Ayed Morrar: The West Bank's reluctant movie star

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The activist's Palestinian protest movement is the focus of a new documentary film. Donald Macintyre meets him

Away to the west of Budrus, a startlingly red sun was sinking towards the horizon behind Jaffa as the Israeli border police patrol arrived. They had driven at speed in their two jeeps along the military road beside the footprint-detecting sand track and the electronic fence that help to make up the separation barrier here. To the north, beyond a straggling, rocky olive grove and perched on top of a 160ft pylon, we could just make out the security camera, capable of taking a recognizable image of a human face from three miles. "What are you doing here," asked the armed and uniformed men donning their helmets as they jumped from the jeeps, and used their keys to open the locks in the barrier to reach us. "You should be 150 metres back from the fence," they said. "And you certainly shouldn't be taking pictures. You are being held for questioning."

Besides being a sudden reminder of the occupation on an otherwise perfectly tranquil September evening in the West Bank, this trivial incident, lasting no more than 15 minutes, had a symbolic, if unintentional, significance. For the order to withdraw by 150 metres – which had no discernible authority or legal basis-took us back almost to the village school, along the very line where the barrier had originally been planned to run seven years ago. There it would have remained, had it not been for a remarkable popular struggle led by the man we had taken to the barrier to photograph, a struggle portrayed in a compelling and multiple award-winning 90-minute documentary now showing at the Empire, Leicester Square, London, and due to screen in the US next month.

It would be a gross over-simplification to describe Ayed Morrar, the film's undoubted star, as the Gandhi of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the success of Morrar (together with his fearless, then 15-year-old, daughter Iltezam, who is seen in the film jumping in front of an Israeli Army bulldozer) in galvanizing a whole village to rise up in protest at the barrier has made Budrus a model of unarmed resistance against the 43- year-old occupation.

By repeatedly demonstrating until the military did what it had repeatedly told Morrar it would never do and reroute the barrier, the villagers and their supporters – most notably Israeli activists – pioneered a form of local popular protest, and at real risk to their lives, given that five Palestinians were injured by live ammunition during the protests. As Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, ponders the intense pressure on him not to break off direct negotiations with Israel those marches and demonstrations are today the one durable form of Palestinian popular uprising. That is particularly resonnant 10 years to the week after the protests which opened the second intifada when Ariel Sharon made his famous promenade on Jerusalem's Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. And if the direct negotiations were to resume, only to break down next year after some climax akin to the Camp David talks of 2000, they could just be a pointer to a much wider eruption across the west Bank.

It's not only that Budrus was able to reclaim some 280 of the 300 acres of olive groves and pasture it would have lost under the original route. It was that this emblematic victory for unarmed struggle was won while the intifada, now transformed, was still underway. Thanks to several factors, arguably including the force used against those early demonstrations, it had become a militant insurrection contaminated by suicide bombings of Israeli civilians. And it was making no such measurable gains. Rather, in the retrospective view of many West Bank Palestinians, it was creating a serious setback for their cause. "We didn't choose popular resistance because we are the politest people in the world, or because we are the only ones to renounce violence," says Morrar in the film. "We chose it because it is the best interest of the Palestinian people to take that path."

It's not surprising that Budrus the movie has been shown in some of the villages where such protests now take place every week. Through interviews and collating footage taken by activists as the action developed, it has shed a bright light on the spirit of that struggle.

We see a local Hamas leader, Ahmed Awwad, who joined Fatah supporters and the majority of demonstrators who belonged to no faction at all, saying: "If we use violence to oppose the wall, the resistance movement will not last long. The Israeli Army would see this as a justification to say, they are terrorists." And while the film's subtitle "It takes a village to unite the most divided people on earth" may be promotional licence, it is still a surprise for Israeli audiences to hear Awwad declaring: "We had already heard that there were some Israelis who wanted peace with the Palestinians. But these demonstrations exceeded expectations. In these marches I saw these Israeli voices in real life; it wasn't just something I heard about."

Indeed one of those Israeli "voices", mathematician Kobi Snitz, joined the protest because he felt that direct action was one of the Israeli peace camp's missing assets. He says in the film: "When we got about 200 metres from the soldiers, and they were armed... I was sure we were going to die. But there were others around me who weren't even cowering. And gradually I got over my fear and got stronger from their strength and determination."

This judgement is endorsed by one of the film's most compelling interviewees, Yasmine Levy, a tough but strikingly honest border police squad commander, who worked in Budrus, and formed a complex relationship with women among the protesters, who regularly chanted her name during stand-offs. Despite that connection, she never doubted that her duty lay. "Even the women [who] were beaten up or hit by rubber bullets or stun grenades they had no problem with it," she says. "They went to all lengths to ensure their land would remain theirs."

