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Interview: Budrus "built a model of civil resistance"

Jody McIntyre writing from Budrus, occupied West Bank, Live from Palestine, 4 November 2010

This Sunday, 7 November, will mark exactly seven years since Ayed Morrar first saw Israeli bulldozers arrive to destroy the land of his village, Budrus, in the occupied West Bank. Day by day, and night by night, the people of Budrus faced down the bulldozers, not realizing they would give birth to a grassroots resistance movement that has now spread to villages throughout the West Bank. Seven years on, Ayed al-Morrar, founder of the first popular committee to resist Israel's wall, discusses with The Electronic Intifada contributor Jody McIntyre his village's struggle and victory and the future of the movement.

Jody McIntyre: Please introduce yourself.

Ayed Morrar: My name is Ayed Morrar, aged 48, and I am a resident of Budrus, a village of 1,500 people, 45 kilometers west of Ramallah [in the occupied West Bank]. In 2003, I founded the first popular committee to resist against Israel's apartheid wall.

By "popular committee," we mean a committee of volunteers, comprising all the Palestinian political factions, in those villages that are suffering from the wall and have decided to resist against its construction on their land through civil, unarmed resistance.

JM: Can you describe for me the theory of "popular resistance" you developed in Budrus?

By "popular resistance," we mean to collect all the possible means of putting pressure on the occupation, except those that involve killing. You will hear many different names for it, but this is what we mean. Of course, under international law we have the right to resist against the occupation by any means necessary, but we must choose the most effective path of struggle. We see the struggle against the wall and the occupation as not only a right -- after all, one may choose not to take advantage of their rights -- but also as a duty. We feel that our form of civil resistance is the only way to unite all our people; our children, or our grandparents, for example, would not be able to participate in certain other forms of struggle. So a nonviolent form of resistance is not chosen because we are the most polite people in the world, but for the benefit of our struggle.

Also, it's important for us to separate the Palestinian national struggle for liberation from international terrorism. We aren't against Israelis, or Jews, we are against the occupation of our land, and nobody, not even the Israelis, would have an ounce of respect for us if we were to remain silent or to keep crying in the face of oppression ...

I feel that by choosing civil resistance, we are escaping the disease of harmful fighting between the political factions. It is shameful for us to know that in 43 years of the Palestinian struggle in Gaza, since 1967, there were just 236 Israelis killed by Palestinian fighters, but in one year, around 700 Palestinians were killed by our own people in the conflict between Fatah and Hamas. In order to be successful in our struggle, we must show the world that we are struggling not to kill people, but for our freedom, and after our freedom, to achieve a real peace. A real peace means a peace between two equal sides, from human beings to human beings. The Israeli leaders talk about "economic peace," or "security peace;" these amount to a peace between a slave and his master.

For all of these reasons -- although the popular resistance is a longer way, a more complex way, and takes more strength and encouragement, to stand face-to-face with the Israeli soldiers with their weapons and reputations with nothing but your bodies -- we believe it is the best way. In this time of high tensions between the political parties, to unite them is difficult, but not impossible. What it takes is detailed coordination and organization, and a strong leadership. In Budrus, we understood all these elements. We were not simply "good boys" wanting to protect our grandparents' fields; we had a method, which we followed precisely, a strategy and concrete aims. We had already been speaking and writing about the role that Palestinians must play in resisting against the wall since construction first began near Jenin, in 2002, but no one was hearing us or understanding our message, so we wanted to put a live example on the ground. Once we managed to do that, in just one month, fifteen other villages were struggling in the same way.

JM: How did the struggle in Budrus begin?

The first demonstration started with a crazy decision. We had been talking about the importance of resisting against the wall for months, but we never imagined that its construction would jump from al-Masaha to Budrus in one night. We thought that we would have more time to prepare.

It was a Friday, 7 November 2003, and suddenly, at around 10am, we saw the bulldozers arriving at our land. I started speaking with the coordinators of the different political factions; some were hesitant or afraid, some were encouraging, but I felt that it was imperative that we didn't wait for a meeting or some kind of democratic decision-making process, we just needed to create a new reality on the ground, and we needed to do it quickly.

I went to the mosque, and started shouting to the people of the village that we wanted to make a demonstration and that the target was the bulldozers; we didn't want to engage the soldiers or anyone else, but simply to stop the bulldozers from uprooting our olive trees. The bulldozers were our real enemy, as well as anyone who tried to stand between us and our target -- meaning we would not attempt to engage the soldiers, but if they tried to prevent us from reaching the bulldozers, we would never turn back or give up.

After the prayers had finished, I stood up on some rocks next to the mosque, and I started to shout that it would be shameful for us not to demonstrate against this illegal confiscation of our land. The people knew that I, personally, didn't own any land along the route of the wall, so they knew I wasn't acting for personal ambitions.

