This news feature was published in Palestine Times on December 18, 2006. I now work for the paper as head copy editor. Since their website was not operational at the time, I’m publishing it here.
Defiant villagers unified in face of violent occupation
by Asa Winstanley
BIL’IN, West Bank — The demonstration is small, but feisty. Accompanied by around 15 international supporters and a few Israeli stalwarts, the inhabitants of Bil’in, a village in the West Bank near Ramallah, voice their protest against the Israeli Wall and settlements that threaten their village. Chanting Arabic slogans, and demanding in Hebrew the soldiers go home, the demonstrators are prevented from passing through a gate in the Wall by a unit of Israeli soldiers and their jeeps. The soldiers wave their clubs menacingly — not today, they seem to say.
After about 15 minutes, Abdullah Abu Rahme, the co-ordinator of the village’s Popular Committee against the Wall and settlements, calls for the crowd to follow him. They try to find another way through the large coils of razor wire on the near side of the Wall. Some of the demonstrators pull at the wire with thick gloves. These attempts are soon stopped by Israeli soldiers.
The village has been involved in resistance and weekly demonstrations against the Wall for nearly two years beginning in February 2005. The Wall in this area consists of large coils of razor wire, a steep bank, a high fence, a dirt path, another fence and finally a tarmac road, which the soldiers patrol with their jeeps and humvees. Despite the initial claims of the Israeli government that the Wall is only for “security purposes,” in Bil’in, as along some 80 percent of its route, the Wall does not follow the route of the 1967 Green Line. Israeli ministers are now openly saying that the route will determine final borders.
As the Wall has been designed to accommodate the expansion of the Israeli settlements, the village stands to lose 60 percent of its land on the other side. For the small agricultural village some 25 minutes drive from Ramallah, this is a crushing blow.
“They took away the land I used to graze my sheep. They uprooted my family’s olive trees. I used to plant beans, wheat and potatoes. I’m not allowed to get to my land now that it’s behind the wall,” says Wadji Burnat, a 50-year-old farmer from the village. “The Israeli government is a government of thieves. They only care about a small part of their own people. They want to expel the Palestinians.”
Despite this, the villagers have shunned armed struggle in favor of non-violent marches and protests. “We chose this way of resistance because we believe in it,” says Mohammed Katib, a member of the Popular Committee. The committee was set up at the beginning of the campaign to co-ordinate the struggle in all its forms.
“We are leading a legal battle and resistance on the ground at the same time,” says Katib. “We want to try every possible form of non-violent struggle.” Katib, like many of the other non-violent activists in the village, has been repeatedly beaten and tear-gassed by Israeli soldiers at the demonstrations.
Israeli authorities also carry out arrest raids in the village during the dead of night, rounding up leaders of the campaign. One such raid occurred at 2 a.m. on Nov. 22. According to the International Solidarity Movement’s media team, head of the Popular Committee Iyad Burnat, along with three other activists from the village were taken from their homes by Israeli soldiers. They were driven to Ofer prison and then taken for interrogation at the Mod’in police station.
Police and then the Shabak — the Israeli domestic intelligence service — questioned all four at length on their involvement in the weekly demonstrations. They threatened to imprison them. The four were finally released without charge the same evening.
Coordinator Abdullah Abu Rahme, a school teacher, has also been beaten and arrested several times. He recently had a trial postponed after Israeli border police failed to appear in court. Abu Rahme was arrested at three different demonstrations during the summer.
Katib does not regret the campaign however. “We had to do something to stop them from taking our land — everyone in the village together. We had to act. In the committee, we are focusing on a campaign to encourage people to join our demonstrations.”
The weekly demonstrations are joined by supporters and volunteers from across the world. Groups of peace and anti-occupation activists and volunteers, such as the International Solidarity Movement, come to Bil’in each week.
Matchiek, an I.S.M. volunteer from Poland, chose to come to Palestine because of its global importance. “Within this region there is the central issue of injustice against the Palestinians. When these two issues overlapped I knew I had to see it with my own eyes,” says the freelance journalist.
Israeli supporters also join in the demonstrations every week. A dedicated group of Israelis, who support the Palestinian right to self determination, attend the weekly demonstrations week in and week out, and have made many Palestinian friends. They include the Israeli film maker Shai Pollak, who won the Best Documentary award at this year’s Jerusalem Film festival for his documentary, “Bil’in My Love,” which is about the village and their struggle.
Kobi Snitz, another regular, says he first started coming to the West Bank from Israel three years ago when he saw the projected route of the Wall in an Israeli newspaper. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe anyone would support it. I started showing the map to people and saying ‘look at what they’re going to do!’ It struck me as an impossible situation. Soon after I joined a group of activists who were doing something about it — the Anarchists Against the Wall.”
Israelis from groups who go to the West Bank like the Anarchists are subject to harassment from the Shabak, says Snitz. “They have ‘invited’ most of the hardcore activists to an individual meeting. They say ‘please come’ but it’s an invitation you can’t refuse. They say they will come and pick us up off the street otherwise.”
