“Incredible Acts of Courage”: Worthy and Unworthy

By Aditya G and Renee Lewis

"An ideology that divides the world into those who are worth more and those who are worth less, into superior and inferior beings, does not have to reach the dimensions of the German genocide to be wrong."– Israeli journalist  Amira Hass

In recent months the world looked on as tens of thousands of Iranian protesters flooded the streets to show their outrage at the dubious election results.  The Iranian regime responded swiftly and brutally, dispatching armed militias and elite troops to crush the popular uprising.

The harsh crackdown of Iranian dissidents, along with recent revelations of prisoner abuse, has prompted extensive US and Western media coverage despite the prohibitive conditions imposed by the Iranian regime. 

NBC news reported with alarm that "tear gas, water cannons were used, and there were reports of live ammunition being used as well," implying these were illegitimate means to use against a population demonstrating for their rights, nonviolently for the most part.

World leaders were quick to condemn Iranian repression. One exchange on a major Sunday news show with the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu illustrated the dominant narrative:

INTERVIEWER:…What does your intelligence in Israel tell you about the weakness, the nature of the Iranian regime today?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU:…Obviously, you see a regime that represses its own people and spreads terror far and wide.  It is a, a regime whose real nature has been unmasked, and it’s been unmasked by incredible acts of courage by Iran’s citizens.  They, they go into the streets, they face bullets…

INTERVIEWER:  But does the United States have a unique role to play here in continuing to support this freedom movement, as you call it, in Iran; an obligation to support the protestors, to really give them moral support at the very least?

NETANYAHU:  I think it’s clear that the United States, the people of the United States, the president of the United States, free people everywhere, decent people everywhere are amazed at the, at the, at the desire of the people there to–and their willingness to stand up for their rights.  I cannot, as I said, tell you what is going to happen.  I’ll tell you what I would do, what we all would do in the face of demonstrations.  There is–as we speak, David, there’s a demonstration right now outside my window, outside my office.  Well, democracies act differently.  They don’t send armed agents of the regime to brutally mow down the demonstrators.  I’ll tell you what I did. I called in these demonstrators, they happen to be representatives of a non-Jewish minority in Israel, the Druze community, they have certain, certain protests about the financing of their municipalities.  I called their leaders in.


NETANYAHU:  I talked to them.  I said, "How can I help you?" That’s what democratic leaders do, that’s what democratic countries do.

INTERVIEWER:  Let me, let…

NETANYAHU:  We’ve had thousands, hundreds of thousands demonstrate in Israel right and left, but that’s how we behave, that’s how you behave, and I have no doubt that everyone in the world is sympathetic to the desire of the Iranian people for freedom.

[The interviewer then changes the topic]

"Hm."   That was the response of interviewer David Gregory, one of "Washington’s 50 best and most influential journalists."  The viewers of this widely watched news program were led to believe that Mr. Netanyahu’s claims about his country’s actions were accurate, or at least unworthy of challenging.  And to those unfamiliar with policies of Mr. Netanyahu and Israel in the last several decades, "hm" might be an appropriate response, or lack thereof, to such a claim.   

            But suppose there was another narrative. Suppose there was a story of a people who have also shown an unrelenting "willingness to stand up for their rights," in the face of a crushing occupation that has lasted more than 42 years.  

Suppose "Tear gas, water cannons were used, and there were reports of live ammunition" against those demonstrating against the occupation.   They too engage in "incredible acts of courage" and "face bullets."

Suppose that these demonstrators, the young and old, the weak and powerful (the vice president of the European Parliament for example), local leaders, and Nobel laureates, were roughed up, pushed to the ground, beaten, gassed, or simply shot dead, as they participated in these nonviolent demonstrations. 

Suppose that a monumental injustice was occurring right before the worlds eyes, the continuation of a slow and deliberate ethnic cleansing planned decades ago, which has morphed into the  "most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times."  Surely such a tragedy would merit the same attention that Mr. Gregory and his colleagues devoted to the crisis in Iran, right?

            Professor Neve Gordon told part of such a story last year, which coincided with the extensive coverage of a Palestinian construction worker who killed three Israelis and wounded many others in a bulldozer attack.  Gordon’s story however, was ignored by the dominant media.  As he wrote,

Ni’lin’s story is one of incremental dispossession. The residents of this agrarian town lost a large portion of their land in the 1948 war. After the 1967 war, Israel took advantage of the town’s location near the internationally recognized Green Line and began confiscating its land for Jewish settlements. First, seventy-four dunams (four dunams equal one acre) were expropriated for the settlement of Shilat. Next, another 661 dunams were seized to build the settlement Mattityahu. In 1985, 934 dunams were confiscated to build Hashmonaim, and six years later 274 dunams were appropriated for Mod’in Illit. Finally, in 1998, twenty more were sequestered for the settlement of Menora. All together, more than 13 percent of the town’s land has been expropriated for settlements.