It was our first ever demonstration, so there was no media, no one coming in solidarity from outside the village, and, unlike now, there were no previous examples for us to follow. But maybe this helped us.

As we began marching, I felt a huge responsibility on my shoulders, and I was very afraid of what the reaction of the soldiers might be. This was at an extremely volatile time; this was a time when it was forbidden for a Palestinian to approach a checkpoint without lifting his shirt and turning around on the spot, and there were three checkpoints on the half an hour journey from Budrus to Ramallah, so we knew that anything could happen.

Because of my fears, I remember carefully counting every individual in that first demonstration; there were 110 people exactly. We had taken a spontaneous decision, but when we arrived, the soldiers were just as surprised. We surprised the bulldozer drivers, and we surprised the four soldiers stationed in a jeep to protect them. The soldiers started shooting at us with tear gas and rubber bullets, but we kept moving forward. Around five people were injured by the rubber bullets, but we kept going until we reached the bulldozers. And what we discovered was that in such a situation, the easiest decision for the commander to make is to tell the bulldozers to withdraw. It meant a lot for us to see that we had successfully pushed them back.

The next day even more people came out to demonstrate, but the bulldozers had gone to work on the land of Qibya, one of the neighboring villages. They didn't return to Budrus for another forty days, but even during that time we participated in nine or ten demonstrations in defense of Qibya's land.

In December, they came back with strong force. For one month straight, we were resisting day and night, day and night. Sometimes we had three demonstrations in one day, and we were out in the fields for hours on end. It seemed as if everyone was involved in the resistance. Sometimes we managed to push back the soldiers, but sometimes they would push us back into the village. They would occupy the main junction, and take positions up on the house roofs, so we would take sixty or seventy people and regroup in the mountains, and then go back to the bulldozers again.

It really was a new movement at the time, so they didn't know what to do, and we also didn't really know what to do! Everything developed according to new realities, and spontaneous decisions based on these changing circumstances. They tried to arrest all the coordinators of our committee, but the demonstrations continued, then they started arresting the kids, but the demonstrations still continued. But one thing remained constant, and I know this for certain, because I would stand up in the hills of the village and count them; every single day, the army needed to bring at least 24 jeeps to Budrus.

When we first started in Budrus, we were ignored across the board. No one cared about our struggle; no one came from the Palestinian Authority, no media and no international activists ... no one knew about Budrus! We were photographing the demonstrations and writing reports ourselves, and sending them to television stations and newspapers, but they were refusing to publish the story. Occasionally a newspaper would print a few words or make a brief mention, but we made a good ten demonstrations before anyone heard about us.

As the first media came to Budrus, very quickly, everyone heard about our struggle. We were written about in all the famous papers; The New York Times, Newsweek, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and all the big television stations, from Al-Arabiyya to Al-Jazeera, were broadcasting our actions. We had people of 35 different nationalities coming to support us, as well as Israeli activists. We built a model of civil resistance, where we were not simply demonstrating every Friday; in one month, there would be at least ten demonstrations. Our timer was the bulldozers; if the bulldozers came on a Sunday, we were there on a Sunday, if they came on a Monday, we were there on a Monday. Whether it was during the morning, afternoon or night, wherever and whenever the bulldozers were working, we had to be there.

Our model was spreading to many villages across the West Bank. In the Jerusalem district, there was Biddu, Beit Suriq, Beit Duqqu; in the Ramallah region there was Beit Liqia, Saffa, Kharbatha, Deir Qaddis, Nilin, al-Midya, Budrus; in the Salfit district there was al Zawiyya, al-Masaha, Jayyous; and near Jenin there was Zbouba, and many others. Every single one of these villages was struggling on a daily basis. I would often call the people in al-Zawwiya or Biddu, put my phone on loudspeaker and hold it to the megaphone during our actions, so that our people could hear the chants of others from demonstrations across the West Bank, and they could hear ours. It was a very strong movement at the time, growing very quickly.

On 23 February 2004, when there were around forty demonstrations taking place, the Israeli commander gathered all the journalists in Budrus and told them that they were planning to move our section of the wall back towards the green line [the internationally-recognized armistice line between Israel and the West Bank]. We didn't believe the commander, and we told him that we would continue the struggle until we saw actions on the ground. Because first of all, we didn't know if this commander had the authority to make the statement he was making, and also because we'd had many bad experiences in the past with the moral promises of the Israeli occupation forces. Nevertheless, the bulldozers did stop working, so we continued with just one demonstration per week, on Thursdays, just to let the army know that we were still awake, and if they returned to work on our land, we would return to resist.

