Last Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio, about 50 people came to hear peacemaker Iyad Burnat, leader of the Popular Committee of Bil’in, whose inventive demonstrations are revered throughout the world (if unknown in the U.S.). I had the added joy of joining Mr. Burnat and seven others for dinner beforehand. I expected to meet a “hero,” but was awed by much more.
Here are some of Iyad Burnat’s words, as I jotted them over dinner:
About the U.N. vote on observer status for Palestine, Iyad responded quietly:
“We don’t care: we need change on the ground. We are a simple people, farmers, who need freedom. We don’t want to see soldiers in the night, our children frightened. We want peace. Peace is love, justice, equality, so we can all live together. It’s not that big a problem: so we can live together. Every week we have a demonstration so we can achieve that harmony. The business of political people is always to stop that progress.”
“I was good in school and hoped to be a doctor, but school stopped when I was in prison for two years.”
“All my life since, I am working with Resistance, the Popular Committee, which is 90 years old.”
“My father is a farmer: he lost his land: he was selling olive oil, but now has to buy it.”
Pointing out the lovely scarf his wife had embroidered, Iyad told us of the Bil’in women’s collective in which she creates such works of art. At the meeting, we saw other brilliant handicrafts. Many in the audience donated money for them. One friend asked about a Palestinian painting and whether he’d seen it; Iyad responded, “We can’t go even 20 kilometers away. The sea is only 35 km away and our family can’t go there.”
Asked about his family, Iyad showed us pictures of his wife, four children, and his mother. We inquired how they are getting on without him; Iyad replied simply, “They miss me.”
At his lecture:
“Since the 1936 Intifada against British Occupation, we have been working peacefully for freedom. We don’t know the meaning of ‘freedom.’ We know it’s the most beautiful thing in the world, but we don’t know how it feels.”
“I was 15 years old when all the youth went peacefully into the streets in the First Intifada. We students in school were non-violent…. I was 17 in 1992 when the Israeli Army [Burnat never says ‘IDF’] arrested me for many things I didn’t do, including throwing stones. I was forced to sign a confession, but didn’t know what was in it, because it was in Hebrew….
“I signed because I’d been held in a bad situation. The Israeli Army arrested me in the middle of the night, telling my father that ‘we only want him for five minutes.’ It was very cold in February, 1992. They took all my clothes and put me outside all night without my clothes….
“After 21 days when I go to military court, I found out that I had confessed to many crimes I hadn’t known I’d done. The judge convicted me and sentenced me to two years in prison. I was imprisoned in the desert, with many children in the same bad situation.”
Burnat so understated his torture by the IDF—never using the word–that some of the audience didn’t understand at first. But no matter: during questions, he explained the ill-treatment Israel meted out to children during the First Intifada: “No food, shower, sleeping. Then, hours in an interrogation room. I knew no one can stay alive in this situation, so I have to sign.”
Burnat reminded us that he served “just two years,” compared to others who have languished in prison for 39. He pointed out that every family has people imprisoned, injured, and killed by the Army, then announced gravely, that “my brother has only just been released after nine years in jail.”
About the Apartheid Wall: “Israel justifies everything it takes from us, especially the confiscated land, for security reason. The West Bank is like a jail, as is Gaza. The media looks only at what happens [how Palestinians react] after Israel attacks by tanks [without reporting the Israeli aggression].”
“The village of Bil’in is 1900 people in 4000 dunams of land. Sixty percent, 2300 dunams, was confiscated in 2004 for the Apartheid Wall, destroying the olive groves.
“The olive tree is the symbol of the Palestinian people. The trees were 300 to 5000 years old. Israel bulldozing them made the farmers very angry. Women, children, men, all are farmers. All then try to stop the bulldozers….Some olive trees are uprooted and re-planted in illegal Israeli settlements.”
“The land between the Red [the Wall’s path] and Green Line is full of settlements, all built after the Oslo Agreement. The biggest has 50,000 people [overwhelming by 25 times the actual owners, the population of tiny Bil’in]. Israelis didn’t care for International Law: Oslo required that Israel stop building settlements, but Israel didn’t care for that.”
“From December, 2004, to February, 2005, we had demonstrations every day, morning and evening. Every day more people were arrested. Therefore we built the Popular Committee, which gathers every week on Friday for eight years, International Solidarity and Israeli participants with us.”
