection with religion, was deported to Lebanon, served six
years in an Israeli prison and another six months in a Palestinian
prison, is today considered the leader of Hamas in the West Bank.

"I am happy that you are here, the Israelis," the ultra-Orthodox
believer from Ramallah said to the former Haredi (Jewish
ultra-Orthodox believer) from Kfar Chabad, and the two, joined by
another 500 or so Palestinians and about 100 Israelis, continued on
their way to the weekly demonstration against the separation fence
at Bilin.

Peles is not representative of the Israelis who demonstrated at Bilin
last week - most of them have a far more solid activist background.
Yusuf is not representative of the Palestinians who demonstrated
there - most of them are from Fatah and political rivals of Hamas.
Still, the odd connection between the two is indicative of what has
been happening in the past few weeks at Bilin and elsewhere along
the present route of the fence that is under construction in the West
Bank. There are almost daily demonstrations of Palestinians mixed
with Israelis mixed with cameras. In meetings of the popular
committees in Bilin or Boudrus or Beit Lakia, Palestinian
grassroots activists - not intellectuals who get donations from
Europe - are talking seriously about the doctrine of Mahatma
Gandhi, about the model of nonviolent demonstrations that is
meant to spread from village to village throughout the West Bank.

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Nonsense - there is no such thing as a nonviolent Palestinian
demonstration, say officers of the Israel Defense Forces, whose
soldiers have already developed a routine of confrontation with the
Palestinian and Israeli demonstrators, and even display fondness for
some of those involved. "Where is Laser?" one of the soldiers asked
as he looked through binoculars from the peak of the dominant hill
at the demonstration that was gathering in Bilin two weeks ago.
"Without him the demonstration is worth nothing."

A week later, last Friday, the IDF received proof that when the field
commanders tell the soldiers before demonstrations that "a stone
can kill," they know whereof they speak. Michael Schwarzman, a
soldier from the Armored Corps, lost an eye when he was struck by
a stone thrown by a Palestinian at Bilin.

"How can you talk about nonviolent demonstrations if a soldier
loses an eye in a demonstration like this?" Yarom Tamim, the
deputy battalion commander of Schwarzman's unit, asked on a Tel
Aviv radio program at the beginning of the week.

The truth is more complex. It is difficult to obtain precise data
about the number of Palestinians who are hurt in demonstrations
against the fence, because many of the wounded are treated on the
spot and not taken to a hospital. However, in Bilin alone, with a
population of a little more than 1,500, about 150 residents have
been wounded in demonstrations during the past three months.
According to partial figures from the human rights organization
B'Tselem, seven Palestinians were killed in events along the fence
in the Jerusalem and Modi'in areas last year. Another 180
Palestinians sustained wounds of varying degrees of severity,
including at least 16 who were hit by live bullets.

Just a month ago, at the beginning of May, IDF soldiers killed two
youths in Beit Lakia more than a kilometer away from the route of
the fence. Attorney Shlomo Laker has the names of at least 30
Palestinians who sustained wounds in recent months severe
enough to enable claims for damages to be filed. It is difficult to
escape the impression that the IDF is using an iron fist in these
demonstrations.

That impression is reinforced if we take into account that in the
hundreds of demonstrations held since the protests against the
separation fence began about two years ago, in the Qalqilyah area,
the demonstrators have never resorted to firearms.

Justifying force

It is clear that the army's orders are to use crowd dispersal methods.
In March of this year, for example, a company commander from an
Armored Corps battalion was removed for not using such means
against Palestinians who charged the fence in the Boudrus area and
knocked down about 100 yards of it. The officer, Lieutenant M.,
told his superiors that he did not use the means at his disposal
because there were women and children among the demonstrators
and he was afraid he might cause them injury.

The chief of Central Command decided to oust the officer. "We
expect an officer to prevent the destruction of property and we not
expect him to say: We will concede the fence and move back," the
spokeswoman of Central Command stated. "He should have been
more aggressive and made use of the means that were given him."

