Weekly protest against barrier is rare example of co-operation,
The Globe and Mail
By MARK MACKINNON
Friday, January 6, 2006
BILIN, WEST BANK — Nimrod Eshel is shouting out his disgust at the barrier his country is building through the West Bank when the tear gas starts to fly.
The 24-year-old student from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem pants mildly as he dashes through an olive grove to find a safer vantage point. The peaceful protest of a few minutes before is beginning to disintegrate; Palestinian youths, their faces covered with bandanas to protect them from the effects of the gas, hurl stones back at the helmeted Israeli troops, who respond with rubber bullets and more tear gas.
“I think it’s really important for Israelis to see this. It’s really sad what’s going on,” Mr. Eshel said, waving his hand in an arc that included both the ongoing barrier construction and the Israeli dispersal of the protest.
The Battle of Bilin, as the weekly anti-wall protest here in this tiny West Bank community is known, begins every Friday after midday prayers. Several dozen unarmed residents of the town, supplemented by foreign and Israeli peace activists, meet each week outside the local mosque and march together toward the bulldozers and front-end loaders that are preparing the ground for the next growth spurt in the 685-kilometre-long separation barrier.
Each Friday, they’re met by Israeli riot police and an angry dance of protest begins. The activists push forward as far as they can, singing and chanting anti-wall slogans. When they cross an invisible line, the police disperse them with tear gas and batons.
A longer-distance exchange of heated opinions, Palestinian rocks and Israeli rubber bullets then carries on for much of the rest of the afternoon.
Six people were injured, one seriously, in the clash in which Mr. Eshel recently took part. Three were arrested, including two Israelis.
The fight is a desperate one for this West Bank town’s 1,700 residents. When the barrier is completed, it will cleave away some 233 hectares — approximately half this town’s land — and append it to the Israeli side of the barrier, where the settlement of Modiin Ilit is rapidly expanding. It is one of 117 Jewish communities built — illegally, according to the United Nations — on West Bank land.
“According to the Israelis, this is their border. But we will continue to resist it,” said Rateb Abu Rahmeh, a 40-year-old teacher from Bilin. He waved his arm to indicate the mounds of freshly dug earth that are the precedent to a complex system of fortified fencing, motion sensors and security roads designed to keep Palestinians from approaching. “They took 60 per cent of our land. . . . We can’ t have a state with these borders.”
The weekly protest is intriguing in a couple of ways. First, the demonstrators, though few in number, have managed to draw international attention to their cause and slow construction to a snail’s pace. Second, the residents are joined each Friday by Israeli peace activists who are as ready and willing to get tear-gassed for the cause of Bilin as anyone who lives here.
They are only the most vocal of a large minority in Israeli society that is opposed to the barrier, or at least to its construction on the Palestinian side of the 1967 Green Line, Israel’s internationally recognized border with the West Bank. The barrier’s route, which the current Israeli government is believed to see as a prelude to a final border between Israel and a future Palestinian state, puts 8 per cent of the West Bank as well as much of East Jerusalem on the Israeli side, effectively annexing it to Israel.
Mr. Eshel said that like many Israelis, he is in favour of some kind of barrier, which Israelis attribute to halting the wave of Palestinian suicide bombers that have struck in recent years. “I can understand why they put the wall up,” he said. “The biggest question is where you put it.”
It’s a sentiment the Bilin residents share. If the barrier had been built on the Green Line, they say, there would be no riots.
Bilin’s case, requesting that the route be moved closer to the Green Line, is now before Israeli courts and a decision is expected in February. Construction is frozen on about 10 per cent of the barrier’s planned route because of some three dozen domestic court challenges, and the village council is hopeful that a landmark September ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court will help their cause.
In that decision, the court ordered the army to tear down a section of the barrier encircling the Jewish settlement of Alfei Menashe and five Palestinian villages. The court said the barrier can extend into the West Bank, but cannot impose undue hardships on Palestinians.
Though minor, the court successes and the international exposure gained by the weekly demonstrations have recently encouraged the activists to be more brazen in their challenge to the Israeli government.
Last week, a number of Israelis joined Bilin residents in setting up a Palestinian “settlement” next to Modiin Ilit, where the Israeli media has reported that 750 housing units were recently built on West Bank land without permits. Unlike the residents of the Jewish settlement, the Palestinians who moved in next to them were bearing a deed to the land and permission to build from the Bilin village council.
The Israeli army quickly removed the tiny outpost, but not before it made international headlines and drew more attention to Bilin’s cause. Mr. Abu Rahmeh said the village’s Israeli allies had been behind the idea, and even supplied the materials for the outpost’s construction. “They’re very good people. They help us more than anyone,” he said. “Without the Israelis and the other foreigners, we wouldn’t be able to do any of this.”
Friday afternoon, once the demonstration is over, Nir Shalev, an activist with B’Tselem, a well-established Israeli peace group, arrived in Bilin toting maps of the region to help the village council prepare for its day in court. He’s greeted warmly by his Palestinian allies, who clearly value his expertise on how the Israeli justice system works.
It’s a rare example of Israeli-Palestinian co-operation. After five years of bloodshed, hatred and distrust are far more commonly on display between the two sides, and Mr. Shalev acknowledges that most Israelis are quite happy the barrier is being built. Still, he and the other Israelis who have joined the Battle of Bilin are determined to fight on.
“In the long term, this wall will just initiate a third intifada (uprising). You can’t expect people who have their land grabbed to just sit peacefully and accept it. So there will be more terror attacks in Israel and more retaliation by the Israeli army. The whole cycle will continue.”
This is the final instalment of a five-part series by The Globe and Mail’s Middle East correspondent examining Israel’s security barrier, its impact on the lives of Israelis and Palestinians and its implications for the peace process.