The Elders’ visit to Bilin

September 12, 2009


Jody McIntyre writing from Bilin, occupied West Bank, Live from Palestine, 11 September 2009

A delegation of prominent former statespersons and business leaders known as the Elders meets with appointed Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (third from right) in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, 26 April 2009. (Mustafa Abu Dayeh/POOL/MaanImages) Thursday, 27 August was a special day in Bilin. Dozens of blacked-out SUVs approached the village, disturbing the quiet of a usually peaceful morning. However, unlike the Israeli occupation forces who come at night to arrest boys from the village, this arrival was extremely welcome.The SUV passengers were a truly respected group of international diplomats, known as the Elders. Among the delegation were Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former US President Jimmy Carter, both outspoken critics of the form of apartheid being imposed upon the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Also present were former Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso, Indian “gentle revolutionary” Ela Bhatt, the first woman president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and former Director-General of the World Health Organization, Gro Brundtland. They were joined by Jeff Skoll, founding president of eBay and Richard Branson, Virgin multi-millionaire and co-founder of the Elders.As part of their four-day trip to the Middle East, the Elders came to Bilin to see the daily impact of Israel’s occupation and its apartheid wall on the daily lives of Palestinians. They were also very interested to hear how residents are responding to the oppression they face through a campaign of nonviolent resistance. After stopping at the Village Council to pick up selected members of the Bilin Popular Committee, the Elders made their way toward the wall and the site of Bilin’s weekly nonviolent demonstrations. With Israeli soldiers looking on, they laid stones at the grave of Bassem Abu Rahme, the Palestinian man killed at one such demonstration in April of this year, when he was shot in the chest with a high-velocity tear gas projectile fired from close range.At the request of gathered reporters, Desmond Tutu made an impromptu statement: “Mahatma Gandhi, as a simple man, led his people to freedom through nonviolent methods. Rosa Parks followed in his footsteps, and now the people of Bilin will do the same!”Former US President Jimmy Carter added that “We are standing here on Palestinian land and on the other side of the wall is also Palestinian land! This occupation must end.”Next was the short drive back to the village council, where the Elders were to have a meeting with members of the local popular committee. Security was extremely tight, and only eight persons, selected in advance, were allowed to attend. But thanks to my wheelchair and some quick thinking, I managed to enter.In the meeting, Abdullah Abu Rahme, coordinator of the popular committee, introduced his fellow attendees and thanked the Elders for their visit, before handing the meeting over to village activist Mohammed Khatib.Khatib explained the origins of Bilin’s popular nonviolent struggle against the wall:
A few years ago, the Israeli army set up a checkpoint at the entrance of Bilin, which you had to pass through on foot. The soldiers had stretched a thin line of tape [over the entrance], one meter from the ground — anyone could cut it, of course, but because of the soldiers you didn’t dare. So, instead, we had to crawl under the tape as if we were praying. This was done deliberately to humiliate us.But there was one young man from the Abu Salim family, someone we knew, who refused to crawl under it. He cut the tape and they shot him in the leg. He sat there bleeding, in front of our eyes, for two hours, and no one was allowed to help or give him treatment. We called an ambulance but the soldiers stopped it. There is nothing more painful than being powerless in this kind of situation.The Israeli media reported that the soldier had shot the Palestinian in self-defense. That was a lie, of course, but it was published as factual.When the story about Abu Salim got out, the al-Aqsa [Martyrs’ Brigade] decided to carry out a response operation. We later heard seven soldiers at the checkpoint were killed.Our first reaction in Bilin was “good for al-Aqsa.” But later we realized that these were not the same soldiers who had killed our friend two weeks before. A new unit had taken over the checkpoint, so these soldiers had taken the punishment for what the old soldiers had done. It made us wonder — this cycle of death, of action and reaction, how can we break it?Next to speak was Rajaa Abu Rahme, a young student from the village. On 10 July, Rajaa’s father, Adeeb Abu Rahme, was arrested while participating in the weekly nonviolent demonstration against the wall. Adeeb was charged with “incitement to violence,” based on the supposed “confessions” of two 16-year-old boys the Israeli military had previously taken from the village, and sentenced to 101 days in prison, renewable for an indefinite period.”I am not talking to you as politicians,” Rajaa told the Elders, “I am talking to you as mothers and fathers.”As she told her story, I could see tears forming in Branson’s eyes.”My sister is getting married soon, I will be graduating,” Rajaa continued, “and our father will not be able to share our joy. I just want to see my father free.”Also present in the meeting was Shai Pollak, an Israeli activist and long-time supporter of the people of Bilin — “a member of the family” as Mohammed Khatib described him.”Twenty years ago, I did my military service,” Shai explained, “but if I knew then what I know now, I never would have served in the Israeli army.””Israeli society today is becoming increasingly closed off,” Shai continued, “making pressure from outside even more important. After the second intifada, I went and met with literally thousands of Palestinians. While my friends in Tel Aviv were telling me they would stab me with a knife, the opposite was true. Everyone I met welcomed me with open arms, because the Palestinian people want a peaceful solution.”The visit of these world leaders to Bilin was a clear message to the Israeli government, that they are opposed to the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people. Now, it is time for the leaders currently in power to follow suit.Jody McIntyre is a journalist from the United Kingdom, currently living in the occupied West Bank village of Bilin. Jody has cerebral palsy, and travels in a wheelchair. He writes a blog for Ctrl.Alt.Shift, entitled “Life on Wheels,” which can be found at He can be reached at jody.mcintyre AT gmail DOT com. A version
of this article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.


