Written on Sunday, November 13, 2005
Having heard of the difficulties in getting to the West Bank village of Bilin on Friday mornings, I took the offer of a lift on Thursday night from Tel Aviv to avoid the morning roadblocks and checkpoints set up to prevent activists joining the weekly demonstration in protest at the building of the separation wall.
Whilst waiting in my hostel room in Jaffa, a friend calls, she can’t go. She gives me a number to arrange another lift. Several hours and calls later I’m given another number to call before finally getting an address to meet my ride.
There, I am greeted by a retired psychologist come activist. His son is giving us and two others a lift.
The small Palestinian village of Bilin lies about 2.5miles east of the green line (the internationally recognized border between Israel and Palestine) and 7 miles west of the main West Bank town of Ramallah.
As we drive past Modin Illit, the expanding Israeli settlement and the cause of Bilin’s problems, we keep an eye out for soldiers. With none in sight, the car pulls over, we jump out and dart into the cover of darkness amongst the rocks and trees. After a 200m walk across the rough terrain we arrive to the safety of a small Palestinian village. A van has been pre-arranged to pick us up and take us to the international house in Bilin.
This military style romp makes you feel like some subversive criminal which is how the authorities often treat the peace protesters. People entering Gaza used to have to sign a form declaring they were not ‘peace activists’ as if it were a crime.
Arriving at the house, we are met by other internationals from numerous countries, including some familiar faces from previous visits.
The following morning, and every Friday, in defiance of the ‘closed military zone’ order the army tries to enforce, hundreds of Palestinian, international and Israeli peace activists descend on the village. They gather by the mosque with banners and objects of symbolism, before setting off for the route of the fence to voice their anger and opposition to it.
Since February of this year Bilin has turned from a sleepy farming village into a symbol of Palestinian non-violent resistance. The confiscated land is being used to expand the illegal settlement of Modin Illit and the state of Israel. The only country in the world that refuses to specify its borders.
The impact on the community is the loss of over 50% of their land. This land provides the majority of the village’s income, particularly since permission for West Bankers to work in Israel
was rescinded and the crippled economy provides few job opportunities
Bilin demonstrations have become famous for their imaginative ideas that fuel the media interest they seek. It is this media interest that is hoped will inform the world of their plight and the unjust behaviour of the Israeli army and authorities.
During actions, they have chained themselves to olive trees to show their connection to them, built a yoke for twelve people to symbolise the effects of the occupation, dressed up in black and carried a mock-up of the wall to show the effective death of any chance of a Palestinian state, stood in mock cages to symbolise how they will be living in an effectual prison and built a USA controlled ‘scales of justice’, with the world in one pan and Israel outweighing it in the other.
They have also tried to reach out to the soldiers by giving them letters in Hebrew, saying how they are against the wall and occupation, not Israel or its people.
The largest demo was during the Jewish holiday of Passover in April of this year. It attracted hundreds of Israeli peace activists of all ages on the condition that no matter what the provocation, no stones would be thrown. They included the respected Israeli journalist and former MK (Member of Knesset) Uri Avnery, who was celebrating his 80th birthday, alongside several current MKs. The Dylan-esque David Rovics, an American Jew who also played at the G8 in Scotland, and pianist Jacob Allegro Wegloop, a holocaust survivor who played the Palestinian National Anthem before the march, giving the day a carnival feel.
It is this type of non-violent resistance that seems to frustrate the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) as it leaves little excuse to attack and break up the demo.
I have regularly witnessed, after an initial calm, the soldiers pushing the demonstrators, looking for a reaction. The soldiers then increase their provocation, knocking people over or hitting them with batons. Then tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets are used as the crowd is dispersed and the youth respond with stones.
Unsurprisingly, there have been numerous injuries to protesters, journalists and even an MK.
At the Passover demo, the army took to planting Arab speaking and looking undercover soldiers amongst the crowd to agitate. One of the village leaders noticed one of them throwing stones and challenged him, not realizing who he was. The man removed the handkerchief from his face and donned an Israeli police cap before attacking and arresting him – for trying to prevent him throwing stones.
And it seems they have not abandoned this tactic as they were caught again, this time by the Israeli media, encouraging the youth to throw stones at the soldiers. On a previous demo one soldier lost an eye after being hit by a stone. It has not been ruled out that it may have been thrown by one of these agents.
