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Gandhi Redux

By Meron Rapaport

Last Friday Laser and Hassan walked side by side along the main street of Bilin. Laser Peles (who was born in Kfar Chabad, abandoned religion, came out of the closet, was the spokesman for the gay-lesbian faction in Meretz and one of the most devoted activists of Anarchists Against the Fence) has made Bilin, a small Palestinian village adjacent to the settlement of Upper Modi’in, his second home. Sheikh Hassan Yusuf, who also has an ultra-Orthodox background, but contrary to Laser maintained a close connection with religion, was deported to Lebanon, served six years in an Israeli prison and another six months in a Palestinian prison, is today considered the leader of Hamas in the West Bank.

“I am happy that you are here, the Israelis,” the ultra-Orthodox believer from Ramallah said to the former Haredi (Jewish ultra-Orthodox believer) from Kfar Chabad, and the two, joined by another 500 or so Palestinians and about 100 Israelis, continued on their way to the weekly demonstration against the separation fence at Bilin.

Peles is not representative of the Israelis who demonstrated at Bilin last week – most of them have a far more solid activist background. Yusuf is not representative of the Palestinians who demonstrated there – most of them are from Fatah and political rivals of Hamas. Still, the odd connection between the two is indicative of what has been happening in the past few weeks at Bilin and elsewhere along the present route of the fence that is under construction in the West Bank. There are almost daily demonstrations of Palestinians mixed with Israelis mixed with cameras. In meetings of the popular committees in Bilin or Boudrus or Beit Lakia, Palestinian grassroots activists – not intellectuals who get donations from Europe – are talking seriously about the doctrine of Mahatma Gandhi, about the model of nonviolent demonstrations that is meant to spread from village to village throughout the West Bank.

Nonsense – there is no such thing as a nonviolent Palestinian demonstration, say officers of the Israel Defense Forces, whose soldiers have already developed a routine of confrontation with the Palestinian and Israeli demonstrators, and even display fondness for some of those involved. “Where is Laser?” one of the soldiers asked as he looked through binoculars from the peak of the dominant hill at the demonstration that was gathering in Bilin two weeks ago. “Without him the demonstration is worth nothing.”

A week later, last Friday, the IDF received proof that when the field commanders tell the soldiers before demonstrations that “a stone can kill,” they know whereof they speak. Michael Schwarzman, a soldier from the Armored Corps, lost an eye when he was struck by a stone thrown by a Palestinian at Bilin.

“How can you talk about nonviolent demonstrations if a soldier loses an eye in a demonstration like this?” Yarom Tamim, the deputy battalion commander of Schwarzman’s unit, asked on a Tel Aviv radio program at the beginning of the week.

The truth is more complex. It is difficult to obtain precise data about the number of Palestinians who are hurt in demonstrations against the fence, because many of the wounded are treated on the spot and not taken to a hospital. However, in Bilin alone, with a population of a little more than 1,500, about 150 residents have been wounded in demonstrations during the past three months. According to partial figures from the human rights organization B’Tselem, seven Palestinians were killed in events along the fence in the Jerusalem and Modi’in areas last year. Another 180 Palestinians sustained wounds of varying degrees of severity, including at least 16 who were hit by live bullets.

Just a month ago, at the beginning of May, IDF soldiers killed two youths in Beit Lakia more than a kilometer away from the route of the fence. Attorney Shlomo Laker has the names of at least 30 Palestinians who sustained wounds in recent months severe enough to enable claims for damages to be filed. It is difficult to escape the impression that the IDF is using an iron fist in these demonstrations.

That impression is reinforced if we take into account that in the hundreds of demonstrations held since the protests against the separation fence began about two years ago, in the Qalqilyah area, the demonstrators have never resorted to firearms.

Justifying force
It is clear that the army’s orders are to use crowd dispersal methods. In March of this year, for example, a company commander from an Armored Corps battalion was removed for not using such means against Palestinians who charged the fence in the Boudrus area and knocked down about 100 yards of it. The officer, Lieutenant M., told his superiors that he did not use the means at his disposal because there were women and children among the demonstrators and he was afraid he might cause them injury.

