King’s words live in Palestinian city

Martin Luther King Day
By Dorothy M. Zellner

As a veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement, I hope this year’s Martin Luther King Day will be more than the usual constant repetition of his “I have a dream” speech. This has flattened the very essence of the movement, which was the vastness and the vibrancy of hundreds of thousands of “ordinary” people who wouldn’t and couldn’t stand for any more indignities and any more insults.

I know because I was in Georgia, Virginia and Mississippi as a staffer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; I spent two years in Atlanta.

This great movement of African-American civilians and their white allies lacked an army or air force, yet we imprinted our freedom demands on the national consciousness for the following decades and presumably, for decades to come.

There are other movements of civil society in every continent of the world. The one I have seen with my own eyes is the movement of Palestinians resisting Israel’s occupation. It may surprise people to know that Palestinians read Dr. King’s words and call his name and study the American civil rights movement, among other histories of other peoples, for ways to bring to the attention of the world the fact that little by little, their land is disappearing along with their rights. The center of this effort now is in small West Bank villages like Ni’lin and Bil’in, where non-violent demonstrations have taken place weekly—for years. Yet these non-violent demonstrations of civilians are met with Israeli armed might.

Two weeks ago, I was in Bil’in, a small village about half an hour by bus from Ramallah, which in turn is about a half hour from Jerusalem. I went to attend the funeral of a 36-year-old kindergarten teacher, Jawaher Abu Rahmah, who was killed by American-exported tear gas used by the Israeli army, the IDF, the previous day in a demonstration against the separation barrier erected by the Israelis that divides the villagers from their land.

These demonstrations, which include many progressive Israelis as well as other
internationals, have occurred every week. This Dec. 31 concluded five years of protests in Bil’in. Every Friday, members of this village of 3,000 and their supporters attempt to march to show their opposition to the wall. I say “attempt,” because, as I witnessed on another occasion in another village, the usual procedure is that only moments after the march begins, the IDF begins to hurl tear gas canisters, stink bombs and sound bombs at the protesters.

Although tear gas is normally used for crowd control, the IDF uses it as a weapon and aims canisters directly at the people (Jawaher’s brother Bassem was killed nearly two years ago after a high-velocity tear gas canister hit his chest). The adults are unarmed, although young boys, out of frustration at the IDF attacks, often throw stones at the end of the march (to the disapproval of their elders).

I did not go to the demonstration on Dec. 31 in Bil’in because I was afraid of the tear gas and am at an age where it is impossible for me to run. But I did go to Jawaher’s funeral in the village the next day and stood perhaps 10 yards from where they carried her body on a stretcher to the village graveyard and buried her there.

The killing of this woman was met with evasions and outright lies from the IDF, which disputed the cause of death pronounced by the Palestinian physicians who examined her. As the Israeli columnist Gideon Levy reported, “The IDF initially claimed she was taken to hospital and then sent home, where she died. Then they claimed she was not even at the demonstration. … Finally, the IDF claimed she died of cancer.” As Levy noted, none of this was true.

More civil society actions to highlight Palestinian dispossession are being planned, probably the most spectacular of which will be the next flotilla planned to take place a few months from now. Ordinary civilians from the U.S. will embark on “The Audacity of Hope,” a U.S.-flagged boat, to sail the Mediterranean and bring the world’s attention to the Israeli siege of Gaza. The Israelis have threatened snipers and attack dogs against unarmed people, but ultimately, the worldwide effort to end this siege will succeed. That is because this action is in the spirit of the great civil rights movement 50 years ago and demonstrates the power of ordinary people to withstand whatever armies have in mind for them.

Dorothy M. Zellner is a member of Jews Say No! and an editor of “Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC.”