The Bil’in Demos

A West Bank agricultural village has become the flagship of anti-security fence protest demonstrations since 2006, with Israeli protesters showing their support on a weekly basis.

Palestinian protest (photo credit: Daniella Cheslow)
Palestinian protest
(photo credit: Daniella Cheslow)
ROY WAGNER KNOWS THE risks of protesting in the Palestinian village of Bil’in on the West Bank. The 37- year-old post-doctoral student from Tel Aviv gives a safety briefing each Friday to Israeli and international volunteers who come to face Israeli security forces at the security barrier that runs across the village lands.
Stay at least 150 feet away from the water cannons shooting “skunk,” foulsmelling water that sticks to clothes for several washes, he tells a dozen men and women standing in a bare, tiled room with no electricity in the village center. Keep an eye out for tear gas canisters, and walk away from them when they fall, trailing caustic smoke. Cover your ears when the stun grenade issues its loud bang. To avoid rubber- coated bullets, keep clear of the teenagers lobbing stones at the soldiers.
Wagner, a red-headed Israeli who speaks English with a barely detectable accent, has been coming to Bil’in every week for the last two years. Week after week, his eyes burn and his throat tightens up as he breathes in tear gas fired by the security forces. Other activists have seen worse, including bullet wounds and death. But the danger does not deter Wagner from toting the red first-aid kit on his back and standing shoulder to shoulder with Palestinians rallying to recover their olive groves.
He’s one of thousands both in Israel and further abroad who see Bil’in as a place to oppose Israeli policies on the West Bank and, after the demonstration, to connect with Palestinians living in rustic villages redolent with the smell of fresh bread, squawking roosters and children furiously pedaling bicycles. At a time when few Palestinians are loudly and regularly protesting against Israeli rule, Bil’in has become a symbol for an ardent spirit that seems to have disappeared in all the major West Bank cities.
However, the protests have seen only partial success in the village and little impact in the wider West Bank. It has also drawn opprobrium from hawkish Israeli policymakers, who see it as a center of a delegitimization campaign against the state.
BIL’IN IS AN AGRICULTURAL Village of 1,700 people surrounded by olive groves. The village’s protests began in 2006 when, in the wake of massive terror attacks, Israel built a security barrier in the vicinity that left about 250 acres – half the village’s land – on the “Israeli” side. The villagers won a 2007 Supreme Court bid to get the army to move the fence, and the actual rerouting work has already begun.
But it is not completed, and the new route will not recover all of Bil’in’s land. So every week, dozens of men from Bil’in return to the roughly tarred path that leads to the fence, where they confront Israeli soldiers standing guard in front of the barrier.
On the first Friday in February, Mohammad Khatib leads a group of 200 Palestinians holding Egyptian, Tunisian and Palestinian flags down to Bil’in’s olive groves. A light drizzle falls on their umbrellas, some bright yellow and marked with the Fatah party logo, others checkered in black and white to look like the traditional Palestinian headdress, the keffiya. They are flanked by the activists Wagner had warned earlier. “One, two, three, four, occupation no more! Five, six, seven, eight, Israel is a fascist state!” they shout.
“There was a decision from the Israeli High Court that the wall is illegal and must be removed, and until now it is where it is and nothing has changed,” Khatib tells The Report, alluding to the incompleted rerouting of the barrier. “And there is the national goal of keeping our story alive, we are still under occupation and we want our freedom.”
That’s a cause that’s easy for some Israelis and foreigners to rally around.
Wagner, who studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, tells The Report that Bil’in is the place where “you can acknowledge something is horribly wrong… My country does terrible things to people in my name. They steal land and put people in jail. I’m here in solidarity and to protest with the Palestinians.”
Andrea, a 35-year-old Italian man at the protest who preferred not to give his last name, says he came to the region to stand with the Palestinians. “I grew up supporting the Palestinian cause,” he says, as rain falls on his thick-rimmed glasses. “I came here to work and support the Palestinian struggle even though I should fight against the president of Italy. Sometimes it is easier to see the evil outside your country than inside it.”
“Maybe people would prefer a picnic and not a demonstration,” says Wagner. “But from my point of view, a picnic is pretending something is normal when it isn’t.
You’re supposedly there as equals, when in fact… [the Palestinians] are in a much more dangerous position.”
The IDF sees it differently. IDF spokesman Capt. Barak Raz says the demonstrations are actually violent riots in which locals hurl stones and firebombs at the soldiers or border guards stationed on the hill. Protesters in Bil’in sometimes cut through the fence.
To keep out Israelis and internationals intending to demonstrate, the army has periodically declared Bil’in a closed military zone. According to Khatib, 100 villagers have been arrested in the past six years, more than a quarter of them children. Raz says the IDF does not keep figures on arrests.
One of the most prominent people detained was Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a protest leader, arrested in December 2009.
The Ofer Military Court convicted him of incitement to violence and sentenced him to a year in prison in October 2010.
LIKUD KNESSET MEMBER YARIV Levin says the protests draw illwilled foreigners who should not be allowed entry to Israel. He proposed a bill in early January that would give the state the power to deport or forbid entry to foreign activists who “work to harm Israel’s security,” including by picketing in Bil’in.
“Foreign citizens, who are mostly anarchists… get to Israel and connect to terrorist organizations and civilians to incite them and start riots,” Levin informs The Report.
“Their goal is creating violent incidents that later will be used for propaganda that will supposedly show the world that Israel acts with force against demonstrators.”
Levin dismisses Bil’in’s symbolic value.
