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Beyond Bil’in: BDS and Israel’s Crackdown on the Palestinian Popular Struggle

Nora Barrows-Friedman
Date Published: 
April 1, 2010

“The Israeli soldiers came in the middle of the night. My kids, my wife, and I were sleeping. They woke us all up, threw us out of the house, and searched our home. They took me to Ofer jail in the morning, and then they started interrogating me about my position in the popular committee and my activities. They want me to stop being part of this movement. They don't want to see any kind of resistance to this occupation.”

Mohammed Khatib is a leader in the West Bank village of Bil’in’s Popular Committee Against the Wall. He spoke to me the evening following his release from five days in Israeli detention, after a military court admitted it could not find evidence to charge him with a crime. He was one of several hundred nonviolent peace activists arrested and interrogated over the last several months. Nearly every day, armed Israeli forces invade cities, towns, refugee camps, and villages to raid homes and arbitrarily arrest Palestinians who exercise their legitimate right to protest.

In the year following its US-armed and financed massacre in the occupied Gaza strip that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, Israel is facing growing international indignation and an expanding public relations nightmare. This comes on the heels of the publication of the Goldstone Report, a 575-page investigation by the United Nations into war crimes committed by the Israeli military during the Gaza attacks. But instead of acquiescing to international law and investigating its conduct during the war, Israel has chosen to maintain the suffocating blockade on Gaza, continue the construction of the apartheid wall and expansion of the West Bank/East Jerusalem settlement colonies, and launch an aggressive wave of unrelenting attacks against resistance activists and movement organizers.

According to Anarchists Against the Wall (AATW), more than 100 Palestinian activists from the village of Ni’lin alone have been arrested since May 2008. Additionally, between mid-December 2009 and mid-January 2010, there have been more than 15 pre-dawn military invasions into just that one village in what AATW defines as a continuation of a concerted assault on the popular struggle movement and its leadership. Ni’ilin and Bil’in have both held weekly demonstrations against the encroaching settlement colonies and the wall for the last five years, and have been the most high-profile villages in the West Bank to do so. Nearly 20 Palestinians have been shot and killed by live ammunition during these protests.

As these sweeping arrest campaigns began to sharply escalate in the fall of 2009, Palestinian civil society had stepped up their demands of accountability from the increasingly compliant and collusive Palestinian National Authority (PNA). The PNA’s quisling leader, Mahmoud Abbas, was met with sustained fury from thousands of protesters and countless civil society organizations across occupied Palestine immediately after he sought to delay a UN Human Rights Council vote to endorse the Goldstone Report—a move many believed was due to direct Israeli and US pressure.

Because of the protests, the PNA ended up meekly endorsing Goldstone, but its credibility in the eyes of its constituents remains critically bruised. Nour Odeh of al-Jazeera reported in October 2009 that the eventual redaction of the PNA’s position on the report was perhaps “an admission that the outrage, public and official, across the Palestinian political spectrum, has been unbearable for the Palestinian president.”

Jamal Juma’

Jamal Juma’, coordinator of the Stop the Wall Campaign, was arrested in December and detained, tortured, and interrogated for a month as a result of his nonviolent civil disobedience organizing. He asserts that the PNA’s compliance with Israeli and US policies has been unbearable for the Palestinian people as well. “This has created a total distrust between the people and the President,” he says. “We can’t trust that the Authority is the voice of the people anymore.” Juma’ notes that the PNA is acutely aware that it cannot control or suppress a united Palestinian civil society, pointing out that this is something understood by Israel as well. And though the PNA has been a complacent subcontractor of its occupation for years, that paradigm is crumbling as civil society proves its strength. Juma’ says this is why we are now witnessing a torrent of attacks against the roots of the movement while the PNA turns a blind eye.

The arrest and imprisonment of Khatib and Juma’, along with Stop the Wall co-coordinators Mohammed Othman and Abdullah abu Rahma, have galvanized widespread international support for their cases. Juma’ says that his release from detention was due in large part to thousands of letters and phone calls from supporters in Europe and North America to the Israeli interior ministry. Abu Rahma is the only one of the four who remains in jail (see his letter from prison).

The fact is, since the height of the second intifada in 2002, as the apartheid wall began to slice its way into the West Bank, rank-and-file activists have continued to face arbitrary attacks and arrests in their villages away from the spotlight of the internationally appointed activism hubs of Bil’in, Ni’ilin, and Ramallah. These attacks have been just as common and lethal but have not gotten the same international attention and support.

“The Israeli military has always had a tendency to focus on particular towns, villages, and refugee camps which they consider to be points of resistance or trouble-makers,” notes Bekah Wolf of the Palestine Solidarity Project based in Beit Ommar. “Places like Budrus, right next to Bil’in and Ni’ilin, were designated as such for years after its relatively successful campaign to move the path of the wall to the green line in 2004. For years afterward—up until 2007 and still sporadically to this day—the Israeli military would go out of its way to ‘patrol’ this tiny town of 1,100 people, and engaged in nighttime raids and arrests of youth that were accused of throwing stones.”

