Confronting the Oppressor with Humanity

Peaceful protesters get up-close and personal with Israeli soldiers

Story and photography by Ryan Rodrick Beiler

Mahmoud Al’aa Elddin spends most Friday afternoons in “dialogue” with the Israeli soldiers who invade his West Bank village of Al-Masara. Each week since 2006, Palestinian, international, and Israeli activists have attempted to march from Al-Masara to agricultural lands that will be cut off by the Israeli separation barrier if extended as planned. Armed only with a Palestinian flag, Al’aa Elddin faces a row of gun-toting, riot-shielded conscripts blocking the road.

Here, as with 85 percent of its route, the barrier would take more Palestinian land for Israeli settlements instead of separating the West Bank from Israel on the internationally recognized border, or Green Line. Both the barrier and the settlements are illegal under international law because Israel is building them on occupied Palestinian territory.

Many believe the barrier that is in place has stopped Palestinian suicide bombings, which ended in 2008. Between October 2000 and February 2008, these and other acts of violence killed 1,012 Israelis. During the same period Israelis killed 4,536 Palestinians. Most victims on both sides were noncombatant civilians. But even now, only two-thirds of the barrier’s planned route is complete. Large gaps, which could easily be infiltrated by would-be attackers, allow tens of thousands of unauthorized Palestinians to enter Jerusalem or Israel on a daily basis to find work. Even former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens told an Israeli newspaper, “It’s clear there is no connection between the wall and the cessation of attacks.”

“Some people think that this wall is just to protect the Israeli people for security,” says Al’aa Elddin. “But they don’t know at the same time this wall is dividing the land and separating families.”

To protest the barrier, several Palestinian villages started weekly demonstrations, including those documented in the films Budrus and the Oscar-nominated Five Broken Cameras. In these two cases, activism succeeded in moving the barrier closer to the Green Line, leaving more village land accessible for cultivation.

WEstbankMost of the organized protests are peaceful. But unaffiliated youth sometimes throw stones at the wall, jeeps, or soldiers. At the Al-Masara demonstration, there is almost never stone-throwing. “Peaceful resistance is important because there is no reason for the Israeli army to shoot,” says Al’aa Elddin. “And this will show who uses violence.”

The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has reported on the army’s systematic “dispersal of demonstrations using force, even when demonstrators were not violent in any way.” In the last decade, the military has killed 15 protesters and injured scores more through unlawful use of tear gas projectiles, rubber-coated steel bullets, and live ammunition.

“We don’t do Gandhi very well,” admits Israeli Major-General Amos Gilad, according to a leaked US State Department cable. The same document describes how the military will “be more assertive in how it deals with these demonstrations, even demonstrations that appear peaceful.”

While the army has used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the Al-Masara demonstration, most weeks the marchers get very up-close and personal with the soldiers blocking the road. The ensuing “dialogue” embodies the problem often ignored by would-be peacemakers who recommend reconciliation without acknowledging the power disparity between Palestinians and their military occupiers. Those with greater power have little motivation to risk genuine conversation, or to change anything as a result.

“Just put your guns on the ground and come to our side if you want peace,” Al’aa Elddin tells one soldier. “We will welcome you, and we will drink coffee. We will discuss it, and we will find a solution.”

“We just want to put some keys in their mind just to open it and to think more as a person,” says activist Moath Al Lahham of Bethlehem. “Sometimes they don’t want to speak, they just want to stand and block the road. Some of them said, ’I don’t like it, but this is an order. I want to leave, but I don’t have the chance.’ And some of them said these words like a machine: ’It’s our land. God promised. You as a Palestinian, you shouldn’t be here. It’s just for Jews.”

20120914-palestine-0282Though none of these activists are Christians, their actions often embody the kind of radical reign-of-God subversion that Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount. What some dismiss as passivism in Christ’s commands to turn the other cheek, offer the cloak as well as the coat, and go the second mile (Matthew 5:29-31), others interpret as confronting the oppressor with one’s humanity. Activists have even offered the soldiers cups of tea, bites of birthday cake, and plates of pasta. Each gesture asserts the dignity of the host, while heaping hot coals (Romans 12) on the heads of uninvited guests.
“Just put your guns on the ground and come to our side if you want peace,” Al’aa Elddin tells one soldier. “We will welcome you, and we will drink coffee. We will discuss it, and we will find a solution.”

When asked about his response to this invitation, the soldier says in unaccented English, “I didn’t understand him.” When reminded that Al’aa Elddin was speaking English, the soldier says, “I didn’t listen.”

But these activists know their main audience lies beyond the row of riot shields. Even if a few soldiers’ hearts and minds are opened, a just peace will only come through pressure on an Israeli society content with the status quo. “I think in this peaceful demonstration, the important and the first thing is to make a change in the thinking of many people around the world,” says Al’aa Elddin. “I have the hope and I have the power inside me to continue. But in the same time I don’t have power like the Israeli occupation. They have the power; they have all the guns. But for me, my weapons and my power are more and more the international people and the Israeli people who come and stand by my side.”

“Our problem is not with the Israeli people,” says Al’aa Elddin. “Israeli people come, and they participate with us in our demonstration. The problem is with the Israeli army and the settlers who occupy the land, build the settlements, and use violence against Palestinians.”

According to Israeli activist Sahar Vardi, her main role is “simply to show solidarity, to convey the message that Palestinians are not alone in resisting the occupation.”

Other Jewish activists express a religious motivation. “The most important teaching in the Torah is that God stands with the oppressed and that God demands that we stand with the oppressed,” said Rabbi Brant Rosen, an activist with the US group Jewish Voice for Peace, at one week’s protest. “For Jews, it is a profound challenge for us because we need to look inside ourselves and understand the ways that we have become oppressors ourselves.”

Solidarity activists also leverage their presence and privilege against unjust structures. “The cost of getting arrested for an Israeli activist is much smaller than for a Palestinian activist for the same action,” says Vardi, who once physically blocked soldiers attempting to arrest a Palestinian boy.

20120518-palestine-0424While Israelis live under civil law, Palestinians like Al’aa Elddin live under the military rule of occupation. “Palestinian residents have no vested freedom of protest,” reports B’Tselem. “Even nonviolent resistance and civil protest involving peaceful assembly are forbidden.”

Many Palestinian activists have been imprisoned under false accusations of violence or charges of organizing “illegal demonstrations.” Al’aa Elddin once spent a week in Israeli prison, charged with assaulting an Israeli officer. Despite video evidence proving his innocence, the military court ordered him to pay 3,000 shekels for his release—more than five months’ wages for the average Palestinian.

Yet despite such risks, Mahmoud Al’aa Elddin remains committed to nonviolent activism: “I think that peace will not come by using violence. Peace will come by the nonviolent way, because violence never brings peace or freedom to any people.”

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is a service worker with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Palestine and Israel.

One response to “Confronting the Oppressor with Humanity”

  1. Steve says:

    I was in Palestine in October of last year. Thought I knew something about nonviolence, I have a lot to learn.

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