One West Bank Town’s ‘Unarmed Courage’

Ayed Morrar is just one man. A quiet man, of small stature, whose kind but intense eyes look out from behind wire-rimmed glasses. But he is a man who has become the face of the Palestinian non-violent resistance movement.

Morrar is the central figure in the recently released film Budrus, about the people of the Palestinian village of Budrus in the West Bank who persistently, and peacefully, resisted the encroachment of Israel’s "security" wall on their historical lands. 

Produced by the Washington, DC and Jerusalem-based group Just Vision, the film is powerful in the imagery that it portrays: the fluttering of dozens of Palestinian flags as demonstrators march down the rocky hills to meet Israeli soldiers and bulldozers; the twisted roots of an ancient olive tree lying, uprooted by a bulldozer, in the red dirt; the faces of the protestors, some baby-smooth, some weathered and bronzed by lives lived on this land, but all full of pride in this place and the defiance, the determination, that they will not be stepped on, squeezed or pushed off this land. 

But the power of this film also lies in its contrast to the usual images of Palestinian resistance that permeate Western media. From the masked, green bandana-wearing fighters of Hamas to slight boys throwing stones at hulking Israeli tanks, pictures of the Palestinian armed resistance have been what feed the media beast, while stories of "unarmed courage," as Budrus executive producer Ronit Avni called it, remain absent from the headlines. 

At one of the several Capitol-area screenings of the film last week, Democratic Congressman Brian Baird of Washington noted the calls for Palestinian nonviolence, including President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech in which he said, "Palestinians must abandon violence," and the need for a Ghandi or Martin Luther King-like leader. Well, Baird said, turning to Morrar, "I think you’re looking at one." 

Baird and Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota were both at the screening that took place just a few hundred yards from the white-domed Capitol Building, and they sat with Morrar and the film’s producers Ronit Avni and Julia Bacha during the following discussion. 

Ellison told the audience that they had been passing out copies of the film on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. "I don’t know if we got anybody, but we’re not going to stop," he said. 

Ellison and Baird are both active on United States’ policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and have often taken positions that put them in opposition to the majority of their colleagues in the U.S. Congress. Both legislators were among the handful of members who voted against the House resolution condemning the Goldstone Report and were on the first U.S. congressional delegation to the Gaza Strip after the 2008-2009 Gaza War. 

Baird and Ellison represent an integral component of the strategy behind Budrus, and getting the film’s message out. Because while Budrus has been successful in film festivals around the world, winning accolades from the Berlin International Film Festival, to last week’s Silverdocs Festival here in Washington, the filmmakers have been unable to get mainstream distribution in the United States. 

It’s just too touchy a subject, explained executive producer Avni. "We’re going to get hit from all ends on this," she conceded. 

The film’s U.S. premiere comes at a time of heightened attention to the 60-year-old conflict. From the Obama administration’s discord with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over settlements in the West Bank, to the fatal clash between Israeli forces and the protestors on board the Mavi Marmara last month, the pressures on the situation in the Palestinian Occupied Territories are changing. 

Budrus, and the insistent demands of both the filmmakers and policy-makers like Baird and Ellison that its message be heard, are just one example of this change. 

From demonstrations against settlement expansion in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, and the continued protests against the encroachment of the wall in the West Bank towns of Bil’in and Na’alin, to the five humanitarian flotillas to Gaza that preceded the most recent one, non- violent demonstrators continue to stand up to Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories despite the world’s frequent inattention to the conflict unless there is violence involved. 

Some of the demonstrations are successful. The protests in Budrus eventually convinced the Israelis to reroute the wall much closer to the Green Line, saving 95 percent of Budrus’ land. Others are not. 

Despite protests in Sheikh Jarrah every week since last November, construction began there this week on new Jewish homes. But as Budrus shows, these non-violent movements are all successful in that they unite demonstrators across diverse religions, races, and nationalities, and bring to the forefront the basic human right of non-violent political protest. 

The filmmakers compellingly unite the shaky firsthand footage taken by protestors as they face off with Israeli border police, interviews with actors on all sides including Israeli border guards who faced the dilemma of how to deal with unarmed protestors, and media coverage of the events, to offer a multifaceted view of not just the events in Budrus, but the conflict as a whole. 

At a small screening of the film in mid-June at the Motion Picture Association of America, Ayed Morrar told the audience in simple, straightforward English, "Now we’ve seen another kind of Israeli," referring to the Israeli activists who joined the citizens of Budrus in the daily demonstrations. 

People from the U.S. also joined the protests in Budrus, and in other towns along the barrier, and Morrar said that they are "proud" to have the Americans who come to support their efforts. 

Soft-spoken yet articulate, as he sat in front of crowds thousands of miles away from the village that he worked so hard to save, Morrar and the people of the film are maybe the most powerful aspect of this film. Though it is just one village, just one man, they give a face, and voice, to a movement that is too often overlooked. 

Budrus premiers in Ramallah and Jerusalem next week.

(Inter Press Service)