Beit Ommar

Beit Ommar, a mid-sized village sandwiched between Bethlehem and Hebron (al-Khalil) in the southern West Bank, is a prime example of a designated “rebellions” village, says Wolf. Its proximity to fundamentalist right-wing settlement areas and the steady, creative, and spontaneous protests by its villagers have resulted in frequent and aggressive Israeli assaults away from the internationally recognized, alternative media-saturated popular resistance areas.

Groups of people in these overlooked villages, Wolf reports, often assemble spontaneously (and without media attention) to directly challenge the presence of those settlements and the military. People in Beit Ommar seem to epitomize the very essence of civil disobedience on a daily basis. Farmers work the land right next to the settlement colonies, and refuse to leave when heavily armed settlement security comes and threatens them. People swarm military patrols when Israeli troops try to arrest youth. Wolf says that the reaction to this kind of resistance is expectedly draconian and merciless. Palestinian youth are regularly abducted and arrested in nighttime raids, and charged with throwing stones, a “crime” that Israel says is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Wolf adds, “[Israel’s] theory is if they can take the spokesmen for the anti-wall and anti-apartheid work out, it will take the air out of the entire campaign. But it’s really important to remember that the most damaging element of the arrest campaigns—the mass-arrests of youth and young men from their homes in the night—is not new. Certainly, the Israeli military is using the arrest campaigns as a form of harassment to prove that these high-profile leaders are not invincible.”

In the first week of February 2010, nine villagers from Beit Ommar were rounded up in a single nighttime raid, arrested, and sent off to detention. A little more than a week earlier, five others were arrested in a similar invasion. Though the New York Times blithely covered Bil’in’s recent troubles—albeit in a way that gave the Israeli Army major quoted in the article a platform to characterize the protests as “violent, illegal, and dangerous riots”—it failed to mention that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of Bil’ins up and down the West Bank and inside the microcosm of occupied East Jerusalem.


Activists say that as Israel’s crackdown on Palestinian popular resistance organizers expands, so should the support of the global Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaigns and the pursuit of legal challenges to the state’s unlawful and deadly apartheid policies.  In this vein, Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists have launched meticulous lawsuits against the apartheid structure of the occupation. Khatib, for one, has been instrumental in petitioning the Israeli High Court for injunctions to block the wall and the spreading settlements.

Village committees are working together to challenge racist military orders, including the prohibition of Palestinians from using settler-only bypass roads that crisscross the West Bank. In the international forum, investigations launched by the Goldstone Report could lead to a referral of the entire case to the International Criminal Court, and would set a precedent for Israeli officials to encounter war crimes charges if they travel abroad.

At the same time, significant BDS successes around the US and Europe have made Israel visibly uneasy. Dexia Bank (France/Belgium) stopped its funding of Israeli settlement colonies. The European Union recently imposed strict customs sanctions on products manufactured in the settlements. The Norwegian government disinvested from the Israeli hi-tech contracting company Elbit Systems because of its direct involvement with the construction of the apartheid wall. The list goes on.

On the North American continent, campus-based divestment activities are on a roll. Empowered by Hampshire College’s BDS victory in 2009, numerous college student groups across the US and Canada are actively combing through their institutions’ corporate funding ties to the Israeli occupation and demanding divestment.

Richard Falk, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, writes in the Electronic Intifada that Israel is clearly feeling the effects of the public relations fallout in the wake of the Goldstone Report and an upsurge in BDS successes, especially in the past year. “Increasingly, the Palestinians have been winning this...non-military war [of legitimacy],” he comments. “Such a war fought on a global political battlefield is what eventually and unexpectedly undermined the apartheid regime in South Africa, and has become much more threatening to the Israeli sense of security than has armed Palestinian resistance.” 

Falk says that the report, though it is unlikely to be the final catalyst “to break the inter-governmental refusal to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza or to induce the UN to challenge Israeli impunity in any meaningful way,” is still an invaluable document that is helping to broaden the global BDS movement against Israeli apartheid.

Jonathan Pollack of AATW says the emerging popular struggle in Palestine—from the high-profile areas to the refugee camps to villages like Beit Ommar—has the capacity to engage much more solidarity as Israel’s attacks continue. “It is important to strengthen the international movement against the occupation,” Pollack says. “Its power depends on a growing popular resistance in Palestine and, to an extent, on the images of Israel crushing it. The boycott campaign against South Africa was successful because people all over the world saw the images of the military crushing popular resistance.”

Jamal Juma’ agrees: “If Israel thinks that by arresting, attacking, and killing people they will stop the movement, they’re wrong. During the first intifada, we showed that popular resistance would spread the more that Israel attacked. Right now, we’re seeing the same dynamic.”

At the time of this writing, it’s been pouring rain for weeks in Palestine. Juma’ says that every day, at any given time, Palestinians are braving the constant thunderstorms and blistering cold to demonstrate for their rights. He says, simply, “this movement is about the dignity of the Palestinian people. We will not be silenced by more oppression, beatings, and jailings. We’re not afraid.”


Nora Barrows-Friedman is the Senior Producer and co-host of Flashpoints, heard daily on Pacifica Radio. She frequently travels to occupied Palestine as a correspondent to the Electronic Intifada, Truthout and Inter Press Service.