In 2004, in the village of Biddu, similarly affected by the building of the wall, the army tried these tactics to disastrous effect. As a group of Palestinians and undercover agents threw stones the uniformed soldiers responded with volleys of tear-gas. As the crowd dispersed, the agents donned police caps and attempted to arrest some of the Palestinians. Witnessing this, their friends tried to de-arrest them. The uniformed soldiers panicked and opened fire with live bullets killing two and wounding several others. The IDF’s official response was that the Palestinians shot themselves. There was no recourse to these killings.
As the Bilin demonstrations continued week after week undeterred, the army’s frustration and violence has increased and consequently, so has the media coverage.
This has led to the imposition of 24hr curfews, new mobile checkpoints to turn back activists and journalists and night-raids to harass and arrest locals. International activists living in the village are able to circumvent these obstacles and monitor the raids when the media has left.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Lieutenant Colonel Tzachi Segev as saying “the stronger the activity against the fence, the stronger our operations will be. We reserve the right to enter the village at any hour … sometimes there is no escaping collective punishment even if it has a negative impact. Collective punishment is … a lever of pressure if the village does not behave properly”. Collective punishment is a violation of International law.
Of the numerous arrests made during protests, Israelis and internationals are generally let go after two to four hours (occasionally deporting internationals), but Palestinians are treated differently. Often they are beaten, either on the floor, in the jeep or at the police station, before false charges are made against them.
Typically, they are accused of assaulting several armed and body-armoured soldiers and may be held for several days before the charges are dropped or thrown out by the judge. Activists’ film footage has often helped stop these cases continuing. Even the army’s own footage has been used to the same effect. However, one Palestinian was jailed for four and a half months for throwing stones.
Abdullah Abu Rahme, one of the coordinators of the ‘Popular Committee against the Wall’, was arrested whilst giving an interview to Egyptian TV for breaking curfew and held for two days.
Captain Daniel Kfeer, the military judge, cleared Abdullah, saying, the two days of detention were illegal and accused soldiers of breaking the law by denying the villagers of Bilin, and the groups that support them, of their right to legitimate resistance and freedom of speech. He went on to say, “in the case of the accused, it is evident that the security forces and the military were the ones who broke the law with unnecessary violent actions against the demonstrators”.
However this outcome is not typical.
This organized, media attracting, non-violent resistance against the wall is something that has grown and matured since its birth in Mas’ha, a small village to the north of Bilin, in early 2003. The ‘baton’ was then passed onto Budrus later that year, Biddu in 2004 and Bilin in early 2005, with members from each village passing on the tactics they had learnt to the next. By focusing on one village at a time, even though there may be others suffering similarly nearby, it consolidates the much needed activists efforts and gives the media something to latch onto.
And the strategy is clearly working, with even the often indifferent Israeli papers and TV stations reporting on events, particularly stories of agitation and Israeli civilian injuries (Palestinian injuries are rarely news). Impromptu press conferences after the demonstrations, using video footage, often proving the IDF has lied over a story, helps get their message across.
But real changes on the ground largely rely on successes in the courts. And so, a group of Israeli, Palestinian and international lawyers work constantly on trying to get the route of the wall moved to reduce the loss of land.
It should be noted that the route of the wall takes in over 60% of the illegal settlements’ population so they are contiguous with Israel proper. In the case of Ariel, a settlement of over 18000, that means the wall stretches 22km into the West Bank.
In court, the petitioners argue that the wall is being built on their agricultural land and thus confiscates much of it. This affects their livelihoods and wellbeing and therefore their rights. The fact that it is their land and therefore Israel has no right to use it, is not discussed.
The IDF’s lawyers say that the settlers have a human right to be protected. The fact that they reside there illegally is not discussed. If a ruling implied this it would have huge ramifications for the Israeli government. A confrontation the Israeli courts would prefer to avoid.
At best, the IDF are instructed to move the path of the wall closer to the settlement in question, as the original path is usually next to a Palestinian village. But experience has shown the IDF often ignores these verdicts.
However, Budrus and Biddu both won improvements in the route of the wall through the courts, after media attention surrounding the ICJ ruling (at the Hague stating the illegality of the wall whilst on Palestinian lands) and the non-violent protests.
Interestingly, there are Palestinians in the East Jerusalem area, who oppose their compatriots’ petitions, for they wish to remain on the Israeli side of the wall. It seems they would rather be separated from their friends and neighbours, than locked in what is fast becoming the world’s biggest prison.