Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Notes from Bil’in

From FalseDichotomies.com

Bil’in is a village in the West Bank, 12 kilometres west of Ramallah. Since Oslo II, it has been administered by the Palestinian Authority. Its population is around 1600, most of whom are Fatah loyalists. It has lost over 50% of its agricultural land to the barrier. This, of course, is happening all over the West Bank. The reason Bil’in has risen to prominence is because of an extraordinary struggle it has been conducting over the past few years.

Since January 2005 there have been weekly protests in the village against the fence. They are significant because they have involved both Palestinian and Israeli groups, and have been primarily non-violent. The ritual is to march from the village centre to the fence, and there to engage in all manner of creative protest, documented in the extraordinary film, Bil’in Habibti [Bil’in, My Love], by the Israeli director Shai Carmelli Pollak.

The lands of Bil’in have been taken in order to expand the settlement of Upper Modi’in Illit, rather than to increase security. This settlement currently has 35,000 residents. According to the Ministry of Housing, by 2020 it is intended to hold 150,000 people. Again, nothing too complicated for the schoolchildren to understand. After all, we are taught from an early age that stealing is wrong.

It gets worse. We have already noted the absurd situation whereby the Israeli Supreme Court views settlement efforts in the West Bank as legal. But there are still certain laws which regulate the project. Earlier this year, it became clear that illegal [that is to say, even illegal by Israeli standards] permits were issued for Upper Modi’in Illit while buildings were being constructed. They were being built before the authorities had issued permits for them. In short, once again the standards of the Wild West prevailed, which would no doubt be noted by our schoolchildren, but not those paid to lie by the Israeli government.

***
On the short bus ride we were briefed about what lay ahead, and how to stay out of trouble. With my Bet level Hebrew I could understand the gist, but not the details, which was particularly alarming given much of the talk was devoted to the nature of tear gas. Enlightened by a rapid translation, we dismantled from the bus and crossed over into the West Bank. Because of the road-blocks, we had to take much of the journey on foot.

In order to understand why the left in Israel is so marginalised, you simply had to watch our ragtag group as we navigated our way towards Bil’in. The girl who seemed to be in charge was 16 years old, but she predictably had to contend with her elders, who thought she was heading in the wrong direction. It was truly a site to behold. Forty Israelis in the heart of the Palestinian West Bank, arguing about which direction to go. But these were docile hills, and the Palestinians who saw us wander past were more bemused than anything, although those who knew where we were heading hollered their support.

The army soon arrived, and the games began. At the time I was rather bewildered, so much of what followed had to be pieced together afterwards. Two army jeeps appeared behind us, honking their horn in order to pass. A majority of our group quickly formed a chain in order to prevent the jeeps from doing so. This, I was told, was to prevent them getting to the front and stopping us from joining up with the demo. At the time, though, I didn’t think this was the wisest policy, so I meandered nonchalantly along the side of the road, trying to mind my own business.

Drama soon set in. For no particular reason at all, the army seized a few stragglers, and played an elaborate game of ‘It’ with the rest of us. It was curious indeed. They seemed to make half-hearted attempts to capture people, but quickly gave up, with a wry smile on their face. I soon remembered that the army (this was not the Border Police) were not actually permitted to arrest Israelis, so were powerless when Palestinian cabs appeared to take us to the village. While all this had been going on, I had walked slowly, while trying to start some banter with the one soldier who, like me, couldn’t be bothered with all these charades.

We were now at the centre of Bil’in, which looked more like the site of a carnival than a major demonstration. Between three and four hundred people had gathered – Palestinians, Israelis and Internationals, organisations and individuals of different shapes and sizes, in order to demonstrate our opposition to the plunder of this village. Palestinian flags were everywhere, as were hustlers selling food to the punters. As soon as the men had emerged from the mosque (it was Friday), we were on the move.

***

We walked in unison to the barrier, around 100 metres up the road, led by Palestinian notables and a Who’s Who of the Israeli Left. I was losing my Bil’in virginity, so a veteran Israeli protester continued my briefing en route. His preparation had been immaculate – his eyes were covered with goggles – and he ensured that we obtained onions en route, which the shopkeeper refused to take money for. Onions, you see, is a useful antidote to tear-gas. Or at least that’s what I’m told. On the road to the barrier, our guide pointed out prominent members of the Israeli Left, as well as one protester, Limor Goldstein, who had been previously wounded in Bil’in by a rubber-coated metal bullet that penetrated his brain. This time he kept to the back.

Everyone was in place. The drums were beating and the chants rang out – lo, lo l’gader, no, no to the fence. The border police stood on top of the fence. According to the Border Police, the policy is to disperse the protests only if the immediate area of the fence is violated or stones are thrown. The centrepiece of this demo was an attempt to breach the fence with two ladders, another example of the wonderful creativity and humour that has been maintained throughout these protests. Cue the tear-gas and stun grenades (which just make a loud noise). At first, the tear-gas was aimed at those trying to scale the fence, but the wind was with the lefties. A loud cheer went up when the gas was blown back on the Border Police.

I saw teenagers with stones, although I didn’t see any thrown. No doubt they were. One thing that was clear from Bil’in Habibti was that the demo’s organisers did not do enough to stop the stone-throwers, who clearly undermine the cause. But the Border Police’s reaction was predictably excessive. I was right at the back with the other more cautious members of the protest, yet tear gas canisters came streaming over our head. It was clear that, at a certain point, the Border Police can decide to stop the protest, and begin the fun and games.

The soldiers were soon in the olive groves behind us. Stun grenades were now raining down all around us, as if we were in some kind of war simulation game. We walked calmly in the direction of the village. Here I had my first experience of tear-gas. Thankfully I was far from the heart of it, but my eyes began to water intensely and my throat began to burn. As we walked, we saw people put large boulders in the road, so as to stop the army jeeps from getting past.

When the exchanges subsided, the crowds returned. I guess it was back and forth like that from the whole day. I learnt later on that a couple of protesters and soldiers had been lightly injured. We soon returned to the village centre, where everyone ate, drank and schmoozed, before heading back into Israel.

***

Those who would smear the people who have gathered week after week in Bil’in point to the low-level violence employed by some of the participants. They use this fact to defame all who gather there. Needless to say, when someone speaks of IDF human rights abuses, they will be the first to employ the ‘exception not the rule’ argument. The right to protest is a crucial one, even if it is akin to pissing in the wind (or firing tear gas at a crowd when the wind is blowing in the other direction). What are we meant to do? The High Court swallows the lies of the security establishment when assessing challenges to the barrier’s route. The settlers, not the government, remain in charge of construction in the territories. At the very least, we will bear witness. Despite the minor dangers, this is why it is vital that we keep returning to Bil’in.

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