After 2 years, Bil'in fence opponents look to court

Bil'in has become symbolic of the struggle to divert fence from its current route to 1967 Green Line.

bilin protest 298.88 (photo credit: )
bilin protest 298.88
(photo credit: )
It is noon on Friday, and time for the weekly protest against the security fence in the Palestinian village of Bil'in, located between Ramallah and the settlement of Modi'in Illit. Jonathan Pollak, 25, from Jaffa and Saif Abukeshek, 25, from Spain are meeting at the improvised protest headquarters, inside a Bil'in resident's home, bracing for this week's show to start. "My heart is here, in Bil'in," says Abukeshek, who was born in Nablus. "I don't believe the fence will bring peace, only more hate." Pollak, an activist for Anarchists Against The Wall, which began the anti-fence demonstrations two years ago, said this is what he thinks needs to be done "to stop the land-grabbing for the purpose of expanding Israeli settlements like the neighboring settlement of Modi'in Illit." Outside, sitting and waiting, eating a felafel and drinking a soda, are a group of foreign activists, mostly European, dressed in designer clothes. They have heard about the traditional weekly protest here, and wanted to see some action for themselves. Several foreign and Arab photographers have joined in too, hoping to capture some good pictures of the conflict. Dozens of Bil'in's villagers, along with this colorful group, start marching up the hill, where soldiers are waiting for the act to start as well. The weekly clashes between soldiers and local residents of Bil'in, home to some 1,600 Palestinians, will reach the two-year mark this month. It has been a year since the High Court of Justice suspended construction of the fence here following a petition filed by attorney Michael Sfard on behalf of Bil'in Town Council head Ahmed Yasin. The court has not yet issued a final decision, but another session is scheduled on February 18. Last February, the court issued a show-cause order instructing the state to explain why it had chosen the specific route of the separation fence near Bil'in and why the barrier should not be moved westward, closer to Modi'in Illit. At 12:30, after a 10-minute walk, the protesters and the soldiers face each other and get ready for the weekly standoff. The soldiers are standing in front of the Israeli side of the fence, that cuts off 2,300 dunams of agricultural land cultivated by the Palestinians. Behind a yellow-iron gate, the soldiers - wearing helmets and flak jackets, protected by strong plastic shields and carrying M-16s - wait quietly for things to heat up. The protesters start shouting slogans against the fence, and the soldiers respond with silence. The demonstrators then grab some stones and use them to knock on the rails of the fence. Others try to convince the soldiers, as they have been doing for some weeks, to disobey orders to guard the barrier. Some even try to dismantle the fence. Soon enough, someone does something that provokes the soldiers enough, and the weekly turmoil begins. This time, it is a sudden barrage of stones thrown at the soldiers, who respond with shock and tear-gas grenades to disperse the crowd. A deafening silence then falls across the hilltop for a while, until the sequence repeats itself. Simultaneously, a group of Palestinian youths, who had gathered earlier at the foot of the hill quite a distance from the fence, start hurling stones as well. However, the troops usually deal with the younger mob only after it has broken up the regular, well-known activists' resistance. Some pictures and slogans here became familiar. Adib, a Bil'in resident and a local leader of this struggle, shouts at one of the soldiers and moves his hands dramatically to provide interesting images for the photographers. Every week he turns to the soldiers, whom he has gotten to know by name, and asks them who gave them the right to take one's land and livelihood. Furiously, he accuses the officer in charge of being "heartless." "Go and eat something," he shouts at a soldier. "Rest a little. Nothing good can come out of you being here." As a rule, the soldiers do not answer the protesters but every now and then, they can't resist. "Go away!" snaps one of the soldiers, prompting a villager to ask: "Where can we go? This is our land. You are thieves!" The officer orders the soldiers to straighten up in line, to keep silent and throw a shock grenade at the villagers' legs, an action that enrages Adib even more. "Quiet!" he exclaims. "Don't you have a heart? Why won't you kill me and get it over with? Kill me!" he screamed further as he laid on the ground in front of the soldiers. "This is not your land," charges another villager, a remark that succeeded in eliciting a response from another soldier. "Your land is underneath these stones," says the soldier, pointing to the ground. "Your land is Russia," the villager replies. "Stop talking," the soldier says abruptly, ending a strange exchange. "I am not listening to you," When the verbal dispute reaches a certain peak, around 2 p.m., the commanders ask the village leaders to wrap it up and leave. The protesters, who have also had enough, call out in Arabic: "Yala ya shabab, ta'al" ("Come on guys, let's go"). Quickly, they descend from the hill and disappear into the village. At this point, the soldiers decide to disperse the younger and more militant mob refusing to budge. They hurl more tear-gas grenades and shoot rubber-bullets at the crowd of mostly teens, who use slings to hurl rocks from a greater distance. The chaotic scene ends when the protesters are worn out. They have just exhausted their anger, and decide to go home. Before heading back home to the village, Yusef Karagi tells his eight-year-old daughter Huda, who joins him every Friday: "We have no other place to go to. This is our land and either we die or live in peace. Mabsuta [satisfied]?" "Mabsuta," she laughs back. Col. Yoni Gedj, the Maccabim brigade commander whose soldiers secure the fence at these Friday protests and patrol the area during the rest of the week, says "before each one of the demonstrations, despite the fact that they are unauthorized, the soldiers are briefed not to respond to the constant provocations." "As long as the demonstration is not violent, we allow it," he says. "The moment it becomes violent, we act to stop it. It is important to understand that these clashes force us to put a lot of effort into stopping them, instead of providing better protection to Israelis in this area." Gedj admits that hearing the harsh words coming out the Israeli activists is not easy. "When an Israeli protester compares us to the Nazi soldiers, it disturbs me and I am sure the soldiers feel the same," he says. "Fortunately, our soldiers are mature enough and have the mental strength to face these sorts of provocations." Pollak says that he is not disappointed by the constantly decreasing number of protesters. "We didn't start big, but we do manage to bring several hundred to a thousand Israeli protesters whenever an important demo is scheduled," he says. "Likewise, the International Solidarity Movement, whose friends are operating from the territories, recruits activists from abroad to join the effort. And even though the locals are frustrated, they are determined to keep on fighting." The local council of Modi'in Illit says ahead of the High Court ruling that "the land over which the security fence passes is Jewish land. The people of Modi'in Illit respect and have friendly relationship with the people of Bil'in." Construction of the fence to protect Israelis from Palestinian suicide bombers began five years. The protest against the building of the barrier near Bil'in has become symbolic of the Palestinian struggle to divert the fence from its current route to the 1967 Green Line. Palestinians see the fence as a permanent land grab, while Israel insists it is a temporary security measure that can be altered and removed when the conditions for peace are met. "The idea was not to build the fence on the Green Line but to have some additional [land], which would enable the Israeli side to have the upper hand in future negotiations with the Palestinians," says attorney Ilan Tsion, chairman of the grassroots group, Fence for Life, which supports the fence. "However, since the High Court took the liberty of interfering in the state's security, 120 kilometers of the fence have not been completed and could endanger people's lives." The Defense Ministry says "the security barrier's route was determined by the IDF in order to protect Israeli citizens in the area and in general." "According to Israeli law, compensation is offered to all landowners whose property is taken for security reasons," the ministry says in a statement to The Jerusalem Post. "Bil'in's residents will be able to cultivate their lands across the fence under special permits that will be given by the District Coordinating Office."