Iyad Burnat has been an emissary of nonviolence ever since he could remember.
All around him, men picked up arms to fight the Israeli confiscation of Palestinian lands and the separation barrier that winds through his village like an ugly scar.
Others blew themselves up for the cause, their faces adorning posters on homes of countless towns throughout the West Bank.
But Burnat, a 39-year-old father of four, wanted something different.
He started organizing weekly non-violent protests where villagers would chant and sing, while puzzled Israeli soldiers looked on. Often his group was accompanied by supporters from the U.S. and Europe, activists who chained themselves to fences, dressed as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela to represent their commitment to nonviolence.
Another time, villagers painted themselves blue to resemble characters from Avatar, a movie about an occupied people whose forest was being uprooted by a mining colony that has had special resonance for many Palestinians.
“We saw that the IDF (Israeli military) was pushing Palestinians to use violence, to throw rocks at them so they could arrest us, but still, we resist doing anything,” said Burnat, smoking a Marlboro before giving a talk at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Monday.
The peace activist was in town as part of a three-month tour to raise awareness of non-violent tactics his town has been using since 2005 to oppose what he describes as “the occupation.”
“In the media, Palestinians are always portrayed as violent,” he said. “I want to show the non-violent way that Palestinians are opposing occupation in their daily lives.”
Burnat, who has deep, soulful eyes and was wearing a black leather jacket, called for a boycott of Israeli made goods as well as companies like Caterpillar, whose bulldozers Jewish settlers use to raze Palestinian olive orchards and build apartments for Jewish settlers.
Many credit the boycott of South African goods in the '80s for ending apartheid in that country. Pro-Palestinian activists hope a similar boycott will result in ending U.S. military aid to Israel ($3 billion annually) and a stop to new settlements, viewed as a major obstacle to peace.
Today, there are an estimated 500,000 settlers in the West Bank, who have diverted much of Bil’in’s water supply and ended what had once provided a livelihood for many Palestinian families: olives.
“Before we sold olive oil,” Burnat told a crowd of about 100 who gathered to hear him speak. “Now we have to buy it.”
The 600 checkpoints throughout the West Bank are no picnic either, making it difficult for Palestinians to work and attend school.
“It’s easier for me to get to Geneva than to go to Jerusalem,” said Burnat. “In fact, I have never been there and it’s only 40 kilometers away.”