Response to Seth Freedman tirade against Bil'in

Note: The following article was submitted to the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” website as a reply to Freedman’s article. The editor declined to publish, instead extending the window for commeting and suggested we post it as a comment, offering to amend Freedman’s article with a link to our comment — ISM London

In Palestine, solidarity not tourism

Rebuttal statement on behalf of ISM London, 20th January 2010

By Pete Jones, ISM activist

As volunteers with the International Solidarity Movement, London we were disappointed to read Seth Freedman’s highly misleading description of the non-violent protests by the Palestinians of Bil’in, and the ISM’s support for them (“Palestine’s occupation tourism“, Comment is Free, 20th January).

Blaming the victim, Freedman bizarrely berates Palestinian participants in the unarmed weekly protests against the Israel occupation army for “aggression”. This reverses reality. It is the Israeli army that invades the village at night, the Israeli army and settlers that are occupying over 50% of the village’s land. Israel is the aggressor.

As someone who lived in Bil’in for almost two months and participated in a number of demonstrations, I witnessed the leaders of the Popular Committee regularly calling for stones not to be thrown during demonstrations. These calls are made both during the march if the youth (shabab in Arabic) are seen preparing to throw a stone, and in announcements during the week. There is plenty of video footage of Bil’in demonstration organisers asking shabab not to throw stones.

The ability of the leaders of the Popular Committee to make such calls may have been diminished recently — considering the fact that two of them, Abdullah Abu Rahmeh and Adeeb Abu Rahmeh were kidnapped by the Israeli army and are still being held prisoner, and a third, Mohammed Katib has been banned, by Israel, from the village during demonstrations.

It is true that these efforts are not always successful and some hot-headed youth end up throwing stones at the soldiers after the main demonstration, usually after they have been attacked with rubber-coated bullets and tear gas (which sometimes result in death, such as in the case of the late Basem Abu Rahmeh, a peaceful Palestinian protestor murdered by an Israeli soldier in April of last year). Freedman does not live in Bil’in and does not have to live with the regular night-time raids of the Israeli army, in which teenagers as young as 13 are seized, and therefore has no right to dictate the method of resistance to the Palestinians.

Israeli occupation forces have even gone to the extent of infiltrating stone-throwing “mistarvim” (Israeli forces disguised as Arabs) into the protest (see “Gandhi Redux” in Haaretz, 6th September 2005).

Freedman’s claim that ISMers are ‘occupation tourists’ is also false. In fact the ISM has had an ongoing presence in Bil’in since the villagers’ struggle began in 2005. It is telling when Freedman claims that “activists and NGO workers who have been operating in the region for years can be relied upon to update the watching world on the state of play in the village [without the need for ISMers]” and yet does not name a single one of these mysterious NGOs or activist organisations. The reality is that the ISM has an ongoing and long-term presence in the village. Volunteers often live in an apartment, many staying for months and forging long-term friendships with the people of Bil’in.

ISM volunteers are obliged to attend an intensive training course before they are permitted to work with the organisation. This training ensures ISM activists know the principles which guide the organisation’s work: non-violent action only, Palestinian-led action only and group action only. Freedman seems to scoff at the idea that ISM’s work should be Palestinian-led.

No ISM activist has the authority to tell a Palestinian how to run their resistance. We are not in Palestine to teach non-violence — in fact the Palestinians’ own long tradition of non-violent resistance has a lot to teach us all, from the protests and strikes against the British occupation in the 1930s onwards.

Freedman’s description of this central principle as an attempt to “absolve” ourselves “of any responsibility for the aggression emanating from the Palestinian side” is a typically orientalist attitude based on the false assumption that we westerners know what’s best for the Palestinians and should lead them.

On the contrary we in ISM view our role as witnessing the occupation so that we can raise awareness in our home countries while at the same time making the environment a little safer in Palestine. As a former Israeli solider, Freedman might know that the Israeli army has different rules of engagement at Palestinian protests when internationals or Israelis are involved in them. Live ammunition is not supposed to be used when they are present, but is allowed when Palestinians are alone.

Freedman has written some excellent CiF articles about the Israeli occupation of Palestine in the past, but shifting away from a colonialist point of view is often a long and difficult process. We wish him a speedy progression.