What if an international organization decreed a tribe of Native Americans, who had endured many hardships, were entitled to a new place to live? And what if that displaced tribe were to be returned to its native lands in North America? What kinds of conflicts might arise among the current residents as the newcomers move in?
That scenario is much like the reality of the ongoing discord in modern-day Israel/Palestine. Because the United States has a friendly relationship with Israel, some believe the media promote the image of Israel as the victim of attacks by Palestinian terrorists.
Saturday, Project Peace and Tiffin Area Pax Christi sponsored a Palestinian speaker, Iyad Burnat. About 80 people attended Burnat's morning presentation, and more came for an afternoon screening of the documentary, "5 Broken Cameras."
Burnat spoke about the hardships imposed on the people of Bil'in, an agricultural village of 1,900 in the West Bank. In 2004, the Israeli military removed more than 1,000 olive trees to build a wall that has separated villagers from their agricultural lands and restricted travel - all in the name of security for Israeli settlers in the area.
"When they started to build the wall in Bil'in, they started to destroy the lives of the people," Burnat said.
He displayed a map to show various boundaries, including the separation wall and Israeli settlements that have sprung up beyond the 1967 armistice line. Married and the father of four children (ages 14,12, 10 and 8), Burnat said he and his wife constantly worry about their children going to certain areas of the village. Soldiers have been known to incarcerate people under age 18 for up to six months.
At age 17, Burnat was accused of throwing stones at soldiers and jailed for two years. After that, he was arrested and imprisoned several more times for peacefully protesting Israeli restrictions. Burnat recalled a period when soldiers raided Bil'in every night, awakening the residents and kicking down doors. He said some soldiers patrolling the streets deliberately frighten Palestinian children.
"My daughter is 8 years old and she grew up in the war This is how they use violence against us," Burnat said.
Since 2005, the villagers have been employing non-violent tactics in public demonstrations every Friday. Burnat heads the Bil'in Popular Committee that organizes these efforts. A group of Israeli citizens and international peace activists also participate in protests against the barriers and the continuing encroachment of illegal Israeli settlements.
Burnat showed video clips and photos that show unarmed demonstrators being pushed back by Israeli soldiers in riot gear, armed with shields, rifles, rubber bullets and tear gas. Ignoring the cameras, the soldiers block access to the village, fire shots across the barriers into the crowd (which includes many children), and beat an unarmed man.
In one clip, soldiers use a machine to generate an irritating noise to drown the chants of the demonstrators and disperse them. Another video shows protesters who have chained themselves together and to trees and fences in a show of passive resistance. In addition to cutting the chains and carrying off people, the military brings heavy equipment to remove the trees.
"We are not against the Jewish. We are against the occupation," Burnat said.
He added that many Americans are not aware of the oppression Israeli Defense Forces are inflicting on Palestinians with more than $4 billion in U.S. aid each year.
Following his talk, Burnat took questions and comments from the audience. One man questioned U.S. aid to Palestine. Burnat said the U.S. has contributed about $500 million to Palestine for humanitarian aid. The disruption of agriculture and destruction or confiscation of homes has left many Palestinians without sources of income or shelter. Israel does not grant permits for Palestinians to build new homes as replacements.
Unlike Israeli settlers, the villagers have limited means to defend themselves and protect their property. Burnat said one Israeli settlement has 600 residents with a wall and 3,000 soldiers for security.
"And all the settlers have guns," Burnat said.
Israel also uses more insidious means to control Palestinians. In Bil'in, the wall has cut off the underground water supply to part of the village, while the nearby Israeli settlement has access to the best water source. Villagers cannot dig new wells without a permit from the Israelis, who seldom issue such permits.
"They give us (water) one day a week they can control it any time," Burnat said.
Sr. Paulette Schroeder, who served three years in Palestine as a Christian Peacemaker, interjected that Israelis control about 80 percent of the region's water.
Jim Bailey also has traveled to Israel/Palestine. He noted that Palestinian homes usually have a water tank on the roof. Inside the settlements, green grass and trees are a contrast to the dry terrain outside the settlement barriers, Bailey observed.
Burnat said many Palestinians have become refugees and now live in other countries, but the Israelis have made it difficult for more people to leave the country. Burnat said he was granted permission because people in other countries invited him to come and speak. In 2006, he made numerous presentations on a tour of Europe. He is on a three-month tour of the U.S. with plans to give more than 100 programs in 25 states.
One person at Saturday's gathering asked about the kind of government ruling Palestine. Burnat said the occupation has split the country into regions, making it difficult for their government to operate. It has limited power and authority. Armed terrorist elements have taken control in Gaza, as recent news reports have announced.
"I don't feel we have a government Area B and C, where I live, is under Israeli security," Burnat said.
What about the recent United Nations vote to recognize Palestine as a non-member state? Burnat predicted the move would have little effect on conditions in Israel / Palestine.
"This means nothing. We want to see something on the ground. We want to see the change," he said. "Ask your government to stop the aid to Israel."
Those who continue to live amid the occupation plan to continue their protests and to describe the Palestinians' daily suffering to the rest of the world. Burnat said the demonstrations in his village did result in part of the barrier being removed. Some of the soldiers seem receptive to their pleas, even though they must follow orders to stop the demonstrators.
"Every week, we have hope," he said. "Always, we have young soldiers in the front lines. We talk to them about living together in peace."
Burnat has written a book that is to be published in 2013. He asked the audience to stay informed about conditions and events in the Middle East and to pressure legislators to question Israel's actions, including its use of U.S. tax dollars. A member of the audience suggested boycotting and withdrawing investments in Israeli companies.
Jo Hollingsworth of Fostoria, who arranged for Burnat's visit, had heard Schroeder and Bailey talk about their experiences in Israel/Palestine.
Representatives of Project Peace and Pax Christi are willing to show the film "5 Broken Cameras" and to speak to area organizations and church groups. To contact Project Peace, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, check the group's Facebook page or call (419) 447-0435, ext. 136. To contact Tiffin Area Pax Christi, e-mail email@example.com.