“We created many ideas for non-violent resistance.” The moving film Burnat brought showed volunteers—Palestinians, internationals, and Israelis (including a well-known Israeli actor]–wearing steel drums, chaining themselves to metal bars on the ground, locking themselves inside cages—all to slow construction of the Wall. But “Violence is used against all” by the Israeli military. “The Israeli Army [guarding the Wall] are always violent,” “ they didn’t like our peaceful demonstrations. The Army sent special forces to participate in and change our demonstration to violent, throwing stones. So, everyone knew that when anyone throws stones, they’re not from Bil’in and we tell them ‘No.’ One time they take out guns and arrest us. That’s how they want to break us.”
“They [Army] use rockets to attack, but they call it ‘teargas.’ They’ve killed 40 people,” including “in 2009, Bassem Abu Rahme” [who died after being shot by a new kind of teargas canister]. It was a long-range weapon, “very fast, very heavy, fired up-close, directly at Bassem…That’s illegal under International Law.”
Burnat spoke of others grievously wounded, including those still in comas. “The Israeli Army targets photographers, not people holding rocks or rockets, but cameras. Cameras scare them.” Iyad cited American Tristan Anderson, shot in the face in nearby Ni’lin [not in the heat of any ‘battle’] but solely because he photographed as a peaceful demonstration dispersed.
However, Bil’in’s efforts have yielded a small respite: “In December, 2007, the same court that said that the Wall is justified for “security” ordered Israel to move it 500 meters because it is not for security.”
Burnat was patient with the lack of awareness of his American audience. One questioner asked his opinion of Palestinians, including the PLO, who resort to violence. Others in the audience jumped in to correct the record, particularly the PLO’s commitment to peaceful solutions. Iyad Burnat’s grace, though, in re-framing questions imaged for us a great spirit who’s endured far more than mis-representations. “What is ‘violence?’” he asked. When the person answered that Hamas had first attacked Israel, Burnat calmly countered, “Violence comes from Occupation. Under International Law, Palestinians and everyone else have the right to resist. But we [in Bil’in and the West Bank] don’t choose violence, because the Israelis like violence.”
Several in the audience discussed the censorship in the U.S. of news from Palestine and what we can do about it. Then the audience asked Burnat what else we can do to help. He informed us sadly, “Palestinians think Americans are part of the Occupation, because $3 billion every year to the Israeli Army to buy weapons; some weapons are made in the U.S. What you can do: everything. BDS. Go in the streets to stop the funding, because our kids are killed by your money. Mr. Obama said, ‘Make me do it.’”
Afterward, many listeners lingered to talk to Burnat. I wondered whether hearing about Burnat’s ill-treatment in prison would have helped people understand Palestinians’ plight, but I hesitated to bring it up. As we took pictures, I asked whether he’d have been willing to describe it. “No,” he replied. “It’s too painful. I try to forget.”
Iyad Burnat’s self-effacing refusal to exploit his own suffering recalls John Steinbeck’s masterpiece In Dubious Battle, about rallying workers against corporate injustice. The novel compares a well-intentioned but manipulative operative, Mac–whose spiel uses any hurt to advance the cause–with young Jim Nolan’s “genius” for leading through dedication to people, as well as to principle. The book’s contrast between hack and visionary reminds me how we can see Bil’in, Palestine,’s vision of peace through Iyad Burnat’s patient strength–light yet deep, funny yet committed. By reinventing protest theater, Burnat and Bil’in transform Resistance into art and change.
Meanwhile, Iyad Burnat speaks in Ohio again tonight:
Palestinian Anti-Occupation Activist Visits Cleveland
Iyad Burnat, leader of a West Bank Popular Non-violent Resistance Movement, to visit Cleveland State University
Date: December 3, 2012
Location: CSU Student Center, Room 315, East 21st St. and Euclid Ave., Downtown
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Iyad Burnat, a leader of a Palestinian village’s popular non-violent protest movement (the Bil’in Popular Committee) against Israeli occupation and illegal land claims and settlement, will visit CSU to “tell the stories of Bil’in and life under the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank, accompanied by photos and video”. Burnat’s life and leadership and the Popular Committee’s non-violent campaign against Israel’s West Bank Separation Wall and illegal land occupation are documented in the award-winning film “5 Broken Cameras,” produced by Emad Burnat (Iyad’s brother) and Israeli director Guy Davidi.
Light refreshments will be served. Details on parking and more information about the event and Iyad Burnat are available for download here as a PDF. This event is sponsored by the Cleveland State University Departments of Political Science, History, and Middle Eastern Studies.