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Nonviolent protest gains in West Bank

A Supreme Court decision in favor of one protesting village has inspired others.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 24, 2007

Al Walajeh, West Bank

"All those who love the prophet should lend a hand!"

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Ten shouting Palestinians were pushing against one boulder, but the primitive Israeli roadblock cutting off the tiny Palestinian village from Bethlehem was not budging. Then, with the help of two giant crowbars, an Israel protester, and a Japanese backpacker, the group heaved the stone aside, opening the road for the first time in three years.

"Tomorrow they'll bring a bulldozer and move it back," sighed Sheerin Alaraj, a village resident and a demonstration organizer. "Then next week we'll come back again to protest."

Inspired by the experience of other Palestinian villages, the Al Walajeh demonstrators are part of a small but growing core of protesters combining civil disobedience with legal petitions to fight Israeli policies.

Earlier this month, the village of Bilin, which has held weekly protests since 2004, garnered widespread attention and praise in the Palestinian press when the Israeli Supreme Court ordered a part of the military's separation barrier near Bilin to be dismantled. Increasingly, other Palestinian villages are following Bilin's lead, though it remains to be seen whether this kernel of nonviolence will grow into a full-fledged movement.

"Before Bilin, people never had faith it would achieve anything, neither nonviolence, nor the legal system," says Mohammed Dajani, a political science professor at Al Quds University. "Maybe this will be a response to the skeptics, that, 'Look, it works.' "

Nonviolence means more attention

While Palestinian militants dominate international headlines through suicide bombings and firing rockets on Israeli towns, residents of Bilin and a handful of other tiny farming villages like Al Walajeh have eschewed the armed struggle. Instead, they have linked arms with Israeli peace activists and chained themselves to trees to delay Army bulldozers cutting a swath for an electronic fence severing the villagers from their land.

Though Palestinians glorify the armed militiamen and those killed in battle with Israel, protest leaders say the nonlethal tactics have one crucial advantage: it attracts Israeli and international peace activists, who in turn bring sympathetic media coverage.

The leaders sound like a Palestinian version of Martin Luther King Jr., and their voices have become more prominent in the ongoing debate about whether peaceful or military actions will win their statehood.

"We use nonviolence as a way of life.... We learned from many experiences: like India, Martin Luther [King], and South Africa," says Samer Jabber, who oversees a network of activists in the villages surrounding Bethlehem.

Every Friday in Bilin for the past three years the protesters have faced tear gas, rubber bullets, and beatings that have caused hundreds of injuries. Demonstrators sometimes threw rocks, one of which caused a soldier to lose an eye. (While leaders say they're against such violence, followers don't always hold the line.)