In a boost to the Palestinian protest movement against the West Bank security barrier, the IDF began laying the groundwork this week to reroute 1,700 meters of of the high-voltage fence that has separated farmers in the village of Bil’in from their olive groves.
“It gives us hope, that by way of our nonviolent struggle we can achieve some of our [goals],” Muhammad Khatib, a member of the Bil’in Popular Committee, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
In one week, the village will mark five years since it began its campaign against the security barrier, and its Friday protests.
The IDF has rerouted small sections of the barrier in other areas of the West Bank. But no other village has rallied so long and so consistently against the barrier. In the nearby village of Ni’lin, Palestinians began protesting on a weekly basis only in 2008.
Palestinians from both villages and their supporters have thrown stones at border policemen and soldiers. The security personnel, in turn, have fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at the protesters.
On Thursday, however, it was quiet. Khatib spoke with the Post by the site of the current barrier.
The ground was littered with remnants of tear gas canisters and stun grenades. On the hilltop by the fence in Bil’in stands a memorial, in the shape of a tombstone, to Bassem Abu Rahmah, 31, a villager who was killed in the spring of 2009 when a tear gas canister hit him directly in the chest during a demonstration.
On a concrete block slightly down the hill, black graffiti in Hebrew reads, “The IDF is a terrorist organization” and “Soldiers go home.” On a yellow gate, the words “Free Palestine” are scrawled.
The IDF began construction of the security barrier in 2002 to stop suicide bombings, which have killed more than 1,000 Israelis in the last decade.
But for Palestinians like Khatib, the barrier is one more attempt by Israel to rob them of their land, particularly given that the route often runs between a village and its farmland, as is the case in Bil’in.
On Thursday, however, just outside the Modi’in Illit settlement that borders Bil’in, a small yellow tractor moved dirt on a hilltop to create an access road for bulldozers so they could work on the barrier’s revised route.
The tractor began work this week, two-and-a-half years after the High Court of Justice ordered the state to change the route of a 1,700-m. section of the barrier near Bil’in and more than one year after it was found in contempt of court for not doing so.
According to attorney Michael Sfard, who
represents the Palestinians in this case, the new route will restore about 650 dunams (65 hectares) of land belonging to Bil’in farmers to the “West Bank side” of the barrier. Nevertheless, roughly 1,300 dunams of private farmland will remain on the “Israeli side.”
The petition against the segment of the route bisecting Bil’in’s farmland was filed by Ahmed Yassin, head of the village council, on September 5, 2005. Among other things, the petitioner alleged that part of the route was designed to protect the new neighborhood of Modi’in Illit, known as Matityahu East, even though no one was living there. Although housing construction had begun in the western part of the neighborhood, there were no plans to build housing in the eastern part for the foreseeable future.
In other words, the security barrier was designed to protect nonexistent people.
According to Peace Now, there had been plans to construct 1,100 apartments in that area – which have now been thwarted by the court decision.
On September 4, 2007, the High Court rejected the route and ordered the state to propose a new one according to parameters set down by the court. These parameters included demands to design the route so that the eastern part of Matityahu East would be on the West Bank side and the barrier itself would be built on state-owned, rather than private Palestinian, land.
It took the army 10 months to propose a new route, and it allegedly did so only after the petitioners filed a contempt-of-court action in June 2008 because the state had failed to implement the High Court ruling until then.
When the army finally revealed its new proposed route, the court promptly rejected it on the grounds that it had failed to follow the parameters that it had set down. Among its many faults, the court ruled, the state had designed the new route, this time 2,000 m. in length, primarily on private Palestinian land, much of it cultivated. In addition, it left a substantial part of the eastern half of Matityahu East on the Israeli side of the barrier.
In a decision handed down on December 15, 2008, the court ruled that “the state is ordered to carry out the instructions of the [original] ruling without further delay and to design the route of the barrier in accordance with the criteria established in that ruling... and to do so as quickly as possible.”
Almost 14 months after the contempt-of-court ruling, the state is apparently ready to carry out the court’s instructions.
An IDF spokesman, however, said the delay was simply part of the planning procedure, which is often protracted and involves many stages in which objections to the route are raised and revisions are made.
He added that the IDF planned to finish the route by the end of the year.
As he watched the bulldozer work, Khatib said his feelings were mixed.
“It comes after we have paid a high price,” he said.
Behind him were the olive groves that farmers would soon be able to freely access. Today, if they want to work their fields, they have to cross through the barrier, a process that often delays their journey by half an hour to an hour. Sometimes access is denied altogether.
In front of Khatib was the Matityahu East neighborhood, which he believed had been built on land owned by Bil’in.
“I’m proud that we managed to move the fence,” he said, adding that he still felt the weight of the larger struggle – to free their land from Israeli occupation.
“It like the game of boxing. We won the first round, but we didn’t win the game,” he said. “We will still struggle in a nonviolent way until we have all of our lands.”
There is no reason, Khatib said, that the barrier could not have been constructed along the pre-1967 lines.
He was also hesitant to believe that the IDF would go through with its plan, despite the bulldozer.
So on Friday, protesters will gather as usual in Bil’in to protest the barrier. Next week, they plan a larger event for the five-year anniversary of the protests.
Some 510 km. of the 805-km. route have been completed. According to Anarchists Against the Wall, 19 Palestinians have been killed in demonstrations against the barrier and hundreds wounded.
The Border Police said that scores of police officers had been wounded in these demonstrations.