Israelis and Palestinians will gather today for a demonstration to mark the two-year anniversary of their most high-profile joint campaign against Israel’s barrier in the occupied West Bank.
Weekly protests at Bil’in, a village west of Ramallah, may have done little to alter the path of the 437-mile concrete and steel barrier, now more than half complete, but the protesters highlight the possibility of continued, non-violent joint action that bridges the Middle East divide.
Villagers of Bil’in say they are cut off from 200 hectares of farmland by the barrier – here a steel fence with stretches of barbed wire and patrol roads. Though the land is on the Palestinian side of the 1967 boundary dividing Israel from the West Bank, Israeli authorities claim it as “state land” and are extending Jewish settlements nearby, particularly Modi’in Illit.
When work on the barrier began, in June 2002, there were joint Israeli-Palestinian demonstrations in other villages. But the response of the Israeli military and border police has been tough, and in time most of the demonstrations dried up.
At Bil’in they continued. Stones are often thrown, though organisers argue for non-violence, and the Israeli military and border police fire rubber-coated bullets and tear gas. Several dozen demonstrators have been hurt and at least two, an Israeli and a Palestinian, severely injured.
“We have been working for two years but we haven’t achieved our goal, which is to destroy the wall and the settlements being built behind the wall,” said Abdullah Abu Rahme, 36, a teacher from Bil’in who organises the protests. “We will continue, even if it takes another 10 years. We have no choice. The wall took our land, destroyed our economy and will make a difficult life for our children in future.”
A battle is under way in the Israeli courts against the siting of the barrier. “The route of the barrier was decided according to parameters that have nothing to do with security but are according to the desires of the settlement of Modi’in Illit to expand,” said Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer working on the case. Modi’in Illit, home to more than 30,000 mostly ultra-Orthodox settlers, is projected to expand to a city of 150,000.
Bil’in won a brief victory more than a year ago when it secured an injunction to stop the building of a new settlement area, Mattityahu East. Two weeks ago the court agreed retroactive planning permission and work is expected to restart soon. Yet the protests continue.
“One of our greater achievements has been building a resistance movement to the occupation that is joint Israeli and Palestinian, but led by the Palestinians,” said Jonathan Pollack, 25, an Israeli graphic designer. “This hasn’t really happened before in 40 years of occupation.”