The olive branch in the West Bank

By Hugh Gusterson | July 9, 2010

Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, was recently quoted as saying that relations between the U.S. and Israel were undergoing a “tectonic rift in which continents are drifting apart.” If the quote is accurate, which Oren later disputed, it is surely an overstatement. Still, an interesting divergence is developing in the means by which the U.S. and Israeli militaries are dealing with Islamic militants in territories they are occupying.

In the past I have dismissed the U.S. counterinsurgency project in Afghanistan as a fool’s errand, but one has to at least give credit to the U.S. military for trying to wage counterinsurgency thoughtfully. Since Gen. David Petraeus rewrote the book on counterinsurgency, the U.S. has adopted an approach that seeks to isolate the Taliban from the wider population and to win the hearts and minds of that population. The U.S. has backed away from destroying the Afghan opium crop on which many Afghan peasants rely for income, realizing that eradication efforts were doing more damage to U.S. popularity in Helmand Province than to the opium trade. U.S. commanders are instructing foot soldiers, despite complaints that this endangers their lives, to hold their fire rather than risk killing civilians because civilian deaths are a propaganda gift to the Taliban. U.S. officials are experimenting with door-to-door opinion pollsters to try to discern what the ordinary Afghan person on the street wants. And the U.S. is pouring almost $4 billion a year in development aid into Afghanistan to build schools, roads, irrigation projects, and electric power-generating capacity in the hope of winning the affections of the Afghan people.

Contrast this refined counterinsurgency strategy with Israel’s sledgehammer approach. Where the U.S. seeks to win Afghan support with development projects, Israel expropriates Palestinian land for Israeli settlements and puts in place a blockade that is unmaking Gaza’s economy: If the U.S. is using development as a carrot, Israel wields collective impoverishment as a stick. Where the U.S. tries to separate Islamic fighters from the general population whose loyalty it seeks, Israel has made collective punishment its rule: All of Gaza is now blockaded because Hamas won the 2006 elections, and the Israeli military has had a policy of retaliating against individual attackers by blowing up their families’ houses. And if U.S. commanders are telling their soldiers to practice restraint, the Israeli rule of thumb seems to be that Israeli soldiers should always be one or two rungs higher on the ladder of escalation than those they seek to control. Instead of seeking to separate insurgents from the general population, as the Petraeus strategy does, it is as if Israel wanted to turn everyone into a militant.

The counter-productiveness of Israel’s strategy is captured vividly in the fine new documentary film Budrus produced by Ronit Avni and Julia Bacha. Budrus is a Palestinian village of 1,500 in the West Bank. When Israel started building its security wall to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers, rather than building it along the 1967 borders between Israel and the West Bank, Israeli authorities chose a bizarrely circuitous route for the wall that meanders like the creation of a drunken spirographer through Palestinian territory. In what is hard to understand as anything other than an act of petty bureaucratic sadism, Israeli planners chose a route that separates Budrus from much of the rest of the West Bank, cuts the village cemetery in two, and requires the upending of olive groves that have belonged to the villagers for generations and on which they rely for much of their income. Working behind Israeli and Palestinian lines, the film uses riveting cinema verite footage as well as interviews with Palestinian activists and Israeli soldiers to document the ensuing protests.

The action begins when the mayor of Budrus, Ayed Morrar, reaches out to the rival Hamas faction to organize nonviolent protests in defense of the village’s olive groves. At first the protests consist only of men, until Mayor Morrar’s 15 year-old daughter, Iltezam, asks why women and girls are excluded from the protests. Some of the hardest footage to watch in the film shows Israeli soldiers, mostly men, firing rubber bullets at the Palestinian women, tear gassing them, and beating them with nightsticks as they try to stop the bulldozing of their olive trees. It looks like something from Alabama circa 1965. All that’s missing is the dogs.

As one might predict, when the Palestinians’ non-violent protest is met with armed violence, young Palestinian men respond by throwing stones, the weapons of weak but angry teenagers, at the Israeli soldiers. The soldiers respond with live gunfire. By meeting non-violence with violence, the Israelis radicalize their opponents and start to trigger a familiar cycle in which each side’s escalation legitimizes the other.

