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Disobedient

The leader of nonviolent protests in the West Bank—a potential Palestinian Gandhi—is in an Israeli jail

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Abdallah Abu Rahmah looking over a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, 2008. (Shachaf Polakow/Activestills)
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Author of our newest column, The Diasporist

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.”

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Where is all this “significant” non-violent protest? The weekly protests at Biilin feature rock throwing and injuries to both sides. The protests are against a fence which is useful for saving Israeli lives.
The Palestinians were offered a state “several times” (your “route to freedom”) and rejected it because what (and I know that you don’t want to believe this)is not a peaceful state along side Israel, but rather to destroy Israel. They have said it time and time again both verbally and through their actions and you are simply not listening.

Thank you for this excellent piece. The Palestinian led non-violent resistance movement, working with the support and solidarity of Israelis and internationals, and including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, give hope to the idea that someday all the peoples in Israel and Palestine will live in equality and peace.

The fact is that Israel has many enemies (fueled by well-meaning, naive and misinformed writers like Ms. Goldberg). Of course, if facts were as Ms. Goldberg naively writes, it sounds terrible. How can Israel imprison supposedly “peaceful” demonstrators. How can it go into a “mosque” to take out arms and murderous thugs> How can it go into a “hospital” used to store explosives? In fact, why doesn’t Israel just make its enemies happy, by “going back to Poland or wherever they came from?”
The answer is that this little corner of the world belongs to the Jews and if they want to keep it they need to be willing to do what is necessary.
The more people like Ms. Goldberg write their propaganda, the more lives will be lost – Jewish and not.
Not every foolish opinion is worthy of publication in a Jewish Magazine. This piece has no place in Tablet. She should write for the Arab propaganda machine.
An alternative strategy is to live and work in all the places the haters of Israel bombed, visit the cemeteries and see the tens of innocent lives snuffed out, experience what it is like to live in Sderot and then right something truthful. Which would make for a sea change.

Question to Michelle Goldberg–Please provide me an example from the Arab world where peaceful protest has been used and what has been the outcome.
Please show me an example of Palestinians peacefully protesting against their corrupt ineffective leaders. Please show me an example of Palestinians protesting against the murder of innocent Jewish civilians.

Good article, Michelle. But this really isn’t the start of a non-violent resistance movement in the territories, it’s the second attempt. Sometime before the first intifada, when the memory of MLK and Gandhi was fresh, there were West Bank activists, some of them mayors of their towns, who tried to use passive resistance. Israel deported them, despite warnings that doing so would make a vacuum to be filled by more pugnacious opponents. I hope that this time, the goverment will have more sense.

Thank you for this brave and comprehensive article!

Michelle, thank you for this article. I have been present for many demonstrations of the unarmed grassroots Palestinian resistance to Israel’s separation barrier. It is very sad for me, particularly as an Israeli, to see armed soldiers wearing rocket gear shooting tear gas canisters directly into Palestinian homes, injuring old people and children, and directly at the heads of Palestinian teenagers who are doing nothing but wave flags and chant slogans. A few months ago, a border police officer threw a percussion grenade directly on my foot while I was standing apart from the demonstrators, witnessing and photographing it; he smiled when it exploded, singeing my leg and rendering me deaf for several hours.

Bennett Muraskin says:

Palestinian rock throwers are arrested and treated as violent criminals. But when the Haredi throw rocks in their protests…hmmm. Could it be that Israel treats Palestinians more harshly than Jews who committ comparable crimes? Shocking! Then again, it is a “Jewish state” so what do you expect?

p. junke says:

Michelle…please remove your head from your tuchus, or you will be unable to see the rocks coming toward you from the ” occupied” West Bank.

Good article, Michelle. Abdallah Abu Rahmah is someone both Jews and Palestinians can and should support.

