Thursday 27th August was a special day in Bilin, but as the Sun rose over the hills that morning, most of the villagers didn’t even know…
As part of their four-day trip to the Middle East, a group of “The Elders” made a visit to the occupied West Bank village of Bilin, to see how Israel’s Apartheid Wall has stolen the villagers’ land, and to hear how residents are responding to the oppression they face through a campaign of non-violent resistance.
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 female President of Ireland Mary Robinson, and former Director-General of the World Health Organisation Gro Brundtland. They were joined by Jeff Skoll, founding president of eBay and Richard Branson, Virgin multi-millionaire and co-founder of The Elders. Overall, an impressive line-up.
It was a strange sight, to see dozens of blacked-out SUVs disturbing the quiet of a usually peaceful morning in Bilin, but, unlike the Israeli Occupation Forces who come at night to arrest boys from the village, this was one invasion that was extremely welcome.
After stopping at the Village Council to pick up selected members of the Bilin Popular Committee, the Elders made their way towards the Wall, the site of Bilin’s weekly non-violent 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 from close range.
At the request of gathered reporters, Desmond Tutu gave an impromptu statement:
“Mahatma Gandhi, as a simple man, led his people to freedom through non-violent methods. Rosa Parks followed in his footsteps, and now the people of Bilin will do the same!”
“We are standing here on Palestinian land,” former US President Jimmy Carter added, “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 people, selected in advance, were allowed to attend. But thanks to my wheelchair and some quick thinking, I managed to enter…
“Is he with the group?” a menacing looking American security guard, complete with dark sunglasses and ear-piece, asked.
“Yes!” I replied enthusiastically. “I am Mohammed’s son,” I added, pointing at Mohammed Khatib, my adopted father in Bilin.
I shook hands with each of the Elders, welcoming them to “our village”, feeling very proud of myself. Desmond Tutu seemed in a particularly jolly mood.
“I am an activist,” I told him, “so I just get tear-gassed every week.”
“Oh really!” he replied, a beaming smile spread across his face, “I’ve heard that a damp cloth over the mouth helps!” “And thank you for having us!” he added, laughing with his trademark joy of life.
When you are getting advice from an Archbishop on how to resist tear-gas attacks, you know you are fighting a moral cause.
The visit of these former 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 current world leaders to follow suit.