Why is this allowed to go on?????


Tuesday April 28, 2009 15:47

Israeli settlers destroyed Palestarmed_israeli_setters_near_hebron__photo_by_michael_ramallah_3inian farmers’ crops and took over land that belongs to farmers near the southern West Bank city of Hebron, while soldiers searched homes in the old city part on Tuesday.

Famers from the village of At-Tuwani, near Hebron, said Israeli settlers attacked and destroyed an acre of their land which had contained winter crops. The settlers, it is thought, came from Ma’on, an illegal Israeli settlement nearby.

Later in the day another group of Israeli settlers took over Palestinian-owned land and forced the famers away. The settlers intend to use the area to mark the Israeli Independence Day this week, local sources reported.

Meanwhile, Israeli soldiers attacked and ransacked a number of homes in the old part of Hebron city on Tuesday. Witnesses told local media that soldiers searched homes and ransacked belongings before leaving. No kidnappings were reported.


Can somebody please explain to me how it happened that Ahmadinejad, first class international buffoon, was given the opportunity to give a speech at the UN conference in Geneva this morning? What is the logic behind such foolishness? Is this bureaucratic thinking at its worse? Some strange flux in the rules that allowed Ahmadinejad to make a mockery out this conference?

I don’t know who deserves the most amount of anger, the UN for allowing this speech to happen, Ahmadinejad for making once again such a fool of himself, or the delegations for walking out of it (if they hadn’t already withdrew before the conference even started) instead of attempting to save the show. I do know though who will be the biggest victims of this travesty: the people this conference was ultimately meant to serve, the people that suffer from racism on a daily basis.
If Ahmadinejad had indeed any concerns for the racism Palestinians suffer at the hands of Israel, he didn’t exactly contribute to their cause, as he has now given Israeli and its allies an excellent opportunity to bail out of a necessary dialogue even more than they already did. Ahmadinejad is a fool, not simply because of his inability to contain his (justifiable) anger at Israel and letting it deteriorate into (unjustifiable) anti-Semitism, but because while doing so he is undermining the cause that he is attempting to address. His speech is exactly what hard lining Israeli need to exacerbate the conflict. Ahmadinejad managed to do the one thing that hard lining Israeli need in order to extenuate their governance through fear.

In my opinion, the rest of the world has only contributed to the hijacking of this by making such a fuss over all this nonsense beforehand and by now walking out on it. They should have stayed and fought over it, with calm and dignity. There is a way that adults who disagree with one another can communicate without creating a circus. This is not the way. I am very disappointed. There is a desperate need for forums where people of different opinions can share those opinions. I am disappointed in all those that have been promoting the demise of the conference, I am disappointed in the way the UN has managed (or rather has not managed) the conference, and I am disappointed in the lack of vision coming from the so called world leaders. Most of all I am disappointed in Obama himself. What is the point of shaking Chavez’s hand and then abstaining from this conference?

