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July 28, 2009

From Bil’in, Palestine: We refuse to die in silence

Karin Brothers

Karin BrothersA world-class drama is unfolding in Canada.

The Palestinian village of Bil’in is taking two Quebec-based corporations, Green Park International and Green Mount International, to court on charges that they are committing war crimes by building on Bil’in farmland, as agents of Israel, for the illegal settlement of Modi’in Illit.

The corporations, assumed to be shell corporations located in Quebec, for tax reasons, have been trying to have this case dismissed by procedural ploys, including a challenge to the jurisdiction, in the Montreal Courthouse, on June 22, 2009.

Mohammad Khatib, a Bil’in leader, Israeli lawyer Emily Schaeffer, and Canadian lawyer Mark Arnold, are traveling across Canada to explain the significance of this case, and to raise funds for the court costs.

Video clips of Bil’in’s nonviolent struggle to regain the confiscated 60% of their remaining farmland bring to mind the ferocious attacks on blacks and integrationists, during the most violent civil rights strife in the United States, and the beating of Mahatma Ghandi’s followers in India.

The men, women and children of this small village have carried out peaceful demonstrations every Friday, after prayers, for over two and a half years, a total of 134 times so far. During these demonstrations they’ve been beaten, shot at and gassed by Israeli forces. It is apparent from the video footage that Khatib, a father of very young children, faces the possibility of being killed at every demonstration.

Mohammad Khatib’s courageous leadership marks him as an obvious Palestinian leader of the future; many regard him as a giant in their midst. Khatib came to believe in nonviolence both for humanitarian and strategic reasons. Khatib makes the point that Bil’in’s fight is not against Jews; indeed, many Jewish Israelis march with them and he feels their common humanity. Strategically, he wants to expose Israel’s claim that it needs to use violence against Palestinians "for security" as a sham: Every week, the world can see - if it looks – shocking Israeli brutality against defenseless people.

Can this strategy work?

Saul Alinsky’s "Rules for Radicals" notes that nonviolence is only effective under two circumstances: when there is media coverage and when there is no policy of assassination. Neither of these conditions has been met in this case. A leader of the neighboring village of Nil’in was killed on June 13, 2009, in what is regarded as a targeted assassination.

And unlike the compelling media coverage that turned the tide of public opinion for Martin Luther King’s and Ghandi’s confrontations with brutality, Bil’in’s situation is virtually invisible to most of the public: One has to use the Internet (www.bilin-village.org) to see these horrifying weekly Israeli attacks.

When asked why the village is putting itself through such torture for its survival, Khatib comments: "We refuse to die in silence."

Why are they resorting to a Canadian court? The villagers need to have hope. They were hopeful in 2007 when Israeli courts ruled that the developers had no permits to build on their land and that the wall’s route should avoid their farmland.

Unfortunately, that win did not translate to changes on the ground. The expectation is that a successful challenge here could also benefit other Palestinian communities similarly affected. It is hoped that this lawsuit will encourage both Israel and Canada to comply not only with their obligations under international law - particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention - but with their own laws which support them.

The Fourth Geneva Convention obligates all signatories to enforce its provisions. Under Article, 146 all signatories - which include Israel and Canada - are under a contractual legal obligation to prosecute those responsible for committing any "grave breaches" against civilians in occupied territories.

Grave breaches include willful killings, inhuman treatment, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.

UN officials such as Mary Robinson, High Commissioner of Human Rights, and peace activists have long appealed to the international community to fulfill their obligations.

The World Council of Churches recently appealed to all of its members to ask their governments to honor these international laws; they noted that until these obligations are met, we will all continue to be complicit in these ongoing violations of Palestinian human rights.

Arnold compares this situation to others such as the war in Vietnam, the U.S. civil rights movement and the struggle against South African apartheid. He believes that as in those cases, this blatant injustice cannot last.  Another moral from those situations, however, is that those who want justice must speak up and act to attain it.

Karin Brothers is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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