In response to Carl that: “Palestinians were offered a state “several times”..” is a complete fabrication !!! The proof is; Israel continues to build on Palestinian land new settlements in the west bank rendering a viable Palestinian state impossible. How would anyone feel & react if this is happening to them on their own land…I would like to know why is it Ok for Israel to continue with illegal occupations of Palestinian land? History has a way of repeating itself… my best advice to all is treat others the way you wish to be treated…

In response to Carl that: “Palestinians were offered a state “several times”..” is a complete fabrication !!! The proof is; Israel continues to build on Palestinian land new settlements in the west bank rendering a viable Palestinian state impossible. How would anyone feel & react if this is happening to them on their own land. I would like to know why is it Ok for Israel to continue with illegal occupations of Palestinian land? History has a way of repeating itself. Mmy best advice to all is treat others the way you wish to be treated.

First of all — this being a Jewish publication, let’s fix the title to Yehuda & Shomron.

Second, the Israeli court should openly and gladly allow new evidence to clear the record of potentially innocent prisoners; with only ONE condition. All imprisoned after June 25, 2006 for violence against the State of Israel cannot be released until the release of Gilad Shalit, a 100% innocent prisoner. Irrelevant of 2 separate “governments” Hamas vs. PNA; let them work out the details. All the while be very clear and transparent why families aren’t allowed to have their loved ones back; and we’ll see if negotiations resume.

To Aida–They were offered a state in 1948 and rejected it and tried to destroy the Jewish state. They were offered a state at camp david (according to numerous witnesses)and instead started the intifada, they were offered a state by Olmert and rejected it. If they (including Hamas) renounced violence and publicly stated both in Arabic and in Hebrew that they want to live peacefully alongside Israel they would get a state.

BB Melman says:

The title of the new column “Diasporist” says it all. Just as a Zionist believes that the ultimate future of the Jewish people’s survival lies in having their own state, even as the diaspora ultimately weakens and withers, so too the Diasporist believes that the Jewish people’s ultimate survival lies in their respective exilic communities, even as Israel is besieged by enemies both without and within, who hope to shrink it to indefensible borders and reduce her capacity and moral right to defend herself. Kol Hakavod!

I guess Gandhi’s name was evoked to create sympathy toward Palestinian criminal. However I might remind the readers that Gandhi was not exactly the man that present day media tries to create. Yes, he advocated non-violent forms of resistance: to British “imperialists”, to Russian “muziks” and even to the Nazis. He suggested Jews to submit to the mistreatment and willingly walk to crematoriums. He supported war efforts of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan against allies, against your country, in hope that the victory and annihilation of Jews in Europe will bring independence to India. And if someone would read the articles he wrote while living in South Africa, that curious person would find out that Gandhi was also a Racist with the big “R”. No the man you want to be – right?

An outstanding article and astute coverage of the true partners for peace in the Middle East who are putting Israel’s draconian policies to shame. I can only hope that mainstream Jewish publications in the diaspora will
feature more of this very promising coverage.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions of the stupid, naive and gullible.

Thanks for bringing truth to light.

I always find it amusing when this ridiculous trope pops up in the media. Somehow, the words “small” (miniscule is more like it) and “significant” in “Right now, there’s a small but significant nonviolent resistance movement in the West Bank” are not considered mutually exclusive for articles like these. Of course, in reality, the significance of a protest movement is directly tied to its size. If I didn’t already know that reporting on this story was a bald attempt to influence American opinions of Israel and the Palestinians, I would be baffled as to how something so obviously nonsensical could get published.

Harold says:

You describe the protests at Bil’in as “peaceful” and “nonviolent”. What kind of moral confusion does it take to use those terms to describe the throwing of rocks which are intended to smash the faces of Israelis? Or are you going to say that the rocks are thrown even though the leaders, your “Gandhis”, have asked for nonviolence, and therefore they’re not responsible for what their followers do? Or are you going to deny that the rocks are thrown at all?

Your perception of reality is skewed, and your immorality is sickening.

Of course, nonviolent protestors have been run over by tanks and bulldozers and the same trolls who say they don’t exist will be there, cheering on their deaths.

Has the wall saved any lives? You have to count the number of Palestinians who’ve lost their jobs and homes, too. It isn’t just Jews that count.

Immorality?

If organizing is illegal, then Ghandi would be an outlaw. Trite but true.