The chief of Central Command decided to oust the officer. “We expect an officer to prevent the destruction of property and we not expect him to say: We will concede the fence and move back,” the spokeswoman of Central Command stated. “He should have been more aggressive and made use of the means that were given him.”

Lieutenant Colonel Tzachi Segev, commander of the 25th Battalion of the Armored Corps, became a television star against his will. Almost every week, he commands the force that is responsible for dispersing the demonstrations at Bilin. The cameras of the Arab television networks, not to mention the cameras of Anarchists Against the Fence, document his somewhat childlike features, incongruous beneath the helmet in which he issues orders to his soldiers. He was born in Givatayim, reads Haaretz and even “understands the Palestinians at the personal level” in terms of their anger at the loss of their lands. To reduce friction with the Palestinians, he even ordered a halt to the work on the fence on Friday, to prevent the possibility that the demonstrators would approach the construction equipment. The result is that on the past few Fridays, the demonstrations have been taking place opposite a route of earth, without a fence and without construction equipment: solely against a symbol.

However, Segev has no hesitations about the assignment he has been charged with. “The state has the right to protect itself with the help of a fence, even if that right harms these people,” he says. “In general,” Segev explains, he gives the order to use riot dispersal means after the Palestinians start to throw stones, because “stones can kill.” His definition of violence in Palestinian demonstrations – disturbances, he calls them – is quite broad. Soldiers being pushed is also considered violence that justifies the use of stun grenades or gas bombs. So is the fact that the demonstrators get close to the fence route or even cross the imaginary line the army demarcates for them at the start of every demonstration.

From Segev’s point of view, activity against a village that demonstrates against the fence does not end with the dispersal of the demonstrators and the stone throwers. “If no terrorist activity and no interference with the fence works come out of the village, we do not interfere with it,” Segev says. “If they interfere with the fence, we harass it in its daily routine.”

What form does that harassment take?

“Maybe harassment is not a good word. The stronger the activity against the fence, the stronger our operations will be. We reserve the right to enter the village at any hour … Sometimes there is no escaping collective punishment, even if it has a negative impact. Collective punishment is closure, prohibiting people from entering a certain village, blocking the Bilin-Safa road [referring to the neighboring village] as a lever of pressure if the village does not behave properly.”

But there were also cases in which the organizers of the demonstrations fought against the stone-throwers and removed them from the scene. What message are you sending the Palestinians who prevented stone-throwing at soldiers? That they are stupid?

“It is true that were such cases, and the question of collective punishment is a difficult issue. But the punishment is not something abstract. It is meant to say: Guys, we have means that can hurt you.” (“Closure is not collective punishment, it is an operational activity,” Colonel Yoni Gedj, the brigade commander, will say afterward, correcting him.)

Like all the IDF commanders in the sector, Segev believes that there is one major guilty party in the demonstrations: the Israelis. The Israelis “bring out the Palestinians” to the demonstrations and are the “main engine” for them. Where there are no Israelis, there are no demonstrations. Worse, Segev and other senior officers in the sector explain, the Israelis make the soldiers’ work very hard. They allow themselves to get very close to the soldiers, so that Palestinians and soldiers find themselves in very close quarters, “and the moment you have a Palestinian next to a soldier, there is danger.” It is also the Israelis who draw the soldiers to the side and talk to them, thereby allowing the Palestinians to throw stones.

From the army’s perspective, there is a clear difference between the attitude toward the Israelis and the attitude toward the Palestinians. “You have to differentiate between Israelis and Palestinians,” Segev told his unit commanders in a briefing two weeks ago on Friday. “Where there are Israelis, you don’t fire rubber [coated bullets].”

The demonstration starts to move out of the village. We are standing on the hill where the dusty route of the fence – an exposed strip of sun-baked land, the trees that once stood here having been uprooted. At first it looks like there are only Palestinians, that the army and the police succeeded in stopping the Israelis at the Ni’lin checkpoint next to Modi’in Ilit. Then the observation post informs Segev that there are “20 Israelis” among the demonstrators. “Back to the original plan,” Segev shouts.

