Armed with a belief in peace
Every 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.
A 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 bombers.
“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 much support from other Palestinians. After two uprisings in two decades, they seem largely indifferent to his quixotic call for a third.
His 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.
The 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.
Although 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 materialized.
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.
But those efforts have not gelled into a mass movement, much less compelled Israel to move toward agreement on a Palestinian state.
Activists 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.
A 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.
“This 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.”
Khatib got 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.
The 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.
It 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?”
His 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 village’s land.
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.
Under 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 the ground.”)
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 lost.
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.
The 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 indifferent.
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.
Khatib 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.
Asked to 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.
On 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.