Lieutenant Colonel Tzachi Segev, commander of the 25th Battalion
of the Armored Corps, became a television star against his will.
Almost every week, he commands the force that is responsible for
dispersing the demonstrations at Bilin. The cameras of the Arab
television networks, not to mention the cameras of Anarchists
Against the Fence, document his somewhat childlike features,
incongruous beneath the helmet in which he issues orders to his
soldiers. He was born in Givatayim, reads Haaretz and even
"understands the Palestinians at the personal level" in terms of their
anger at the loss of their lands. To reduce friction with the
Palestinians, he even ordered a halt to the work on the fence on
Friday, to prevent the possibility that the demonstrators would
approach the construction equipment. The result is that on the past
few Fridays, the demonstrations have been taking place opposite a
route of earth, without a fence and without construction equipment:
solely against a symbol.

However, Segev has no hesitations about the assignment he has
been charged with. "The state has the right to protect itself with the
help of a fence, even if that right harms these people," he says. "In
general," Segev explains, he gives the order to use riot dispersal
means after the Palestinians start to throw stones, because "stones
can kill." His definition of violence in Palestinian demonstrations -
disturbances, he calls them - is quite broad. Soldiers being pushed
is also considered violence that justifies the use of stun grenades or
gas bombs. So is the fact that the demonstrators get close to the
fence route or even cross the imaginary line the army demarcates
for them at the start of every demonstration.

From Segev's point of view, activity against a village that
demonstrates against the fence does not end with the dispersal of
the demonstrators and the stone throwers. "If no terrorist activity
and no interference with the fence works come out of the village,
we do not interfere with it," Segev says. "If they interfere with the
fence, we harass it in its daily routine."

What form does that harassment take?

"Maybe harassment is not a good word. The stronger the activity
against the fence, the stronger our operations will be. We reserve
the right to enter the village at any hour ... Sometimes there is no
escaping collective punishment, even if it has a negative impact.
Collective punishment is closure, prohibiting people from entering a
certain village, blocking the Bilin-Safa road [referring to the
neighboring village] as a lever of pressure if the village does not
behave properly."

But there were also cases in which the organizers of the
demonstrations fought against the stone-throwers and removed
them from the scene. What message are you sending the
Palestinians who prevented stone-throwing at soldiers? That they
are stupid?

"It is true that were such cases, and the question of collective
punishment is a difficult issue. But the punishment is not
something abstract. It is meant to say: Guys, we have means that
can hurt you." ("Closure is not collective punishment, it is an
operational activity," Colonel Yoni Gedj, the brigade commander,
will say afterward, correcting him.)

Like all the IDF commanders in the sector, Segev believes that
there is one major guilty party in the demonstrations: the Israelis.
The Israelis "bring out the Palestinians" to the demonstrations and
are the "main engine" for them. Where there are no Israelis, there
are no demonstrations. Worse, Segev and other senior officers in
the sector explain, the Israelis make the soldiers' work very hard.
They allow themselves to get very close to the soldiers, so that
Palestinians and soldiers find themselves in very close quarters,
"and the moment you have a Palestinian next to a soldier, there is
danger." It is also the Israelis who draw the soldiers to the side and
talk to them, thereby allowing the Palestinians to throw stones.

From the army's perspective, there is a clear difference between the
attitude toward the Israelis and the attitude toward the Palestinians.
"You have to differentiate between Israelis and Palestinians," Segev
told his unit commanders in a briefing two weeks ago on Friday.
"Where there are Israelis, you don't fire rubber [coated bullets]."

The demonstration starts to move out of the village. We are
standing on the hill where the dusty route of the fence - an exposed
strip of sun-baked land, the trees that once stood here having been
uprooted. At first it looks like there are only Palestinians, that the
army and the police succeeded in stopping the Israelis at the Ni'lin
checkpoint next to Modi'in Ilit. Then the observation post informs
Segev that there are "20 Israelis" among the demonstrators. "Back
to the original plan," Segev shouts.

The demonstration two weeks ago was held in almost exemplary
order. The demonstrators - about 50 or 60 Palestinians and 20 or so
Israelis - got to a distance of a few hundred meters from the fence
route and were stopped by the army. They put on a weird display of
hangman's ropes attached to people wearing white robes and
carrying posters stating "peace," "the lands" and the like, and then
turned back in the direction of the village. The soldiers stood on the
road for a few more minutes.

