Abdallah Abu Rahmah looking over a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, 2008.(Shachaf Polakow/Activestills)
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The leader of nonviolent protests in the West Bank—a potential Palestinian Gandhi—is in an Israeli jail

Michelle Goldberg
December 09, 2010
Abdallah Abu Rahmah looking over a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, 2008.(Shachaf Polakow/Activestills)

Last month, the yearlong prison sentence of Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a schoolteacher and activist involved in nonviolent civil disobedience in the West Bank, came to an end. But an Israeli military court refused to release him, on the grounds that he would resume his activities if freed.

Abu Rahmah’s crime was organizing illegal demonstrations in a West Bank village where all demonstrations are by definition illegal. Abu Rahmah, 39, had long been involved in peaceful, multiethnic protests in the village of Bil’in, where Israel’s separation wall has cut Palestinians off from hundreds of acres of their land. Though barely covered in the American press, his conviction was protested by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Catherine Ashton, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, among others. “Israel’s attempt to crack down on this effective resistance movement by criminalizing peaceful protest is unacceptable and unjust,” said Desmond Tutu, one of Abu Rahmah’s supporters.

American Jews often ask where the Palestinian Gandhi is. What few realize is that if such a man exists, he’s probably sitting in an Israeli military prison.

Right now, there’s a small but significant nonviolent resistance movement in the West Bank. The important recent documentary Budrus tells the story of its beginning in 2003. That’s when Budrus community activist Ayed Morrar, with the help of his astonishingly intrepid 15-year-old daughter Iltezam, succeeded, through peaceful but resolute protest, in thwarting plans to build the wall on their village’s land. Their model—community-based, grassroots efforts to protect their property—spread through neighboring villages, including Bil’in.

Over five years in Bil’in, demonstrators—a mix of Palestinians, Israelis, and foreigners—held weekly demonstrations against the building of the wall, which annexed much of the village’s land into a nearby Israeli settlement. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled the wall’s route illegal, saying, “We were not convinced that it is necessary for security-military reasons to retain the current route that passes on Bil’in’s lands.” But construction continued. For most of the world, this village of 1,700 clearly has justice on its side. And though there has been some rock throwing, Abu Rahmah and other activists have done their best to prevent it and to maintain the moral high ground.

As Ethan Bronner wrote in the New York Times last year, the Bil’in movement “is one of the longest-running and best organized protest operations in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it has turned this once anonymous farming village into a symbol of Palestinian civil disobedience, a model that many supporters of the Palestinian cause would like to see spread and prosper.”

Much rides on the fate of the Bil’in model. With peace talks going nowhere, there’s a lot of talk among Palestinians about a new uprising, a third intifada. There are Palestinian leaders who, for both tactical and moral reasons, are desperate to make it nonviolent. Everyone concerned about the future of the Middle East has good reason to hope that they succeed.

“I believe our future depends totally on the rise of the nonviolent movement,” the liberal Palestinian activist Mustafa Barghouti said over lunch recently. Nonviolent resistance, he said, is “why I live.”

Barghouti, who finished second to Mahmoud Abbas in the 2005 Palestinian National Authority elections, believes that continued settlements are making the death of the two-state solution imminent. As a last gasp, he wants Palestinians to unilaterally declare a state within 1967 borders and challenge the world to recognize it. “If the world community does not accept our approach of recognizing a Palestinian state immediately in ’67 borders, and forcing Israel to accept that, you will be witnessing the death of the two-state option,” he said. “And then we will have a very long struggle against apartheid. Nonviolent.”

This, as Barghouti knows, would be profoundly threatening to Israel. “For them, I am more dangerous than those who do military action, because I expose their system,” he said. Israel’s actions suggest that at least some in the military agree, because the Palestinian nonviolent movement is being systematically crushed.

In 2005, as Human Rights Watch reports, Abdallah Abu Rahmah’s brother Rateb Abu Rahmah was shot in the foot and arrested for stone throwing and assaulting a border policeman. During the trial, video evidence proved that the policeman had given false testimony. Eventually, the policeman confessed to fabricating his story, and Rateb was acquitted.

Mohammed Khatib, another leader of the Bil’in protests, was arrested in 2008 and charged with stone throwing. He later proved that he was on the Pacific island of New Caledonia at the time of the alleged incident. Nevertheless, he was held for nine months and only released on the condition that he report to the police station weekly during the time of the protests. Since May 2008, according to Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, an umbrella group for the nonviolent village-based movements, there have been 119 arrests in Bil’in. The Israeli army has started using live ammunition against the demonstrators, and four unarmed anti-wall protesters have been killed.

Last December, Abu Rahmah, the coordinator of the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, was arrested in a 2 a.m. raid on his home. In a particularly absurd twist, he was charged with weapons possession, because he’d once collected used tear gas projectiles and bullet casings to demonstrate the types of ammunition that the IDF was using. Eventually, he was acquitted of that charge, but he was convicted of organizing illegal demonstrations and of incitement, which, under Israeli military law, means an “attempt, verbally or otherwise, to influence public opinion in the Area in a way that may disturb the public peace or public order.”

Abu Rahmah’s wife Majida has been denied permits to visit him in the Israeli military prison where he’s been held. He hasn’t seen his 1-and-a-half-year-old son since the baby was 6 months old. He’s not even allowed to make a phone call.

“We are concerned that his continued detention on charges of incitement and organizing and attending demonstrations is intended to prevent him and other Palestinians from exercising their legitimate right to nonviolent protest against the annexation of Palestinian land to Israel,” said a statement by the British Foreign Office. It’s hard to come to any other conclusion.

Of course, the challenge to nonviolence isn’t only coming from Israel. There’s hardly a consensus about the need for nonviolence among the Palestinian population: A 2008 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that an overwhelming 84 percent of Palestinians supported a deadly attack on a West Jerusalem religious school that took place that year. But it’s at least conceivable that such support for violence could diminish if Palestinians believed there were other routes to freedom. One of the jobs of any social movement, after all, is to build ideological support for positions that might at first seem naïve or absurd.

“This is the Palestinian alternative to despair,” Jonathan Pollack, one of the leading Israeli activists working with the Palestinian protesters, said of nonviolent civil disobedience. “Both to the despair of futile negotiation, and to the despair of armed struggle. If Israel manages to kill this movement, to put this movement down, the consequences are going to be grave, both for Palestinians and for Israelis.”

Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer at The Nation. She is the author, most recently, of The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Her Twitter feed is @michelleinbklyn.

Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer at The Nation. She is the author, most recently, of The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Her Twitter feed is @michelleinbklyn.

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