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Jerusalem Post: “Getting carried away”

Larry Derfner, Jerusalem Post, 4th May 2006

The violence typically begins as hundreds of protesters advance on lines of badly outmanned troops trying to block the way to the village’s land, which lies on the other side of the fence. The pushing, shoving and shouting, along with the troops’ inability to keep the protesters back, is what sets off the use of tear gas, concussion grenades, batons, rubber bullets and, in at least one lethal incident, live fire.

‘The army thought there were no Israelis present, then they saw that there were. I heard the commander shout to his soldiers, “Go back to regular open-fire orders, there are Israelis here.”‘ – anti-fence activist Jonathan Pollak

Fromthe city of Modi’in, just on the “Israel proper” side of the Green Line, the drive to Bil’in takes you past the large haredi settlement of Modi’in Illit, past the IDF checkpoint and along twisting roads that pass through a couple of other Palestinian villages before reaching this village of about 1,500 people. The Friday demonstration leaves at about 1 p.m. from the local mosque after prayers.

There are dozens of media people here from all over, including CNN and NBC, along with about 100 Palestinians and some 100 Israelis, foreigners and media. As usual, a group of youngish, exuberant Arab men are leading the chants on the march from the mosque down the road through the valley to the fence, and a smiling Asian man dressed in Buddhist robes, a regular, is beating a drum.

At the end of the road stand about 25 border policemen in riot gear, backed by another 25 or so soldiers standing in front of the gate to the fence. Beyond the fence lie the olive groves that may or may not develop into the Matityahu East neighborhood that Modi’in Illit plans to build – the reason for the demonstration – and beyond them, about 2 kilometers away, is the Israeli settlement itself.

Theoretically, the aim of the protesters is to advance through the gate to the olive groves, but with all the big media present, the demonstration turns into confrontation for confrontation’s sake – a constantly repeating surge by groups of Palestinians and, to a much less frequent and forceful degree, their supporters, to get right into the young troops’ faces, to rage and holler at them to “get off our land!” – to provoke a reaction. They push forward and the troops push them back.

“Where is it you want to go?” an exasperated soldier asks a few of the charging protesters, who ignore the question.

The media presence gives the demonstrators the advantage, restraining the soldiers’ response. There are no batons, no fists, no loss of control. The staged quality of the protest becomes a little ridiculous at times. A Palestinian who has sat down on the ground, defying orders to disperse, is carried off holding out an olive branch to the soldiers straining under his weight, as the cameras close in. A young American woman calls out to journalists to come see how a Palestinian man of about 50 has lost consciousness after being “beaten by soldiers,” as she puts it. On approach it turns out he has a medical condition; his friends are taking pills out of his pocket so he can swallow them.

“No, I was mistaken, he had some kind of attack,” the American girl calls out.

With the soldiers making way for the stricken man and even offering to treat him in the army ambulance stationed at the site, the Palestinian men carry him through the gate and toward the ambulance, then turn around and carry him back.

“We’ll take care of him ourselves,” one of the men says defiantly.

In the heat of the confrontation, with dozens of bodies pressed up against each other, the protesters take wooden mallets they’ve brought along and enthusiastically destroy the styrofoam model they’ve built of red-roofed settler houses. The border police commander declares the area a closed military zone and the demonstration illegal.

“I wanted to let you demonstrate, to express your opinions, that was fine with me,” he says through a bullhorn. “I thought you were adults, but you’re not, you don’t even respect yourselves,” he adds.

Standing next to a line of young border policemen who don’t appear too sure of themselves, the Buddhist, Gyosei Horikoshi, 50, a Japanese man who’s been in Israel since the 1991 Gulf War, beats his drum. The ground near him is smoking with spent concussion grenades fired in a futile try to disperse the protesters.

“This is a Buddhist prayer for peace,” he explains. But it doesn’t seem to be having a calming effect on anyone.

BEYOND THE theatrics, there is a very weighty matter at hand in Bil’in.

“That is my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather’s land, those olive trees, and they won’t let me go there,” says Othman Mansour, at48 the village elder on the scene.

By Israeli regulation, the farmers are supposed to be allowed to pass through the gate and tend their groves. “But that’s all on paper; in reality the army doesn’t let us through,” says another protester.

During the close-in confrontations, one of the Palestinians demands of a soldier: “Why are you doing this? It’s not for your country, it’s for some contractors who are getting rich.”

Under orders, the soldiers don’t say a word.

Akram Hatib, 33, sitting on a low ridge of rocks, argues that Israelis “don’t even know where the fence is” – they think it’s being built according to security considerations alone, yet it just happens to transfer vast Palestinian agricultural lands to the western, Israeli side. “The fence is being built just so the millionaires can put more money in their pocket,” insists Hatib.

