Gill Swain photograph

Non-Violent Activism and the Israeli Response

November 2007

Click to enlarge all photographs

Moving the road block takes many hands.
Photo credit: Gill Swain/EAPPI

In early November, three of my EAPPI team based in Hebron witnessed a roadblock removal action at the Palestinian village of Al Jab'a, just south of the Israeli Gush Etzion settlement near Bethlehem, in the West Bank. It involved local Palestinians, Israeli and international activists, press and TV cameras. The roadblock had been erected by the Israeli army ten years ago for "security" reasons. It isolates the 800 inhabitants of Al Jab'a from their Palestinian neighbours, shops and schools and cuts off the communities of Surif and Beit Ummar from the fast main highway to Bethlehem. This was the fifth time Mousa Abu Maria and his friends had removed this roadblock, which is usually replaced within a week or so. It was primarily a symbolic gesture, he said, brilliant for morale and for sending a message to the world that most Palestinians abhor violence but long for peace and freedom.

Mousa Abu Maria on the roadblock
that cuts off his town from the main road.

Mousa with an elderly resident of Al Jab'a
whose greenhouse was demolished by the IDF

Mousa, 29, is one of a growing number of Palestinians who have learned the techniques of nonviolent action and who are trying to teach them to their communities as the most effective form of resistance to the Israeli occupation. There is, in fact, a long history of widespread nonviolent resistance in the Occupied Palestinian Territories taking the form of things like demonstrations and boycotts but it has always been obscured by the far rarer violent actions. At 17 Mousa, having seen his village's land taken by Israeli settlers, a friend killed by the Israeli army (IDF) and his brothers arrested, joined the Islamic Jihad and threw stones at soldiers at every opportunity. He was arrested by the IDF and held for interrogation for three months. Charged with 22 offences relating to recruiting and training members of Islamic Jihad, he was eventually sentenced to five years in jail.

In prison, he began to hear about a new wave of nonviolent actions involving Israelis and internationals and on his release in 2004, he went to his first such demonstration in the village of At-Tuwani in the South Hebron hills."The army had closed off the village with a roadblock, so the people could not go to buy food. I watched the internationals trying to move the block and women and children joining in and I saw that the army did not hurt anyone during this demonstration."

Mousa started a popular committee in his home town of Beit Ummar and made contacts with peace groups. Two years ago he organised his first action, planting 700 olive trees and helping with the harvest. "The people here did not know about nonviolent actions but they really liked it when Israelis and internationals helped them pick grapes and plant trees," he says. In early 2006, he and five others, including an American Jewish girl, Bekah Wolf, formed the Palestine Solidarity Project and began spreading the word.

Mousa Abu Maria in court, trying to hold hands with
Bekah Wolf, his fiancee and co-founder of the PSP,
when seeing each other for the first time in eight months.

"Every activity teaches me something new about non-violence," he says. "I have learned that if a soldier puts his foot on a roadblock, I must not touch him or he could accuse me of assaulting him, but I can carry on pulling on the rope. I never give them any excuse to use their guns and I can see how angry it makes them.
"People ask me why I changed from working with Islamic Jihad,” says Mousa. “I tell them that it's because the Israelis built a fence and the Palestinians can do nothing about it. If we use guns, they will come and kill many of us. But if we sit down in the street and the media come and tell the world the truth of why we are doing it, we might get somewhere.”

Mousa was first inspired by the example of At-Tuwani, a collection of humble stone dwellings at the centre of a number of small, scattered communities where the people live in tents and caves and graze their sheep on the hills. These communities have come under persistent and well-documented physical attack from the settlers of Maon who shot dead two Palestinians and permanently injured several more. The Palestinians made numerous reports to the police but no action was ever taken and in the end the majority of the people abandoned their homes.

"Everyone used to have land to graze their sheep and grow their winter fodder. It was enough for us and it was an independent life," says Hafez Hreini who co-ordinates nonviolent actions in the area. "But the settlers now control 60% of the land. I and my mother and brothers have been attacked, two of our houses have been demolished, settlers destroyed my olive trees and poisoned my water cistern. I thought, I am a human being and I believe in justice, but there is no justice. So, what to do? It would be easy to do crazy things in revenge, but what would happen then? They would have an excuse to destroy my property and harm my family and my neighbours. I wanted to think in a different way."

In 1999 the IDF carried out a mass eviction of people living next to the Green Line. "It was a remote area, nobody knew about it, there was no media coverage, nobody cared," says Hafez. But Israeli peace activists heard about it and started a legal action which six months later restored the people to their homes. "It felt so good to have the support of these groups. I thought, this is the way to go."

Hafez Hreini (centre) with Palestinian
and Israeli peace activists in Tuwani

Despite his commitment to non-violence, Hafez's suffering did not stop. At the first demonstration he took part in he was badly beaten by the IDF, some ribs were broken and he was jailed for two weeks. "I am targeted because I am a leader," he says. "The IDF have often come into my house in the middle of the night, destroyed things and told me not to work with Israeli peace groups. They came 12 times in one month.”

Like Hafez, Mousa too is targeted for special harassment because of his high profile. "Three settlers once took pictures of me when I was planting olive trees and that night the IDF came to my house and the captain said: 'Mousa, I give you a big message: be careful.’ I said to him: I believe in what I am doing even if it is dangerous. I am not afraid.”

In April, 2008, four months after I left Hebron, Mousa was arrested by the IDF and placed in what the Israelis call “administrative detention.” This is imprisonment without trial, or any charge being put to the accused – what the British used to call internment when used against the Irish.

The Israelis are holding over 500 Palestinians in administrative detention. Any evidence the IDF has against Mousa has been kept secret from him and his lawyers, his appeals have been denied and there seems no prospect of his release.

In November, 2008, another PSP co-ordinator, Mohammed Abu Maria, was arrested at his home and also imprisoned without trial. The Palestine Solidarity project has been told he and Mousa are suspected of being members of the Islamic Jihad – a blanket accusation used against anyone who tries to resist the occupation by peaceful means. The PSP categorically denies either man is a member now and asserts that Mohammed never has been.

Many other PSP activists have had their houses raided and been arrested for short periods in recent months which is part of an increasing trend for the IDF to swoop on non-violent protesters.

The PSP says: “The PSP is clearly being targeted because of the recent work we have been doing which involves recruiting, training, and unifying Palestinian women, men, and children to engage in popular, non-violent resistance against the Israeli Occupation. It is because of our work specifically across political parties and amongst all sectors of Palestinian society that we are seen as a threat to the Israeli government.”

Palestine Solidarity Project