Palestinians who see nonviolence as their weapon
Khatib and his West Bank supporters hope to rally others to a peaceful
campaign for statehood. But fellow Palestinians seem largely
indifferent, and Israel's army is not amused.
By Richard Boudreaux
November 4, 2009
Reporting from Bilin, West Bank
Friday, Mohammed Khatib's forces assemble for battle with the Israeli
army and gather their weapons: a bullhorn, banners -- and a fierce
belief that peaceful protest can bring about a Palestinian state.
few hundred strong, they march to the Israeli barrier that separates
the tiny farming community of Bilin from much of its land. They chant
and shout. A few teenagers throw stones.
Khatib helped launch
the weekly ritual five years ago in an attempt to "re-brand" a
Palestinian struggle often associated with rocket attacks and suicide
"Nonviolence is our most powerful weapon," says the
media-savvy secretary of the Bilin village council. "If they cannot
accuse us of terrorism, they cannot stop us. The world will support us."
The problem is, he doesn't get muchsupport
from other Palestinians. After two uprisings in two decades, they seem
largely indifferent to his quixotic call for a third.
message is a hard sell: Khatib, 35, is a modern-day Gandhi in a culture
that enshrines the language of the gun, even if most Palestinians have
never used one. And the risks of his activism are enormous.
Israeli army has targeted him. He was arrested, severely beaten and
threatened with death during a series of midnight raids on the village
this summer. He was freed on condition that he report to an Israeli
police station each Friday at the hour of the weekly protest.
the village has persisted with its marches and become a widely
acclaimed symbol of civil disobedience, his vision of the "Bilin model"
being replicated on a large scale across the West Bank has not
A few thousand Palestinian activists have been
taught nonviolent principles and tactics in the last five years,
according to the independent Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust, which
conducts training. Their scattered initiatives have won limited relief
from Israel's security restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
those efforts have not gelled into a mass movement, much less compelled
Israel to move toward agreement on a Palestinian state.
say they are hindered by Israeli crackdowns, resignation among ordinary
Palestinians and a deep split in the political leadership between
Hamas' advocacy of armed struggle and the Palestinian Authority's hope
for a revival of U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel.
Relative calm prevails in the Palestinian territories, but Khatib says
it cannot last long under the diplomatic impasse.
trim, articulate man with closely cropped hair, he radiates a brooding
intensity. In a long conversation, he spoke in rapid-fire sentences
about his role models -- Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and
Nelson Mandela -- while taking cellphone calls about the next move in a
legal challenge to the barrier.
He believes Israel is trying to crush nonviolent activists because it
would rather take on an armed insurgency.
doesn't make it any easier for us to convince people that our path of
resistance is the right one," Khatib said. "It's going to be a slow
process. There aren't many visible successes so far."
his first taste of militancy as a teenager during the first intifada,
the uprising that began in 1987. He blocked roads to try to keep the
army out of his village, painted slogans on walls and flew the
Palestinian flag, then an illegal act, at demonstrations.
mass participation and relatively peaceful course of that uprising,
when few Palestinians were armed with more than rocks, won sympathy
abroad and a major concession: In the early 1990s, Israel recognized
the Palestine Liberation Organization and began to consider the
creation of a Palestinian state.
Today's nonviolence initiatives
tap into nostalgia for the first intifada, in what Khatib calls a sober
reaction to the armed uprising that bloodied the first half of this
decade after peace talks broke down. More than 4,000 Palestinians and
1,000 Israelis died.
Khatib, who dropped out when things turned violent, remembers the
killings that changed him.
was 2001. Khatib watched in horror as Israeli soldiers shot an unarmed
friend at a checkpoint. Two weeks later, the militant Al Aqsa Martyrs
Brigade made a revenge attack on the checkpoint, killing seven soldiers.
"My first reaction was 'Good for Al Aqsa!' " Khatib said. Then he
realized the dead soldiers belonged to a different unit, not the one on
duty when his friend was shot.
"It made me wonder: This cycle of death, of violent action and
reaction, how we can break it?"
answer was to help organize a movement against the intifada's legacy:
the barrier Israel built to protect against militant attacks but that
also cut deep into parts of the West Bank, isolating Palestinians from
8% of the territory. The string of concrete walls, fences and patrol
roads extends more than 280 miles.
He recruited Israeli and
international activists to march every Friday with Bilin residents up
to the fence, which is 14 feet high here. It protects a part of the
sprawling Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit that was built on the
He made sure protesters carried video cameras to
document the army's use of tear gas and rubber-coated bullets to keep
them away. And he worked to enforce zero-tolerance of violence by the
activists, failing to stop only the few teenagers who sling rocks and
occasionally strike soldiers.
Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer
retained by the village, credits Khatib with the "brilliant idea" that
turned the tide in a landmark legal victory two years ago.
cover of darkness, Khatib led a clandestine construction crew across
the barrier and built a makeshift hut on village land that had been
usurped for a new neighborhood of the Jewish settlement. (The stealth
maneuver mimicked Israel's expansionist strategy of creating "facts on
When the army threatened to demolish the hut,
the village went to Israel's Supreme Court and challenged the new
neighborhood, which lacked formal government authorization. The court
ordered Israel to stop building in the neighborhood, move the fence and
restore about half the 575 acres of olive groves Bilin's farmers had
Khatib then set up an alliance of 11 West Bank villages
to share his strategies, and some have borne fruit. Six communities
have successfully challenged the barrier's route across their land.
Activists have linked up with outside supporters to sneak water trucks
into parched communities cut off by the army and to protect olive
harvesters from harassment by settlers.
But in Bilin, the legal victory gave way to setbacks.
army has yet to comply with the ruling and move the barrier; the
precise new route has been tied up in litigation. Meanwhile, soldiers
began reacting with greater force to the protests, and most Israelis,
who value the barrier as a shield against violence, remained
In April, Khatib was standing a few feet away when
a companion, Bassem Abu Rahma, was killed by a high-velocity tear gas
grenade fired into a crowd of marchers.
Abu Rahma's death still
haunts him. Twice, he says, soldiers have warned him that he'll "end up
like Bassem" if he keeps resisting their presence in the West Bank.
and 27 other protest leaders and participants were arrested in their
homes during the midnight raids that began in June. Seventeen are still
being held. Khatib faces charges of inciting violence.
explain the crackdown, a battalion commander said protesters causing
damage to the fence had been photographed and singled out for arrest.
But after a week of requests, the army did not detail any damage claims.
a recent Friday, the villagers had one visible impact on the fence, a
Palestinian flag left hanging from barbed wire. After the marchers had
gone home, a soldier tore it down, wiped his hands with it and stuffed
it into a pocket.
2009 Los Angeles Times