The demonstration passes with relatively little violence; even Jonathan Pollak, a leader of Anarchists Against The Wall, which usually dominates the Israeli presence at the protests, says the troops have behaved “about as well as they can.”

The one serious injury is to a Palestinian protester whose hand is badly bloodied by a concussion grenade – evidently fired in a flat trajectory at fairly close range, although army regulations call for them to be fired in a long-range arc. Soldiers also fire rubber bullets and tear gas at Palestinian boys aiming slingshots at them from about 100 meters away – a distance, by the way, from which it is extremely hard to hit a human target, and virtually impossible if the target takes minimum safety precautions.

By the end of the afternoon, five Israelis, including Pollak, and six Palestinian protesters are arrested.

“They brought the Israelis to the police station at Givat Ze’ev and released us after we signed an agreement that we wouldn’t go back to Bil’in for two weeks,” says Pollak. “The Palestinians arrested were released without being taken in.”

But once the confrontations subside, some of the Palestinians in Bil’in show their “war wounds” from previous protests. Hatib pulls down his shirt to show welts on his neck and shoulders. “I got these from a young woman soldier when she was beating me over the head,” he says.

Mustafa Hatib, a cousin, says he once took a “baton to the balls” that laid him up for awhile. He adds that troops frequently come into the village and “go into people’s houses and beat them up, out of habit.”

PROTESTS LIKE the one at Bil’in on March 24 have been largely ignored here, even as the anti-fence campaign has gained considerable attention abroad. The protests, which have been going on for three and a half years, are seen as part of the intifada, part of the “terror war” – a baseless attack by Palestinians, pro-Palestinian Israelis and foreigners on the barrier that has proven its worth by deterring suicide bombers. The claim by Palestinians that the fence cuts them off from much of their farmland is seen as a negligible issue; after all, of what importance are Palestinian olive groves compared to the lives of innocent Israelis?

Invisible to most Israelis are the injuries that protesters suffer during the demonstrations – injuries like those to Matan Cohen’s left eye, for example, which is discolored and cannot focus. Sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe, Cohen, 17, says he was hit by a rubber bullet fired from 25 meters away by a border policeman during the February 24 protest at Beit Sira. The border policeman was in no danger whatsoever, he adds.

A military source with long-standing, first-hand experience of the anti-fence protests insists that Cohen is doing what his colleagues have been doing throughout the campaign: defaming Israel with lies.

“[Cohen] told me he had been standing near a soldier who fired a rubber bullet that hit him in the eye, but our investigation showed there were no soldiers at all in that area who had fired rubber bullets,” says the military source. “It’s all lies. He was really hit by a rock coming from a slingshot fired by the Palestinians. We have soldiers who say they saw one of the Palestinian boys fire a rock that hit [Cohen] in the eye.”

To this, however, Cohen replies: “No investigator from the police or the IDF ever talked to me. I have eight witnesses, including two Israeli cameramen, who saw the border policeman shoot me, and they’ve never been interviewed either in this so-called investigation.”

There is a huge gap between what the average Israeli thinks of these protests, together with the way Israeli security officials portray them, and the reality from “the other side.”

Pollak says 10 Palestinians have been killed in the anti-fence demonstrations, citing reports by Israeli media, B’tselem, Palestinian villagers he’s in regular contact with and his own experience.

“I was at the demonstration in Biddu on February 26, 2004, when three Palestinians were shot to death. An elderly man there died later in the hospital from the effects of tear gas fired into his home. I was standing 10 meters from a man when he got shot in the forehead and killed. I saw limp bodies with blood all over them being carried away,” says Pollak.

He says he himself has been mildly injured about 30 times, mainly by rubber bullets, but that a year ago during a demonstration in Bil’in, which has become the focus of the Friday afternoon demonstrations, he was hit in the right temple by a tear gas canister fired at him by a soldier from 20 meters away.

“I had two brain hemorrhages, I was in Tel Hashomer for three or four days, I can’t remember exactly how many, and I couldn’t stand up for two weeks,” says Pollak, 23. Besides Matan Cohen, two other Israelis, Gil Namati and Itai Levinsky, have been shot, with Levinsky ending up losing an eye.

Besides the 10 Palestinians killed, Pollak estimates that “hundreds” of them have been severely wounded at the protests, not counting the many more who’ve been mildly injured.

In the face of these accusations, the military source replies: “They could just as easily say 20 dead, or 200. I don’t know of one person who has been killed in these demonstrations, and if there had been, I would have known about it. We would have felt the consequences on the ground. I don’t even know of any demonstrator suffering an injury that required hospitalization – except Matan Cohen, and that was because of a slingshot, not because of us. These people lie, they make this all up to besmirch the army.”

