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Fencing match

Avi Issacharoff | Ha’aretz

1 January 2010

BIL’IN-NA’ALIN – Friday, 11 A.M. There is another hour until the onset of the weekly ritual. The participants are in face-off mode. On the “Israeli” side of the fence, south of the village of Na’alin – a three-minute drive from the city of Modi’in, which is halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – many Israel Defense Forces and Border Police jeeps have taken their places, along with the officers, the binoculars and the weapons. All the entrances to the village have been blocked to ensure the enemy cannot send in reinforcements.

It’s January 1, 2010, the anniversary of the establishment of Fatah, and the movement has decided to mark the event at the traditional Friday demonstration in the village. Israeli intelligence forecasts a particularly high turnout.

About 10 minutes away, Mohammed Khatib, a 36-year-old father of four, is walking around near the mosque in Bil’in and smiling like a little boy. He is a member of the Supreme Coordinating Committee, the coordinating body of the popular committees – a term borrowed from the first intifada – which are responsible for organizing the demonstrations. He is about to leave the village, due to an order issued against him by the State of Israel, prohibiting him from being in Bil’in between noon and 6 P.M. on Fridays. During those hours, the order stipulates, he has to “report to the police station closest to his home.”

Accordingly, Khatib, who gets legal advice from Israeli lawyers, will soon travel to Ramallah, to the Palestinian police station there. “No one ever said which police, and that is the closest station to my home,” he says, still smiling.

It’s 11:30. The center of the village is filling up with foreign correspondents, foreign volunteers and Israelis. Some of the activists are from the group known as Anarchists Against the Wall. There are few Palestinians, though this does not seem to worry Khatib.

“I am not afraid that the army will succeed in ending the struggle in Bil’in,” he says. “It is true that some of the village residents do not participate, because they understand that this activity will not be stopped in any case. Even if all the demonstrators are arrested tomorrow, the protest will continue with the help of the international activists. Our effort at this time is aimed at something much larger than Bil’in or Na’alin: We want a popular nonviolent struggle in all the territories, which in the end will succeed for the simple reason that it is just. That is the right way from our point of view.”

Stones yes, firearms no

It started at the end of 2003 in the village of Mas’ha in the northern West Bank (where an Israeli demonstrator, left-wing peace activist Gil Naamati, was wounded by IDF fire) and then spread to the village of Budrus, not far from Highway 443, near the Mitkan Adam army base. It was in Budrus that the demonstrators scored their first successes by stopping the Israeli bulldozers and forcing a change in the route of the barrier. The struggle spread to Biddu, a village outside Har Adar, outside Jerusalem; to Beit Lahia, on Highway 443; and elsewhere. The demonstrators suffered casualties as the IDF responses became harsher. In February 2004, for example, two young Palestinians were killed and about 70 wounded in a single day of demonstrations.

Israelis were involved in the demonstrations from the outset. Meanwhile, casualties sustained by Palestinian civilians led to heightened support for such activism and the idea of the popular struggle increasingly entered the Palestinian consciousness. Ironically, the IDF’s aggressive policy against the demonstrators had the effect of increasing their number.

The basic underlying goal of the struggle remains unchanged: to alter the route of the separation fence, which passes through land belonging to Palestinian villagers, some of them farmers. (In September 2007, the High Court of Justice ruled that the route of the barrier in Bil’in had to be changed, but in practice nothing was done.) The demonstrators are demanding the removal of the barrier from their land, while Israeli security forces are bent on evicting the demonstrators, who are interfering with the earth-moving work or are trying to damage the wall itself.

Still, what makes Bil’in and Na’alin different? Why have these two villages come to symbolize the Palestinian struggle, to the point where even Fatah decided to hold a procession – the central event marking its anniversary celebrations – there?

The groundwork for the separation fence in Bil’in began at the end of 2004, Mohammed Khatib relates: “Our activity at that time was only symbolic, on a small scale. After all, this is a small village. The turning point came on May 4, 2005. We tied ourselves to olive trees. That sent a powerful message to Israel, but through the use of totally nonviolent means. Our aim was to create a triangle of activists: Palestinian-Israeli-international. We welcomed every Israeli who wanted to take action against the occupation. Even soldiers came to express solidarity. Everyone who took off his uniform, “ahalan wa sahalan” – “welcome.” Our goal is not the soldier who guards the fence; it is the fence itself. We have no intention of killing the fence guards and we have no problem with the army.

“Our method led a great many volunteers from abroad and Palestinians to join us,” he continues. “We were able to convey the Bil’in story in the media. We were accurate about the details. We did not make up anything. Abdullah Abu Rahma [who was arrested by Israel about a month ago] coordinated the activity with the Arab media, and I was in charge of the Israeli and foreign media.”

