Postcard From…Bi’lin

The ritual occurs every Friday in Bi’lin, occupied West Bank.
Palestinian protestors — community members and activists — gather around the mosque following midday prayers to march against the construction of the separation wall and the proliferation of Israeli settlements.

What made last week’s march different was the overwhelming presence of foreigners. The fourth Bi’lin International Conference on Popular Resistance, a three-day conference that I attended from April 22-24, was intended to build solidarity and support for the Palestinian nonviolent struggle. Conference participants included Palestinian political leaders and community members, delegations from South Africa and Italy, and European Parliament Vice President Luisa Morgantini. The closing activity was a larger-than-usual protest against the construction of a wall that will arbitrarily cut across large parts of the village, separating families from each other and villagers from their land.

The Friday protest marches are nonviolent, yet they always end the same way: Israeli security forces use teargas grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters. Many of the women and children fall back and eventually retreat to avoid being hit, and restive Palestinian youth respond by throwing rocks at soldiers. There are frequent casualties, and on the Palestinian side, the nonviolent protests sometimes end in severe injury or death.

The international solidarity march honored a fallen comrade of the popular nonviolent resistance movement — a young man named Bassem Abu Rahma. One week earlier, Bassem was hit with a tear gas canister at close range, directly in the chest. A few weeks before, the same type of canister critically injured U.S. citizen and nonviolent campaigner Tristan Anderson. He remains in a coma. Amid tear gas and loud warning sirens, Palestinian and international activists built a modest memorial at the site of Bassem’s tragic death.

Palestinian communities in the villages of Bi’lin, Ni’lin, Budrus, and others scattered throughout the West Bank are committed to nonviolent action to resist the construction of the separation wall, home evictions, and the creation of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. What will be interesting to watch is whether these growing local movements can coalesce to become a unified, Palestinian national movement. Strategic thinking that includes planning, strict nonviolent discipline and diverse, creatively sequenced tactics could minimize casualties to young people like Bassem, and create a real dilemma for the Israeli occupation.

In the meantime, the ritual continues every Friday in Bi’lin.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Vanessa Ortiz is the senior director for civic and field learning at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, DC.