First, whereas the protests in Hebron are led by former IDF soldiers who want the world to see the urban injustice of the apartheid system they once helped to enforce, the weekly protest in Bil’in is led by rural Palestinians who have been cut off from 50% of their farmland by the separation barrier whose route here snakes some 4 kilometers east of the Green Line.
Second, whereas the conflict in Hebron concerns access to an ancient site holy to both Jews and Muslims—the grave of Abraham, Sarah and four other patriarchs—the dispute in Bil’in concerns the location and impact of an Israeli settlement (Modi’in Illit) established on Palestinian farmland.
I returned to Bil’in a few weeks ago, almost two years after my first visit, to lend timid support to a group of brave local organizers whose recent legal victories in
Around noon on Friday, June 6, about 200 locals and internationals (many of whom were concluding a 3-day conference on non-violent resistance) began our westward march through the village, and beyond, to the vicinity of the barrier. For each weekly demonstration the local committee plans a different theme; the theme for this day was football (i.e., American soccer). It would be
We were about midway through the second half—as I recall Palestine was up by a goal—when a lone Israeli jeep growled along the road that hugged the opposite side of the barrier and halted, inexplicably, 1/3 kilometer or so from the game. Perhaps they wanted a better vantage point. Perhaps sport had transcended conflict even here in the
Without warning or provocation—God is my witness—soldiers emerged from the jeep to fire multiple rounds of tear gas, skillfully avoiding the spectators but landing their toxic canisters just upwind. In seconds the game was over. Crowds and athletes alike stumbled toward the village and away from the wind-borne poison. Faces burned. Eyes watered. Chests heaved.
What kind of malice is this wherein soldiers gas, without provocation and with utter impunity, a peaceful, legal public gathering? Which side in this bizarre, asymmetrical contest is terrorizing which?
Daunted(?), we gathered like shell-shocked, novice infantry under the shade of a large tree where one of the organizers, William Wallace-like, offered inspiration and provided (slightly ill-timed) instructions on how to handle the effects of tear gas. I bantered with a Jerusalem-based journalist from CNN who, alas, was not there on assignment. (If only Britney or Angelina had been in attendance.) After 40 minutes of mustering, we were joined by a parade of cheering, flag-waving locals coming directly from prayer at the mosque. Swelling their ranks we proceeded together to the wall. Several leaned on canes. One rode an electric wheelchair.
Bil’in choreography is largely predictable. The crowd gathers at the fence. Someone reads a declaration (in Arabic). Anti-wall chants rise up. Tension mounts as Israeli soldiers move from behind concrete barricades. An IDF commander broadcasts something in Hebrew, no doubt declaring the area a “closed military zone” and charging us to leave at once. We stay. Nonviolently, and well inside the barrier on indisputably Palestinian soil, we stay. Then, percussion grenades followed immediately by tear gas. (Or was it the other way around?) Dozens of canisters launch heavenward, gaseous tails smearing their profanely inhumane graffiti. Civilians, gasping and tearful, fall back. IDF troops, armed and emboldened, reinforce their demands. Off to the side kids start throwing stones. More weapons discharge. Gas forces another retreat. “Rubber” bullets chase the fleeing (not advancing) crowds.
This time differed in small ways from my visit two years ago. The barrier has a new, more permanent look. One cameraman ominously sported a gas mask. Grass fires broke out where several of the canisters landed. (Those who sought to extinguish fires near the barrier were gassed, by the way.) Thankfully, this time I saw no soldiers cross the barrier to seize and beat demonstrators. Oh, and this time I was proudly demonstrating alongside my 19 year-old daughter.
Otherwise the depressing choreography has changed little since 2006. March. Demonstrate. Run. Gasp. Run. Regroup. Watch for vapor trails. Stay upwind. Fall back. Eventually my daughter and I returned to the village and boarded a serveece taxi bound for Ramallah, home of the Stars and Bucks from which perch we could survey the city square, sip coffee and ponder the twisted normalcy of another day in