The most striking resemblance between the weekly demonstrations and the first intifada – “the intifada of the stones” – is in the way they took shape. They began with ordinary people who owned land and homes on the route along which the fence was built. The struggle was spearheaded not by politicians or armed members of organizations, but by people with no special connection to Fatah or Hamas. At one point some activists from Bil’in set up a body they called a “popular committee.”

The committee did not have a specific leader and was not guided by any political body; indeed, the Palestinian factions joined this struggle and sought to enjoy its fruits only after it had already proved successful. This followed the pattern of the first intifada, when popular committees in many villages or districts led the struggle, determined its character and organized actions against the occupation – with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas joining in only afterward and not exerting real influence until a relatively late stage.

At present, popular committees are active in a number of Palestinian villages, including Bil’in, Na’alin, Maasra (near Bethlehem), in the southern Mount Hebron area, in villages on the ridge outside Nablus, in the Jordan Rift Valley and elsewhere. Each committee has representatives of the official factions, but also activists whose only association is with the idea of the popular struggle.

“We consider every citizen who wishes to take part in the demonstrations to be a member of the popular committee,” says Dr. Rateb Abu Rahma, a leading member of the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, and a lecturer in psychology at Al-Quds Open University. Below his home there is a kind of commune of activists from the International Solidarity Movement.

“The secret of our success is unity of the popular struggle against the fence and the settlements. The fence is not an insurance policy for the Israelis – it is a plundering of land. The settlements and the fence lie on Bil’in land and they are not legal. From our point of view, the popular struggle is preferable to violence, because only Palestinians will take part in a military struggle, whereas everyone can participate in a popular struggle.

“It is the army that starts the violence against the demonstrators,” he continues. “On Christmas Day, five youngsters dressed up as Santa Claus. We decorated a Christmas tree with empty teargas canisters. That was our message: Everywhere in the world people decorate their trees with flowers, but we did it with teargas grenades. We placed the tree next to a gate in the fence, and the army immediately started to fire teargas. Another example is Bassem Abu Rahma, who was killed from a direct hit by a teargas grenade. So which side is using violence?”

There is a great deal of stone throwing and many soldiers and Border Police are wounded.

“We are against stone throwing. It’s true that there are some who throw stones, but they are young people who often do not listen to us. We are against the use of force or any form of violence. We have adopted many ideas from outside – from foreign activists and from Israelis. The participation of Israelis – from groups such as Anarchists Against the Wall, Gush Shalom [The Israeli Peace Bloc], Yesh Din [Volunteers for Human Rights], Rabbis for Human Rights, Arab MKs – together with the nonviolent measures we have taken, make it clear that we do not intend to break the law. Regrettably, many in Israel would rather have the Palestinians perpetrate terrorist attacks, so the whole world will side with the Israeli government.”

Pastoral backdrop

Meanwhile, the demonstration in Na’alin has begun. On the hilltop, a few dozen young Palestinians look down at the wadi below, the scene of the events. Groups of masked people try to approach the fence; arrayed against them are Border Police and soldiers equipped mainly with rubber-coated bullets and teargas grenades. Every few seconds a grenade is fired, pushing the masked youths back toward the village.

“You maniac soldier – come on, you homo, let’s see what you’re made of,” the Palestinians shout in Hebrew at the troops.

One of the groups of stone throwers has paused to rest under an olive tree. When they remove their masks, it turns out that one of them is about 40 and the others are teenagers.

“Hey, son of a bitch, come over here,” one of them shouts.

Green hills, olive trees, a pastoral scene. Only the sounds of gunfire and the curses mar the landscape.

One masked person walks in the direction of the soldiers with his hands on his groin. “They aim the rubber bullets here,” he says, pointing at his crotch.

The older man lights a cigarette, and imitates the soldiers’ cries to the demonstrators to leave, in bad Arabic. The youngsters repeat the joke. Suddenly, G., a youth wearing a yellow soccer jersey, comes running over. “Look!” he shouts. “I have two teargas grenades that didn’t explode.”

Asked if he is afraid, G. says: “No. We come here every Friday, and either we come out alive or not.”

The older man adds that during the day, there is little cause for fear. “It’s a lot scarier at night. They come at 3 A.M., when everyone is asleep, and arrest you. One time undercover men came, dressed as Arabs. But it does them no good.”

What is the point of the demonstrations? Are there any practical results, we ask. “There is no result as yet,” says Mohammed, 30. “In practice there is no change. What’s important for us is to teach the coming generations that we will not give up our land.”

Some of the stone throwers are dressed for the occasion, wearing military overalls, kaffiyehs and headbands. They put on the masks again, take up their slingshots and prepare for another round against the army. A quick sprint, the stone is hurled, then a fast retreat.

Mingling with the young Palestinians are Israelis who refrain from violent activity: Sarit Michaeli, a spokesperson for the human rights organization B’Tselem, who is filming the events; Yifat, from Anarchists Against the Wall, who is at the forefront of the young people at every site; and Yonatan Polak, formerly the spokesperson for the anarchist group and now a member of the Supreme Coordinating Committee of the popular committees. Polak, 27, is the committee’s liaison with the Israeli media. He has been taking part in these demonstrations for seven years. Three times a week, he comes to Bil’in or Na’alin.

