A personal encounter with a Palestinian freedom fighter

Ken Jones Guest columnist

About a year ago, I was taking an online course called “The Cost of War” taught by Kathy Kelly, a well-known peace activist. She gave us an assignment to interview someone who had lived through a war experience, or was still living through one. I couldn’t help but think of Palestine, a place that has weighed heavily on my heart for years.

I had never been to Palestine but knew many people who had. One friend put me into an email correspondence with Iyad Burnat, who lives in the village of Bil’in. I Googled Iyad and was surprised to see what a well-known activist he was, having been featured in the award-winning film “5 Broken Cameras” and having won Tufts University’s prestigious James Lawson Award for Achievement in the Practice of Nonviolent Conflict.

Our email exchange was brief but heartfelt. I learned a little bit about the weekly nonviolent demonstrations he had been organizing for 10 years and about his son who had recently been shot by an Israeli soldier at one of these demonstrations. I could feel the hurt in him but also the driving commitment to continue in his struggle against the military occupation of his homeland.

Later on, last fall, my partner Melody Shank and I decided to travel to Palestine to see things for ourselves. We didn’t want to join an organized delegation but wanted to make our own connections, with the help of friends. Iyad invited us to come stay with him and his family in Bil’in. We were struck with his generosity and took him up on it.

In November, we spent two weeks in Palestine, including a stay with Iyad, during which we took part in one of the weekly demonstrations there. Walking with Iyad and about 40 other villagers, mostly youths, was quite an experience. It’s the first time I’ve ever been literally on the receiving end of a military attack, complete with about 20 soldiers on the ground, two armored cars, and lots of tear gas.

Later that evening, several neighbors came over to Iyad’s house for an evening barbecue and shared stories. Each one had been wounded or arrested at one time or another by the Israeli Occupation Forces. Each one was passionate about resisting the illegal confiscation of their lands and the daily humiliations and aggressions from the military. As they talked, Iyad’s 2-year-old son played with a large collection of empty tear gas canisters and rubber bullet casings that sat in the yard, all made in the USA.

Later that night, Iyad talked with me about a manuscript of a book he was working on and asked if I would help him edit it. He knew that I had edited other books and hoped I would help him get his book into print. He showed me some of his text, and I was taken with his first-person story of growing up under occupation, being arrested and jailed, and his leading a very strategic resistance movement in his village for a decade. Melody and I both agreed to help.

Sure enough, within a month of our return to our home in Swannanoa, Iyad sent me his entire manuscript, along with pictures. For the next month, I worked with the text, with Iyad and Melody to clarify and extend his ideas. He decided to self-publish the book rather than go through a publisher because he wanted to get it out to the public as soon as possible.

His book “Bil’in and the Nonviolent Resistance”is rich in stories about how he and his community have survived and fought back over the years. It is also a kind of international call to action. In Iyad’s words:

“We are a simple people, and more than anything we want to see peace. But before there is peace, there must be justice, and we must have our freedom. We are not against Jews or Israelis, but we are against the Occupation. We are fighting for a better future for our children and for all children. We need the support of the international community, and words are not enough. We need people to take direct action, both here in Palestine, and in their own countries against the governments who support this Occupation.”

Soon after we finished the book in January, Iyad organized a U.S. speaking tour to promote it and spread the word about Palestine. The man is on a mission!

Of course, I asked him to come to Asheville and stay with us. We will be driving up to Washington, D.C., to be part of the March 20 National March on Washington, D.C., to Support Palestine, where Iyad will be speaking and then bringing him back to our home.

Iyad will be in the Asheville area for just one day, March 24. He will have an informal discussion at Firestorm Café and Books at 3 p.m., then make a presentation at Warren Wilson College at 6 p.m. in the Canon Lounge of Gladfelter Hall.

Iyad’s presentation is sponsored by Just Peace for Israel/Palestine and the WWC Department of Religious Studies and Peace and Justice Studies program.

Ken Jones is a retired professor of teacher education who lives in Swannanoa.