‘Our goal is to have our freedom': Interview with Iyad Burnat on popular resistance in Bil’in

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Iyad Burnat speaking to Israeli soldiers in Bil'in (Photo: Haitham Katib)

Iyad Burnat speaking to Israeli soldiers in Bil’in (Photo: Haitham Katib)

The following is an interview of Iyad Burnat, Chair of Popular Committee of Bil’in, conducted by Douglas Kerr of Interfaith Peace Builders, Ohio. The original interview was done in Cleveland, Ohio December 2012 and was updated and edited, June 2014, in Bil’in, West Bank.  

KERR: How did the non-violent popular resistance to the Occupation first start in Bil’in?

BURNAT:  It is now 9 years, in December, 2004, since we started non-violent resistance, when the Israeli bulldozers started to destroy the land, the olive trees of the farmers.  All of the people go outside without any organizing to try to stop the bulldozers from destroying their land. Bil’in is a small village.1900 people live in Bil’in. The land of Bil’in is 4000 dunams (almost 1000 acres). The Israeli government confiscated 2,300 dunams from this land. 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 non-violent struggle in Bil’in when we saw these bulldozers destroying the olive trees, and we continued. During this time, between December and February, 2005, there was a demonstration every day. 

So we organized ourselves and we formed the Popular Committee in the village to lead these people, 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. You have 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 9 years now we have weekly demonstrations in Bil’in until now, and the people continue. Every week we have an international solidarity movement and Israeli activists who come and participate with us in our actions. 

KERR: What are the goals of this popular resistance?

BURNAT:  From the beginning, we have a simple people in the village, farmers. The goal is to have their land, to have their life, because when you destroy the land of the farmer, you will be without 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 against the Wall (AKA “the Separation Barrier”, partly a high concrete wall and partly an electrified razor wire fence). The other goal is that we are against the Wall. You do not want to see the Wall if we 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 are 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, and also one of our goals, for all the people in the world is that this is not a security wall, which Israel says. This is to confiscate more land, to build more settlements, to steal the water of the Palestinians, and to put the Palestinians together in jail. So this is our goal to start with, and the people start to think more about this Wall, why they built this wall. It is not just the land and the olive trees. The goal at the start got bigger, for people 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?

BURNAT:  Look, this is important! The important thing in non-violent 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 continue, every week. The Popular Committee and the people who lead the actions and demonstrations were teaching the people how to continue. They meet with the people, to have a good connection between them and the people every week. Because we want the people to continue every week, every Friday. To continue is the important thing to have your success. The people have hope all the time, every week to have hope, to 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 it (freedom) next week. This is how the people are thinking and why they are working.

Teargas canisters raining down on Bil'in demonstrators. (Photo: Hamde Abu Rahmah)

Teargas canisters raining down on Bil’in demonstrators. (Photo: Hamde Abu Rahmah)

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

BURNAT:  The demonstrations were 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 photo for the media. We did not want to have the same thing 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 join us, to participate, to be more in the media. 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 and we decided what we wanted to do, and we were looking at the situation in the area, in Palestine and outside, and make a message about that, so we can let more people know about the struggle in Bil’in and the goal of the Wall and the occupation, because most 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 a new photo for the media. We invited the media to come and see what we are going to do, and all the media came, the international media, the Israeli media, and the Palestinian media. All the media published that event. That is how it started. After this, the media called us every time and asked what we are going to do. Now they call us, not us call 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 a small group of people. We didn’t publicize them on the Internet or in the media beforehand. We just called the media. “We have a new thing in this area at 6 in the morning, you can come and see what’s new”. It was the best thing to push the media to come and see what we are going to do.

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

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. It is not in the movie [5 Broken Cameras], but we put ourselves in barrels, and we tied ourselves to the olive trees. Before this, there was a decision from the [Israeli] court to take all the olive trees from that area. What can we do? 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 on U-Tube 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.

