Until recently the weekly demonstrations in the West Bank village of Bil’in seemed to be the only regular event that was keeping the non-violent intifada against the apartheid wall going (at least from the perspective of international activists in Palestine). This had a cumulative “Friday Intifada” effect – you sometimes felt like the demonstration was an isolated event making little difference.
In the village of Bil’in the barrier, if completed, will cut off or destroy a full 60% of the villager’s land. This is agricultural land used to grow olives and other produce. A similar situation can be seen in many places where the wall is built within Palestinian territory – not only cutting deep into the West Bank, but cutting Palestinians off from each other in many cases. In this area, the barrier (only put up in the last month, though the construction work has been going on for much longer) is in the physical form of a fence with a parallel military patrol road that the soldier’s jeeps cruise up and down on. Week in and week out since February the villagers assemble outside the village Mosque after midday prayers and the demonstrations sets off. They are joined every week by supporters from across the West Bank, from Israel and from many different countries. Amongst the Israelis present are the brilliant and dedicated activists from Anarchists Against the Wall and the principled and consistent Gush Shalom (“Peace Bloc”). Internationals come from many different places around the world and from different organisations. We in the ISM have benn joining in every week.
More recently the effect the demonstration has has been more clear. On the 11th of November, we managed to block construction happening for over an hour (videos are here and here, pictures are here and here. It was also covered on the Israeli Channel-One TV news, which actually gave us a fair hearing for once. This link to video of the news item is well worth following, even if you don’t understand Hebrew. An English subtitled version is expected to follow). This day was also the first anniversary of Yassar Arafat’s death, and the demonstration was well attended and in high spirits. As a group, we headed to the usual spot of the stand-off between demonstrators and soldiers, which is at the top of a hill near the site where the fence has been build recently. On this day however, the Popular Committee had planned a surprise – we unexpectedly headed off-road and towards the site of current construction. Our group of about 150 demonstrators blocked a construction road that diggers used to access the building site by standing in it while singing, chanting and clapping. A smaller group broke off from this main group and went around the line of soldiers that had quickly formed in order to stop us from moving towards the site. We managed to get around them while they were busy with the main group and calmly and non-violently block the path of a huge dumper truck that was being used to shift earth dug up from Bil’in’s agricultural land in order to build the apartheid barrier. We sat down and linked arms, refusing to move. The response of the Israeli military was very quickly to use violence against us, in the full knowledge that we would not respond in kind. They grabbed and dragged us, scratched our necks (this seemed to be some sort of deliberate crowd control technique because they did it to a few of us), beat us with clubs and threw sound grenades at us.
We were violently removed from the path of the dumper truck and digger, but the main blockade of the construction road was still in place, and continued for a good hour or so. At about 1:30pm one of the soldiers used a loudspeaker to announce something barely audible in Hebrew which was probably a warning to disperse. We continued to stand our ground as they loaded up with tear gas and sound bombs. Very suddenly, and with no provocation whatsoever, the military rushed us as one, using sound bombs, tear gas and rubber-coated metal bullets (the later mainly against Palestinian children). Some of the boys reacted to this by throwing stones. One child was hospitalised after being shot in the head.
According to a report in Ha’aretz the next day, the propaganda department of the Israeli military described all this as “special means”. Stone-throwing youth are often used as a pretext for the violence the military unleashes on us, despite the fact that (even besides the fact of their very presence on the village’s land as an occupying military force) the stone throwers rarely start up until the non-violent demonstration leaves. Violence is what soldiers are trained to do. For example, on the 2nd of December, the demonstration was immediately attacked by the soldiers who shot tear gas at us before we had even reached the building site. Furthermore, the Israelis have even infiltrated the demonstration using undercover agent provocateurs dressed as Arabs to encourage children to throw stones first, and furnish this pretext to the soldiers. This had been suspected by Palestinian and Israeli activists for some time, but it was all-but explicitly confirmed by a spokesman from the Israeli military when Ha’aretz covered the story recently.
This is the problem with “non-violent activism”: the non-violence is all on one side. Non-violent activism paradoxically means that you should be prepared to expect violence. The Israeli military has no qualms about using violence because, after all, they are soldiers and that’s what they do. In their view, they are doing you a favour by “only” using beatings, tear gas, sound bombs and rubber-coated metal bullets. If it weren’t for the presence of international, and (especially) Israeli activists at Bil’in, they would be using live ammunition with regularity. In fact, during the similar non-violent campaign in the village of Biddu, five Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military. These facts are worth remembering the next time you read an opinion piece in the western media criticising the Palestinians for their violence, and supposedly “not using non-violent activism” (a statement like this from Ha’aretz, a paper whose editors and journalist know for a fact that this is a fallacy, is the high of racist fabrication).
The ISM tries to maintain a night-time presence in Bil’in along with Israelis and other internationals. This is due to night-time invasions during which the military has gone into selected houses in the dead of night and arrested young men and children, who they then accuse of “throwing stones” or “damaging security property” (i.e. the apartheid barrier). So far, they have made 18 arrests. I myself witnessed several such arrests at about 2am on the 1st of November while staying in the village over-night. These included a 14 year old boy who we saw bundled into a jeep as part of the military raid. During this night the soldiers faced such grave dangers as crying mothers and video cameras recording their actions. We also witnessed the Israeli military use a human shield to knock on the door of a house they then proceded to enter, in contravention of a recent High Court decision in Israel.
One of the 18 Palestinians was later released after his lawyer pointed out to the judge that it was illegal for the military to arrest him for being the brother of the person they were accusing. The soldiers had effectively taken him hostage until the family handed over the brother they were after. A second Palestinian, 21 year old Hamza Samara, spent 25 days in jail. The soldiers used torture to try to extract a confession from him, but they had no evidence against him so the judge eventually had to order his release on a 10,000 shekel bail. The other arrestees remain in prison. Some have been sentenced, while others await trial.
The “Friday Intifada” effect was temporary. A sustained, committed campaign of non-violent direct action takes time and dedication, and is not always the most exciting thing. Furthermore, the commitment of the villagers of Bil’in and their Israeli friends has acted as an inspiration to other villages suffering from the apartheid barrier. The village of Aboud recently received their land confiscation orders from the Israelis and, inspired by Budrus, Biddu, Bil’in and other places, has decided to commence the non-violent struggle there.
French supporters have created a website about the village with background and maps explaining the situation as well as many photos and videos. It’s well worth a visit even if you don’t read French.
Thanks to Jason Moore for the title of this article.