EdwinS says:

Is Michelle passing as a Jew?…she’s doing a bad job of it … inquiring minds want to know…

andrew r says:

“To Aida–They were offered a state in 1948 and rejected it and tried to destroy the Jewish state.”

No one was offered anything in 1948; the UN passed a resolution suggesting Palestine be divided into two states with a corpus separatum for Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Jaffa would be an enclave for the “Arab” state. Nobody in Palestine, least of all the Jewish agency, accepted the recommendation.

And there was no Jewish state to destroy in 1948, either. The Zionist militas had to conquer Palestine.

andrew r says:

I think most of the posters in this thread simply enjoy persecuting someone else and are taking vicarious revenge for the pogroms and the shoah. Even though the Zionists are the ones who stole the Palestinians’ country, fighting against the invaders makes them equivalent to those who persecuted the Jews in Europe.

What kind of a barbarian supports shooting a kid for throwing a rock?

andrew r says:

“Is Michelle passing as a Jew?”

Actually, since the Zionist movement decided to break most of the commandments in perpetuity, and especially the 6th, 8th and 10th ones, its adherents have been doing a really lousy job of posing as Jews.

Non violent resistance will shine the light on the racist Jewish state. Its a way bigger threat that those home made rockets coming out of the Gaza ghetto.

Gee Andrew–Every word of what you said is completely wrong. Go learn your history.

andrew r says:

That would be the history where 5-7 Arab armies descended on Israel and the Palestinians were told to run away. Oh, and Palestine was empty before the Jews returned.

No thanks. I’ve been out of US public school way too long to swallow garbage.

A) This guy should get out of jail and get a chance to put up or shut up.
B) ‘Westerners’ see this in the reference of their little world. They see this as one guy who leads mostly violence-free marches, but to Israelis they see events that could turn deadly FOR EVERYONE very, very easily.

Israelis have had to deal with bombs in restaurants and buses and on street corners for far too long, way to many times to mess around. This is not an issue of some nice guy not being able to march – this is about saving lives. While I believe that he should be able to get out of jail and be able to have a chance to lead non-violent protests, please for a second look at this without the ‘Western’ gauze that says that a simple ‘non-violent’ protest is really non-violent.

And, Andrew r, your snarky answer is about spot on. To suggest that “Palestine was empty before the Jews returned” is a lie or a serious error in fact. Yes, many a tens of thousand or even hundreds of thousands DID leave because they were told to get out of the way, but as many or more were pushed out. This is fact.

Besides that, Andrew r., you are so ignorant of the facts that I just don’t know what to say.

So, I’ll end here.

andrew r says:

“Israelis have had to deal with bombs in restaurants and buses and on street corners for far too long”

Palestinians and Lebanese had/have to deal with forced removal at gunpoint, massacres, sniper fire, aerial bombings, beatings, blockades, being kept out of apartments, etc. etc. This is a long list.

“please for a second look at this without the ‘Western’ gauze that says that a simple ‘non-violent’ protest is really non-violent.”

Oh yeah, a Palestinian can’t really do anything non-violent because their whole existence is violent.

West Bank for dummies – why Samaria is so crucial to Israel’s existance:

http://shomroncentral.blogspot.com/

Morris Abadi (Sao Paulo - Brazil) says:

The comparison is an insult to Ghandi.

Once and for all: the only thing that the palestinians want and would be satisfied with, is the destruction of Israel, and the region beeing judenrein.

Enough of this leftist and self hate positions.

Mr Sarna (appropriate surname, check what it means in Spanish), the article does not mention anything about mosque or hospital inspections. You are conflating all kind of disparate issues to dismiss the very valid point of Michelle Goldberg: that Israel is using all kind of dirty tricks to repress legitimate and unarmed protests against an illegitimate occupation and land grab. Just by shouting “terrorists, terrorists!” you won’t be able to change reality. Israel is an ugly colonial project, and natives don’t have to put up with it.

rowensea says:

Whether or not Mr. Abu Rahmah is the Palestinian Gandhi, if the Israelis insist on keeping him in jail, they’ll be turning him into the Palestinian Mandela.

