By Jasmin Ramsey
Have you heard of Budrus? It’s a Palestinian farming village of about 1,500 people near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. In 2003 Israel began constructing its “separation barrier” (otherwise known as the “Apartheid wall”) on the village’s territory. Its planned path would cut through Budrus’s cemetery and confiscate 300 acres of land, demolishing thousands of olive trees and the inhabitants’ livelihood. But after 55 unarmed demonstrations in less than one year, Israel rerouted the wall, dramatically reducing the confiscated territory to 5%. Although it led to more non-violent resistance in other villages facing similar threats, Budrus’s success is rare. To date it’s one of the first and only examples of how organized non-violent resistance resulted in the pulling back of Israeli forces.
Burdrus’s inspiring story became the subject of an award-winning 2009 documentary that was released on DVD this year. Written and directed by Julia Bacha who produced it with Ronit Avni and Rula Salameh, the film charts the village’s struggle mainly through the eyes of a Palestinian father, daughter and Israeli soldier.
Ayed Morrar spent 7 years in an Israeli jail for organizing Fatah activities during the first intifada even though he never “injured or killed an Israeli”. During his imprisonment he educated himself about non-violent resistance history and co-founded the West Bank’s first Popular Committee Against the Wall to stop Budrus’s planned demolition. Morrar admits that peaceful resistance was adopted as a tactic because it was Budrus’s only option. What kind of force can a tiny village show against one of the world’s mightiest armies? The only (unplanned) instance of rock-throwing was met with stun grenades, tear gas, live bullets and violent arrest by the Israelis.
Morrar’s patience is seriously tested throughout the film, a daily experience shared by all people living under occupation. But he remains calm while he and his family face deadly force by the Israelis, and as ancient olive trees, some named after villager’s mothers, are uprooted in front of his eyes. He even keeps his cool after Salam Fayyad and his staff ignore his gentle pleading for them to attend a reception that the villagers organized in honor of their visit.
Respected by many Palestinians for the years of suffering he endured in prison, Morrar seems to be a pillar of restrained strength and a devoted leader of the Palestinian cause. Standing by Fayyad who appears to avoid the camera, one sees Morrar as part of the real struggle on the ground, far removed from the decisions made by Fayyad’s government as revealed in the Palestine Papers.
Then there is the other side, mostly represented by Israeli squad commander Yasmine Levy who says she joined the border patrol because it offered the most equality for Israeli women. Levy finds the presence of female Palestinian demonstrators unsettling and expresses some admiration for how “they went to all lengths to ensure their land would remain theirs.” But the women’s participation (which the film misleadingly presents as unique) doesn’t appear to warm Levy to the general Palestinian struggle for equality. Other than becoming visibly annoyed by the female villagers chanting her name in Arabic while encouraging her to join them, Levy follows her orders to the tee.
Levy’s cool and seemingly unchallengeable perspective is presented as the center Israeli point of view when compared to Doron Spielman, an army captain, who represents the right. With his perfect American accent Spielman toes the regular Israeli spokesperson line, arguing that the wall is merely a security measure which while “extremely unfortunate to the lives of the Palestinian people” is “less unfortunate than the death of an Israeli civilian.”
The Leftist Israeli activists who join the villagers in their unarmed struggle don’t see things through Spielman’s black and white lens however. Challenging his painted image of violent Palestinians that need to be contained like animals, the activists are welcomed by the villagers who stand up for them when they are being bullied by their fellow Israelis.
An Israeli presence at protests helps Palestinians because the soldiers are then legally required to be more careful, but the film highlights important scenes that result behind the front lines as well. Unlikely friendships are forged between Morrar’s 15-year-old daughter Iltezam and female Israeli activists. Even her father’s friend and co-organizer Ahmed Awwad, a teacher and Hamas member, has his expectations “exceeded” by the Israelis’ willingness to risk their own lives for Palestinians. Common ideas of oppressor and victim and shared hatred in Israel-Palestine are challenged by many of the film’s scenes as well. For a moment everyone seems equal when a young Palestinian boy serves tea to grateful older Israeli activists.
But Budrus’s feel-good story of success is rare in occupied Palestine. One wonders if it would have received such positive reviews in the mainstream press if it had charted the same struggle that has been taking place in nearby Bil’in. Despite years of organized non-violent resistance, 60% of Bil’in’s land has been illegally confiscated for settlement building and two of the village’s non-violent demonstrators have been killed. The non-violent protests continue along with international and Israeli activists on a weekly basis, but little seems to be swaying the Israeli forces this time.
Certainly Bacha could not forsee the deadly violence that took place against peaceful resisters in the years after the Budrus’s completion, but in a film that puts so much emphasis on non-violent resistance, little is done to explore the complexities surrounding the adoption of the tactic. In Palestine, where Israel continues to violently repress peaceful Palestinains with impunity, how much has non-violence achieved? As stated by Arundhati Roy during a June 2011 Guardian interview about India’s Maoist guerrilla movement, the tactic is only effective when the world is watching: “Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience? People have the right to resist annihilation.”
Budrus certainly has educational value for people who are used to hearing one-sided takes on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and Bacha is careful not infuse the film with bias or opinion. But its failure to explore the greater history of the region, marked as it is by years of unsuccessful non-violent Palestinian resistance, especially during the early years of the first intifada, makes it a tiny part of the big picture. As long as it’s not confused for more than that, the hope Budrus inspires is welcome. Especially when hope seems to be the only thing that’s keeping the far less visible peaceful struggles in Bil’in and Ni’lin still going.
Jasmin Ramsey is a freelance journalist, writer and editor