On 1 April 2004, the army came back with new maps, which showed the wall running very close to the green line. But at the end of June, the Israeli army tried to enter from a different side of the village, to build a new wall there, and steal more of our land. They had tried to trick us by splitting their maps of Budrus into two sections; the map they had come with in April only showed the first section of the village, where we had been resisting before. The new route of the wall there was to run along the green line, apart from 14 dunams [a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters] of our land which they had managed to destroy at the very beginning. But these different maps they brought in June were for the second section of the village, and we saw that in this area they were still planning to confiscate just over 100 dunams of our land! Of course we would never agree to this, so we began to resist again. Overall, we managed to save 44 of the 104 dunams of land they were planning to steal from us.

So altogether, the Israeli army had managed to take 74 dunams of our land. If we compare this with their original plan, which was to confiscate 1,200 dunams of land, and uproot 3,000 olive trees in the process, our resistance was a huge success. We even managed to reclaim some pieces of land which were occupied in 1948; because of the green line's very close proximity to Budrus, in some areas we forced the army to build the wall a considerable distance behind the green line. So we were freeing an extra 150 dunams of Palestinian land which had been occupied for 56 years!

After seven years, you can still see this popular resistance happening, from Hebron in the south, to Iraq Burin in the north. Although you may see small differences from place to place, I am convinced that the difference between successful and unsuccessful examples of popular resistance is the difference within the leadership itself.

All the Palestinian people are living in the same conditions, under the same occupation; there is no difference between the women in Budrus and the women in Nilin, and there is no difference between Hamas supporters in Budrus and Hamas supporters in Bilin. So you must ask yourself why it is that they managed to mobilize the women in Budrus, but they didn't manage to in some other villages, and you will find the difference is in the leadership, not within the women themselves. In Budrus, we didn't put a big effort into persuading people to join us, we simply opened the doors of opportunity in front of them, and we discovered that Palestinian women do not prefer to stay in the kitchen and prepare food for the men coming back from the demonstrations, they want to be the heroes as well, to participate and to take a leading role in our national struggle for freedom. More than half of our participants were women, and we wouldn't have achieved our success without them. Also, I feel that women humanize the scene of the demonstration, and for this reason, you would never hear the kids shouting rude words at the soldiers in Budrus, for example, because they would be ashamed to do so in front of the women of the village. And when women are present, you see the spirits of the men becoming even stronger, because firstly, they do not want to be seen as weaker or less brave than the woman, and secondly, it is shameful for them to see women beaten in front of their eyes, so they will strive to protect them from the soldiers.

The other key element to our struggle was complete unity between Hamas and Fatah activists in the village. Because in Palestine, no one keeps silent; if they are not struggling with you, then they will struggle against you. So if you ignore any political faction or component of society, even if you feel it is weak or unimportant, they will do their best to put sticks in your wheels. Popular resistance is not like armed resistance; in armed resistance, you only need to bring in money and give out orders, there is no real need for a trust in your soldiers, because they will follow you by force, but in popular resistance, there needs to be a strong bond of trust between the people and the leadership. You can find partners in popular resistance, but not followers. But you need a strong character to unite people; a weak leader cannot, because he is constantly afraid of others' taking power away from him, but a strong leader will never feel threatened by his partners. Whenever you find a place or a movement with real unity, you will find a strong leader.

I remember in the first ever demonstration in Budrus, the Israeli commander came to us and said, "Are you crazy? You think that with your small village you can change an Israeli governmental decision?"

"Believe me," he continued, "if I thought that by losing two martyrs you would succeed, then I would encourage you, but even if you lose sixty martyrs, we will not change our plan one centimeter."

I told him that it was a bad decision by a bad government, and that we simply would not accept the theft of our land as our destiny. In fact, he was exactly the same commander who gathered the journalists in Budrus a few months later and told them they would be moving the route of the wall back to the green line. We didn't lose sixty martyrs, we lost one martyr. Around a hundred people were arrested during our struggle against the wall, and around 200 were injured, including several by live ammunition. They tried to apply every kind of pressure to break our struggle; imposing curfews and closed military zones, but in the end, it was impossible for them to continue their work in Budrus.

One of the turning points was when the Israeli army had imposed a curfew on the village, and we broke the curfew anyway and arrived at the bulldozers. I think it was becoming very difficult for them to bring a hundred soldiers every single day to protect four or five bulldozers in Budrus, as all the other villages I mentioned that were struggling at the same time. It was because of this increasing pressure and strain on their resources that they had to move the route of the wall here. And Budrus was the first time, and the only time since, that the Israeli army have been forced to change the route of the wall. In other villages they managed to save parts of their land, but in Budrus, we saved more than 95 percent of our land.

JM: Can you tell me about the one martyr you mentioned earlier?