“Pity the Palestinians if this is their symbol,” he says. “If there were no terrorism, there would be no fence. [The protesters] should go and demonstrate in Gaza to make sure Gilad Shalit gets visits from the Red Cross, and tell Gaza residents to stop firing rockets on kindergartens.”
Bil’in is not the only village staging regular protests. According to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, the security barrier that Israel began building in 2002 to counter a wave of Palestinian terror attacks leaves 8.5 percent of the West Bank on the Israeli side of the fence.
That slice of territory has become fertile ground for weekly rallies. The model began in the nearby village of Budrus, made famous by the 2009 documentary of the same name. There, 10 months of daily demonstrations forced the IDF to move the route of the barrier. Within a few years, copycat protests began in Bil’in, and neighboring Nabi Saleh and Ni’lin against expanding Jewish settlements and the barrier.
South of Bethlehem, Palestinians also protest the barrier and settlement expansion in the villages of Ma’asara, Umm Salamuna and Beit Ommar. Wallaje, on the southwestern outskirts of Jerusalem, also regularly rails against the path of the barrier, which will leave the village walled in on three sides.
But none have achieved the name recognition of Bil’in. Activist Shai Carmeli Pollack directed a 2006 film called “Bil’in Habibti” on a year of protests. In 2009, the “Journal of Peace Research,” published by London-based Sage Publications, printed an analysis of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in Bil’in. The village has also made headlines for the activists who get hurt while taking on the security forces. In 2009, Bassem Abu Rahmah died after being hit in the chest with a tear gas canister. In January this year, his sister Jawaher Abu Rahmah died after, according to Palestinian sources, inhaling large amounts of tear gas. The army contended that Jawaher died of faulty Palestinian medical treatment, unconnected to tear gas. Many in Bil’in share the same last name because the Abu Rahmahs are one of the largest extended families.
STILL, BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY political scientist Menachem Klein doubts the movement’s worth beyond keeping itself alive for six years. Bil’in has “zero impact” on most Israelis, he says, and the village protests have not changed Israel’s West Bank policy. “The situation is worse on the ground day by day,” Klein tells The Report. “There are more settlements, no negotiations, and more occupation. So this model is completely ineffective.”
Klein says the Palestinian Authority colludes with Israel to limit the protests, when it should actually be amplifying opposition to Israeli rule. “The PA should mobilize top-down mass demonstrations elsewhere in the West Bank,” says Klein. “The protest in Cairo was not held in the villages of the Nile Delta, it was in Cairo. [Here] it should be in Jerusalem or in Manara Square in Ramallah.” Finally, Klein says, in light of the successful ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, “We have another model.”
“At the moment you have maximum 30- 40 Israelis, a few dozen internationals, and 40- 50 Palestinians [in Bil’in],” he says. “It is not a critical mass that can make a change. The change is done by big numbers, and it should be done by the Palestinians themselves.”
PA government spokesman Ghassan Khatib refutes Klein’s contentions. “The PA thinks the struggle in Bil’in is legitimate and required,” Khatib says. “In many cases the PA officials take part there, including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad himself.”
However, Khatib says his government is not planning any wider protests. “By definition, demonstrations are not the business of government,” he says. “It’s usually grassroots organizations, political parties, NGOs and popular committees.”
Political scientist Sameeh Hammoudeh of Birzeit University in the West Bank says the protests have their merits, but doubts they will balloon into a national civil disobedience on par with the first or second intifadas.
“If Israeli policies are disclosed and exposed in the international arena, that will be good for the Palestinians to show they have a right to their land, and Israel is transgressing that right,” Hammoudeh says. But, he adds, “the Palestinians are not seeing their lives improving. They don’t see movement toward the target of establishing a Palestinian state.
So, in this case, they feel their action won’t lead to new developments or achievements, and they prefer to stay calm.”
Stuck in a morass, Bil’in remains as a weekly outlet for Palestinian frustration. On the movement’s sixth anniversary protest, held February 18, villagers called for reconciliation between the rival Hamas and Fatah parties, which acrimoniously split in 2007 when Hamas won the Gaza elections. Some protesters scrawled “No to the wall” on the plastic shields of Israeli Border Policemen.
Other demonstrators blasted the recent American veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction.
Wagner thinks Bil’in is the most popular West Bank village protest site because it’s a short drive from Ramallah and from Tel Aviv. Moreover, Bil’in has a well-oiled publicity machine. The village maintains a website where each week activists post videos and reports from the field. The protesters keep a close ear on the news. They wheeled a model of the Mavi Marmara boat down to the olive groves last spring in homage to the nine Turkish activists who died in clashes with Israeli soldiers, who boarded their ship bound for Gaza.
And the villagers cherish their limited success. “No one expected we would manage to change the route of the wall even one centimeter,” Khatib says. “The problem in Bil’in is not only the route of the wall but also that we are facing a tsunami of settlers.
There are 45,000 settlers just in Modi’in Ilit [a neighboring settlement built partly on Bil’in’s land].”
Photographer Keren Zack, 29, wears a keffiya around her neck, adding Palestinian flair to a black fleece jacket and green cap.
Zack, an Israeli, has been following the protests since they began. Seven years ago, she says, the military shot a rubber bullet through her camera lens. She wasn’t hurt.
An eardrum-shattering boom goes off while Zack talks. “That’s a stun grenade,” she says with the knowing ear of a regular. “Don’t worry about it, it’s just loud.”
“At the protests, whether they work or not – I look at the connection made between Israel and Palestinians,” says Zack. “If we didn’t come, the kids here would never meet Israelis who are not settlers or soldiers.”