The demonstration two weeks ago was held in almost exemplary order. The demonstrators – about 50 or 60 Palestinians and 20 or so Israelis – got to a distance of a few hundred meters from the fence route and were stopped by the army. They put on a weird display of hangman’s ropes attached to people wearing white robes and carrying posters stating “peace,” “the lands” and the like, and then turned back in the direction of the village. The soldiers stood on the road for a few more minutes.

“Go back, there is nothing for you to do here, you are just inviting the stone throwers,” the retreating demonstrators called to the soldiers. “I don’t want a situation in which it looks like they are on our tail,” Segev tells me, explaining why the soldiers are waiting. He then gives the withdrawal order and even though a few stones hit the soldiers, he orders restraint and the demonstration ends without a clash. An unusual event, the soldiers tell me; an unusual event, the Palestinians tell me.

The quiet was an achievement of the Bilin popular committee. From the hill, the committee members could be seen running after the youngsters who had hidden beneath olive trees, stones in hand, and taking them back to the village. In some cases this involved fistfights. Not all the youngsters were willing to pass up the opportunity.

“We are not army officers and we have no authority over people,” says committee member Mahmoud Hatib. “We can’t make them go back to the village, we can only persuade.” A few days earlier, when I visited the village, Hatib explained the principles that guide their demonstrations. There must be no stone-throwing, and this rule is generally observed. But after the demonstration ends, or from the moment the army starts to fire gas or rubber, and especially if the army enters the village, the organizers have no way to control the stone-throwers. And stones are thrown, as the events of last Friday showed.

The demonstrations in Bilin began in February of this year, when work started on the fence there. The residents of Bilin have about 4,000 dunams (1,000 acres) of farmland; according to the calculations of the village committee, 2,300 dunams will remain on the other side of the fence. (The army says that 1,700 dunams will be on the Israeli side of the fence, or nearly half the village lands.) The Israelis started to turn up almost from the outset.

A group of about 40 or 50 Israelis who are in constant contact with the villagers is ready to go there even in the middle of the night on the twisting, bumpy road that passes through Palestinian villages in order to stand up against the soldiers who are entering the village. In the home of Abdullah Abu Rahma, one of the committee leaders, I found Laser sleeping off the night. Another Israeli also suddenly showed up, having got a lift from Beit Lakia. A group of Israelis standing in the center of the village and chatting in Hebrew is a totally routine sight. “There were arguments in the village about the way the Israeli women dress, because we are a Muslim village,” Hatib notes. “But everyone says the Israelis are good.”

Both Hatib and Abu Rahma vehemently deny that the Israelis are behind the demonstrations, as the IDF is convinced. Yonatan Pollack and Einat Podhorny, two of the Israelis who do a lot of traveling between Tel Aviv and Bilin, also say that such claims are preposterous. The Palestinians tell us when and what activity they are planning and invite us to come, they say, but we are never the initiators. However, both the Palestinians and the Israelis concede that the very knowledge that Israelis will be present at a demonstration makes it easier for the Palestinians to decide to confront the soldiers, as it is likely that the troops will use less force when they see Israelis among the demonstrators.

The actions of the Bilin committee tend toward performance art. Along with the weekly demonstration on Friday, the members of the popular committee like to diversify. They might lash themselves to olive trees or get into barrels or hold a march of children – this week a demonstration by disabled people was planned. Last week they even distributed flyers, in Hebrew, to soldiers who arrived to evacuate them from the fence route.

“Soldier, wait a minute before you cock your weapon,” it read. “You and your friends are on our land. If you had come as guests we would show you the trees that our grandmothers [sic] planted here … But you were sent here as the representatives of an occupying army and state … That is why we are demonstrating here, without weapons, in the face of all your arms.”

“It is a revolution,” says a Palestinian source. “In the past, no Palestinian would have dared to address the soldiers in this direct way.”

Mysterious stone-throwers
The goal, Hatib explains, is to show the world the “right picture”: the Palestinians as the victims, Israel as the occupying army. Therefore, from his point of view, there is no need to throw stones at the soldiers, not even if they fire tear gas and rubber bullets. Hatib is also very pleased that the Arab and Palestinian media have dubbed the Bilin residents the “new Gandhis.” That is very honorable, in his eyes.

