As in many Palestinian villages, the people of Bil’in resist the occupation, and the theft of their food-growing land by ever-expanding settlements. The villagers fight for their lives, sometimes at the price of their lives. Over the years they’ve built a wide solidarity network with Israeli and international activists, but ultimately it is the villagers themselves who have the most to lose. One of their chosen leaders is Abdallah Abu Rahmah.
His house is nestled in a courtyard garden. A tall man with a gentle handshake, he came here today specifically to meet with us, but he can’t stay long. He is on the army’s wanted list, due to charges from 2005 for leading non-violent protests. After we leave, he’ll return with his young daughters Layan (five) and Luma (seven) to a safe house in Ramallah.
He showed us the results of the latest army attack, starting at the gate. “On 16 September my wife heard a sound outside,” he says. “She saw soldiers trying to open the gate (he bangs on it to illustrate), but it was locked. Then six or seven soldiers climbed over and opened it from the inside. Many soldiers came in. They came to the main door of my apartment and started to break it, but my wife came quickly to open it.”
He shows us the bent front door, broken handle, and a battered inner door to a room where placards and banners for the Friday protests are stored. Abdallah tells us, “When the soldiers didn’t find me or any material they wanted, they destroyed many things in this room.”
He leads us outside to another entrance off the courtyard. “This is where my mother lived. When she died on 15 August, we closed this room in mourning, no one is allowed inside. But the soldiers broke the door, and went through everything in that room. Then they went to my brother’s apartment and did the same. Soldiers stayed in my apartment more than one hour, and they gave my wife an invitation for me to meet the Shabak leader. They told her if I didn’t come, they would find me and do the same they did to Bassem.”
Throughout Israel and occupied Palestine, Shabak agents, the secret police, issue many such ‘invitations.’ The Bassem they refer to is Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahmah, much loved in Bil’in, nearly always in the front line at weekly protests. In April 2009, a soldier shot him from close range with a high-speed bullet-like tear gas projectile. His chest crushed, Bassem died enroute to hospital.
In the garden, Abdallah Abu Rahmah pours us glasses of orange juice. His wife Majida sits beside him, their nine month-old son Laith in her lap. Abdallah was born here thirty-nine years ago, in an old building on this small piece of land. He teaches Arabic full-time at Birzeit high school, and Jerusalem history part-time at al-Quds open university. He also raises chickens in a coop behind Mohammed Khatib’s house.
How did he get involved in the struggle here? “When they started to build the wall here,” he replies, “we knew that all of our agricultural land would disappear behind it, so the village established the popular committee. We read about Ghandi and Nelson Mandela – we want to use the same methods here, but in our own way, for this place.” I ask him what it’s like to be a fugitive. “I feel tired, very tired from doing this,” he replies. “Today I finished school, ate my lunch, and came quickly here to meet with you. After we finish, we will go back to Ramallah. It’s difficult to live this way. Many times I find checkpoints on the roads. Two nights before now, I came to a checkpoint, but lucky for me ten or eleven cars were waiting there, so I could turn and go another way. It was more dangerous, a small road between the olive trees. The soldiers followed, but they did not find me.”
Afternoon is waning, soon Abdallah will have to leave. One of his daughters is already sleeping in the car, another with an uncle in the village. “They don’t want to sleep in this house because they are afraid the soldiers will come in the night. The last time they came, the children woke up to see a large number of soldiers with masks and guns. It’s difficult to go every night to sleep in another house. On Thursday night I decided to stay here, but in the middle of the night my daughters said no, we can’t sleep here, so we drove to Ramallah. We need peace and safety for my family, so I won’t stay here again until they stop following me and trying to arrest me.”
Two months after we talked in Abdallah’s garden, nine Israeli military vehicles surrounded his home, soldiers broke down the door, blindfolded and arrested him. After seven months in prison, he was declared guilty by an Israeli military judge of “organizing illegal marches” and “incitement.” “Incitement” means leading non-violent resistance to an illegal military occupation. The court sentenced Abdallah Abu Rahmah to a further one year in prison. He joins the 10 – 11,000 Palestinian political prisoners currently held in Israeli jails.
Before he went to prison, I asked Abdallah: Given the constant violence that Palestinians have to endure from the occupiers, how do he and his fellow villagers maintain such a consistently high level of non-violence in their protests?