In this film, and in their relations with Palestinian militants more generally, Israel follows an escalatory strategy of violence that brings to mind the failed policies of McNamara and Kissinger in Vietnam. It is the opposite of the Petraeus strategy. Whatever resistance the Palestinians attempt is treated as a bid that the Israelis must counter. If the resistance is non-violent, the response is tear gas, nightsticks, and rubber bullets. The response to stones is live bullets. Hamas rockets that mostly miss any worthwhile target are met with targeted assassinations and bulldozed homes. The theory seems to be that the exercise of violence is like bidding at an auction and that the Palestinians, once they see they are outbid, will, like a good rational actor, fold their hand–just the way McNamara, equipped with all those algorithms he learned from operations analysis, expected the Viet Cong to call it a day under the bombardment of the B-52s.

But Palestinians–watching bulldozers destroy the family livelihood, or the humiliation of their sisters at checkpoints, or the maiming of teenagers at street protests–are not rational actors calculating the costs and benefits of further violence. They are enraged and humiliated human beings who are embittered by life under collective punishment and determined not to surrender the one thing left to them: the ability to resist. Unless Israel wants an endless emergency, a permanent cycle of violence, their Palestinian strategy is failing miserably.

At this point some readers will argue that I have not put the blame where it truly belongs: with the Palestinian terrorists. To be sure, Palestinian militants have committed terrible crimes: blowing up civilians on buses, and randomly rocketing the homes of innocents. But Budrus dramatizes the no-win situation within which Israel has imprisoned the Palestinians. If the Palestinians resist the occupation with violence, they are condemned as terrorists, they are shot at, imprisoned, blockaded, their homes destroyed–and their land is taken away, bite by bite. If, as in Budrus, they resist with non-violence (as so many American opinion-makers lecture at them that they should), they are tear-gassed, beaten, shot at with rubber bullets–and their land is taken away, bite by bite. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

The protests in Budrus take a fascinating and unexpected turn when the poor villagers of Budrus suddenly find themselves joined on the frontlines by a group of young Israeli activists, standing shoulder to shoulder with them in defense of their olive groves. This development, quietly courted by the mayor of Budrus, is disorienting to many others. An Israeli minister suggests on television that the Israeli activists be tried for treason. We see Israeli soldiers, in some of the film’s most revealing footage, instructed by their superior to fire rubber bullets only at the Palestinians, not at the Israeli protesters. As for the Palestinian villagers, most have never met Israelis opposed to the occupation; they have to rethink their assumption that all Israelis are enemies. It is moving to see a group of Palestinian women being beaten for trying to prevent the arrest of an Israeli activist.

After 10 months of protests that left one Palestinian dead, 300 injured, and 36 arrested, Israel gave in and changed the route of the wall. Almost all the olive trees, as well as the integrity of the Budrus cemetery, were saved. Meanwhile, in a development the U.S. media have almost entirely ignored, the joint Palestinian-Israeli protests have continued in other parts of the West Bank.

An Israeli activist tells us in Budrus that “nothing scares the army more than nonviolent opposition.” I hope this is true. The Hamas lawmaker Aziz Dweik was surely right when he told the Wall Street Journal that “When we use violence, we help Israel win international support.” But maybe the deeper comment was made by Mayor Morrar when he said in a subsequent interview that “criticism of the occupation by its own people is more powerful than criticism by someone who lives under it, whose opinion is pre-determined. It is very important to find someone amongst your opponents who is willing to side with you.” If the film shows us anything, it is that 10 Israeli protesters are worth 100 Palestinians. Their participation in the protests shows that Israelis and Palestinians can work together and, in a context where Israeli soldiers look awfully like Police Commissioner Bull Connor’s men beating up blacks in Birmingham, the appearance of blond-hair under the nightsticks makes it that much harder to dehumanize the protesters, that much harder for soldiers to ignore the quiet questions about the orders they are just following, that much harder for the state to simply crush resistance. So far, 600 Israeli soldiers have refused deployment to the West Bank and Gaza.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always seemed intractable. No strategy of Palestinian resistance seems to work, peace initiatives invariably falter, and meanwhile the machinery of Israeli settlement grinds on, year after year, displacing more Palestinian land into settlers’ hands. But something new and interesting has happened in Budrus. Maybe Israel’s freedom riders bring a glimmer of hope.

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