Nonviolent movements nothing new in the Middle East

March 07, 2011|By Kimberly Katz

The Maryland Institute College of Art recently hosted the Baltimore premiere of an award-winning documentary, "Budrus." The screening was timely: Audience members could see connections to broader events now taking place across North Africa and the Middle East.

One thing they learned is that nonviolent resistance to oppression, of the kind now sweeping through the region, is not a new phenomenon in the Middle East.

Budrus is a Palestinian village in the Israeli-occupied West Bank that has demonstrated stirring examples of nonviolent resistance. The documentary tells the story of the villagers' struggle to liberate themselves and their olive groves from Israel's creeping, self-described security fence, which Palestinians call "the Wall" — a barrier variously made of chain link and barbed wire, electric fences, or tall cement slabs. Having lived under Israel's brutal occupation since 1967, as well as experiencing the ultimate failure of the 1987 Palestinian intifada (or uprising) to bring about an end to the occupation, the villagers take matters in their own hands by mounting a campaign of nonviolent resistance.

In the late 1980s, Palestinian youths used slingshots in street confrontations with Israeli soldiers in full riot gear while the Israeli army turned its military might on these "Children of the Stones," as Palestinian popular discourse came to describe them. The intifada led to the 1993 Oslo Agreement and a "peace process" that most credible analysts characterize as all process and no peace. The intervening years have witnessed a dramatic upsurge in illegal Israeli settlement-building in the occupied West Bank.

For Palestinians, the peace process has been marked by the loss of land and water resources, leading to an increasingly insecure economic situation, threats to their physical safety, and mass detentions and imprisonment. Meanwhile, Israelis also became increasingly insecure as Palestinians adopted violent means to protest and resist the injustices and excesses of the occupation. By 2003, the Israeli government had begun to erect the wall, largely on Palestinian land.

The villagers of Budrus, a farming hamlet located very close to the Green Line, vehemently objected to the expropriation of their farm lands and olive groves, the very source of their economic and physical livelihood. In an effort to halt the Wall's incursion, the people of Budrus turned to nonviolent means of protest, namely dozens of sustained demonstrations, which ultimately led to Israel's re-routing of the wall.

"Budrus" provides an intimate portrait of this nonviolent resistance, with its emphasis on silmiya (which we all learned from watching recent events means "peaceful" in Arabic), and the necessity of shifting tactics. For example, Israeli soldiers were willing to engage in violence against the protestors when it was just Palestinian men, but when Palestinian women, Israelis and internationals began to show up, participate and stay, along with journalists, Israel's government decided to end its aggression and re-route the wall closer to the Green Line.

People the world over seem to have gained a new perspective on Arabs and Muslims in light of the momentous current events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (not to mention Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco and Jordan), where the reaction of the powerful has usually been quick to strike out in violence or the threat of violence for the sake of maintaining power. Yet, the will of the people has often proven to be strong and fearless in the face of overwhelming power, whether it is Israeli forces undertaking the occupation of Palestinian lands; former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's thugs seeking to preserve their privileges by lashing out violently at their fellow citizens and at foreign journalists; or, most recently, Moammar Gadhafi's henchmen assaulting Libyans.

We could look across North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf today and assume that people have just had enough, but even a brief glance backward into the recent history of the region tells a different story. Egyptians, Tunisians, Jordanians and others have turned out in large numbers at various times to protest against injustices done to them in the name of stability, security, oil, greed, national interests and other terms that have come to have very little meaning beyond their rhetorical uses. We can look to the stories that brave filmmakers (www.justvision.org) and ordinary people, like those in the village of Budrus, are prepared to tell so that we can recognize that the world is full of people ready to make sacrifices for the safety of their children, the land they love and from which they make their living, and their future on the land that sustained their grandparents and great-grandparents. They seek to do this in an environment free from oppression and aggression — one that values liberty, dignity, human rights and political participation.

The United States may be the oldest democracy in the world, but we have a lot to learn from the struggles of others, not only on the streets of capital cities but in small villages as well.

Kimberly Katz is associate professor of Middle East history at Towson University. Her e-mail is kkatz@towson.edu.

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