Do they merit that title? The army says that there is no demonstration that ends without stones being thrown and that any distinction between the nonviolent part of a demonstration and the violent part, with the stones, is completely artificial. Hatib admits that they are still very far from persuading all the village youngsters not to throw stones, but also says that there have been demonstrations without stones – and in general, he adds, the army has an interest in heating up the atmosphere.

An example of the deliberate escalation of the situation, the Palestinians say, is a demonstration that was held in Bilin on April 28, the demonstration of the mistarvim (army undercover units who are disguised as Arabs). Despite the large number of participants, the organizers were able to uphold the decision to have a nonviolent demonstration, without stones. “Suddenly I saw six or seven people whom I don’t know throwing stones,” Hatib relates. “I ran over to them and asked them who they were and why they were throwing stones despite the decision that the demonstration would be nonviolent. One of them replied, in good Arabic, that he was from Safa and that they had come to help us. I told him to go throw stones in Safa, not here.”
It was only afterward, when one of the stone-throwers pulled out a pistol and fired in the air, that Hatib realized the group were mistarvim. For him, that is proof that the army wanted to heat things up so it could break up the demonstration with the use of force.

The Maccabim Brogade commander, Colonel Gedj, admits that the mistarvim – from the Masada unit of the Prisons Service – did indeed throw stones, but firmly denies that they were the first to do so. “They joined other Palestinians who were throwing stones. The Palestinians’ allegations are nonsense. I investigated and I am 100 percent convinced of that.”

However, a judge in the Judea Military Court, Major Yair Tirosh, who heard a request to remand two Bilin residents in custody – they were accused of attacking one of the undercover men – wrote in his judgment: “There is no testimony by so much as one soldier that stones were thrown at him.”

(In his decision to release the two on bail, the deputy president of the Military Appeals Court, Lieutenant Colonel Yoram Haniel, noted that it is very doubtful that the mistarvim had the authority to operate in the demonstration, as their authority is confined to prison facilities.)

Role of the victim
“Stones entered the lives of the Palestinians in the first intifada and it is hard to remove them from our culture,” says Ahed Murad, from the village of Boudrus, which lies west of Bilin, smack on the Green Line. Boudrus is an example of a successful struggle, and this may be why Bilin is trying to emulate the events there. According to the original route of the fence, Murad explains, 1,200 dunams of the village’s land would have remained on the Israeli side of the fence. After the demonstrations, which began in December 2003, the route was changed and now only 100 dunams will remain on the other side. Boudrus was the first place where Israelis became a permanent element in the demonstrations.

“Our popular committee decided not to use stones, because we needed the help of the international volunteers and the Israelis, and we knew that if we used stones we would not be able to get the help,” Murad says. “We wanted to get to the bulldozers to stop the work and we knew that if we threw stones we would not be able to get to them.”

In Murad’s view, stones are not a violent measure, but “I don’t believe in that. If the goal is to hurt soldiers, you can do that better by shooting. But if the message is that you do not accept the occupation, I don’t think stone-throwing gets that message across. We are victims and we must not move out of the role of the victims.”

Murad is trying to market this formula in other places as well. In the villages next to the fence the message of nonviolent demonstrations is gaining support, he says. It is far more difficult in the big cities. “People told us that they would achieve nothing that way,” Murad says. The Palestinian Authority is also not cooperating. Nevertheless, he feels growing support for his ideas, both on the part of local leaders and in prison. When he was being held in administrative detention (arrest without trial), leaders from all the factions told him that the “Boudrus method is good” and that they had to reconsider their methods.

Mohammed Elias, the coordinator of the popular committees in the West Bank on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, admits that the road to getting nonviolent struggle into the Palestinian mainstream is still a long one. “This is a new way, and the fact that in this form of struggle there are no pictures of shaheeds [martyrs] on the walls weakens support for it,” he explains in his Ramallah office. “We are a sentimental people and the powerful slogans about blood and fire grab the heart more.” In addition, even if the direction is that of Gandhi, it can only be attained gradually. “If you see the soldiers using tear gas, it is difficult to persuade the young people to sit on the ground, sing and not react.”