"Avatar" characters in Bil'in demonstration. (Photo via Bilin-Village.org)

“Avatar” characters in Bil’in demonstration. (Photo via Bilin-Village.org)

 After one year, the [Israeli] 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 6 years, from 2006 to 2012, before they have a decision from the [Israeli Supreme Court] to demolish the Wall. But during this time we were building other rooms 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 settlements. They built one part, but there were still 2 parts, and these 2 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 5th 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, and it took more than 3 years to sell the houses that they didn’t build, and they have to give back the money to the people who bought these houses, so it was a big success against this company. 

The other thing is the room. We built it, we call it the “Peace Center”. We were there 24 hours, sleeping, staying there, inviting the people there, our meetings changed to be there, with internationals, with Israeli peace activists. We changed the life of people to the other side of Bil’in. Sometimes, in World Cup football, we watched it there. All the time, this 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 long period? 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 (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, they started to ask why are we scared? This is our right! This came by the non-violent way. Because they saw all the people participate, women, men, the children, everybody. You have all the media there, the internationals. This kept the people to continue, success after success. 

KERR: So are there some people who want to use more violent confrontation with the Israeli soldiers? 

BURNAT:  Yes. But it is not from our side. It is from the Israeli side. Soldiers against soldiers, after a while. The Israeli army are used to use violence. They did not know how to deal with these non-violent demonstrations. They cannot use a plane or rockets against us. They used the violence because they did not know how to deal with these non-violent 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 at Nil’in, Nabi-Saleh, Budrus, and all the areas the areas where they used Special Forces to change the demonstrations to violence. Always the violence came from the Israeli’s. Also, when we led the popular committees and the grass-roots resistance, you are dealing with many ideas. They are not a group of soldiers, you tell him go from this way and they go from 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, it 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 told you, 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. But after we started in Bil’in, we built a steering committee. Before it was contacts between the leaders, and now we have the steering committee with people from each place; we have 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 4 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 going to do to defeat you. And what you 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 (PA)?

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 is 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 non-violent popular resistance in Palestine?

BURNAT: The future. To have non-violent resistance is not our goal. It is not our goal to be in resistance, non-violent or violent. Our goal is to have our freedom. The way that we want to be, to have this freedom, is through the global intifada, the global non-violent intifada. Because you deal with a strong country, supported from the strongest country in the world. So it has to be global intifada, not a Palestinian intifada. In Palestine, we hope to have these actions in all areas of West Bank and Gaza. We work for that, and it 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 in Qalandia [checkpoint], in Offer [prison], in other places. What they built, they have to continue. We have 20 places now in Palestine, that every week are doing actions. We also have many demonstrations that they 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. By 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 the non-violent struggle? Why the people, after suffering a lot of violence from the Israeli soldiers, from the occupation and suffering the violence, they do non-violent actions? If you ask many people outside, they resent this. If they lived under the occupation, they would be more violent. A lot of people told me that, 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 power than violence is.

The Israeli government is standing on three strong legs. And these legs, you cannot break them just by the non-violent 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 leg, it has a very strong influence in Israel. This you can weaken it by the BDS, by the 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 this way, 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 30 or 50 areas, and they need in one area 200 soldiers, in 50 areas they need 10,000 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 $50,000 a week at demonstrations. And you don’t lose a lot, not the same as other ways. This nonviolent way you can have all the people participate with you, children, women, everybody. But in other way, 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, ask many questions, and change their minds when they see the situation.

KERR: Thank you very much for this interview and for teaching us so much! 

Background Summary of Popular Resistance in Bil’in 

by R.H. Tracy, Interfaith Peace Builders, Ohio

Bil’in is a small, peaceful Palestinian village seven 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 approximately 4000 dunams (990 acres) in size.

The residents of Bil’in depend on agriculture as their main source of income. Close to 60% of Bil’in’s land has been annexed for Israeli settlements and the construction of Israel’s Separation Barrier. More than 1,000 olive trees have been destroyed in the process.