"Go back, there is nothing for you to do here, you are just inviting
the stone throwers," the retreating demonstrators called to the
soldiers. "I don't want a situation in which it looks like they are on
our tail," Segev tells me, explaining why the soldiers are waiting.
He then gives the withdrawal order and even though a few stones
hit the soldiers, he orders restraint and the demonstration ends
without a clash. An unusual event, the soldiers tell me; an unusual
event, the Palestinians tell me.

The quiet was an achievement of the Bilin popular committee.
From the hill, the committee members could be seen running after
the youngsters who had hidden beneath olive trees, stones in hand,
and taking them back to the village. In some cases this involved
fistfights. Not all the youngsters were willing to pass up the
opportunity.

"We are not army officers and we have no authority over people,"
says committee member Mahmoud Hatib. "We can't make them
go back to the village, we can only persuade." A few days earlier,
when I visited the village, Hatib explained the principles that guide
their demonstrations. There must be no stone-throwing, and this
rule is generally observed. But after the demonstration ends, or
from the moment the army starts to fire gas or rubber, and
especially if the army enters the village, the organizers have no way
to control the stone-throwers. And stones are thrown, as the events
of last Friday showed.

The demonstrations in Bilin began in February of this year, when
work started on the fence there. The residents of Bilin have about
4,000 dunams (1,000 acres) of farmland; according to the
calculations of the village committee, 2,300 dunams will remain on
the other side of the fence. (The army says that 1,700 dunams will
be on the Israeli side of the fence, or nearly half the village lands.)
The Israelis started to turn up almost from the outset.

A group of about 40 or 50 Israelis who are in constant contact with
the villagers is ready to go there even in the middle of the night on
the twisting, bumpy road that passes through Palestinian villages in
order to stand up against the soldiers who are entering the village.
In the home of Abdullah Abu Rahma, one of the committee
leaders, I found Laser sleeping off the night. Another Israeli also
suddenly showed up, having got a lift from Beit Lakia. A group of
Israelis standing in the center of the village and chatting in Hebrew
is a totally routine sight. "There were arguments in the village about
the way the Israeli women dress, because we are a Muslim village,"
Hatib notes. "But everyone says the Israelis are good."

Both Hatib and Abu Rahma vehemently deny that the Israelis are
behind the demonstrations, as the IDF is convinced. Yonatan
Pollack and Einat Podhorny, two of the Israelis who do a lot of
traveling between Tel Aviv and Bilin, also say that such claims are
preposterous. The Palestinians tell us when and what activity they
are planning and invite us to come, they say, but we are never the
initiators. However, both the Palestinians and the Israelis concede
that the very knowledge that Israelis will be present at a
demonstration makes it easier for the Palestinians to decide to
confront the soldiers, as it is likely that the troops will use less force
when they see Israelis among the demonstrators.

The actions of the Bilin committee tend toward performance art.
Along with the weekly demonstration on Friday, the members of
the popular committee like to diversify. They might lash themselves
to olive trees or get into barrels or hold a march of children - this
week a demonstration by disabled people was planned. Last week
they even distributed flyers, in Hebrew, to soldiers who arrived to
evacuate them from the fence route.

"Soldier, wait a minute before you cock your weapon," it read. "You
and your friends are on our land. If you had come as guests we
would show you the trees that our grandmothers [sic] planted here
... But you were sent here as the representatives of an occupying
army and state ... That is why we are demonstrating here, without
weapons, in the face of all your arms."

"It is a revolution," says a Palestinian source. "In the past, no
Palestinian would have dared to address the soldiers in this direct
way."

Mysterious stone-throwers
The goal, Hatib explains, is to show the world the "right picture":
the Palestinians as the victims, Israel as the occupying army.
Therefore, from his point of view, there is no need to throw stones
at the soldiers, not even if they fire tear gas and rubber bullets.
Hatib is also very pleased that the Arab and Palestinian media have
dubbed the Bilin residents the "new Gandhis." That is very
honorable, in his eyes.

Do they merit that title? The army says that there is no
demonstration that ends without stones being thrown and that any
distinction between the nonviolent part of a demonstration and the
violent part, with the stones, is completely artificial. Hatib admits
that they are still very far from persuading all the village youngsters
not to throw stones, but also says that there have been
demonstrations without stones - and in general, he adds, the army
has an interest in heating up the atmosphere.

