From Budrus to Bilin: Arresting Heroes

In our new film, our protagonist, Ayed Morrar, achieved what policymakers and policy wonks believe to be impossible: He united Hamas, Fatah and Israeli allies to save his village from destruction.
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One stark lesson from the collapse of the Oslo process ten years ago is that no top-down approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking will succeed without widespread support from the grassroots. Yet as talks predictably falter once again, the very civic leaders who are willing to risk their lives to promote a dignified, free, secure and rights-respecting future for both peoples are being jailed, harassed and silenced. In recent months, Palestinian nonviolence leaders in particular are facing a severe crackdown, just as their unarmed movements to end the occupation in cooperation with Israeli and international allies are picking up steam.

As our new film, Budrus, opens in theaters this week across the U.S., the U.K., Israel and in venues in Gaza and the West Bank, we are unable to obtain a permit from the Israeli government for our protagonist, Ayed Morrar, to enter Jerusalem. Without a permit, Ayed cannot speak to audiences in Israel, Gaza or the United States about the subject of the film: his steadfast commitment to, and historic success in utilizing, nonviolence to combat the occupation and thus advance peace.

Ayed achieved what policymakers and policy wonks believe to be impossible: He united Hamas, Fatah and Israeli allies in a 10-month, unarmed movement to save his village of Budrus from destruction by Israel's Separation Barrier; he brought women to the front lines; and he proved that, in the words of his 15-year-old daughter, Iltezam: "Even when you are small and have nothing, you can do all this." Together, father, daughter, Israeli activists and villagers succeeded in saving thousands of olive trees, their lands and the fabric of their community. What's more, they built lasting relations of trust that remain to this day, across partisan political, ethno-religious and gender divides. Indeed, when we brought the film back to the village several months ago following our premiere at the Dubai and Berlin International Film Festivals, members of all Palestinian political parties, Israelis and internationals attended. In all, more than 700 people crowded into the playground of the girl's school, where the film was projected off the side of the building since there was no hall big enough to accommodate the cheering crowd.

The story of Budrus is both uplifting and instructive: an embodiment of Margaret Mead's over-referenced but perhaps under-emulated observation of what thoughtful, committed citizens can accomplish. For this reason, it has garnered positive press attention and awards from New York to Jerusalem, and from Michigan to Madrid. Yet as the headlines remind us, it is clearly insufficient. The villagers of Budrus saved a 1,500 person village, yet other Palestinian lands continue to be confiscated in the interest of settlement expansion and barrier construction. Gaza remains a virtual prison and rockets continue to fall on Israelis.

Luckily, the village of Budrus is not alone. Dozens of "Popular Committees" in villages across the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been mobilizing without arms. Drowned out by headlines of militarism and militancy, they offer hope in an otherwise bleak and tired cycle of failed promises, rejectionism and hate.

In my capacity at Just Vision working with Palestinian and Israeli peacebuilders and nonviolence leaders to research, document and disseminate their stories, I have been asked repeatedly: "Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?" The implication is that if Palestinians would only adopt nonviolence, peace would emerge. If that were the case, then the Ayeds of the world would be welcomed with open arms -- by Israel, by America, Europe, the Arab World and beyond.

Unfortunately, nonviolence leaders have been deported, jailed and beaten over the years. Figures such as Mubarak Awad, a psychologist who sought to "de-occupy the minds" of Palestinians by demonstrating that they had the capacity to transform their circumstances through nonviolence, have been exiled by Israeli authorities. Awad now resides in Washington. In Dubai, when we screened Budrus, one reckless journalist from the region went so far as to accuse us of inventing the Israeli protagonists and calling the Palestinian leaders collaborators, since he had never seen Arabs and Jews standing side by side, risking their lives together without arms.

This week, West Bank nonviolence leader Abdallah Abu Rahmah received a 12-month prison sentence, of which he has already served 10 months awaiting trial, and has been ordered to pay close to $1,400 (NIS 5000) in fines. Like Ayed and the villagers of Budrus, Mr. Abu Rahmah has been working to salvage the lands of Bil'in from the path of the Barrier, which even the Israeli High Court of Justice -- its Supreme Court equivalent -- has ordered moved in Bil'in. As Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, stated: "Israel's conviction of Abu Rahmah for protesting the unlawful confiscation of his village's land is the unjust result of an unfair trial." She continued, "The Israeli authorities are effectively banning peaceful expression of political speech by convicting supporters of nonviolent resistance."

This is not an isolated incident. Mr. Abu Rahmah's case comes on the heels of arrests, detentions, night raids and the denial of permits to nonviolence leaders. Mr. Abu Rahmah, a coordinator of the Bil'in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, was initially charged with stone throwing and arms possession. Both charges were eventually thrown out but the latter was especially cynical since Abu Rahmah's collection of arms consisted of spent tear gas canisters and bullet cases fired by the Israeli military at the villagers and their allies. Rahmah was ultimately convicted of organizing and participating in illegal demonstrations, and of incitement, defined as "the attempt, verbally or otherwise, to influence public opinion in the Area in a way that may disturb the public peace or public order." Under these definitions, Ayed Morrar, his daughter Iltezam and their fellow villagers -- who at times referred to the Israeli activists as their own children -- would be subject to the same penalty if Budrus were mobilizing today.

These courageous Palestinian and Israeli civilians are our best hope for a peaceful future. They have the discipline, the will and the sheer chutzpah to stand down bulldozers, to endure beatings, tear gas, rubber coated steel bullets and jail, and to demand a free, safe and dignified future for us all.

WATCH the trailer for Budrus:

Ronit Avni is an award-winning filmmaker and human rights defender. She is the founder & executive of Just Vision, an organization dedicated to highlighting the stories of Palestinians and Israelis working to end the conflict without arms. At Just Vision, she directed and produced Encounter Point, and produced Budrus, which is opening in theaters across the U.S.
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