As I wrote in the aftermath of Mustafa al-Tamimi’s murder, many Palestinians have become jaded with the concept of pacifist resistance, as it is often conflated with passivity. Acquiescing to the State of Israel’s insistence on retaining all of Jerusalem is needed to demonstrate ‘openness’; abandoning the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign is a sign of being ‘reasonable’; renouncing the one-state solution and accepting Israel’s right to exist as an ethno-religious state reveals a willingness to be ‘tolerant’. Without these things, Palestinians are told, you cannot be truly non-violent; and non-violence is your duty. We demand it of you. You won’t deserve even a sliver of the cake until you are on your best behaviour.
These things are not true. An unwavering commitment to justice ought to lie at the heart of all pacifist resistance. In surrendering their most basic rights in order to try and buy that crumbling slice of cake, Palestinians would become accessories to the state-sponsored violence that is being waged against their communities – the carving up of the West Bank into impoverished cantonments, the water shortages, the ongoing isolation of Gaza, the home demolitions, the destruction of hundreds of years of Palestinian culture in Jerusalem and beyond. This meek acceptance of the status quo is not non-violence; you can’t have true non-violence without self-respect.
The West Bank village of Budrus is an epicentre of popular resistance in Palestine – the villagers’ efforts against the encroaching separation wall, which has eaten up so much of their land, have been thoughtfully documented in the powerful film Budrus. A recent incident from the village provides a vivid snapshot of Palestinian non-violence in action. If I could choose one story to illustrate my personal definition of what it means to be a pacifist in a country ravaged by oppression, this would be it.
Popular protests against the occupation sweep across Palestine every Friday, and are typically met with force from the Israeli army. Their preferred methods are tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets, and a particularly noxious concoction known as ‘skunkwater’ that is sprayed from a purpose-built truck. (Note to activists: if you ever have to choose between the tear gas and the skunk, take the tear gas every time – it’s far pleasanter to feel as though you are inhaling fire than to feel as though you are trapped in a giant sewer. You will never get the skunk smell out of your clothes.) Sometimes live ammunition is used. There have been deaths and serious injuries – this past Friday, not one month after the killing of Mustafa Tamimi, the French activist Amicie P. was struck in the back of the head by a tear gas projectile. “The soldier asked if I were Palestinian,” she told Linah Al-Saafin. “They wanted to take me inside one of the jeeps. They were shocked when they found out I was French. One of the soldiers panicked and took me behind from where the rest of the soldiers were standing, behind a jeep…The soldiers tried to help me while I was waiting for the ambulance to come. They put some sort of liquid on my head – I think it was water – then tied a bandage on the wound. I was lying on the ground and was really scared because the soldiers were all around me looking down at me and holding their guns. They told me I was hit by a rock thrown by a Palestinian…The soldiers were talking about how I wasn’t a Palestinian but French.”
Her experience stands in stark contrast to Mustafa Tamimi’s: the soldiers delayed his transfer to hospital; his sister was not allowed to approach him; his mother had to apply for a special permit to see him in the hospital; and his father was not given permission to go at all. Mustafa was Palestinian. Amicie is French. This is one of many anecdotes which illustrates the contempt for Palestinian life that the occupation fosters in the unfortunate people who maintain it.
Budrus, like Nabi Saleh, is no stranger to military violence. What happened there last Wednesday must be understood in this context. The army raided the village in search of villagers who had been hurling stones at their jeeps. One soldier, apparently assigned to guard a particular street, was accidentally left behind by the others when they departed Budrus.
A Palestinian man identified as Mohammed said he went to tell a soldier he noticed standing alone on a village road that the others had withdrawn.
The soldier “seemed confused and his face turned red,” Mohammed said, adding he then escorted the soldier toward his own home where other soldiers later picked him up…Ayyed Morrar, a local activist in Boudros, told an Israeli television station of the assistance given the soldier:
“We oppose the occupation and are willing to pay the price for freedom, but not in a way that leads to killing.”
Something that has often come up in non-violence workshops with young people in Bethlehem: “Pacifism isn’t a currency with which you buy your rights. You don’t owe it to anyone, least of all to an oppressor. It’s your gift, not their right, so stand tall when you give it.” I recognise this same sentiment in the action of Mohammed and in the words of Morrar. They didn’t help the soldier because they wanted to buy credit with the occupying forces, to demonstrate that they are ‘good Arabs’, or because they thought that having a oppressive armed force hanging around the neighbourhood isn’t really such a bad thing after all. They didn’t help the soldier because his actions deserved it. They helped him simply because they believe in compassion at any cost – along with genuine justice and real freedom. It’s who they are.
That, to me, is non-violence: it comes from the inside, and it’s not something that can ever be stolen or walled away.