Six years after the victory that marks its climax, Ayed Morrar, thoughtful, quietly spoken, is anything but star-struck by the film's international success. While its "neutral" approach might not have "exactly" been the one the Budrus villagers would have adopted, "I appreciated the movie and accepted it. It is a good opportunity ....to speak about the example of civil resistance, what it achieved and how it works."

Morrar, now 48, spent almost six years, from 1993-8, in an Israeli prison as a local leader of Fatah – which he has since left – and before that spent three years on the run after being shot twice. But unarmed struggle has been embedded in his approach from the start. First arrested as a student activist at the age of 19 in 1981, when it was still illegal to raise a Palestinian flag, he spent most of the first intifada organising strikes, demonstrations, protest roadblocks and boycotts of Israeli goods. Even when he was in charge of investigating collaborators he ensured that in contrast to a widespread practice elsewhere, none in his area of responsibility were executed. When the second intifada broke out he chose the option of "civil resistance".

Morrar is conscious that at present the movement is limited – at least on a regular basis – to around 10 villages. The reasons are complex but one, in Morrar's view, is that there is not the same connection between the Palestinian leadership that there were during the two intifadas.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's Cabinet has endorsed the village protests and provided bail money for ever increasing numbers of those arrested. But Morrar complains that the PA leadership has made little, "effort to encourage the popular resistance" Although officials and leaders attended demonstrations in the past, he says that hasn't happened in the last three months, mainly, it seems, on the grounds that the currently negotiations should be allowed to take their course. "But even if we expect something from the negotiations it's not a mistake to still struggle," he says, "especially when we aren't killing anybody... we aren't damaging the negotiations. Maybe we will encourage both sides to make a serious effort to find a solution."

One surprising criticism from some in the movement is that the film if anything plays down the level of violence on both sides – tear gas, rubber and live bullets from the security forces, and stone throwing by usually boys and young men – with the result that some foreign observers who have seen the film arrive at today's protests expecting something akin to passive resistance and are then dismayed to Palestinians throwing stones at the security forces.

"In fact the level of violence at Budrus was not so different from now," says Jonathan Pollak, an Israeli veteran of village protests and media officer of the Popular Struggle Co-Ordinating Committee. The military say that "rock-throwing is considered a serious offence, placing others at significant risk and endangering both public and regional security". Morrar says that in any case where any stone thrower aimed to kill he would immediately condemn it. But where it is a response to say army jeeps entering villages or tear gas and shooting, he will not do so because "I think it's part of civil resistance, of popular resistance, which uses all the means of pressure except killing." And he adds: "It is a way for our young people to express rage and say 'we don't want you here. We will not let you be here. Go away." When The Independent last visited Nabi Saleh, in March, soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets on what was then still a peaceful march, with resulting running battles between stone-throwing youths and troops using tear gas and small arms. A 14-year-old Palestinian boy was seriously injured by a rubber coated steel bullet which penetrated his skull.

Last Saturday the scene at Nabi Saleh was very different. Five army jeeps drove towards the centre to block off a smaller march before it had even reached the road leading out of the village. The marchers sat down in the road; on this occasion – a day of events to celebrate international Peace Day – the organisers went out of their way to stop stones being thrown. None were, apart from a handful by young children. No shots were fired. But of course the marchers had no chance of getting past.

Moreover roadblocks, including one nine miles from this village of 500 people at which The Independent was held up for an hour, were used to put the village of 500 under siege. Three coachloads of supporters from Bir Zeit as well as Israeli and Palestinian activists – including on this occasion Morrar himself – travelling by car were prevented from reaching the village. And 40 of those on the buses who walked to the village instead were detained by troops for the duration of the protest.

Efforts to prevent Israeli activists taking part in these protests may stem in part from the role they play in the demonstrations. As the border police's Yasmine Levy puts it bluntly in the the film: "At times, left-wing Israelis joined the Palestinians. And because they were Jews we couldn't use force against them. And they were at the front with the women, which made it even harder for us."

Morrar says: "When Israelis are in the demonstration and the soldiers keep using force, there is still a violent reaction. But it's not as bad as at any demonstration of just Palestinians." Morrar believes the presence of an Israeli minority has a value which goes well beyond this.

"They help to create an understanding between both peoples. The Palestinians can know that not all Israelis are bad, not all of them are soldiers and settlers. Many of them are good people, against the occupation and looking forward to a real peace."

Reflecting last week on six years of unarmed protest, the nascent boycotts of Israeli goods as well as the more long-standing demonstrations, Morrar summed up his philosophy. "Resistance is not just a right but a duty for everyone under occupation, young people, old people, women as well as men," he said. "And the only framework for that, for including all the components of the Palestinian people is our way, the popular way of civil resistance."

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