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An example of the deliberate escalation of the situation, the
Palestinians say, is a demonstration that was held in Bilin on April
28, the demonstration of the mistarvim (army undercover units who
are disguised as Arabs). Despite the large number of participants,
the organizers were able to uphold the decision to have a nonviolent
demonstration, without stones. "Suddenly I saw six or seven people
whom I don't know throwing stones," Hatib relates. "I ran over to
them and asked them who they were and why they were throwing
stones despite the decision that the demonstration would be
nonviolent. One of them replied, in good Arabic, that he was from
Safa and that they had come to help us. I told him to go throw
stones in Safa, not here."

It was only afterward, when one of the stone-throwers pulled out a
pistol and fired in the air, that Hatib realized the group were
mistarvim. For him, that is proof that the army wanted to heat
things up so it could break up the demonstration with the use of
force.

The Maccabim Brogade commander, Colonel Gedj, admits that the
mistarvim - from the Masada unit of the Prisons Service - did
indeed throw stones, but firmly denies that they were the first to do
so. "They joined other Palestinians who were throwing stones. The
Palestinians' allegations are nonsense. I investigated and I am 100
percent convinced of that."

However, a judge in the Judea Military Court, Major Yair Tirosh,
who heard a request to remand two Bilin residents in custody - they
were accused of attacking one of the undercover men - wrote in his
judgment: "There is no testimony by so much as one soldier that
stones were thrown at him."

(In his decision to release the two on bail, the deputy president of
the Military Appeals Court, Lieutenant Colonel Yoram Haniel,
noted that it is very doubtful that the mistarvim had the authority to
operate in the demonstration, as their authority is confined to prison
facilities.)

Role of the victim

"Stones entered the lives of the Palestinians in the first intifada and
it is hard to remove them from our culture," says Ahed Murad,
from the village of Boudrus, which lies west of Bilin, smack on the
Green Line. Boudrus is an example of a successful struggle, and
this may be why Bilin is trying to emulate the events there.
According to the original route of the fence, Murad explains, 1,200
dunams of the village's land would have remained on the Israeli
side of the fence. After the demonstrations, which began in
December 2003, the route was changed and now only 100 dunams
will remain on the other side. Boudrus was the first place where
Israelis became a permanent element in the demonstrations.

"Our popular committee decided not to use stones, because we
needed the help of the international volunteers and the Israelis, and
we knew that if we used stones we would not be able to get the
help," Murad says. "We wanted to get to the bulldozers to stop the
work and we knew that if we threw stones we would not be able to
get to them."

In Murad's view, stones are not a violent measure, but "I don't
believe in that. If the goal is to hurt soldiers, you can do that better
by shooting. But if the message is that you do not accept the
occupation, I don't think stone-throwing gets that message across.
We are victims and we must not move out of the role of the
victims."

Murad is trying to market this formula in other places as well. In
the villages next to the fence the message of nonviolent
demonstrations is gaining support, he says. It is far more difficult in
the big cities. "People told us that they would achieve nothing that
way," Murad says. The Palestinian Authority is also not
cooperating. Nevertheless, he feels growing support for his ideas,
both on the part of local leaders and in prison. When he was being
held in administrative detention (arrest without trial), leaders from
all the factions told him that the "Boudrus method is good" and that
they had to reconsider their methods.

Mohammed Elias, the coordinator of the popular committees in the
West Bank on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, admits that the
road to getting nonviolent struggle into the Palestinian mainstream
is still a long one. "This is a new way, and the fact that in this form
of struggle there are no pictures of shaheeds [martyrs] on the walls
weakens support for it," he explains in his Ramallah office. "We are
a sentimental people and the powerful slogans about blood and fire
grab the heart more." In addition, even if the direction is that of
Gandhi, it can only be attained gradually. "If you see the soldiers
using tear gas, it is difficult to persuade the young people to sit on
the ground, sing and not react."

Nevertheless, Elias is convinced that this is the direction in which
the Palestinians are heading. He himself believed in the armed
struggle and spent many years in prison, but now he has changed
his mind and believes that the Palestinian public will follow suit.

