Iyad Burnat is a Palestinian campaigner for non-violent resistance against the occupation of the Palestinian territories by the Israeli Defence Forces and the settlement and annexation of the territories’ lands by Israel. In 2012, his brother Emad Burnat made the documentary ‘5 Broken Cameras’ in collaboration with Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi. The documentary follows the non-violent resistance in their hometown of Bil’in against the building of the Israeli West Bank barrier there by the Israeli government. Spanning five years, the documentary gets its title from Emad Burnat’s five cameras which are destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces over the course of its filming.
‘5 Broken Cameras’ was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Iyad Burnat features in the film as one of the leaders of the non-violent resistance in Bil’in. Burnat led a weekly protest against the building of the barrier until it was eventually destroyed and moved back 500 metres after a 2007 ruling against the wall’s location by the Israeli courts was carried out in 2011. This returned 30% of the villages land and was considered a major victory by the people of Bili’in.
Burnat continues to lead the people of Bil’in in weekly protest against the wall and the occupation. He is the head of the ‘Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall’, and of ‘Friends of Freedom and Justice in Bil’in’, a group which is working on building international support for the struggle in Bil’in. In 2015, Burnat was awarded the James Lawson award for achievement in the practice of Nonviolent Conflict.
Trinity News met Burnat on a wet October morning in Front Square, an hour before he was due to give a talk to the Global Development Society on non violent resistance. He was short, of slight build, and had the quiet, authoritative confidence of a man accustomed to being able to hold people’s attention without having to raise his voice.
Q:You were first arrested when you were 17 years old, can you describe what happened?
It was in the first intifada. I was in school and joined the demonstrations, all of the people in Palestine joined the intifada. I was arrested for two years because of this.When they took me the first day, it was like the hardest day of my life. It was very cold in Palestine at that time, it was snowing. The soldiers put me on the floor of the jeep and put their boots on my body.
It was in the middle of the night when they arrested me, the IDF came and told my father that they wanted to talk to me for 5 minutes. When they took me the first day, it was like the hardest day of my life. It was very cold in Palestine at that time, it was snowing. The soldiers put me on the floor of the jeep and put their boots on my body.They took me to the jail in Hebron. One of them was a very big soldier, I don’t know if he was very big or if I was just very small, but he shouted at me to take my clothes off. He then beat me and told me to stand in a open area that was very cold. I was taken to a small room, half metre by half metre. In wintertime, they paint it white to make it cold, in summer time they paint it black to make it hot.
I spent the day in this room, then at night they took me to a bigger room, which was one and a half metre by one and a half metre, to sleep.
In the day they would take me to the interrogation, where they would beat me and shout at me to sign the paper, which was written in Hebrew. After 21 days I signed it. The court that I was tried by is a military court different to the one Israeli citizens would be tried under. The judge gave me 36 months – 24 months in jail and 12 months under home arrest after.
Q. What was your experience of Naqab prison?
A: After I was tried, I found myself in Naqab prison with 20,000 people in it. Most of them were children. During the first intifada they arrested everyone from the houses from the street at nighttime they did not care. The life was very bad, the food was very bad. We lived in tents. In wintertime the water and cold would come to you, in summer time it was very hot.
In the jail you have to find friends, as there is no visiting from your family. The first time my family visited me was after 6 months. My mother travelled 2 days to visit me in Naqab jail, it’s very hard to go at night time, sometimes walking and taking the bus. The political prisoners become friends with each other very quickly. There can be 30-40 people to a tent, so you become like brothers.
“The violence comes from the occupation; we have to fight this violence with nonviolence. And you will win, if you smile in the face of a soldier who has come to shoot you, he will be angry… and you will win.”
Q. On the subject of family, your son was shot at a protest in 2014…
A: It was the 31st July in 2014 at the time of the massacre in Gaza where they killed 2500 Palestinians in 2 months. Bil’in was part of this refusing of the massacre. We then went to the demonstration and then back to the village after. A group of soldiers followed us, the commander came out from the jeep about 30 metres from us and took out a gun and shot my son directly in the leg. I felt that it’s a message from the soldiers because my son was with me. They told his brother that after two weeks they would shoot him like his brother. My son is 18 now, he was 16 then. After two years there has been no success, he has lost feeling and movement in his foot as the bullet damaged the main nerve in his leg.
Q. Was your son in school at the time?
A: He was. He’s clever, he gets excellent marks. After being injured he has become less motivated, he didn’t go to school some days due to the injury and it affected him. But he succeeded this year, he got good marks and is in university now. He’s studying computer science, and we hope that he will continue his life like everybody else. He’s going to university on the other side of Ramallah.
Q. You’ve written a book ‘Bil’in and the non violent resistance’. What inspired you to resist non-violently?
A: Non-violent resistance is in the history of Palestinian resistance. If we go back to 1936, there was an Intifada against the British occupation of Palestine that was non-violent, hunger strike, boycotting, all these things. The first intifada in 1987 was popular and also non violent. I believe in a non-violent way because it’s effective, and it has power.
Because in my way I believe that love has more power than hate. This is about violence and nonviolence. The violence comes from the occupation; we have to fight this violence with nonviolence. And you will win, if you smile in the face of a soldier who has come to shoot you, he will be angry… and you will win.
So this is our line, we believe that with non-violence everyone can join. You can show the media the face of non-violence, and we have plenty of examples of it throughout human history, Martin Luther King jr. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, all of these kinds of resistance. In Bil’in we have had a lot of successes with our non-violent way, small successes, but big victories for a small village. Like when we moved the wall back 500 metres, forced them to destroy it and move it back, that’s a big victory.
“I believe that Government under the occupation doesn’t work. The people of Palestine must represent themselves.”
Q. What is the best way for someone to show your cause support?
A: If we want to talk about support we can take South Africa as an example, the success in South Africa against apartheid came from the outside, it was a resistance inside yes, but also the apartheid regime was at that time supported by Europe and America. People started to boycott in those countries, it started small in cities but then it succeeded.
We have a lot of people now boycotting the Israeli apartheid. Derry City recently took the decision on their council to boycott the Israeli government. It gives us hope everywhere that it is a solution to boycott the government.
Q. You’ve written critically before of the Palestinian Authority, who do you think should represent the Palestinian people?
A: I believe that Government under the occupation doesn’t work. The people of Palestine must represent themselves. We don’t need a government under the occupation. So we have people who are fighting, if you want to support you have to support the Palestinian people and the Palestinian case. If you look at the Oslo agreement, in the beginning in 1993, it gave the Palestinian people hope. However, after everything that has happened since with the occupation, if you ask any Palestinian now on the street they would tell you that they do not believe in the negotiations or the authority or the parties.
Q. What then is the solution to the conflict?
A: I believe that the solution is to put pressure to end the occupation from outside Palestine and from inside Palestine. This is the only solution because the Israeli government does not want one state or two states. For the Palestinian the only solution is the one state solution. If you look at the map the Israeli government really killed the two state solution since the Oslo negotiations. They were talking about the 1967 border, now only 12% of Palestine’s historic land is left for the Palestinians. In this 12% we also have 250 settlements, about 600,000 settlers. So where is the Palestinian state? I think there is no way to talk about the two states now as there is no Palestinian state. The only way is to have everybody in the one democratic state with the right to return for Palestinian refugees, one vote per person and justice, peace and equality for everybody.