In 2002 Israel began building the separation barrier, which is illegal according to the International Court of Justice. Recently construction of the segment near Ni’lin began; if it’s completed, an additional 2,500 dunams, or about 20 percent of the land that remains in the residents’ possession, will be seized.

This time, however, the residents had had enough. In the beginning of May they launched a popular campaign to stop the dispossession, and despite the brutal attempts to suppress the uprising–which has included a curfew and shootings that have left close to 200 people injured — they are unwilling to bow down. This is no minor feat, since the annals of history suggest that it is extremely rare for a whole town to stand up as one person and practice daily acts of disobedience, particularly when confronted with such a violent response.

The events unfolding in Ni’lin also provide the perfect ingredients for a good story. During the first three days of the curfew ambulances were not allowed into the town; the body of one deceased resident was kept for four hours at Ni’lin’s entrance before the military let his family bring in the remains for burial; a woman in labor was prevented from leaving the village and was forced to deliver the baby at home; a 12-year-old boy was taken from his home by soldiers and held for two days without charges; elderly women were beaten; and three residents were seriously wounded by live ammunition.

The story of Ni’lin is, in other words, the story of a colonized people resisting colonization. This is not the way the mainstream media has been accustomed to portraying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and judging from the Google news results, most editors are not ready to change their approach. The historic campaign in Ni’lin–as well as many other nonviolent, mass civil disobedience campaigns against the occupation in places like Bi’lin and A’ram–is still unfit to print.

Prof. Gordon wrote this story roughly one year ago. The oppression by Mr. Netanyahu’s state has only grown more violent and belligerent since then.  So far, 5 people have been killed from Ni’lin while taking part in the weekly nonviolent protests. 

The youngest was a ten year old boy, Ahmed Moussa—he was shot in the head with live ammunition.  At his funeral the next day, an IDF soldier killed another youth from the village, Yousef Amira, 17 years old. 

In the nearby village of Bi’lin another group of courageous citizens fight for their basic rights.

This village has lost 60% of its land because of the Separation wall.  The land that was annexed illegally by Israel was the majority of Bil’in’s agricultural land—which has severely impacted the economy of the village.

Over 4 years ago, the people of Bil’in began to organize weekly, nonviolent protests against the wall.  These protests are not as dangerous as the ones in Nil’in—which are notorious because the IDF blockades the village before demonstrators can reach the wall. Then the Israeli soldiers enter the village and the protest becomes more like urban warfare than a peaceful protest, as everyone becomes a target.

Protesting in Bil’in, as with any other protest against Israel and its policies, is still dangerous and the risks include serious injury or death.  Usually, the IDF greets protestors at the wall with teargas, sound bombs, rubber coated steel bullets, live ammunition, and sewage-chemical water that is sprayed on protestors that induces vomiting.

A few months ago, the first nonviolent protestor was killed in Bil’in—his name was Bassem Abu Rahmeh.  He never threw stones, he never hurt anyone.  He was known to wear a t-shirt with both the Israeli and Palestinian flag.  He protected Israeli activists along with all of the other internationals who came to protest in solidarity with the village.

While he was in the front of the protest, yelling to the soldiers to stop shooting because there were Israeli activists in the front getting shot at; a soldier shot him from 20 meters away with a high velocity teargas canister.  Teargas canisters are supposed to be fired into the air, at a certain angle so that they are not used as a weapon against protestors, but a means of crowd dispersal.

This soldier shot the teargas canister like a bullet, straight into Bassem’s chest.

He died on the way to the hospital in Ramallah.

As tragic as this is, it is not unusual in the nonviolent movement against the wall.  So far, over 20 people have been killed while protesting, many of them young teenagers.  What’s even more tragic is that the international media does not care about this story—as far as mainstream media is concerned, Palestinians are the "terrorists" and Israelis are the "victims".

This false narrative is just one more example of how "interests" impact the way news is reported.  A good example of this is to compare Bassem’s death to the death of Neda, a protestor in Iran.

