by Sarah Edgcumbe

“We are fighting for freedom. We are fighting for our smiles. We don’t care what the occupation thinks about us or what they will do. This is an act of defiance.”

The certainty of retribution implied within the above statement seems exaggerative for merely flying kites, but this is the reality in Burin, a village that holds fast among beautiful rolling hills in the countryside of the northern West Bank, and which is also surrounded by three illegal Israeli settlements. Centuries old, with a population of nearly three thousand, the villagers of Burin have long cared for this land. They’ve raised their families here for generations, celebrated births and marriages, supported each other, grown and harvested ancient olive trees, with roots that symbolize the hundreds of years of Palestinian toil that connect the people to this land. This land that Israel wants so badly but will never have.

Centuries old, with a population of nearly three thousand, the villagers of Burin have long cared for this land

In recent years the Israeli occupation of Palestine has rained hell upon Burin. Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF) soldiers regularly enter the village at night, invading and ransacking families’ homes in front of terrified children, arresting people without charge and dragging them off into the night. During the day, tear gas and even live ammunition are not an uncommon facet of village life. Worse yet is the unpredictable savagery of the settlers from three surrounding hilltops, who raid Burin and its land, burning down olive trees – simultaneously severing livelihoods and attempting (but failing) to sever symbolic roots, attacking Palestinians young and old, and even firing guns near the village school with seeming impunity. IOF soldiers are always present during settler attacks, but only intervene if a Palestinian dares to fight back. Imagine the trauma experienced by the children of this village; the oppression, the tension, the constantly having to be alert to danger, the violence they have experienced. Now imagine the joy of standing on the soil your family has farmed for hundreds of years, holding the string of a kite as it soars in the air above you, harnessing the wind, completely free.

Welcome to the Burin Kite Festival. Organized by Ghassan Najjar, a resident of Burin who refuses to give up on either his land or his people. As this year, on 13th July, will be the tenth anniversary of the kite festival in Burin, I spoke to Ghassan about what it means to the people there. He explained that the kite festival has come to represent the challenge faced by the people of Burin who want to lead normal lives and experience happiness, but who are confronted every day with the IOF’s desire to suppress and extinguish the life of the village.

The kite festival is perceived as an act of rebellion by the Israeli authorities; a signal that Burin never was and never will be Israeli land. Organizing this carefree act of meaningful defiance poses many challenges for Ghassan and his friends. Some people from Burin don’t want the kite festival to be held because they are fearful of repercussions from the IOF. Ghassan says “the IOF soldiers have started to harass and try to intimidate the organizers by calling us on our phones. When they called me they told that if I didn’t stop the kite festival they would invade my home and arrest my father, my mother and my sisters. But we will not stop the kite festival.” The IOF also paid the mayor of Burin a visit, trying to employ the same intimidatory tactics that failed to work on Ghassan and his friends. They told the mayor that if he would not prohibit the kite festival they would invade Burin and destroy it. The mayor relented and asked Ghassan to cancel the festival, but Ghassan remained defiant, pointing out that the IOF regularly invade the village, intimidate, harass and destroy anyway; it makes no difference whether they are flying kites or sat in their homes, the festival is just an excuse for them to administer more brutality. He incredulously remarks as if talking to the IOF “the kites threaten you? The kite in the sky, it threatens you?!”

This year the kite festival represents resistance as well as a call for Palestinian unity. To mark its anniversary the festival organizers have coordinated with residents of a refugee camp in Gaza along with refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. They will all hold kite festivals on the same day. Children and families from all of the camps in the West Bank will also travel to Burin to participate, flying their kites above the settlements for all of the illegal occupiers who live there to see. Whilst most children make their own kites, others buy them. The criteria for entry of a kite is simple: it must have the Palestinian flag painted on it. When the flag soars above the Israeli settlements the settlers will see hundreds of flags reclaiming Palestinian sky. Ghassan says that in inviting people from the camps the kite festival will send a message of the triumph of unity over discrimination. “We are all Palestinian. It doesn’t matter if you live in a camp, a village or a city. We need to stop discriminating against camp residents and unite to resist our real enemy – the Israeli occupiers. We need to teach our children to work together. By promoting unity we can strongly resist the occupation.”

The festival has a jovial atmosphere; hundreds of people this year will fly their kites together, enjoy music and traditional dabke dancing, but parents will remain on alert, worried that settlers or the IOF will attack those who participate without any forewarning. Ghassan therefore stresses that the Burin Kite Festival will always remain a simple event in order to convey a simple, clear message to the occupiers. “We have the right to smile, we have the right to have fun. We have the right to be happy, we have the right to play, we have the right to move.” This message will be sent to the occupiers by the children of Burin and the children of the camps who will fly their rebel kites high in the sky for all the settlement to see.

Film-maker Woody Morris has captured the 2017 Burin Kite Festival in all its grassroots glory beautifully in his short film Occupied Skies, which follows Ghassan and his fellow organizers as they successfully resist the occupation in perhaps the most poignant way imaginable. I cannot recommend this film enough, and you can find it here and above.

As the kite festival grows in popularity and significance year upon year, it is beginning to take on a life of its own as a cultural event. As such Ghassan and his fellow organizers have just established a cultural and arts association called COMPASS Arts and Culture Association, which will serve Burin and two other nearby villages which also suffer heinous amounts of settler and IOF violence. Once the COMPASS website is established, you will be able to follow and support Ghassan and his friends’ work for Burin.

Long live Palestine.

All images from Occupied Skies


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