"All those who love the prophet should lend a hand!"
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.)
"The belief in one's rights is more important than anything else. If I am confident about my rights, nothing will make me despair," says Iyad Burnat, a Bilin resident and one of the protest leaders. "When you resist an Israeli soldier by peaceful means, their weapons become irrelevant."
The strategy paid off when the Supreme Court ruled that the current path of the fence around Bilin offered no security advantages. Villagers will now be able to reach their crops without having to pass through gates in the fence manned by soldiers.
In Al Walajeh, Ms. Alaraj says the protests would be meaningless without a challenge in the Israeli courts. Villagers fear that the construction of the separation wall – set to be more than 400 miles long total, affecting 92 Palestinian communities – will leave the hamlet completely surrounded.
Praise from the Palestinian press
Even though the Bilin ruling was not the first time the court ordered a portion of the barrier moved, it has resonated widely among Palestinians.
"It has become obvious that popular civil resistance has become the best way for national resistance from the occupation," wrote Waleed Salem in an Al Quds newspaper op-ed.
The civil disobedience taps into Palestinian nostalgia for the first intifada in the late 1980s, marked by grass-roots participation and stone-throwing.The current uprising is led by a network of underground militias, most of which have ties to political parties.
A way to heal Palestinian rifts, too
Just three months after Palestinians watched Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip from the Fatah-run militias, nonviolent protest against Israel is being seen as a way to heal rifts among Palestinians.
"Armed struggle has a side effect on the occupied people. Palestinians start to use this tool against the occupation, but in the end they use it against themselves," says Jabber. "Violence has become part of the culture. We realize that we have to reform."
In 2002, an open letter by Palestinian intellectuals against the use of suicide bombing failed to trigger a change in the uprising. Now, the demonstrations draw, at best, several hundred protesters – possibly because the protests are taking place in poor and isolated villages.Last Friday, only several dozen came out to move the boulders in Al-Walajeh. Palestinians say that after seven years of daily conflict, people are exhausted. "It's because of frustration," says Alaraj. "There's been real poverty in the last two years. And when you're not eating, then you don't think of anything else."
The opening of the road, organizers hope, will encourage more people to join the protests. "If everyone moves forward toward that objective it will be most effective," says Abdel Hajajreh, a demonstrator. "Don't forget, Gandhi liberated an entire country."