Morris Abadi – I do so love it when apologists for state terrorism have no better argumants than to decry their opponents as “leftists” and “self-hating Jews”. I’m sure some time when you have removed your head from your fundament you can explainnn why being a “leftist” should be anything other than a source of pride. Meanwhile, I shall adopt your own approach and say that we’ve had enough of your neofascist and genocidal position.

Oh, before complaining of insults to Gandhi you should learn to spell his name properly.

P.S. In normal democracies, when prisoners reach the end of their sentences they are released. But in theocratic dictatorships it’s quite different.

Carl is indeed right. The people of Palestine were indeed offered, nay promised a state, though the promises go a little further back than 1948.

Here is Lord Curzon, speaking in 1918 at a meeting of the UK War Cabinet’s Eastern Committee:-

“The Palestine position is this. If we deal with our commitments there is first the general pledge to Hussein in October 1915, under which Palestine was included in the areas to which Great Britain pledged itself that they should be Arab and independent in the future” (Ref:- PRO, CAB, 27/24). Hussein was the great grandfather of the late King Hussein of Jordan.

There is also a UK Arab Bureau paper from 1916 which sets out boundaries for an Arab state (Ref:- PRO, FO, 371/6237) “….the said area is understood to be bounded North by about latitude 37 degrees, East by the Persian frontier, South by the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, West by the Red Sea and the Mediterranean up to about latitude 33 degrees and beyond by an indefinite line drawn inland west of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo……”

So it seems that the Palestinians were well and truly shafted. Given what they were promised, its not surprising that they are currently a little upset. As the UK made little effort to redress the situation for them between 1918 and 1948, would suggest that its time for an apology from the UK government. That might at least start to ease matters if somebody acknowledged that they were treated shabbily by Britain.

Abdallah Abu Rahmah deserves a break. Whilst America and Britain are happy to use violence in the region to settle their disputes, it is refreshing that not everybody else wishes to follow their rather bad example.

Thank you for the terrific reportage, Michelle. Though I try to keep up with events, I hadn’t known about this story. I linked to it in a comment I just posted on today’s despairing opinion piece by Lee Smith
http://www.tabletmag.com/news-and-politics/53377/general-illusions/comment-page-1/#comment-380857.

I’m saddened by the insulting tone of many comments above. Some seem terribly afraid to get near the possibility of *imagining the other* in any rounded, complex manner. I guess it’s too threatening to risk the chance they might find themselves somehow empathizing with an “enemy.” There’s enough fear, pain, rage and trauma among Israelis *and* Palestinians to fuel a few dozen apocalyptic wars, I bet. The irony, which has hardly gone unnoticed by writers and thinkers among both populations, is that all that suffering could also be the basis of a powerful connection. On an individual level, I know it has.

Thank you, zalel, for your comment. It is vital that stories like the one of the Palestinian mayors be told and retold (I had forgotten all about the mayors until I read your post). As the African American historian Manning Marable has written (paraphrase): The only way toward a shared future is through understanding our common history.

Max Kohanzad says:

The polarization of oppinion here is startling! If we are all emotionally stuck in our oppinions then no peace will ever happen. If people aren’t willing to evevn consider a different view, then its not a discussion. Its a bunch of monalogues! Jews! Shema!!! Listen! To each other!

max-is it really so surprising?that for the last 2200 years official suppression[more recently called the talmud] road over the truth of jewish history as if a great civil conflict never occurred from 180b.c-70 b.c.;this conflict was never resolved.does this make you smile or feel incredulous? there you go you’re now safely on the side of those who cannot listen and are deeply emotional when another jew expresses an opinion doubting the validity and morality of the rabbinic Jewish movement with no difference between reform or orthodox .had we stayed honest and committed to God and his commandments instead of invoking a human based system clad in false piety however clever; we might not be having this discussion now but then again the holocaust was no walk in the park nor will be the coming conflagration we’re bestowing upon our children with our inability to confront inner conflict.

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Disobedient

The leader of nonviolent protests in the West Bank—a potential Palestinian Gandhi—is in an Israeli jail

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