Nevertheless, Elias is convinced that this is the direction in which the Palestinians are heading. He himself believed in the armed struggle and spent many years in prison, but now he has changed his mind and believes that the Palestinian public will follow suit.

“Once everyone supported the armed struggle, but now there is great weariness of it.” The presence of the Israelis in the demonstrations has a large influence in changing people’s opinions. “There is an Arabic proverb: You can forget those you laughed with, but you cannot forget those you cried with,” he says. People will not forget the Israelis who were wounded alongside them in the demonstrations.

That too is not a simple process. Elias tells about a demonstration in Qalqilyah in which the majority of the demonstrators were Israelis. During the demonstration a prayer service was held and the cleric who conducted it delivered a sermon against the Jews. “I went over to him and asked him, `How can you talk like that? didn’t you notice that half the people here are Israelis?’ He replied, `I meant the other Israelis.'”

Murad notes that before the Israelis started to show up for the demonstrations, many in Boudrus knew Jews only as uniformed soldiers. “Now even the children do not shout slogans against the Jews, only against the occupation.” An Israeli demonstrator relates that she heard a Palestinian say proudly that “the Israelis” – meaning the demonstrators – had protected them from “the Jews,” meaning the soldiers.

“Clearly the fact that we face danger together influences the Palestinians’ level of trust in us,” says Einat Podhorny from Ta’ayush, an Israeli-Palestinian cooperative organization, and an activist against the fence.

The absurd thing is that the demonstration last Friday, in which Michael Schwarzman lost an eye, was proof of the growing popularity of the struggle in the style of Boudrus and Bilin. True, Hassan Yusuf from Hamas is not eager to adopt nonviolent struggle as the only path. “We have tried everything, and we will try this way too,” he says. “If the occupation leaves peacefully, we are in favor of measures of peace, but it does not seem that this is what the occupation wants.” Yet the very fact that Yusuf, and with him representatives of all the parties – including the Popular Front, which had opposed joint actions with Israelis – took part in the demonstration alongside the Israeli demonstrators proves that the Palestinian politicians feel it is worth their while to ride this wave, that the wave is popular.

Who wins?
These subtleties make no impression on the IDF. “For a month and a half we have encountered a daily routine of disturbances,” Colonel Gedj says. “Soldiers find themselves in mortal danger, the machinery is damaged, the workers are attacked. This is delaying the work and causing the loss of a great deal of money. It is a situation that we cannot accept.”

Would it not be preferable to allow the Palestinians to demonstrate instead of confronting them?

“All the demonstrations are illegal and we are therefore obliged to disperse them. Palestinian youth are exploiting the demonstrations to throw stones and attack IDF soldiers. The moment the demonstrators push soldiers or cross a certain line, that makes the demonstration violent. I will also not lend a hand to exposing my soldiers to cries of `Nazi’ and `traitor.’ But we use the means we have in a graduated way. There is no situation in which we burst out at the demonstrators.”

What is the role of the Israelis in the demonstrations?

“During the whole week nothing happens, and at the end of the week, when the Israelis arrive, there are disturbances of hundreds of people. The connection is simple. It is apparently the Israelis who whip up the passions. I can’t say that with certainty, but where there are no Israelis it doesn’t happen.”

And the Israeli presence upsets the army?

“It makes the event a great deal longer and obliges us to invest far greater forces. The Israelis remain on the road and the Palestinians go out, but it’s hard for me to say whether this presence aggravates the confrontations or weakens them.”

What the Palestinians say is that the very presence of Israelis in the demonstrations is the best medicine against suicide bombers in the future, that their presence lessens the hatred.

“That is a direction that makes one think, but I am an army man and my task is to see to that the mission is carried out, and my mission is to enable the construction of the fence.”

A senior officer in Central Command takes a somewhat different view. He admits that the demonstrations along the fence are the major points of friction between the IDF and the Palestinians at this time. But “this is a classic type of disturbance and the army has no problem dealing with it. We only have to internalize the transition from fighting against armed individuals to coping with disturbances. It reminds me of the first intifada, and in the first intifada we were victorious at the operative level without any doubt. Most of the wanted individuals were liquidated or caught – it was an extraordinary success. But in these struggles it is very difficult to determine who wins in the judgement of history.

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