AM: After they brought the new maps to Budrus, we had been supporting demonstrations in other villages whilst the bulldozers were absent from our land. On 16 April, we were participating in one such demonstration, in the town of Beitunya, close to Ramallah. I think that the army were very afraid of the possibility of this new form of struggle, which had started in the villages, spreading into the cities, so because of Beitunya's proximity to Ramallah they dealt with the demonstrations there in an even more violent manner than usual. They shot a 17-year-old called Hussein from our village, a direct shot to the head, and he died.

Villagers tear down the barrier in Budrus, June 2005. (ISM-NC)
JM: What is the current situation in Budrus?

AM: Although the struggle against the wall in Budrus is over, I feel in my heart that I must be at a demonstration every Friday. Because I live in the Ramallah region, Nilin and al-Nabi Saleh are the easiest for me to get to, but in the past I have participated in the demonstrations in al-Masaha, Beit Ommar, Hebron and many more towns across the West Bank.

JM: How do you think the popular struggle against the wall is different now from when it first began?

I think that in the last seven years of the Palestinian grassroots resistance against the wall, there has been two different phases. But the problem is, we seem to have missed the link to join the two; today, you would not be able to tell that they are connected in any way.

The first phase I would identify as from the year 2003, lasting until 2005, when the Bilin model was established. During this phase, we had a very clear aim, which was to stop the bulldozers, and thus, the bulldozers served as our timer. It was not a "holiday resistance," we were not only protesting on Fridays, we were taking action whenever and wherever we saw the bulldozers on our land. Now, the demonstrations are taking place every Friday, but there are no bulldozers, so it is simply to send a message that the people are against the wall. Of course, this is a positive message, but it is not enough, and it is not creating a pressure on the occupation. Back then, the participation of Palestinians was very high, and in all of these small villages you would see hundreds of men, women and children coming out to stop the bulldozers from working. It was in this first phase that we actually managed to change the route of the wall -- the first time, and the only time until now, that such a success has been achieved.

The second phase began with Bilin in 2005. When the struggle in Bilin began, I was in the village on a daily basis, and in the first month they were following the example of Budrus. I supported them by putting them into contact with Israeli and international activists, and they also managed to stop the wall, as the Israeli courts decided to halt construction until a decision had been made. After a few months the courts decided that construction on the wall would continue, and the bulldozers returned to Bilin's land.

The first demonstration after the bulldozers returned was huge, but for the first time they had invited members of the Palestinian Authority, and members of the Knesset, and several other well-known personalities. I saw one bulldozer working very close to the demonstration, it was even closer to us than the soldiers, and I saw the masses of people participating, and I thought this would be a great chance to stop it from digging and uprooting, to provide a small victory to encourage the people of the village to push forward with their struggle.

I said to one of the members of the local committee, "Why are we heading for the soldiers, let's go to the bulldozers, they are our real target, and your people need this victory to take courage."

He refused the idea, and so I told him that I couldn't continue to participate in their demonstrations. I still have strong links with Bilin and I continue to coordinate closely with them, but it was always my belief that the struggle must be led by the people of the village, and supported by those coming from outside. In that demonstration, it was clear to me that the roles had been reversed.

Bilin set a new model, but sometimes I feel that people have forgotten about the model that came before, the model of Budrus and all the villages that were struggling with us, the model that succeeded in stopping the wall. But at other times I think that they haven't forgotten, they remember very well, but they know that the price of unity, and a strong leadership, is very high.

JM: How can this problem within the Palestinian grassroots resistance be solved?

AM: I think we need to create a new movement that is completely independent from the Palestinian Authority, or any political factions, to unite everybody. It is no use simply having representatives from Fatah or representatives from Hamas, the responsibility of the leadership is to ensure that every family in that village is supporting the movement, and currently that is not the case. We need stronger leaders to encourage all Palestinians to participate in our struggle together.

JM: How do you see the future of the resistance? Do you think the Palestinian people will continue to find the strength to resist?

AM: The biggest spark of the resistance is the occupation itself; as long as the occupation remains on our land, the Palestinian people must look, and will look, for any way to resist against it. Sometimes people feel tired, but it's never forever. As long as the occupation exists, the revolution will exist. But I hope that our struggle will remain as a popular struggle, and we don't allow the Israelis to pull us into their playground. It's not enough for us to wish or to hope, we must continue to challenge this occupation at every opportunity.

We will never consider our situation as a humanitarian issue -- it is an issue of freedom. Even if you were to offer us a life of paradise under the occupation, we would never accept it.

Jody McIntyre is a journalist from the United Kingdom. He writes a blog entitled Life on Wheels which can be found at jodymcintyre.wordpress.com. He can be reached at jody [dot] mcintyre [at] gmail [dot] com.


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