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Guest blog

Boosting our spirits: The long struggle that is non-violent resistance

Emily Schaeffer, an American-Israeli human rights lawyer, accompanied the Elders on their visit to the Palestinian village of Bil'in in the West Bank. Here, she describes how the villagers are using non-violent protest as a means to oppose the Israeli soldiers' acts of brutality.

Words cannot describe what an honour and pleasure it was for me to accompany the Elders on their visit to Bil'in. More importantly, they had such an impact on the village and on the leaders of its brave non-violent movement to resist the occupation.

When we parted ways that Thursday morning, I remained in the village and sat with Mohammed Khatib and Abdullah Abu Rahma from the Bil'in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, Israeli filmmaker and activist Shai Pollack, and several others with whom the Elders met. None of them could hold back their enthusiasm from the visit, and it was as if the glimmers of light in their eyes had returned. It was the most empowered and hopeful I had seen them in months.

Unfortunately the Israeli army's night invasions and arrests have not ceased, and the village remains on edge. These events reached a new level a few weeks ago, when Mohammed Khatib was brutally beaten by soldiers during a riotous search for Abdullah Abu Rahma at his house. Having been informed by Abdullah's wife, Majeda, that he was not home, the army broke down the doors to their house and began turning it upside down, searching everything from drawers to closets to children's bedrooms, and confiscating posters, flags and other printed materials.

Meanwhile, Mohammed Khatib received a call for help from Abdullah's wife and rushed immediately to her assistance. Upon entering the house and announcing himself as Secretary of the Village Council, Mohammed was taken by a handful of soldiers to a room slightly hidden from the crowd of villagers and beaten repeatedly in his face, chest, and back. At a certain point, one of the soldiers threatened his life: "if you don't stop the demonstrations in Bil'in, your fate will be that of Bassem." He was referring to Bassem Abu Rahma, who was shot with a teargas canister and killed during a demonstration in April.

Mohammed was hospitalised that night, but returned home several hours later, and despite the severe pains in his face and chest was able to give testimony and file a criminal complaint against his assailants with the Military Police Investigation Unit. Normally these complaints lead nowhere, and it was not the first time Mohammed and others in the village had filed complaints knowing they were important acts for their symbolism more than their likelihood of leading to an indictment. But much to all of our surprise, two weeks ago one of the soldiers was arrested on suspicion of having beaten Mohammed, and last week he was indicted. We are hoping that through his investigation and trial, the names of the others will come forth and all will be held accountable for this heinous act.

I have visited Mohammed several times since the attack. Now weeks later, he still suffers from chest and stomach pains, but is feeling a bit better. When we talk about the attack and the threat on his life, he tells me, as I imagine so many heroes of non-violent struggles for justice and equality before him must have said, that he does not fear losing his life. What he fears is the slow deterioration of hope in the village; the gradual loss of energy; the ultimate end of the struggle. And above all, he is concerned about his four young children. Khaled, his 3 year-old son, wakes him in the night with nightmares, wets his bed and is no longer the playful, joyful child he was just months earlier. Mohammed's wife tells me that while she used to look forward to night time as a time of calm, rest and relaxation, now, instead, she wishes there were no more night. Nightfall is the moment she dreads and fears every day.

No matter what legal justifications the Israeli army has created for its use of violent dispersing tactics at demonstrations and nightly arrest raids, there can be no legal or moral justification for the assault on Mohammed, or the killing of Bassem, or the prolonged interference with normal life that the entire village suffers, especially its children. The army has reached a new level of violence and disregard for human rights, dignity and life that has to be stopped.

Bil'in needs public support for its non-violent movement against the occupation as much as public condemnation of the Israeli army's response thereto. I offer my help in any way possible, and invite you to do so too. www.bilin-village.org

Emily Schaeffer, a specialist on the Village of Bil'in, is a 31 year old American-Israeli human rights lawyer, based in Tel Aviv at the Michael Sfard Law Offices. For 10 years, Emily has advocated both in Israel and the US on behalf of social justice and human rights, including housing, health and gender-based rights, most recently focusing on the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

As both a member of the Israeli legal team representing Bil'in since 2006, and a participant in its joint non-violent resistance movement, Emily has represented Bil'in in numerous international fora, including on panels at human rights conferences in Europe and Africa.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.