Bilin activist: “Words are not enough”

Iyad Burnat being arrested by Israeli soldiers at a demonstration in Bilin. (Haitham al-Katib)

The following is Palestinian nonviolent resistance activist Iyad Burnat’s story as told to The Electronic Intifada contributor Jody McIntyre:

My name is Iyad Burnat. I am 37 years old, married with four children. I am the head of the Bilin Popular Committee.

I started my life in jail at 17, during the first intifada, a popular uprising amongst ordinary Palestinians. It was not the first time I participated in nonviolent resistance. I have always believed that this is the way to end the occupation. But as the intifada clearly showed, the Israeli military does not understand let alone sympathize with such methods.

One night, the Israeli army surrounded my home, and took my father from his bed to come and knock on my door. They told him that because I was a child, they just wanted to speak to me for five minutes. Some of the soldiers were dressed in civilian clothes, and they grabbed me as soon as I opened the door.

That five minutes became two years, in the worst place in the world — Naqab prison [in the Negev desert]. I spent the first 20 days in solitary confinement. I was kept in a room I could only stand up in, with terrible food and no showers, and during the night in a room I could lie down in but had a hole in the roof, at a time when it was raining and snowing. Every day the soldiers were beating me, and every night they would bang on the door so that I couldn’t sleep. The whole time, they were also asking me if I had thrown stones and what political party I belonged to, so in the end I admitted that I had, at some point, thrown stones. By the end of those 20 days, I smelled like an animal.

The jail was extremely bad. In the winter, water leaked from every corner, and in the summer it was unbearably hot. After six months inside, I got the first visit from my mother. My family left their home in Bilin at 3am, and didn’t return until late the next night, just to see me for 30 minutes. We couldn’t even shake hands because of the walls which separated us. She told me that my grandmother had died.

After two years in the Naqab prison, I was released, and given the new “green” ID, handed out after the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA). At the time, people with green IDs were not allowed to travel and were essentially under house arrest. Even now, Palestinians with green IDs are forbidden from traveling to Jerusalem, our capital.

In 2005, we began our nonviolent demonstrations in Bilin against Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank and the illegal settlements that have been built on our land. We practice nonviolent methods as a way of resisting, such as tying ourselves to our olive trees when they were due to be bulldozed and uprooted by the Israeli military. For the last five years, we have succeeded in sending our message to the whole world, to tell the people that Israel’s wall is not for security, but it is an apartheid wall built only to steal our land for the purpose of expanding illegal Israeli settlements.

On 4 September 2007, we had a major breakthrough. The Israeli high court made a decision ordering that the army remove the wall from the land of Bilin. Despite this, the Israeli military refused to heed the decision of the court, and instead resorted to violence in an attempt to crush our peaceful struggle. During our nonviolent demonstrations, they beat us with batons, fill the air with tear gas and sewage water, throw sound grenades, and shoot us with a range of projectiles, from lethal high-velocity tear gas canisters and rubber-coated steel bullets, to live ammunition. Over 1,000 people have been injured, more than 200 arrested, and one close friend of mine, Bassem Abu Rahme, has been killed.

The Israeli authorities want to stop us because they are afraid of our model of nonviolent resistance, and fear that the world is waking up to the reality of this situation.

During one demonstration, we had marched to the wall as usual, and Israeli forces immediately began shooting tear gas and rubber bullets. I was caught in the crossfire and started to suffer from severe tear gas inhalation. When I stopped running to allow the doctors to treat me, I saw two soldiers approaching. They told me that I was under arrest, and that they had photos of me throwing stones.

They put me on the other side of the wall, near the military base permanently stationed on our land, and the commanding officer came over with a photo in his hand. He asked me who the man in the photo was, but I didn’t recognize him. He said that if I told him where the man lived he would release me, but I couldn’t. So he told me that in the courts he would claim that it was me, and took me away.

After spending eight days in Ofer prison, I was finally taken into court. The moment the judge saw the photo he said it wasn’t me, and that the prosecution had another 24 hours to bring additional evidence. When they couldn’t, I was ordered to pay 4,000 shekels ($1,060) bail for my release. I told my lawyer that I would not pay one penny, and after one day I was back at home with my family.

During the last five years, the Israeli military has invaded my house many times. The worst thing is that I cannot look at the faces of my children because I am afraid that if I describe their fearful expressions I will start to cry. I want my children to see that I am strong in front of the army. The soldiers don’t seem to care whether Palestinians are adults or children — they start to kick the doors, throw the children outside, and ransack their bedrooms. If my children see their father being beaten by soldiers — I cannot describe how difficult this is.

But I have taught them that every time I am arrested you must continue this struggle, even if I am killed you must continue. I have told them not to be afraid, because we are on the side of justice, and we must return to our land.

None of the kids in the village can sleep anymore, because of the night raids during the last five years. The Israeli military invade the village in the early hours, shooting sound grenades in the streets and tear gas into people’s homes. Six months ago, the most recent wave of these night raids began and the soldiers invaded almost every night. They relaunched a campaign of harassment and intimidation against the people of Bilin, in an attempt to arrest all the people who participate in our nonviolent demonstrations and subject the rest of our residents to a constant state of terror. Since this most recent wave of night raids begun, we haven’t slept a single night.

I remember after one of our demonstrations, I came home and read in the news that US President Barack Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. I started to go crazy! The Americans are still in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Palestine is still under occupation. We haven’t seen any change, so I wondered why they didn’t give the prize to George W. Bush, when he was in power.

I am so sorry Mr. Bush — you worked so hard for eight years, killing children, starting wars around the world, and supporting the Israeli occupation of our land, and they gave the prize to another man! And you got a pair of shoes instead? That is a real injustice.

We are a simple people, and more than anything we want to see peace, but before there is peace there must be justice, and we must have our freedom. We are not against Jews or Israelis, but we are against the occupation.

One of the important elements of our struggle is the international volunteers who come to stay in the village. They are our messengers to the outside world, and it is so important for them to tell our story in their own countries, in order to counter the strength of Israeli propaganda in the mainstream media.

But words are not enough. We need people to be taking direct action, both here, and in their own countries against the embassies and governments who support this occupation.

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 He can be reached at jody.mcintyre AT gmail DOT com.