I belief that the global economic crisis linked with dissapearing resources and radically different pespectives of East and West, North and South, will only contribute to more racism, xenophobia and antisemitism. The stupid statements of a buffoon or the hurt pride of an Israel should not have been a deterrent to the attempts this conference had made to eliminate all of the above vices. Both Israel and its allies and Iran and its allies will only be more encouraged in its racist beliefs. That the world allowed this spectable to happen is a sad victory of pettiness over wisdom. And maliciousness over good will.

“Norway will not accept that the odd man out hijacks the collective efforts of the many,” Jonas Gahr Store (Norwegian Foreign Minister)

“We all should be mindful that a failure to agree on the way forward would negatively reverberate on the human rights agenda for years to come,” Navanethem Pillay (chairman of the conference)

“After Mr Ahmadinejad’s latest rant against Israel, all the elements are in place for a dangerous escalation”. Richard Beeston

“I fear that today’s economic crisis, if not handled properly, could evolve into a full-scale political crisis marked by social unrest, weakened governments and angry publics who have lost faith in their leaders and their own future, … In such circumstances, the consequences for communities already victimised by prejudice or exclusion could be frightening.Ban Ki Moon

palestineimagesThe story of the Palestinian children’s orchestra (Strings for Peace, see previous blog entry) has kept me occupied. My mind keeps returning to the fact that the Palestinian children had never heard of the Holocaust. We know that Palestinians prefer not to talk about the Holocaust, because they fear that the Holocaust will be used to legitimize their own dispossession. We also know that seeing the other as the victim of something so horrendous would imply seeing the other as human, which people who are at war with each other avoid at all cost. And finally we know that some of the most hateful extremists deny the Holocaust out of pure spite against Israel and the West. However, whole generations growing up alongside Israel’s borders without even the most basic knowledge of this ultimate evil is very scary. The names of the death camps (Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec and Chelmno), should be engraved in the memory of all of us as places where people were send for the sole purpose of being slaughtered by the millions in an industrialized fashion. They have to be engraved in our memories because part of being human is to be aware of the evil we are capable of, and there is no bigger evil than the evil that was committed in these camps. It is the responsibility of all of us to remember and be aware. Not knowing is inexcusable and unacceptable. Palestinians should know first of all because they are human. However, they should also know because they are involved in struggle with the people that were the victim of this. How can one make peace with an enemy one does not understand?

Vice versa, it has also become more clear to me that Israelis don’t understand Palestinians much better. It seems to me that Israelis have settled upon their own version and interpretation of their history in the Arab world and base their policies upon this interpretation. This interpretation often involves the denial of the unique identity of the Palestinians as Palestinians, the denial of the right of the Palestinians to a piece of land that can be the foundation of a sustainable state, and all sorts of opinions on the responsibilities of surrounding Arab nations. There is very little compassion for the circumstances the Palestinians in the occupied territories. On the contrary, these circumstances are often being denied, even the occupation itself is often being denied.

It is hard to understand how Israel and Palestine will be able to make peace with each other without recognizing either the history or the identity of the other. What seems to be desperately lacking in years and years of ‘peace processing’ is some form of openness to the story of the other and the willingness to see each the other as human. Not much dialogue is needed to understand another human being. All that is needed to have empathy is openness, a little imagination, and the capacity to see the other as a human being with the same desires and fears as ourselves. Without compassion for the other, there can be no wisdom, and without wisdom, conflict can never progress into a lasting peace.

In conjunction with all of the above, I have thought about my own problems debating this issue with people that hold different positions from myself. I am wondering whether or not the same problems people face debating this issue on a micro level aren’t exactly the same problems, maybe to different degrees, that occur on a macro level between Israel and Palestine.

A couple of the things I have learned:

1) Anybody entering this conflict narrative should be aware of the fact that this debate is very old and positions have hardened. This does not mean however that emotions have cooled down. On the contrary. When it comes to this conflict, the most reasonable people are capable of the most unreasonable reactions. The fierceness of the debate, combined with the fact that the arguments pro and against are so old, makes it very hard for a ‘novice’ to enter it. There are standard responses for standard criticisms and standard attacks for the same criticisms. More often than not an attack constitutes the response.