Followers of the crisis in Iran likely know the tragic story of a young woman named Neda Agha-Soltan. They know her name because it was on every major American news outlet, accompanied by the graphic footage of her bloody death, aired as a conscious decision by editors who realize the effects of showing such imagery.  The editors must have also realized what the effects of showing another innocent civilian’s death: that of Bassem Abu Rahmeh.

Below are videos of both protestors’ deaths, surprisingly similar—why has one become almost a household name while the other is "just one more dead Palestinian?"

Neda in Palestine, Sentenced to Die Alone

Bassem: Which Life Was More Valuable?   

Bassem’s death was but one in a long line of (largely unpunished) assaults and murders committed by the occupying army.

Prof. Gordon speculates why Ni’lin’s (and Bi’lin’s) story isn’t worthy of news coverage by the dominant media institutions.

So why do most media outlets fail to cover this ongoing campaign? The reason is straightforward: covering the struggle in Ni’lin would shatter the stereotypical perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provided by mainstream news sources. Unlike the bulldozer attack, which reinforces the pervasive understanding of this conflict, the events in Ni’lin uncover a much more complex reality. This story does not involve Palestinians perpetrating terrorism against a civilian population but rather popular acts of civil disobedience that persist despite the ruthless repression of an occupying power.

Another aspect of Ni’lin that goes against existing stereotypes is that Palestinians and Jews are not fighting on different sides of this fray, but rather scores of Jewish Israeli and international activists are standing beside the Palestinians residents as they try to stop military bulldozers from destroying Ni’lin’s land. Indeed, among those injured are many Israelis.

One prominent Israeli dissident writer, Gideon Levy, puts the turmoil in Iran in perspective when he says,

It’s true, there is liberty in Israel, but only for us, the Jews. We have a regime that is no less tyrannical than the ayatollahs’ regime: the regime of the officers and the settlers in the territories. But what do we have to do with any of this? In Iran, police disperse demonstrations with violence, they shoot and kill. And what do we do?

When you get a chance, go on Friday to Na’alin or Bil’in and see what happens there. Demonstrators are killed here with similar brutality, but in Iran the crowd is standing up to a tyrannical regime, while here only a handful of brave people stand up to the Border Police, who are firing weapons. Moreover, we hardly write anything about the protest being silenced with bullets. It interests no one, and this, too, is called democracy.

Netanyahu’s vulgar hypocrisy should surprise no one as he represents a powerful state whose survival in its current form is largely dependent on its perceived legitimacy among the American public, whose government is its primary benefactor.  Servants of state power and violence are predictable in their omissions and apologetics for their own crimes, while solemnly denouncing Official Enemies.

 Gregory’s credulous position should not surprise us either, as reporters at his level learn that there are some things "it wouldn’t do" to mention, namely the crimes we are responsible for, and thus have the most power to put an end to.

Criticizing the Iranian repression is worthy and should be done, but there is little most Americans can do about it.  The injustice done to the Palestinians on the other hand, is something we can have a direct and tangible effect on.  Thankfully, more and more are realizing this.  These men and women of conscience realize that the oppression in the occupied Palestinian Territories (and elsewhere) is an injustice that they are indirectly participating in, as they are citizens of one of the states perpetuating the conflict by its continuing rejectionism of a peaceful settlement favored by essentially the entire world for over thirty years.  

Refusing their own obliteration, the villagers of Bil’in have also pursued the path of "legal resistance."  With the help of an Israeli human rights attorney, they have boldly taken on the international corporations involved in their dispossession.

Although the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled the current path of the wall through Bil’in illegal—and came to a decision that it must be moved back, the Israeli government has not complied.  Bil’in is now suing a Canadian company for its connection to the construction of the illegal settlements that are built on Bil’in’s land. 

Whether it is dissidents who speak out and act on the issue here in the U.S., or it is the protesters who show up every Friday and choke on tear gas week after week, they, along with the suffering people of Palestine, need our help. 

You can learn more about Bil’in’s struggle at their website:  http://bilin-village.org/

If you too would like to learn more about the background to this little known narrative, these are a few good places to start:

Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land: A documentary on media distortion of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.

Occupation 101: an introductory look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ma’an News Agency is a good resource for on the ground reporting.

Sites like Electronic Intifada, Palestine Chronicle, and many others are also invaluable for staying up to date and learning more.

Author Naomi Klein during her visit to Bi’lin discusses another tactic aimed at ending the oppression there: the Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign.

For more on the BDS campaign and its latest victories, watch this report by The Real News or see this excellent summary by Art Young on ZNet.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights also documents the daily abuses occurring in the territories: http://www.pchrgaza.org/



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