The interview with the military source was arranged by the IDF Spokesman’s Office. The source defended the army and made counter-accusations against the protesters with vehemence, as if he fully believed what he was saying. Yet his account – including his remarks that Cohen’s eye injury at Beit Sira had been “investigated,” and that no anti-fence demonstrator had ever been killed or even seriously wounded by Israeli troops – is simply untenable.

Footage filmed by members of Anarchists Against the Wall at several past demonstrations shows a soldier opening fire with an Uzi submachine gun on advancing demonstrators, with one of the protesters getting hit and having to be carried off. From short range, troops fire tear gas canisters that explode amid tightly-packed protesters, causing panic. From long range, tear gas canisters are fired at a group of wheelchair-bound protesters. Face-to-face, soldiers and border policemen beat milling protesters with batons.

In all these demonstrations, the protesters are unarmed, except for some young Palestinian boys firing slingshots at a great distance. The violence typically begins as hundreds of protesters advance on lines of badly outmanned troops trying to block the way to the village’s land, which lies on the other side of the fence. The pushing, shoving and shouting, along with the troops’ inability to keep the protesters back, is what sets off the use of tear gas, concussion grenades, batons, rubber bullets and, in at least one lethal incident, live fire.

Asked what serious injuries Israeli troops had suffered during the years of anti-fence protests, the military source replies that one soldier suffered “irreversible damage to his eye” from a stone fired by slingshot. Another soldier suffered two broken fingers when a Palestinian demonstrator he was carrying off bit him. Many other soldiers have been hit by rocks, he says, but the wounded eye of one and the two broken fingers of another were the only serious injuries to troops that he can recall.

The thorough imbalance of power between Israeli troops and protesters resembles not the “terror war,” but the first intifada, the “war of stones,” except that the protests are much, much less violent. And if the anti-fence protests are also a “propaganda war,” then Israel – through its military’s implausible accounts of the clashes – is definitely holding up its end.

EVEN FOR Palestinians, this issue has cooled off, at least temporarily. As the “terror war” has subsided, so has the battle over the fence, whose ranks are and always have been filled mainly by Palestinians, with Israelis and “internationals” playing a small supporting role – mainly to keep the issue in the Israeli and world media.

But in principle, the conflict over the fence is still very much alive and entirely unsettled. Villages across the West Bank – Azun, Nebi Elias, Ras a-Tira, Abud, Bitunia, Mas’ha, Kharbata, Jayyus, Beit Likiya, Biddu, Beit Sira, Bil’in and many others – are pressing their cases against the State of Israel in the Supreme Court, fighting to keep many tens of thousands of dunams of their farmland from being placed on the opposite side of the security barrier from them, where much of it stands to fall into the hands of Jewish settlements.

An outsider might look at these demonstrators and wonder why they go through it, what they have gained. After all, the only real victories won by the Palestinian villages to move the fence away from their land happened in the Supreme Court, not at the protest sites. And while the route of the fence has been curtailed, it remains a very hard, and likely permanent, fact on the ground.

Nonetheless, leaders of the movement believe the effort has been a success, even at such a high blood price. After about a year of scattered protests by individual villages, beginning with Jayyus, near Kalkilya, in September 2002, Israelis and foreigners joined in, and the campaign jelled, turning the fence into an international controversy.

“A new movement of joint Israeli-Palestinian resistance that didn’t exist before came to life,” says Pollak. He also thinks the protests and early media attention affected the thinking of the Supreme Court judges, noting that the court’s landmark decision ordering the curtailment of the fence route came only in June 2004 – after the protests gathered steam.

One of the Palestinian leaders of the movement, Ayed Morrar, 44, of Budrus, near Bil’in, agrees that the protests influenced the Supreme Court, adding that this has convinced many Palestinians in the West Bank that non-violent protest can be effective. Calling the Palestinian boys’ long-range slingshot attempts “a game” that poses no threat to the soldiers, Morrar says the unarmed protests were chosen both for moral and pragmatic reasons.

“First, we don’t want anyone to be killed on our side or any side, and second, we need all the people around the world to support us, and they won’t support us if we use violence,” says Morrar, who has been jailed repeatedly by Israeli authorities.

Pollak maintains that Israeli troops clearly have one set of use-of-force and open-fire regulations for Israelis and foreign demonstrators, and another, much more permissive set of regulations that they use on Palestinians.

“At one demonstration in Bil’in last year, I think it was in May,” Pollak says, “the army thought there were no Israelis present, then they saw that there were. I heard the commander shout to his soldiers, ‘Go back to regular open-fire orders, there are Israelis here.'”

IN REPLY, the military source acknowledges that there are, in effect, different open-fire regulations against some Palestinians than there are against Israelis and foreigners, but this is because it is only Palestinians who use rocks. Israelis and foreign supporters limit themselves “to provocations, to fanning the flames of Palestinian violence,” he notes.