"Once everyone supported the armed struggle, but now there is
great weariness of it." The presence of the Israelis in the
demonstrations has a large influence in changing people's opinions.
"There is an Arabic proverb: You can forget those you laughed
with, but you cannot forget those you cried with," he says. People
will not forget the Israelis who were wounded alongside them in the
demonstrations.

That too is not a simple process. Elias tells about a demonstration
in Qalqilyah in which the majority of the demonstrators were
Israelis. During the demonstration a prayer service was held and the
cleric who conducted it delivered a sermon against the Jews. "I
went over to him and asked him, `How can you talk like that? didn't
you notice that half the people here are Israelis?' He replied, `I
meant the other Israelis.'"

Murad notes that before the Israelis started to show up for the
demonstrations, many in Boudrus knew Jews only as uniformed
soldiers. "Now even the children do not shout slogans against the
Jews, only against the occupation." An Israeli demonstrator relates
that she heard a Palestinian say proudly that "the Israelis" -
meaning the demonstrators - had protected them from "the Jews,"
meaning the soldiers.

"Clearly the fact that we face danger together influences the
Palestinians' level of trust in us," says Einat Podhorny from
Ta'ayush, an Israeli-Palestinian cooperative organization, and an
activist against the fence.

The absurd thing is that the demonstration last Friday, in which
Michael Schwarzman lost an eye, was proof of the growing
popularity of the struggle in the style of Boudrus and Bilin. True,
Hassan Yusuf from Hamas is not eager to adopt nonviolent
struggle as the only path. "We have tried everything, and we will try
this way too," he says. "If the occupation leaves peacefully, we are
in favor of measures of peace, but it does not seem that this is what
the occupation wants." Yet the very fact that Yusuf, and with him
representatives of all the parties - including the Popular Front,
which had opposed joint actions with Israelis - took part in the
demonstration alongside the Israeli demonstrators proves that the
Palestinian politicians feel it is worth their while to ride this wave,
that the wave is popular.

Who wins?

These subtleties make no impression on the IDF. "For a month and
a half we have encountered a daily routine of disturbances," Colonel
Gedj says. "Soldiers find themselves in mortal danger, the
machinery is damaged, the workers are attacked. This is delaying
the work and causing the loss of a great deal of money. It is a
situation that we cannot accept."

Would it not be preferable to allow the Palestinians to demonstrate
instead of confronting them?

"All the demonstrations are illegal and we are therefore obliged to
disperse them. Palestinian youth are exploiting the demonstrations
to throw stones and attack IDF soldiers. The moment the
demonstrators push soldiers or cross a certain line, that makes the
demonstration violent. I will also not lend a hand to exposing my
soldiers to cries of `Nazi' and `traitor.' But we use the means we
have in a graduated way. There is no situation in which we burst
out at the demonstrators."

What is the role of the Israelis in the demonstrations?

"During the whole week nothing happens, and at the end of the
week, when the Israelis arrive, there are disturbances of hundreds
of people. The connection is simple. It is apparently the Israelis who
whip up the passions. I can't say that with certainty, but where
there are no Israelis it doesn't happen."

And the Israeli presence upsets the army?

"It makes the event a great deal longer and obliges us to invest far
greater forces. The Israelis remain on the road and the Palestinians
go out, but it's hard for me to say whether this presence aggravates
the confrontations or weakens them."

What the Palestinians say is that the very presence of Israelis in the
demonstrations is the best medicine against suicide bombers in the
future, that their presence lessens the hatred.

"That is a direction that makes one think, but I am an army man
and my task is to see to that the mission is carried out, and my
mission is to enable the construction of the fence."

A senior officer in Central Command takes a somewhat different
view. He admits that the demonstrations along the fence are the
major points of friction between the IDF and the Palestinians at this
time. But "this is a classic type of disturbance and the army has no
problem dealing with it. We only have to internalize the transition
from fighting against armed individuals to coping with disturbances.
It reminds me of the first intifada, and in the first intifada we were
victorious at the operative level without any doubt. Most of the
wanted individuals were liquidated or caught - it was an
extraordinary success. But in these struggles it is very difficult to
determine who wins in the judgement of history."

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