2) Trust is very hard to build. One has to remember at all times that one is debating a people that has faced the worst. A people cannot face the worst and comes out of it unscathed. The fear of anti-Semitism is real and justified. So it is important to exercise restraint. This is one of the responses I received by somebody who believes I do not exercise enough restrain in debating Israel:

“Feelings about the Holocaust is something that runs extremely deep in many of us. In me, it’s a gnawing pain. My mother very nearly lost her life and her father did. When you love somebody who experienced such rabid racism first-hand – you kind of get upset when your friends can’t see how hurt you are. Maybe we are too sensitive to criticisms of Israel, but you should try to be a little more sensitive to your friends. You know, bite your tongue from time to time. Realize that however incensed you are by the treatment of the Palestinians, that your friends may get really truly hurt by your opinions.” (Kate)

I am no diplomat. And I have a lot more to learn. My perspectives need to widen. Wisdom doesn’t only come from compassion, but from perspective as well. I hope to be as open as possible to anything that can help me understand something.


After one has taken into account a very long history of anti-Semitism culminating in a Holocaust and all the fear and pain associated with this history.

After one has taken into account the long history of the Jewish people in the lands that are being disputed.

After one has taken into account the many contributions of the Jews to our own history and current material prosperity, richness of ideas etc,

After one has reassured as much as one can that the existence of Israel is not at stake, that it should not be at stake, and if it is at stake then the whole world should come to its defense,

And finally, after one has made sure that anti-Semitism is not an option,

One should be able to express that what is happening in the occupied territories is wrong. That a country should not have ‘occupied territories’ to begin with. One can and should argue that all of the above factors make Israel’s predicament understandable. It places it within a context. However, it doesn’t justify anything or even makes it tolerable. Understanding the behavior of a country or being sympathetic to this country does not mean we should tolerate the behavior. In other words, while the past, the present and fears about the future might make the irresponsible behavior of a country comprehensible, it doesn’t make it defensible. The actions of Israel in West bank, Gaza and East-Jerusalem are deeply wrong, to say the least. Israel is to a large extend responsible for the fact that a few million Palestinians are either living as second class citizens within Israel (threatened at the very moment by a foreign minister that wants to expel them) or without any nationality and rights in either refugee camps in other Arab countries or in West bank and Gaza. If Israel itself cannot fix this situation, that it is the responsibility of the rest of the world to intervene. One has to be able to say this much. Silence cannot have the last word, as silence creates complicity.

I keep thinking about the concept of a no-mans-land. There should be a zone where people can exchange stories, thoughts, sentiments and even opinions without being ‘blasted’ viciously by the other. In a land that is claimed by two people, maybe a zone that doesn’t belong to any of them is necessary to make such a dialogue possible.

To end this essay on a happier note. Thinking about the terrible fact that there is so much Holocaust taboo and straight out anti-Semitism in the Arab world, I was browsing the web and found this project: Project Aladin. It is a multilingual website (in Arabic, Persian, French, English, and soon in Turkish) supported by over a 100 muslim intellectuals and a lot of western politicians and thinkers (among them Chirac, Simone Weil, etc) which provides information in a simple fashion on the Holocaust, on the Jews and on the relationship between Jews and Muslims throughout history. Accompanying the website is an online library where members are able to download freely reference books on the Holocaust translated into Arabic and Persian. They include such classics as Anne Frank’s “Diary”, “If This Is a Man” by Primo Levi, “Hitler and the Jews “by the Swiss historian Philippe Burrin, and” Sonderkommando “by Shlomo Venezia. Please check it out. Such initiatives deserve a little attention in a world that seems hell bend on more conflict and more war.

 a corny optical illusion (do you see it?) (a corny optical illusion, do you see it?)

The fiasco of the 2001 UN racism conference, and the fiasco in the making that is the follow up racism conference (starting in Geneva on April 20 next week) points to a fundamental difference in perspective between east and west that makes consensus on a draft, meant to provide a framework to governments and NGO’s on how to deal with racism, xenophobia, etc, nearly impossible. There are two main issues that have led countries like the US, Canada, Australia and Israel to abandon the current conference in its preparatory stage. One of them is the attempt of the Islamic world to outlaw defamation of religion, which is being interpreted by the west as an attempt to curb free speech. The second problem is a focus of the Islamic countries on Israel’s policies in its occupied territories which comes across to non-Islamic countries as an anti-Semitic singling out of Israel, which of course undermines the purpose of the conference to begin with. Both issues have led to self-righteous outrage on all sides, but especially on the side of western counties, which either withdrew from the conference or threatened to withdraw, thereby ironically reinforcing the need for such a conference. Though self-righteous anger and uttering accusations back and forth is a lot of fun, one has to look beyond them if one believes intolerance is on the rise and a global conference could help. And I happen to belief that now more than ever there is a need for such a conference. From the treatment of illegal immigrants as criminals here in the US, the problems with gay marriage, gripes in Europe towards Muslims, and anti-Semitic and anti-Christian attitudes in the Arab world, it seems that the whole world could use an extra dosage of tolerance.

