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The Palestinian village of hope

Matt Kennard and Wilson Dizard | The Guardian

27 May 2009

Ramallah is tired. The feeling you get walking around the streets here is that the Palestinians are weary of the struggle against the incremental destruction of their homeland, happening right now while the world looks the other way. You hear things like, “Our struggle has been long and it has got us nowhere”. And people ask how the world can stand by while the Israelis annex more land. It’s a good question.

In one village the flame of non-violent resistance still burns. Last week, we went to the weekly demonstration against the annexation wall in Bil’in, where it cuts deep into the farmland of this old Palestinian village and the Green Line (the internationally recognised border of Israel-Palestine). Since Israel started building the wall here in 2005 (stealing about 60% of the village’s land) the people of Bil’in have been inventively and non-violently resisting.

While helplessness pervades in occupied Palestine, the successful tactics of the people of Bil’in provide some hope and inspiration. Abdullah al-Rahman, head of the Popular Resistance Committee in Bil’in, described the various tactics the villagers have used to stall the erection of a new settlement (called “West Mattiyahu” in Israeli legalese, which tries to say it is merely a “neighbourhood” of an existing settlement). First, to oppose the wall, Bil’in’s residents tied themselves to their olive trees to stop the bulldozers razing their land. Then, in sight of the settlements, they constructed a one-room house overnight on the other side of the wall, a building that became the basis for a legal challenge. The high court slapped down their petition twice before they and their Israeli lawyer, Michael Sfard, realised Israel had made a mistake under its own unfair rules. Generally the Israelis use two excuses for land grabs: one, the land is uncultivated, and two, that there is a security threat. With Bil’in they’ve tried both.

To maintain the interest of the media, essential to their demonstrations’ success, the Popular Committee brings out new initiatives every Friday in its non-violent struggle. Last month at the height of the swine flu hysteria, the Bil’in residents went down for the demonstration wearing flu masks to say that they had all had occupation influenza for decades. When we went on Friday they had a slightly less subtle but equally creative tactic of filling balloons with chicken faeces to chuck at the soldiers.

While the Bil’in residents maintain their adherence to nonviolence, the same can’t be said for the IDF. Last month a beloved activist from the village, Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rammah, was killed by a high-velocity tear-gas canister, and one 16-year-old child we spoke to survived a live round to the head. These are definitely not “mistakes”, when you shoot a high-velocity tear-gas canister horizontally and not up in the air you only have one goal. They managed to murder Bassem with a shot to the heart. This is where the chicken faeces idea came from. “They shoot bullets at us, so we will respond with our animals faeces,” said al-Rahman. At the demonstration hundreds of tear gas canisters were shot at us, and rubber bullets aimed at the children throwing stones.

This Israeli tactic of harsh and violent repression has one goal: to stop Palestinian resistance through instilling fear. This is what happened during the second intifada, and it is happening again now as pockets of resistance are starting to form against the annexation of their land. And it works. We asked our Palestinian friend if she wanted to come with us on Friday. “No,” she replied, “I don’t want to die for nothing.” In recent months, since the Gaza War, the IDF have started using a new cocktail of weapons against the Bil’in demonstrators, which include stronger military-grade tear gas with nerve toxins, high-velocity machinegun-style tear gas, and aluminium bullets that have crippled protesters. The IDF has also made it a tactic to come into the village in the middle of the night and arrest the members of the Popular Committee, and children as young as 13, as well as throwing sound bombs and tear gas around.

According to a farmer from Bil’in, Farhan Burnat, 30, who spent eight months in prison after Israeli soldiers arrested him at a Friday demonstration, the Israelis take the kids to prison in Israel and will keep them for four to six months as punishment for participating in the demonstration. “In Ofer prison about 25% of the prisoners are children,” he said. “These lengthy periods of imprisonment severely stunt the educational development of our children.”

We went down to the wall the day before the protest and talked to Wahid Salaman, a 44-year-old farmer from Bil’in who was walking home after work. “The ability of us to get to our land depends on the mood of the soldier,” he said. “Sometimes we have to wait for five or six hours to get to our fields.” Salaman’s land is on the wrong side of the wall so he has to go through a checkpoint every day to go to work. He pointed out a huge pole with a CCTV camera on top of it. “They watch us at all times as well,” he said. The Israelis assign each farmer a number corresponding to points on the wall where he is allowed to go about his work.

Afterwards we spotted a young boy going through the checkpoint with his herd of goats. “I look after the goats after school for my parents,” he said. “The wall took 60% of our land, and as punishment for the demonstration we’re not allowed to work on Fridays.” He says that his goats have been injured by the barbed wire around the wall. Like everyone in Bil’in, he says he misses his friend Bassem. “I feel very sad,” he said, “but it will not stop me from doing the demonstration. We’re strong enough to continue to do it, they shot Bassem because we are achieving something here.”

The brutal behavior of the IDF at the demonstration has motivated a broad contingent of activists from around the world and Israel to descend on Bil’in every Friday – as they know the IDF will be less inclined to murder at will if they have passports belonging to countries that sell them the guns. When we were there on Friday there was a 15-strong contingent of trade unionists, artists and charity workers from Canada, alongside a group of young Israelis. The IDF’s explicit policy is not to fire live ammunition when Israelis or internationals are in the area, which gives you an indication of their attitude to the expendability of Palestinian life. It also makes it clear how vital it is that the brigade of internationals and Israelis continue to show up and protest peacefully alongside Palestinians.

At a bleak time for Palestinians, when they are watching the live destruction of any hopes of a viable future state, the heroic and successful resistance of the people of Bil’in (and their analogues along the line of the annexation wall) provide a glimmer of hope, and a template of how to fight this epic injustice with a mixture of consistency, courage and creativity.