Every March 30th since 1976, Palestinians observe Land Day, which commemorates the ongoing conflict over land ownership and sovereignty, and in a broader sense represents their struggle under Occupation and desire to have their own nation. Budrus is a Palestinian village of approximately 1,400 residents, located in the West Bank near the armistice line between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. In 2003 Israel announced the construction of a portion of the Separation Barrier that would not only cut through the middle of Budrus, but encircle it as well. As a result of this Barrier, the village was expected to lose 300 acres of their land, on which they depend heavily for agricultural purposes, as well as 3,000 olive trees. The men and women of Budrus responded to this announcement with a ten-month, non-violent series of protests, garnering support from Israeli and international activists. Their success resulted in relocating the fence to the outskirts of the village and more significantly, demonstrated the value of non-violent resistance as a tactic for obtaining the aspirations of the Palestinian people, documented in the award winning film, Budrus, by Just Vision.
On Land Day in 2012, I visited Budrus with one of the Just Vision producers and met with Ayed Morrar, the village organizer featured in the documentary, as well as with many of Budrus’ residents. Together we went to the protest being held at the Separation Barrier: Israeli soldiers with armored vehicles on one side and a peaceful demonstration of flag-waving and chanting Palestinians on the other. The soldiers were in a heightened state of alert, not only due to the significance of that date but also because demonstrations elsewhere, including in Jerusalem, had turned violent. Consequently they ordered the villagers to back away from the fence and return to the center of the village, but the residents of Budrus refused, explaining that their demonstration was peaceful, they were not threatening the Barrier, and therefore they were allowed to be there. After three more warnings, the soldiers fired tear gas into the crowd, forcing the demonstrators to withdraw. Together we ran back into the village, choking on the gas/pepper spray, which burns the skin, causes extreme pain to the eyes, and results in nausea and vomiting. During the course of the next two hours, over a hundred and fifty canisters of tear gas were fired, with soldiers entering Budrus at times, despite the fact that the Palestinians did not respond with violence.
I learned many lessons that day, including the value of lemon wedges to mitigate the effects of tear gas. More importantly, I witnessed the sense of gratitude from the Palestinians to have an American there witnessing and supporting their efforts (joined also by young Israeli activists from Anarchists Against the Wall). It is disturbing that as a result of this incident, the Palestinians were taught that non-violent resistance as a tactic can be met with tear gas. I do not blame the individual Israeli soldiers, who are the same age as my own children, were following orders, and were nervous as demonstrations can become dangerous. I am concerned, however, that a situation, which should encourage peaceful demonstrations and resolution, is escalated.
Two days later, I met with top Israeli military officials, discussing a range of security issues and I asked at what point various levels of force are used against Palestinian protests. They explained that lethal force is authorized for use only when soldiers’ lives are directly threatened. (There are cases where live fire and other lethal methods have been used, notwithstanding this policy, which have resulted in Israeli internal investigations and corrective actions.) I inquired further as to the use of non-lethal force (tear gas or rubber-coated steel bullets, which are designed to be painful but not lethal, but can result in serious injury or death at times). He responded that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) had very clearly defined rules of engagement, which dictate the appropriate amount of force to use in each situation. When I shared my experiences in Budrus on Land Day, his explanation was that sometimes you preemptively disperse a crowd before it becomes dangerous. I unfortunately suspect similar arguments were used to unleash fire hoses on Martin Luther King and others in Birmingham, Alabama during the American Civil Rights movement.
Additional Budrus’ Learnings
Two months before I arrived in Budrus the IDF conducted an incursion into the village using armored personnel carriers, in response to a stone-throwing incident. Upon withdrawing, they accidently left one of their soldiers behind. Initially, he attempted to assert his authority by ordering the villagers to return to their homes, but quickly realized he was both outnumbered and isolated. Rather than capitalizing on the mistake of the IDF and this soldiers’ clear vulnerability, by attacking or taking him as a hostage, the leaders in Budrus diffused a potentially volatile situation and instead drove the soldier back to his base. The military conducted an investigation of the incident and while there was no formal expression of gratitude on their part, in the ensuing two months the military did unofficially soften its relationship with the village, until this Land Day protest.
Very sadly, in this village that is held up as the ‘model for non-violent resistance’, sixteen year-old Samir Ahmad Awwad was killed this past January. After leaving school for the day, Samir and several other students gathered near the Separation Barrier where a stone-throwing incident ensued against the Israeli soldiers. While walking away from the area, Samir was fatally shot three times from behind with live ammunition.
Within the state of Israel, security is maintained in much larger protests. In Tel Aviv a few weeks earlier, there were a series of demonstrations involving tens of thousands of Jewish Israelis, protesting economic issues. To the best of my knowledge, while there were arrests, no tear gas was ever fired and demonstrators were not made to fear or question non-violent protest as a means of effecting change.
Budrus has been screened as part of Palestinian police training and is now included in that same curriculum. Just Vision has created discussion guides based on their movie and produced additional films on the conflict including, My Neighborhood, telling the story of home seizures by Israeli settlers in predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
In the work I do engaging business leaders on all sides of geopolitical conflicts around the world, I am always careful to remain neutral because every side has its own narrative, history, and truth. I neither want to judge nor inhibit open sharing and connection. In Budrus I felt sadness for both the Palestinians and my Israeli friends, as this is not a situation the Palestinians should be forced to endure, nor does this reflect Jewish values or desires. Israelis have very legitimate security concerns and I have many friends who have suffered horrific, personal losses. Protecting yourself, your family, and your citizens is the highest obligation of any individual and any government. Land Day in Budrus demonstrated very vividly for me the ongoing tragedy of everyone involved.
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