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Members of the International Women's Peace Service offer perspectives on the strategies of nonviolent direct action by women and girls against Israel's "separation" wall / "security fence".

Palestinian women against the Apartheid Wall

The “Apartheid Wall”, intended to be about 350 miles long and which confiscates 60% of the occupied West Bank's land and encloses numerous communities in several enclaves or Bantustans, is being built at great speed. Already almost 100 miles have been completed in the north and south West Bank and in the Jerusalem area.

Salfit in the north West Bank and Budrus in the West Ramallah district, are two places in Occupied Palestine where women and girls are playing a strong role in campaigning against the wall, using a variety of strategies and tactics depending on the situation.

Direct confrontation

In Budrus, the terrain of struggle is a physical one. The Apartheid Wall's bulldozers are cutting olive trees and destroying land in the bottom of a valley. The wall will separate Budrus residents from their land on the other side of the valley. The only way to stop the bulldozers from working is for the Palestinians to physically place their bodies between the bulldozers and the trees. Their most valuable assets in these direct actions are the unity of hundreds of villagers, with women and girls taking the lead, and the willingness of the entire village to demonstrate -- every day if necessary.

The short five-minute walk down the hill into the valley takes as long as three hours on the days that bulldozers are working as the Israeli Occupation Forces turn up in large numbers and fire teargas, sound-bombs and rubber bullets at the Budrus villagers as they make their way down the hill. Women and girls, who march separately from men and boys, make their way into the front line about a third of the way down the hill. They form a line and keep advancing, stopping only briefly to recover from the effects of gas or to help evacuate anyone who has been shot.

While a large group is advancing against soldiers, a few others will dash around behind the soldiers and continue rushing towards the bulldozers. At this point, soldiers often viciously beat many women and girls. IWPS has witnessed soldiers choking teenage girls until they are blue in the face. The women and girls are experts at de-arresting each other and pulling each other out of the clutches of soldiers. The first women or girls that reach the bottom of the hill literally fling themselves on the bulldozers, in their scoops and on the land they are bulldozing. The bulldozers then leave the area for the day. Lately the bulldozers have stopped working in this area altogether.

Women and girls say they take the lead because they are less likely to be arrested or shot dead than men or young boys. However, judging from several demonstrations, they are in just as much danger from the soldiers.

Because of the bravery and courage of their non-violent direct actions in the face of the massive violence being perpetrated against them, the villagers of Budrus have attracted a large amount of media attention, support from villages across the rest of Palestine, and a continual international presence in the village. Camps and advocacy IWPS has worked with two villages in the Salfit region which held camps against the Apartheid Wall: Mas'ha and Deir Ballut. In Mas'ha village, a camp was held for five months between April and August 2003. It functioned as an effective publicity centre against the Apartheid Wall and brought together thousands of Israelis and internationals.

For many Israeli men and women, it was the first occasion they spent time and slept in a Palestinian village. However, the camp did not attract Palestinian women, even as visitors, except for twice. The reasons for this seem to have been because it was rather remote from the village itself (being situated on the land being bulldozed for the wall) and seen by some as an ungodly place where men and women were mingling. But another reason was that Palestinian women were not involved in each and every planning meeting.

When the Palestinian Popular Committee against the Wall was approached by residents of Deir Ballut village in December 2003 to convene a similar camp, women were involved from the beginning. In Deir Ballut, the Women's Committee against the Wall and IWPS went door to door in the village, asking women to participate.

Palestinian women compiled a programme of daily women-only activities, which included an organising workshop, a seminar about apartheid by a South African volunteer, tree-planting inside Munira and Hani Amer's isolated home,dialogue between Palestinian and Israeli women about the situation in Palestine, a meeting about the psychological effects of the wall, and an art project for women and children -- drawing pictures in preparation for a children's march.

Apart from this, women regularly visited the Israeli and international women in the camp and political discussions took place spontaneously, with many creative ideas about coalition-building being born. The camp eventually held a highly successful mass demonstration of hundreds of men and women against the town's infamous checkpoint, where newborn twins had died in the night just days earlier after their mother was prevented from getting into an ambulance.

NVDA in Palestine

There is a kind of myth that Palestinians need to be trained to think non-violently. Buying into this perspective nullifies the long Palestinian tradition and history of non-violence, such as the well organised first Intifada, based on mass non-violent direct action.

Palestinian society is made up of many different groups and several of these have either never taken up arms against the occupation or regularly participate in peaceful demonstrations. In some villages, this includes Hamas, which has a reputation, created largely by the mass media, for being an organisation which is only interested in organising suicide bombings. But there are currently weekly, peaceful, demonstrations in different Palestinian towns, cities and villages against the Apartheid Wall and the occupation generally. For example, Palestinian workers regularly demonstrate against the obstruction of their freedom of movement at the Erez checkpoint in and out of the Gaza Strip.

Yet non-violent mass action in Palestine is very dangerous. Being an organiser of demonstrations can lead to an arrest in the night, followed by six months “administrative detention”. Being a participant in peaceful demonstrations means facing gas, rubber bullets and live bullets from huge numbers of soldiers, with absolutely no protection. It is this that needs to be highlighted and opposed by the international peace movement.

IWPS, email iwps@palnet.com; http://www.iwps.info/