Bil’in and its residents have resisted the confiscation of their land time and again. In the early 1980’s, the Matityahu settlement was built on a portion of Bil’in’s land and in the 1990’s more land was confiscated for the Kiryat Sefer settlement. In 2000, yet another settlement (Matityahu East) was built on village land. In April 2004, Israel began construction of its illegal Separation Barrier on the western side of the village, expropriating about 2300 dunums (570 acres) of Bil’in’s remaining land. Residents have continued to withstand 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.

Bil’in’s residents, along with 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. 

In the meantime in an attempt to discourage participation and to reduce their resistance to the occupation, the IDF toughened its oppression by systematically arresting members of Bil’in’s Popular Committee in charge of organizing the non-violent 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,” the Israeli occupation’s legal system found him guilty of “incitement” and “illegal protest.” He was held for 16 months for organizing nonviolent demonstrations.

Since 2005, 23 unarmed demonstrators, 12 of whom were children, have been killed in demonstrations throughout the occupied West Bank. Others have been severely wounded by “crowd dispersal” techniques used by the IDF, such as rubber coated metal bullets, toxic tear gas and sound bombs. In April 2009, Bassem Abu Rahmah was killed at the Bil’in demonstration by a high velocity tear gas canister fired by the IDF, directly hitting his chest. Then unbelievably, on New Year’s Eve 2010, Bassem’s younger sister, Jawaher Abu Rahmah, died from inhaling the highly potent form of U.S – made tear gas used by the IDF during the regular Friday demonstration.

In June of 2011, in accordance with the 2007 Israeli Supreme Court decision, the Separation Barrier was finally demolished but re-routed and 1200 dunams (300 acres) were returned to the village.  The Wall and settlement projects still occupy 1100 dunams (270acres) of Bil’in’s land. 

Bil’in’s residents continue to steadfastly demonstrate each Friday. They are the subjects of the film Five Broken Cameras, the 2013 Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary and awardee at numerous international film festivals. It was filmed and narrated by Emad Burnat, brother of Iyad Burnat.

For further information, please go to:

Friends of Freedom and Justice Official Website: http://www.bilin-ffj.org/

Bil’in Protester Dies After Exposure to Tear Gas Shot by IDF. By Amira Hass and Anshel Pfeffer. http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/bil-in-protester-dies-after-exposure-to-tear-gas-shot-by-idf-1.334627

Demonstrators ‘return’ tear gas canisters to US ambassador’s home by Joseph Dana, 1/1/2011 http://mondoweiss.net/2011/01/demonstrators-‘return’-tear-gas-canisters-to-us-ambassador’s-home.htm

Palestinian Nonviolent Resistance:5 Broken Cameras, American Friends Service Committee, 6 /18/14 http://www.afsc.org/sites/afsc.civicactions.net/files/documents/5_Broken_Cameras_page2.pdf

About Douglas Kerr

Douglas Kerr was born, and has lived in, the Middle East and now resides Cleveland, OH. He is active in Interfaith Peace Builders, Cleveland Peace Action, and Churches for Middle East Peace.

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One Response

  1. Walid
    June 28, 2014, 4:34 am

    Iyad mentioned having helped put Heftsiba and the shyster Boaz Yona out of business; I would have liked to know a bit more on what became of the other shyster that was also in on the theft of Bil’in lands, Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev and his 2 companies, Green Park and Green Mount that had been formed in Montreal to develop a project on stolen Bil’in land. The people of Bil’in had sued in Quebec’s Superior Court but after 3 or 4 year delay, the court ruled it had no jurisdiction over something happening in another country and for the people of Bil’in to seek justice in Israel since it had control over the area in question. Anyway, the 2 companies were shell companies with no assets and having as an address something like a dry cleaner’s shop in Montreal. The Norwegian Sovereign Fund divested $1 million from Leviev’s Africa-Israel Financial Corp that controlled the 2 companies in question because of where they had been building..

    What became of what Green Mountain and Green park had been building?

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