Can Nonviolence Change the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict?
As peace talks begin, President Obama should see "Budrus," a film that captures a case where Palestinians borrowed tactics from the civil rights movement.
barrier. (David Silverman/Getty Images)
In 2003, faced with an Israeli West Bank barrier route that was set to choke out its olive tree crops, the residents of Budrus were worried. The olive trees are not only vital to the village's economic stability, but they are also an important part of Budrus' cultural fabric. "We've given our mothers' names to those trees," one man says, his eyes wet with terror over the potential loss. When Israeli forces topple 60 of the trees on their way toward destroying the other 3,000, Budrus bands together under the leadership of Ayed Morrar.
Using nonviolent, sit-in-style tactics popular during the American civil rights movement, Morrar unites men, women, Fatah, Hamas and even Israelis to stage protests and push back the interlopers, all without the use of arms. As Israeli soldiers club men and women who are doing nothing but singing and chanting while strategically blocking the path of bulldozers, it's hard for one's mind not to wander to visions of Bull Connor ordering out the fire hoses. Still, after more than 50 organized, peaceful demonstrations, the 1,400 residents of Budrus force Israel to reroute its barrier well away from the tiny town.
The similarities between Budrus and, say, Birmingham are not lost on Israeli citizen Ronit Avni, who produced the documentary about Budrus' victory. "Although the context is different and the ultimate aims are different," she says, "the idea of an asymmetric struggle -- where one group is saying, 'We need to assert our rights without arms and expose the oppressive behavior of our opponents in the process in order for them to change' -- that's all the same."
The correlation to the American civil rights movement was perhaps most palpable when, after a screening of Budrus in Washington, D.C., Democratic congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis got a chance to meet Morrar. Though born thousands of miles apart, both men had been beaten and jailed while fighting for their freedom.
Avni says that though Palestinians have been using nonviolent methods for years (and though 70 percent of Palestinian youth oppose violent conflict with Israel, according to the U.N.) the press frequently chooses instead to concentrate on the embroiled region's fringe groups, particularly Hamas. "Palestinians have used nonviolence since the '20s and '30s, and certainly during the first intifada," she says. "But that doesn't make the nightly news. The first intifada was characterized by sit-ins and strikes -- and also people throwing Molotov cocktails. But the first part of that never made the headlines."
Hopefully, says Avni, Budrus can help change that. Because while the U.S. government is and always has been inextricably linked to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the American people are not, and those who are are occasionally uninformed. "It's not a question of whether the U.S. will be involved [in the region's future]," she stresses. "It is a qualitative one, one about how it is going to be involved. With that in mind, I think everyone in America has a responsibility to be informed."
In fact, it seems as if even President Obama, who went into peace talks between Israel and Palestine this week, is ignorant of Budrus. In his speech on the Middle East in Cairo last June, the president said, "Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in American suffered the lash of the whip and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia."
Indeed, Mr. President, and it can now be definitively said of Palestinians, too.
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.