The source lays 100 percent of the blame for the violence on the protesters: “I’m happy to say that I have never witnessed an incident in any of these protests when the violence was started by Israeli troops.”

The demonstrations, he says, aim to provoke violence for the purpose of making Israel look like the bully in the media. “These are illegal demonstrations, they are held in closed military zones. Even so, our interest is that they remain peaceful, which is the opposite interest of the protesters. They always go out to confront the soldiers, to hurt them and to damage the fence, and when that happens, we stop it by force,” the military source maintains, repeating his claim that all the deaths and serious injuries to Palestinian demonstrators are “made up.”

Yet the footage from past anti-fence demonstrations taken by Anarchists Against the Wall tells an entirely different story. The soldier firing the Uzi that severely wounds one of the demonstrators is standing far from the action, in no danger. The crowd is unarmed.

The concussion grenades exploding among the demonstrators are not being fired in an arc, but in a flat trajectory, which makes them quite dangerous.

A slightly-built Palestinian man, seen with a few foreign supporters arguing with soldiers who will not let them pass, is soon seen again on his knees, holding his head, his face bleeding. The outraged foreigners demand to know why he was beaten. “He was resisting arrest,” replies one of the soldiers.

A gathering of Palestinians in wheelchairs set out on the road that leads from Bil’in to the fence when troops fire tear gas canisters in their direction.

“This is a demonstration of handicapped people in wheelchairs!” shouts a protester through his bullhorn at the troops. “Are you crazy?”

As for the reported 10 Palestinian deaths and far more numerous severe injuries at the hands of Israeli troops, it’s unclear what evidence could conceivably convince the military source that all of them weren’t, as he says, “made up.” The names of the dead are: Taher Ahmed Nimr Assi, 15; Jamal Jabber Ibrahim Assi, 15; Uday Mufid Mahmoud Assi, 14; Ala Muhammad a-Rahman Khalil, 14; Islam Hashem Rizk Zaharan, 14; Diah a-din Abd el-Karim Ibrahim Abu Eid, 23; Hussein Mahmoud Awad Alian, 17; Mahmoud Daoud Salah Beduan, 21; Zakaria Fadl Hashem Rian, 25; Abd el-Rahman Abu Eid, 62. (The first nine names were documented by B’tselem; the 10th by Pollak.)

REGARDING MATAN COHEN’S eye injury, a leading Israeli pathologist hired by the boy’s family says the initial results of his examination of the eye “point to a very high probability that the injury was the result of a rubber bullet.”

On that day in Beit Sira, Cohen recalls, the protesters and the IDF had an agreement that the demonstration would go off without physical confrontation.

“Then at one point a border police jeep drove up in the middle of the crowd, and the troops got out and started firing in the air, shooting tear gas and concussion grenades, beating people with rifle butts and batons, and firing rubber bullets,” he says.

“Some Palestinian boys starting firing slingshots at the troops from, I’d say, about 80 meters away. I saw and heard the IDF commander go up to the border police commander and tell him to order his men to stop shooting, but the border police commander told him, ‘I want to hit each of these people with a rubber bullet so they’ll know that there will be no demonstrations here.’

“There were four of us Israelis standing about 25 meters from the border policemen,” Cohen continues. “We were telling them, ‘Don’t shoot, nobody is threatening you.’ We were trying to calm them down. Then one of them raised his rifle and shot me.”

Cohen was taken by ambulance to Tel Hashomer Hospital, where he spent two weeks undergoing two operations on his left eye. He hopes that in about six months the eye will have recovered to the point where surgeons can perform a lens transplant that could diminish the eye’s impairment. The Hebrew media gave Cohen’s story a lot of play.

“The only reason is because my hair is light,” he says. “Palestinians get injured like I did all the time – and they get killed. But what happens to Palestinians doesn’t interest Israelis, so it’s as if it never happened at all.”

Bil’in’s beef

At stake in the weekly protests at Bil’in are approximately 1,000 dunams of village olive groves that now lie on the far side of the security barrier, and on which the large haredi settlement of Modi’in Illit plans to build a 3,000-unit housing project.

The question posed by the protests isn’t why Israel must build a security fence, but why the fence must run along a route that slices off so much land that has been farmed for so long by Palestinian villages. The question is all the more pressing now that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is vowing that this route is the base line for the country’s permanent border.

The police National Fraud Squad is reportedly investigating how Modi’in Illit acquired the land on which Matityahu East was being constructed. The State Attorney’s Office told the Supreme Court that the roughly 1,000 dunams in dispute is “state land” that includes land purchased by Israeli buyers from Bil’in villagers.

However, the villagers say that at most, eight dunams were actually sold, according to attorney Michael Sfard, who is representing Bil’in. Targets of the fraud investigation reportedly include Modi’in Illit municipal officials, settler organizations, construction companies and real estate dealers.-