The moment of truth is approaching for the 1,600 residents of the Palestinian village of Bil'in and their Israeli and international sympathizers. Every Friday for the past year, village residents and their supporters have demonstrated against the construction of the fence on their land. The demonstrations have attracted attention all over the world, but the bulldozers keep on working. Next Wednesday, the villagers will direct their protest to the High Court of Justice in the hope that it will accomplish what they, despite their dogged perseverance, have failed to do.
According to a petition submitted by the villagers' attorney, Michael Sfard, the separation barrier cuts off the villagers, most of whom are farmers, from 1,980 dunams of their land, leaving them with a little more than 1,000 dunams on the Palestinian side. According to the government, at least half the roughly 1,980 dunams on the "Israeli" side of the barrier belongs to the state, even though the villagers say they have continued to cultivate it ever since. Be that as it may, there is no disputing the fact that an additional 600 dunams (500 dunams according to the government) of the land on the Israeli side are owned by Bil'in villagers.
As is the case with many other West Bank villages, the story of expropriated or "lost" land in Bil'in does not begin with the separation barrier. Bil'in first lost 1,000 dunams of land it claimed to own in the 1980s, when the government declared that it belonged to the state and built two Jewish settlements on it. The loss of almost 2,000 dunams more now has obviously embittered Bil'in residents.
A group of young leaders in Bil'in decided to fight back. They were aware of the experiences of other Palestinian villages that had previously resisted the land expropriations and the route of the barrier, including nearby Boudrus, which fought and eventually won a prolonged battle to reroute the fence and keep their farmland on the West Bank side.
Ayyad M'rar, a leader of the Boudrus struggle, told The Jerusalem Post that in Boudrus, villagers of all political stripes joined forces despite their rivalries and decided to include Israelis and foreigners in their struggle. They also aimed for a non-violent campaign, even though one villager was killed and more than 300 were hurt in the protests. Bil'in adopted the Boudrus model.
The protests in Bil'in began on Friday, February 20, 2005 and have continued weekly ever since. They yielded many Sunday morning newspaper stories, including one reporting that the army tried out at least three different kinds of allegedly non-lethal bullets against the demonstrators. According to one theory, the IDF used Bil'in as a testing ground for the anticipated clash with opponents of the disengagement from Gaza later that summer. On at least one occasion, soldiers dressed as Arabs mingled with the protesters and began throwing rocks at the security forces in order to trigger violence which could be blamed on the Palestinians and their supporters. On several others, security forces arrested Palestinians or Israelis, claiming that they had attacked them or resisted arrest. Other protesters, who filmed the events, were able to prove that the charges were false.
DESPITE ALL the fanfare and publicity created by the protests, work on the barrier at the site has continued unabated. In September 2005, Bil'in village council head Ahmed Yassin petitioned the High Court, demanding that it change the route. Bil'in previously had submitted several petitions against the barrier, but none of them was ever heard in court.
In this latest petition, Sfard challenged the army's underlying premise that the separation barrier was being built for security reasons - to protect Israelis living within the Green Line and residents of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In a landmark decision on a previous petition relating to Beit Sourik, the court accepted the state's premise and said that its job was to see that a proper balance was achieved between Israel's legitimate security needs, as served by the barrier, and the well-being of the Palestinians.
Sfard has already challenged the state's claim that the separation barrier is being built solely for security reasons. In another petition, regarding Alphei Menashe, he persuaded the court to order the army to tear down an existing section of the fence and rebuild it closer to the settlement, so that five Palestinian villages caught within its confines could be reunited with the West Bank.
In the case of Bil'in, Sfard argues that instead of being built with the aim of protecting the existing Jewish communities in the "Modi'in Illit Bloc," the route of the fence leaves a large "bulge" of empty land separating the built-up areas of Modi'in Illit from the barrier by as much as two kilometers.
The "bulge" is not a buffer zone. Furthermore, it is not the only one in the Modi'in Illit area. There are a total of five of them, said Alon Cohen Lifshitz, an architect for the not-for-profit organization Bimkom, Planners for Planning Rights. All of these empty bulges - including one in Bil'in - are to be filled with thousands of houses for more settlers. The Modi'in Illit local authority "saw the separation barrier as a great opportunity to expand the settlement," Cohen Lifshitz told the Post.
There are about 35,000 Israelis living in the Modi'in Bloc today. According to a master plan prepared by the local authority recently, this number will rise to 150,000 by the year 2020. The route of the fence has been designed to take future population expansion into account. It has nothing to do with the security of the existing population.
"In all of the petitions involving the separation fence, the state's representatives and the army stress the importance of distancing the barrier route from the houses of the Israeli settlements and communities as a matter of utmost security importance," wrote Sfard in the Bil'in petition. "Here we see the houses of the settlers chasing after the fence in order to come within touching distance of it."
In its response to the petition, the state argued that there was nothing wrong with this policy.
"The aim of the fence," wrote Attorney Aner Hellman, the state's representative, "is to protect the lives of Israelis. Even if the fence is a temporary measure, we are obviously not talking about a short-term one. Therefore, it is obvious that in the context of the overall planning of the route, and given the security purpose of the fence, the military commander must take into account the need to protect the new neighborhood that is about to be built. After all, there is no logic to building the fence and leaving new neighborhoods on the other side of it. At any rate, the military commander is entitled to consider the future and the determination of the route is a matter of the correct balance [between security needs and the well-being of the Palestinians.]"
THE BIL'IN petition deals with only one of the five bulges, an area of roughly 872 dunams upon which the neighborhood of Matityahu East is to be built. The fence skirts around the outer perimeter of Matityahu East in accordance with Town Planning Scheme 210/8/1 - the detailed plan for the neighborhood which does not yet exist. But there is more to the issue than this.
In order to understand the rest, one must be aware of the difference between a master plan and a town planning scheme. A master plan serves as a guideline for how a certain area will develop over a relatively long period of time. It has no statutory status - which means, among other things, that the public cannot file objections to it.
A town planning scheme is a legal document which, in order to be approved, must go through a review procedure which includes giving the public the opportunity to object to it. Generally speaking, town planning schemes, which are relatively detailed, are based on the concepts and ideas included in the master plan, even though the master plan is not legally binding.
Town Planning Scheme 210/8/1 is prettily painted in different colors in accordance with various land uses and residential densities. In the middle of this colorful map is a blank, white space covering the 500-600 dunams of privately owned Palestinian land. A large part of this white space extends into the heart of the town planning scheme. Roads painted red come to an abrupt halt where the blank space begins and magically resume their existence where the blank space ends.
But the blank space of the town planning scheme is not blank in the master plan. There, the land is an integral part of Matityahu East. The roads continue uninterruptedly from one end of the neighborhood to the other. The empty space is filled with residential buildings and other functions serving the Jewish settlement.
According to government authorities, Town Planning Scheme 210/8/1 is the present, while the master plan for Modi'in Illit in general, and Matityahu East in particular, is the future.
In the petition, Sfard warned that the residents of Bil'in would not be able to cultivate their land while being cut off from it by the separation barrier, and considering that it will be situated in the heart of a Jewish urban center. According to the law, if land is left uncultivated for 10 years, its ownership reverts to the state. On that day, the government will be able to fill in the blanks of Town Planning Scheme 210/8/1 with the roads and buildings proposed in the master plan.