He notes that there are usually between 5 and 20 Israelis in an average demonstration such as the one at Na’alin. “The sucess story at Bil’in and Na’alin is not related to the participation of the Israelis, even if that is what all kinds of people think,” Polak says. “There is an awakening here of a popular protest, as a result of the disappointment over the armed resistance and the political path. In the past, the Palestinian factions shied away from the popular struggle, but these days they are joining in.”

Asked who starts the violence, the army or the Palestinians, Polak replies: “It varies from time to time, honestly. There is no fixed pattern. Today it was simultaneous.”

Suddenly shouts are heard, calls for first aid. A boy is bleeding from the head, hit by a rubber bullet. Some Border Police managed to outflank a group of children who were throwing stones. There are shouts of “Allahu akbar” – “God is great.” Polak identifies the wounded boy as the sheikh’s 9-year-old son, and calls him with the bad news.

Targeting the leaders

Casualties, including deaths, are not unusual at the weekly demonstrations.

“It would be hard to describe the struggle as nonviolent,” Polak says. “That is more suited to Israeli or international terminology. Nineteen demonstrators have been killed in actions like this since 2004, so it is ridiculous to talk about nonviolence in this context.”

Five Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Na’alin, including two boys, aged 10 and 17, and dozens have been wounded. In Bil’in, Bassem Abu Rahma was killed and many others were wounded. Another eight demonstrators in Na’alin were wounded by regular live ammunition (5.56 mm. bullets) and 28 others by 0.22 inch bullets, which have been banned for use by the military advocate general. The Yesh Din organization has submitted many complaints in an attempt to prompt investigations of the behavior of the Border Police and the soldiers in these and other cases. To date, only on indictment has been filed. However, in addition to the many casualties, since last June the IDF and the Shin Bet security service have been engaged in a concerted effort aimed at the leaders of the struggle. Thirty-one residents of Bil’in (5 percent of the population) have been arrested in this six-month period, 15 of whom are still in detention; in Na’alin, 94 residents (7 percent of the population) have been arrested since May 2008. Indictments have been filed against three members of the popular committee in Bil’in, mainly for incitement. The IDF operates in the village almost every weekend.

“They arrested Abdullah on December 10,” Rateb Abu Rahma says about his brother. “He is accused of stone throwing, incitement and being in possession of means of combat. It’s almost a joke. There was an exhibition that an Israeli held at Abdullah’s place of various weapons found in the fields of Bil’in. So they accused him of possession. He is 39, a teacher in a Christian school and a university lecturer. Is he going to use violence? He was then accused of throwing stones. They took one of the boys in the village and interrogated him. In his testimony he named dozens of people who threw stones with him, including Abdullah. So it’s obvious they read out the names to him and told him to sign.”

Indeed, the summary of the boy’s interrogation, which was obtained by Haaretz, is a ludicrous document. Page after page of “confessions,” with hardly any questions asked and mention of the names of no fewer than 68 people, alleged to have taken part in stone throwing with him. The boy has been released, but Abdullah Abu Rahma is still in detention.

Help from America

Every day, Mohammed Khatib goes to the offices of the Supreme Coordinating Committee in Ramallah, where the activity of the popular committees throughout the West Bank is coordinated. The coordinating committee also reminds one of the United National Leadership, which was at the forefront of the first intifada and maintained ties between the regions and the various factions.

Indeed, the government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is now underwriting some of the activities of the Supreme Coordinating Committee. A special PA ministry is in charge of liaising with the committee. Fayyad’s spokesman, Jamal Zakout, who was a member of the United National Leadership in the first intifada, is an adviser to the coordinating committee. In many senses, the grassroots level has forced the new style of struggle upon the leadership.

However, financial aid is not confined to the Palestinian community: Both the government of Spain and the United Nations are paying for activists’ legal protection and assisting in funding their publicity campaign. According to Khatib, many other consulates and bodies have rallied to the success story of Bil’in-Na’alin.

“Even the U.S. consul general visited the village,” Khatib notes. “The Americans are in direct contact with us, are following the events and have offered financial aid for humanitarian projects in the village. American and Swedish diplomats attended the trial of Abdullah Abu Rahma. Our coordinating committee is working with an international committee which is trying to help.

“It’s true that we have problems at the local level,” he continues. “We are trying to persuade the Palestinian public of the importance of our struggle. The problem is that many of them do not yet understand our dialogue with the Israelis, for example. But in the end, I feel today that I am part of a group that is changing history.”

As evening approaches, the demonstration in the village breaks up. “Only” one demonstrator was wounded today. The young people return home with teary eyes from the grenades. They will be back next week.