Dorothy Cotton keeps referring to “our pilgrimage” and as we set off for the village of Budrus, Vincent Harding starts us singing, voices blending, harmonizing, “On my way to Budrus, stayed on freedom…Gonna tear down the wall, stayed on freedom…. Hallelu, hallelu, halleluiah.” Against my better judgment, I am starting to agree with Dorothy. Our guide informs us that Israeli news announced that AIPAC had cancelled a meeting with the board of Protestant churches because the leaders had issued a statement claiming that the Israeli government is violating human rights and the Evangelical Lutheran Church called for an end to unconditional military aid to Israel. I am beginning to rethink my atheism, or perhaps I have spent too much time in Jerusalem.
We pass Birzeit and the Arab villages of Nabih Saleh, Um Safa, Qibya, Ni’lin and the Jewish settlements of Ateret, Halamish, Nahali’el, Much of the road is high above the rocky hills and valleys, so it is strategically important and thus the placement of the settlements. I am beginning to understand that rarely does something happen accidentally, particularly in the department of acquiring Palestinian land. I can see Ateret, a neat row of red roofed houses, surrounded by electrified fencing and a military outpost, all built on the former Palestinian town of Atara, the name neatly Judaized using some Orwellian sense of historical continuity. The Palestinian villages are more of a jumble of houses, reflecting their age, lack of civil planning and resources. On the left is the Jewish settlement of Halamish; I immediately spot the forest of tall straight pine trees, a Jewish National Fund forest which means that it is likely covering a destroyed Palestinian village or two and that the land is available for Jewish use only. This is a neat and fairly cynical trick to allow the state agencies involved in land to avoid the accusation of racism and discrimination, as the land is owned, controlled, managed (name a legal maneuver) by the JNF which is a private charity. This highway leads to Route 443 which conveniently gives the settlers in the heart of the West Bank a straight ride into Tel Aviv. We pass our first Israeli checkpoint on the road to Nabih Saleh, and gaze at a row of Palestinian cars. In the distance we can see the high rises of Tel Aviv. Everything is amazingly up close and personal. Dorothy belts out, “I’ve been in the storm so long…” and our voices carry us forward until we see the sign for Budrus, a village famous for its nonviolent resistance to the wall and the focus of a powerful documentary of the same name.
There are two plants that always grab my attention: the spiky, yellow-green saber cactus growing profusely, often six to eight feet tall with egg shaped orange fruit. This cactus was used to denote boundaries and is the living memorial to a Palestinian home. Like the Palestinians, this cactus refuses to die despite efforts to eradicate its presence, so it inconveniently pops up in JNF forests, in the midst of settlements, and other Jewish only areas. I am also constantly fascinated by the olive tree, growing resiliently on terraced rocky groves, along the road, in rusted metal cans, accommodating to the environment and adversity; some thick, sturdy, pock marked with gnarled limbs and a shimmer of leaves, one to two thousand years old, others more like quirky defiant teenagers or toddlers sprouting from the center of a protective rubber tire; the whole family is here. For Palestinians the olive tree is almost holy, passed down through generations, a major source of oil, food, and income, and a treasured inheritance. The older they get, I am told, the more they produce. They seem to die only when attacked, bulldozed, or burned to the ground, which is a regular occurrence in these parts.
Budrus has the distinction of being located on the Green Line and has been encroached upon by the settlement of Modi’in Illit which was built on the no man’s land created in 1948. (It is now apparently some man’s land.) A small hilly village, Budrus is 35 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea and we can spot Tel Aviv and Jaffa from the top of the hill, while standing near an ancient sapphire domed mosque. The wall is of the electrified fence variety and we can see a military jeep at the bottom of the hill, watching us, periodically moving when we move. The village is also adjacent to the largest Israeli military training camp, so there is the frequent sound of the machinery of warfare, in case anyone was not already stressed by the loss of land and years of demonstrations. We are here because Rabbi Brian Walt showed Budrus at his temple and one of the Dorothy Cotton Institute fellows suggested that DCI organize a delegation of African American civil rights leaders to visit Budrus, meet with Ayad Morrar and other village leaders featured in the documentary and engaged in nonviolent civil resistance.
While the film beautifully documents their years of resistance and the ultimate moving of the fence to the Green Line, Ayad remarks, “They built the fence to protect themselves, now they have to protect the fence.” There is an intensive security system with cameras that are so powerful they can take clear pictures of villagers’ faces and then the soldiers easily identify leaders and arrive in the night to drag them off to administrative detention and prison. The hill and the cemetery are littered with tear gas canisters; we stop and sing at the grave of a martyr in the struggle, a shahid. On the way back to the community center we stop to marvel at an olive tree that is almost 2000 years old, some of the holes in the trunk packed with stones that get imbedded as the tree grows. It seems that trees are often named for women and this tree is called Hadra. Ayad explains that when the army or the settlers uproot an olive tree, they are killing so much more than a tree, they are attacking a beloved member of the family, a source of food and income that is often hundreds of years old, a symbol of the Palestinians attachment to the land and the rhythm of the seasons. That is why the village women gather to wail and keen such an intense heartless loss. There is an Arabic expression that if anyone uproots an olive tree, God will damn them twenty times. The mythology of the holes in the older olive tree trunks lies in a story that when the Prophet Mohammed died, the heart of the olive trees burned in grief and created the holes. Once again in the unforgiving Mediterranean sun I am walking, sweating, and stumbling on sacred ground and marveling about the power of villager resistance; the ugliness of the occupation is palpable.
Reports reflect the views of the individuals writing them and do not necessarily represent the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, Interfaith Peace Builders or other delegates or the organizations with which they are affiliated.