“The meetings consist of them saying they are watching us and tapping our phones. Maybe they are bluffing, but they definitely want us to be paranoid. Personally I have nothing to hide. If my personal life is interesting to anyone then: ahlan wa-salan [welcome]. They gave us lectures about how we should ‘watch out’ for Palestinians because they will ‘use us,'” says Snitz, who, like many of the other Israeli activists is a competent Arabic speaker.
Mansour Mansour is a Palestinian non-violent activist from the nearby village of Biddu. The former I.S.M. coordinator regularly comes to Bil’in demonstrations. “The Israeli activists face the same violence as us at the demonstrations. They don’t tell us what to do — they follow our plans,” he says.
Israeli activist visits to Palestinian villages, under threat from the Wall and from settlements, are subject to debate, however. There is sometimes criticism from Palestinians that such visits constitute “normalization.” Normalization is the concept that the Palestinians and Israelis need only to sit down and get along better to solve the problems in the region. Critics say this is politically naive thinking that completely ignores the basic political situation of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation — that the two “sides” are anything but equal.
Normalization projects were popular during the early Oslo years, when many Palestinians and Israelis were hopeful for an end to the “conflict.” Dialogue groups were set up all over the West Bank. Most Palestinians now agree that much more is needed — namely an end to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Snitz is wary that their solidarity might be misunderstood. “As long as it’s clear our purpose is supporting the struggle, then that’s altogether different from coming just to drink tea. This is an education that the Israeli peace movement needs to go through — even the part of it that is not afraid to come to Palestine,” he says. “It’s up to the Palestinians to decide if the contribution we make to the struggle outweighs any inadvertent negative effects from normalization. It’s their struggle. If they want us to participate then we will.”
Despite the popular conception in the Western media of the Islamic movement Hamas as anti-Semitic and “dedicated to the destruction of Israel,” Hamas politicians have been amongst the many public figures participating in the joint demonstrations. Even people from the more hard-line group Islamic Jihad have participated. Both groups have done so in the full knowledge that they would be marching alongside Israelis and Jews from around the world, says Katib.
“Representatives from every Palestinian faction have come,” he says. “Hakam Yousef, the leader of Hamas in the West Bank came more than once. Ksadar Adnan, a spokesman from Islamic Jihad has participated too. They came in the full knowledge there would be Israelis at the demonstration. They said that if they saw this form of resistance against the occupation working, then they would follow our example.”
Mansour says it was the same in Biddu. “Hamas, Jihad — all the factions supported the demonstrations. The people were just defending their land. They are farmers. If someone from Hamas is about to lose his land then of course he’s going to take part in the demonstrations.”
Back at the demonstration, as usual, the gate Israelis say allows farmers to access their land is blocked by soldiers. The demonstrators want to reach the annexed village land. An emerging pattern in all villages along the route of the Wall seems to be that even when the Wall is completed, people are barred from passing through the gates. This includes farmers with permits.
A handful of protesters hold a sit-in on the area between razor wire and the first fence for about 20 minutes, while soldiers prevent more from joining them. Eventually, the Popular Committee calls on the demonstrators to follow them back into the village as one group.
On the way back, groups of youths are attacked by Israeli border police who have taken up positions in and near houses on the outskirts of the village. This is followed by the youths, fed up with the presence of the paramilitary force, hurling stones at them. The rest of the demonstrators are forced to take a long circuitous route back to avoid the unevenly matched clashes.
The Dec. 15 demonstration in Bil’in was relatively peaceful, with less military violence than in the past. However, the Israeli military still used rubber bullets and tear gas to attack Palestinian youths who stoned them in defense of their village. Additionally, soldiers also shot rubber-coated steel bullets at them, causing some minor injuries.
Past demonstrations have faced far more serious violence, especially during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon this summer. These demonstrations witnessed extremely brutal behavior by soldiers, who used clubs, rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas to break up the demonstrators. Those who were seriously injured included Palestinians, Israelis and international volunteers alike. Thankfully, there were no fatalities in Bil’in, possibly due to the presence of the media. Other peaceful Palestinian demonstrations not covered by the international media have ended with fatalities.
Mansour’s village of Biddu held regular non-violent demonstrations during 2004 to resist the Wall and settlements. This sustained campaign, combined with legal challenges in Israeli courts, led to a significant alteration in the route of the Wall. But this success came at a high cost.
“The soldiers used to react really badly. They beat people and broke my cousin’s nose. They also broke the bones of people who were sitting down on the ground in an attempt to block the path of the bulldozers. People were chaining themselves in a big circle around the bulldozers — not looking for clashes,” recounts Mansour.
“Five were killed during the campaign. Three were killed in one day, Feb. 26, 2004. The fourth was shot with a rubber bullet to the head and died six days later on March 2. The fifth was killed on April 18.”
For today, the demonstration is over and most villagers have returned home. The distinct sound of live ammunition firing still echoes from the direction of the soldiers, while they continue “clashing” with stone-throwing youths. “This is nothing — I’ve been in a war,” one soldier earlier boasted to me during the demonstration.
Mohammed Katib is tired, but still full of energy as he looks to the future. “The struggle against the Wall did not start in Bil’in. For us, it was a learning process from places like Mas’ha, Budrus and Biddu. It’s been nearly two years and we will continue until we see success on the ground, till we obtain our goals, change the route of the wall and liberate our land.”