In the week that Israelis and Palestinians agreed to return to the negotiating table after a three-year hiatus, I met with representatives of the “Popular Committees” in the West Bank village of Bil’in. They are behind what they call the “popular Palestinian struggle against the separation fence and the Israeli occupation.” During our meeting they stressed repeatedly that they regard their popular struggle as nonviolent and run it accordingly.
One word constantly tossed about was the Arabic term silmi, which has no equivalent in either Hebrew or English. It means something like “amiable” and is the opposite of “belligerent." On the other hand, the demonstrations and protests against the separation fence that began in the village of Mas’ha in Samaria in 2003 and spread to the villages of Budrus, Bil’in and Ni’lin, and from there to all the towns and villages surrounded by the separation fence, were not always conducted “amiably.”
For ten years, opponents of the fence organized demonstrations and protests. They carried signs and chanted slogans denouncing the occupation and the separation fence. Young people often stoned the Israeli border police and soldiers, and injuries and arrests became a routine part of these demonstrations. It was hardly amiable.
Over the years, these Palestinian demonstrators were joined by dozens and even hundreds of Israelis from various left-wing organizations who came to express their solidarity with the Palestinians. These Israeli demonstrators succeeded in raising awareness of the demonstrations among the Israeli and international public.
During such a demonstration this week on July 20, in the village of Nabi Saleh in Samaria, Sarit Michaeli, the spokeswoman for B’Tselem, was wounded by a rubber-coated bullet which struck her in the leg. As part of her work, Michaeli regularly disseminates press releases from B’Tselem, an organization whose goal is to address human rights violations in the occupied territories and to combat the way these violations are both suppressed and denied by the Israeli public. This week, she reported about her own injury.
“It’s not entirely clear to me why that soldier fired a shot in my direction. I wasn’t standing in the way of where the soldiers were running, and I wasn’t doing anything that could be interpreted as a threat against the troops. They saw me holding a video camera and standing off to the side, not blocking the way that they were charging. To hit me, that soldier had to aim his gun at me, or at the two Palestinian women who were demonstrating near me. No one standing anywhere near me was throwing any stones,” she said.
“Sadly, Michaeli felt what we’ve been experiencing for years,” said the representatives of the Popular Committees’ coordinating committee during our meeting in Bil’in. Each of them had their own story about being wounded and arrested.
Ashraf Abu Rahma, who attended the meeting, was captured on camera by B’Tselem in 2008, when he was wounded during a demonstration in Ni’lin. At the time, his hands were bound and he was blindfolded. The footage, which included a dialogue between battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Omri Borberg and the soldier who shot Abu Rahma in the foot, caused a public outcry at the time, and resulted in both the officer and the soldier being court-martialed.
Materials presented to the court substantiated the ease with which rubber bullets were used against unarmed people protesting the separation fence, and more generally as an implacable means of dispersing demonstrations.
“What do you think?” we hear the officer ask the soldier, in an attempt to frighten the detainee, Abu Rahma. “Should we fire a rubber bullet at him?”
“I have no problem shooting him with a rubber [bullet],” the soldier answers. With that, the officer lifts the prisoner up, leads him to a nearby military Jeep and instructs the soldier to load his rifle.
“I already have a bullet in the chamber,” the soldier responds. While the officer is still holding Abu Rahma and chatting with a border police officer nearby, the soldier aims his gun at the prisoner’s shoe and fires a rubber bullet at him at close range. The prisoner is still handcuffed and blindfolded.
Sitting beside Abu Rahma was Mohammed Khatib, one of the leaders of the committees in Bil’in. At age 38, he walks with crutches due to an old injury. Other members who attended the meeting also bore scars from rubber bullets. They had all reached the same surprising conclusion: The popular struggle, the silmi, failed to achieve its goals. It simply didn’t work.
“How could you say that?” I asked them. “There isn’t anyone in the world who hasn’t heard about the struggle you are waging with such determination. They even made three documentary films about you, which were seen by hundreds of thousands of people around the world, if not more. There was "Budrus," "Bil'in My Love" and "Five Broken Cameras," which was nominated for an American Academy Award this year.”
“If, in all these years, we haven’t managed to bring more than 600 people to a demonstration at most, and we have failed to make significant headway in Palestinian public opinion, and Israeli public opinion, too, we can only conclude that we failed,” said Khatib.
His brother Ahmad added, “I was part of the armed struggle, and I even spent time in an Israeli prison from 2000, when the Second Intifada began, until 2005. I joined the popular struggle after I was released, out of the realization and understanding that I don’t want to harm Israelis. But look at what happened. Ever since the intifada ended and the armed struggle stopped, the Palestinian issue has dropped off the public’s agenda. I watch Israeli television channels, and I don’t see any mention of the Palestinian issue. It’s as if there’s no problem, as if there’s no occupation, as if there were no Palestinians at all.”
I write about the frustration felt by my friends in the Popular Committees on the eve of the resumption of negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians because of the feeling they have that the amiable path, the path of silmi, has failed. I can’t help but consider the inevitable result of this conclusion. Though none of the committee members I met in Bil’in ever mentioned the possibility of a return to armed struggle and a new intifada, they also don’t believe that the negotiations will have any tangible results in the foreseeable future.
“Take a look at Modi’in Illit, which you can see from here,” they told me. The Jewish ultra-Orthodox city, which was built near Bil’in, looks like a booming metropolis from where they are. Its buildings rise in crowded clusters from the hills of Samaria, illuminated by flickering lights. Only a single, winding fence separates them — or rather, isolates them — from their neighbors.
“Who’s going to evacuate them? Who can overcome them?” they asked.
It was because of these very concerns that they reached a unanimous decision: They would carry on with the popular protest even while the Palestinians and Israelis are negotiating a peace agreement, as if no negotiations were underway.
I was reminded of late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s statement after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the series of Hamas terrorist attacks intended to subvert the peace process: “We will continue to fight against terrorism as if there is no peace, and we will continue to talk peace as if there is no terrorism.” In the end, terrorism won. Will it end any differently this time?
At this juncture, with this sense of frustration running rampant, one question reverberates through everybody’s heads: What will happen if these peace negotiations reach a gridlock? The popular struggle barely made the news and failed to attract hundreds of thousands of Palestinians like the intifada did. Will it become a violent struggle now?
Knesset member Ahmad Tibi (Ta'al) was forthright about what he thinks will happen: “The failure of the talks will lead to an intifada,” he declared.
The leaders of the Popular Committees feel the same way, but unlike Tibi, they prefer to avoid unequivocal pronouncements. They would rather insinuate their feelings instead. Nevertheless, they have yet to abandon the path of silmi. Maybe now, with the talks underway, they have a chance of bringing about change.
Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.