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Palestinians who see nonviolence as their weapon

Mohammed Khatib and his West Bank supporters hope to rally others to a peaceful campaign for statehood. But fellow Palestinians seem largely indifferent, and Israel's army is not amused.

November 04, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

BILIN, WEST BANK — Every Friday, Mohammed Khatib's forces assemble for battle with the Israeli army and gather their weapons: a bullhorn, banners -- and a fierce belief that peaceful protest can bring about a Palestinian state.

A few hundred strong, they march to the Israeli barrier that separates the tiny farming community of Bilin from much of its land. They chant and shout. A few teenagers throw stones.

Khatib helped launch the weekly ritual five years ago in an attempt to "re-brand" a Palestinian struggle often associated with rocket attacks and suicide bombers.

"Nonviolence is our most powerful weapon," says the media-savvy secretary of the Bilin village council. "If they cannot accuse us of terrorism, they cannot stop us. The world will support us."

The problem is, he doesn't get much support from other Palestinians. After two uprisings in two decades, they seem largely indifferent to his quixotic call for a third.

His message is a hard sell: Khatib, 35, is a modern-day Gandhi in a culture that enshrines the language of the gun, even if most Palestinians have never used one. And the risks of his activism are enormous.

The Israeli army has targeted him. He was arrested, severely beaten and threatened with death during a series of midnight raids on the village this summer. He was freed on condition that he report to an Israeli police station each Friday at the hour of the weekly protest.

Although the village has persisted with its marches and become a widely acclaimed symbol of civil disobedience, his vision of the "Bilin model" being replicated on a large scale across the West Bank has not materialized.

A few thousand Palestinian activists have been taught nonviolent principles and tactics in the last five years, according to the independent Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust, which conducts training. Their scattered initiatives have won limited relief from Israel's security restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But those efforts have not gelled into a mass movement, much less compelled Israel to move toward agreement on a Palestinian state.

Activists say they are hindered by Israeli crackdowns, resignation among ordinary Palestinians and a deep split in the political leadership between Hamas' advocacy of armed struggle and the Palestinian Authority's hope for a revival of U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel.

Relative calm prevails in the Palestinian territories, but Khatib says it cannot last long under the diplomatic impasse.

A trim, articulate man with closely cropped hair, he radiates a brooding intensity. In a long conversation, he spoke in rapid-fire sentences about his role models -- Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela -- while taking cellphone calls about the next move in a legal challenge to the barrier.

He believes Israel is trying to crush nonviolent activists because it would rather take on an armed insurgency.

"This doesn't make it any easier for us to convince people that our path of resistance is the right one," Khatib said. "It's going to be a slow process. There aren't many visible successes so far."

Khatib got his first taste of militancy as a teenager during the first intifada, the uprising that began in 1987. He blocked roads to try to keep the army out of his village, painted slogans on walls and flew the Palestinian flag, then an illegal act, at demonstrations.

The mass participation and relatively peaceful course of that uprising, when few Palestinians were armed with more than rocks, won sympathy abroad and a major concession: In the early 1990s, Israel recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization and began to consider the creation of a Palestinian state.

Today's nonviolence initiatives tap into nostalgia for the first intifada, in what Khatib calls a sober reaction to the armed uprising that bloodied the first half of this decade after peace talks broke down. More than 4,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis died.

Khatib, who dropped out when things turned violent, remembers the killings that changed him.

It was 2001. Khatib watched in horror as Israeli soldiers shot an unarmed friend at a checkpoint. Two weeks later, the militant Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade made a revenge attack on the checkpoint, killing seven soldiers.

"My first reaction was 'Good for Al Aqsa!' " Khatib said. Then he realized the dead soldiers belonged to a different unit, not the one on duty when his friend was shot.

"It made me wonder: This cycle of death, of violent action and reaction, how we can break it?"

His answer was to help organize a movement against the intifada's legacy: the barrier Israel built to protect against militant attacks but that also cut deep into parts of the West Bank, isolating Palestinians from 8% of the territory. The string of concrete walls, fences and patrol roads extends more than 280 miles.

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