Palestinian nonviolence: Is the Budrus model still viable?

The recent film 'Budrus' champions a West Bank village's nonviolent resistance that inspired more than 15 similar protest movements. But the momentum is waning.

Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
Palestinian women shout anti-Israel slogans during a demonstration by hundreds of Palestinians against the construction of the Israeli 'Security fence' which goes over their land in the West Bank village of Budrus on Dec. 2003. The film, called 'Budrus,' champions the West Bank village of the same name as a model of nonviolent resistance.

With Middle East peace talks on the brink after the US this week gave up on an Israeli settlement freeze, Palestinians are reevaluating their options for securing statehood.

Amid disappointment with both negotiations and violence, a documentary film now showing around the globe highlights the nonviolence protest movement as a hopeful alternative.

The film, called "Budrus," champions the West Bank village of the same name as a model of nonviolent resistance. It profiles the 2003 struggle of a Palestinian father and daughter who brought together Fatah, Hamas, and even Israelis, to prevent their village from being divided by the Israeli separation barrier.

After 10 months of protests, Israel scrapped its plans to put 300 acres of Budrus's land on the Israeli side of the wall, instead rerouting the barrier, says Ayed Morrar, who led the demonstrations.

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Budrus’s success has spurred at least 15 similar movements in towns across the West Bank, perhaps most notably in the central West Bank village of Bilin. The protests stand out against earlier forms of resistance to Israeli rule, such as the suicide bombings of the second intifada that began in 2000.

“Bilin has become a symbol, a subject of Master’s theses, films, blogs, and articles," says Menachem Klein, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "Budrus and Bilin maintain the resistance while the Palestinian elite attend talks and readily accept painful concessions on settlements.”

Yet he calls these weekly events a “ceremony” that may not actually achieve change.

Why Budrus model has met with limited success

Indeed, even as "Budrus" is embraced by audiences from America to Germany to the West Bank, the momentum generated by Budrus is waning. Only nine villages hold regular demonstrations and they are often met with a harsh Israeli response, Mr. Morrar says. Now, the model of nonviolence appears to be faltering amid lack of a unified leadership and apathy among local Palestinians.

Protest leaders acknowledge that while Morrar achieved tangible success, Palestinians as a whole have not reached their ultimate goal.

“Ayed succeeded in a specific goal, but in general as Palestinians we have not succeeded, because the goal is to remove the wall and end the occupation,” says Bassem Tamimi, who began leading demonstrations a year ago in nearby Nabi Saleh against the expansion of the neighboring Jewish settlement Halamish.

Mr. Tamimi, who met Morrar while the two protested together in the first intifada in the 1980s, said 150 locals have been injured by Israelis at the weekly protests in Nabi Saleh.

“The army has become more violent than before,” says Tamimi. “They are shooting five times more tear gas than before, and there are more rubber bullets and more soldiers.... They don’t want to give a message to other Palestinians that this small village can do something.”

Israeli army spokesman Barak Raz counters that the protests are “not peaceful sit-ins but very violent riots in which well over 100 security forces have been injured.” One soldier was hospitalized in early November after being hit in the head by a rock in Bilin.

Bilin organizer: Our expectations were lower

Mohammed Khatib, the organizer of the Bilin protests, says Budrus's model inspired him to protest the Israeli confiscation of village land. His village will mark six years of demonstrations in February.

Bilin protests attracted retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, former President Jimmy Carter, and Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – but also the Israeli military in the form of nighttime raids, the arrest of prominent activists, and the death last year of one protester after being hit with a tear gas canister. In early 2010, the army began rerouting the barrier to cede about 175 acres of land back to Bilin.

Asked why Bilin has struggled for more than five years with fewer results than Budrus achieved in 10 months, Khatib says the expectations were lower from the start.

“No one expected that we would manage to change the route of the wall even one centimeter,” he says.

Looking back at the first intifada

Tamimi, of Nabi Saleh, hopes to revive the first intifada, which began in 1987. Though it killed hundreds of Israelis and more than 1,000 Palestinians, nonviolent tactics such as strikes, protests and agricultural movements formed a key part of the uprising – and sparked international support.

But Prof. Klein said he doubts that a national movement like the first Intifada will materialize. “Without a national network, an organization building protests in different places, this will not turn into an Intifada,” Klein said.

In the first Intifada, the PLO played a role in organized local efforts into national ones, helping with the circulation of leaflets that advertised strikes and other actions.

Why Israeli and the PA want to contain protests

Both Israel and the PA have an interest in containing protests modeled after Budrus – Israel to prevent a non-violent Intifada that could embarrass Israel and the PA because a popular uprising could spiral into a bloody resistance, Klein says.

Abir Kopty, a press officer for the PA, says this is not true. The government is actively supporting the protest movements, both with funding and visits by prominent officials, including Mr. Fayyad, she says.

When asked whether the PA had initiated any large-scale national protests, Ms. Kopty says, “The government is busy now with the state-building project and preparing for statehood.”

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