 So what is the underlying problem?

 It seems to me but I could be wrong, that east-west tensions are rooted in an inability to grasp each other’s fundamentally different perspective. Not being aware of how different our outlooks on life are, we assume the other thinks likes us and therefore behaves and more importantly misbehaves like us. And we judge the other the way we judge ourselves. However, east and west do no think the same. There is a radical difference. East and west have very different opinions as to what constitutes the center of our world. For the east that center is God, for the west it is the individual. God used to be our center too, but somewhere in history’s dark recesses we lost this insight and replaced it with a completely new emphasis on the individual. Hence the rise of democracy, human rights, tattoos and rock and roll. Once the perspective shifts, it is no longer possible to go back and remember what we once knew. It is like one of thoface-black-and-white-optical-illusion1se optical illusions in which it is not possible to go back. God has not completely disappeared in the west, but the structure in which God (or the idea of God) and the individual (or the idea of the individual) coexists has changed fundamentally. Such a Copernican shift in consciousness did not occur in the Arab world. God still inhabits his old place in the center of the universe. For the Muslim God is his meaning that permeates his daily life. I do not know which perspective is better. I prefer mine. But I am sure the Muslims will say the same. However, it think it is important to keep in mind what fuels a lot of disagreements. While we want to protect the individual from being persecuted for speaking his mind, an eastern mind wants to protect God from the blasphemies of the individual. While we want to make women equal to men and outlaw headscarves because they are symbol of submission, the Muslim women might want to dedicate her scarf to God. The capitals of Europe are the battlefields on which the perspective wars are taking place. Probably the most important battlefield at the moment however is Israel, where east has been meeting west for decades now in a confrontation of titanic proportions. I believe that this might be the main reason for the ‘singling out’ of Israel by the Arab world. It is the only battlefield in which the east can make itself heard, especially on an occasion such as the racism conference, where all our best values are being discussed. While we may not be able to see the world from the perspective of the other at this moment in history, we can keep in mind that these differences exist. And that the other values his perspective the same way we value ours. This does not solve anything practically. I do not know whether girls should be allowed to wear headscarves in public schools or whether religion should be constitutionally protected. However, keeping these different perspectives in mind may prevent us from accusing each other of ill will, racism, anti-Semitism etc for nothing. Especially on a conference that is meant to out root such evils. From where I stand, and believing that individuals shouldn’t suffer racism etc, having such conferences is always better than not having them. There are too many places in the world where certain people are not tolerated. The more countries that participate in this conference the better. Especially if those countries have a bad track record themselves.

 In other words, to talk is always better than not to talk. In fact we can’t afford not to talk. A conference offers such an opportunity for dialogue. After all, these are not peace negotiations in which swaps of land are at stake. We have nothing to loose except our pride. Walking away from it is to acknowledge the defeat of all that is decent in us. It is the victory of our worst instincts over our capacity for wisdom and patience. It is allowing our ego and our pride to feel insulted, ignored and hurt at the expense of all those who really suffer because of racism, xenophobia, homophobia etc. We have to remember that besides the Individual and besides God, there is the Other for whom we created this conference. And we have to remember that the only alternative to dialogue to solve our differences is violence. And except for those few that thrive on conflict and war, nobody wants to send their sons to war.

 Ending on a good note. After the US made its decision to withdraw from the conference, the preparatory committee took out all references to the defamation of religion and Israel out of the draft paper. Susan Rice, ambassador to the UN is pushing for the US to participate. I am thinking, isn’t this exactly why we voted Obama into office? So what is he waiting for?


Link to the UN Dunbar Review Conference:

 Link to info about Navanethem Pillay, South African president of the conference: 

  Link to optical illusions website (just for fun):