At the end of December I attended the international Celebrating Nonviolence conference in Bethlehem, representing the War Resisters' International and our new Nonviolence Programme.
This was my second time in Israel-Palestine; the first time I visited they had me waiting for three hours in the airport for “security” reasons, so this time I was a bit nervous of what was going to happen, especially after hearing the news about the three international activists who -- hoping to attend the conference -- were detained for several hours and then deported.
However, this time it was just 15 minutes of interrogation, even after I came clean and confessed that I was going to Bethlehem for a conference on nonviolence. (I am expecting that next time I will beat my personal record and get through in less than 10 minutes!)
Wrong place for preaching
The conference -- held from 27 to 30 December -- was organised by the Palestinian NGO Holy Land Trust and Nonviolence International and its aim was to create a space to share and learn about nonviolence and also to support the nonviolent elements of the Palestinian struggle.
The conference brought together 200 Palestinians, 200 internationals and 25 Israelis, and had a number of key speakers from Palestine, Israel and the rest of the world. It offered a snapshot of the diversity in nonviolence, both in Palestine as in the rest of the world.
The Palestinians made it clear that internationals who believed their role was to preach about nonviolence to the Palestinians where in the wrong place. Though this didn't mean that Palestinians and internationals couldn't learn from each other's experiences.
One idea that kept coming up during the conference, was the need of a strategy whereby all those with different experiences of working non violently can work together. During his presentation on “Past, Present and Future”, Jeff Halper (speaking on behalf of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition -- a nonviolent, direct action group established to oppose and resist Israeli demolition of Palestinian houses in the occupied territories) -- took up this theme, saying, “when we think about a nonviolent strategy for the conflict, we need to think whether what we are doing is taking us towards our final goal, that is, to end the occupation. Every action and campaign needs to think about whether it is helping us get there.”
For me this was the main challenge that the conference highlighted: that with nonviolence comes a diversity of tactics, and strategies, but when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we all need to work on a strategy together to end the Israeli occupation.
A fitting end
The conference ended with a vigil at the Bethlehem checkpoint in protest against the “security” wall and the military occupation of Palestinian territories.
We walked from the conference centre through the streets of Bethlehem, with colourful banners. Many locals came to join us and, as we walked through the streets, we received many “thank yous” and signals of appreciation for what was happening.
The vigil was very emotional and a good way to end four days of sharing and learning about nonviolence and, particularly, the Palestinian nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation.