A delegation of prominent former statespersons and business leaders known as the Elders meets with appointed Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (third from right) in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, 26 April 2009. (Mustafa Abu Dayeh/POOL/MaanImages)
Thursday, 27 August was a special day in Bilin. Dozens of blacked-out SUVs approached the village, disturbing the quiet of a usually peaceful morning. However, unlike the Israeli occupation forces who come at night to arrest boys from the village, this arrival was extremely welcome.
The SUV passengers were a truly respected group of international diplomats, known as the Elders. Among the delegation were Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former US President Jimmy Carter, both outspoken critics of the form of apartheid being imposed upon the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Also present were former Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso, Indian “gentle revolutionary” Ela Bhatt, the first woman president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and former Director-General of the World Health Organization, Gro Brundtland. They were joined by Jeff Skoll, founding president of eBay and Richard Branson, Virgin multi-millionaire and co-founder of the Elders.
As part of their four-day trip to the Middle East, the Elders came to Bilin to see the daily impact of Israel’s occupation and its apartheid wall on the daily lives of Palestinians. They were also very interested to hear how residents are responding to the oppression they face through a campaign of nonviolent resistance.
After stopping at the Village Council to pick up selected members of the Bilin Popular Committee, the Elders made their way toward the wall and the site of Bilin’s weekly nonviolent demonstrations. With Israeli soldiers looking on, they laid stones at the grave of Bassem Abu Rahme, the Palestinian man killed at one such demonstration in April of this year, when he was shot in the chest with a high-velocity tear gas projectile fired from close range.
At the request of gathered reporters, Desmond Tutu made an impromptu statement: “Mahatma Gandhi, as a simple man, led his people to freedom through nonviolent methods. Rosa Parks followed in his footsteps, and now the people of Bilin will do the same!”
Former US President Jimmy Carter added that “We are standing here on Palestinian land and on the other side of the wall is also Palestinian land! This occupation must end.”
Next was the short drive back to the village council, where the Elders were to have a meeting with members of the local popular committee. Security was extremely tight, and only eight persons, selected in advance, were allowed to attend. But thanks to my wheelchair and some quick thinking, I managed to enter.
In the meeting, Abdullah Abu Rahme, coordinator of the popular committee, introduced his fellow attendees and thanked the Elders for their visit, before handing the meeting over to village activist Mohammed Khatib.
Khatib explained the origins of Bilin’s popular nonviolent struggle against the wall:
A few years ago, the Israeli army set up a checkpoint at the entrance of Bilin, which you had to pass through on foot. The soldiers had stretched a thin line of tape [over the entrance], one meter from the ground — anyone could cut it, of course, but because of the soldiers you didn’t dare. So, instead, we had to crawl under the tape as if we were praying. This was done deliberately to humiliate us.
But there was one young man from the Abu Salim family, someone we knew, who refused to crawl under it. He cut the tape and they shot him in the leg. He sat there bleeding, in front of our eyes, for two hours, and no one was allowed to help or give him treatment. We called an ambulance but the soldiers stopped it. There is nothing more painful than being powerless in this kind of situation.
The Israeli media reported that the soldier had shot the Palestinian in self-defense. That was a lie, of course, but it was published as factual.
When the story about Abu Salim got out, the al-Aqsa [Martyrs’ Brigade] decided to carry out a response operation. We later heard seven soldiers at the checkpoint were killed.
Our first reaction in Bilin was “good for al-Aqsa.” But later we realized that these were not the same soldiers who had killed our friend two weeks before. A new unit had taken over the checkpoint, so these soldiers had taken the punishment for what the old soldiers had done. It made us wonder — this cycle of death, of action and reaction, how can we break it?
Next to speak was Rajaa Abu Rahme, a young student from the village. On 10 July, Rajaa’s father, Adeeb Abu Rahme, was arrested while participating in the weekly nonviolent demonstration against the wall. Adeeb was charged with “incitement to violence,” based on the supposed “confessions” of two 16-year-old boys the Israeli military had previously taken from the village, and sentenced to 101 days in prison, renewable for an indefinite period.
“I am not talking to you as politicians,” Rajaa told the Elders, “I am talking to you as mothers and fathers.”
As she told her story, I could see tears forming in Branson’s eyes.
“My sister is getting married soon, I will be graduating,” Rajaa continued, “and our father will not be able to share our joy. I just want to see my father free.”
Also present in the meeting was Shai Pollak, an Israeli activist and long-time supporter of the people of Bilin — “a member of the family” as Mohammed Khatib described him.
“Twenty years ago, I did my military service,” Shai explained, “but if I knew then what I know now, I never would have served in the Israeli army.”
“Israeli society today is becoming increasingly closed off,” Shai continued, “making pressure from outside even more important. After the second intifada, I went and met with literally thousands of Palestinians. While my friends in Tel Aviv were telling me they would stab me with a knife, the opposite was true. Everyone I met welcomed me with open arms, because the Palestinian people want a peaceful solution.”
The visit of these world leaders to Bilin was a clear message to the Israeli government, that they are opposed to the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people. Now, it is time for the leaders currently in power to follow suit.
Jody McIntyre is a journalist from the United Kingdom, currently living in the occupied West Bank village of Bilin. Jody has cerebral palsy, and travels in a wheelchair. He writes a blog for Ctrl.Alt.Shift, entitled “Life on Wheels,” which can be found at www.ctrlaltshift.co.uk. He can be reached at jody.mcintyre AT gmail DOT com. A version of this article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.