Whether as a result of the violence in Jerusalem or just because there’s a new commander in town, the Israeli army is once again increasing its oppressive measures in the West Bank village of Bil’in.
By Roy Wagner
There’s nothing new under the sun in Bil’in.
If you take a look at the Wikipedia page on Bil’in, you’ll see that the last updates about the village’s struggle against the separation wall refer to 2012. B’Tselem’s page on Bil’in was last updated almost two years ago. One could easily be led to believe that the struggle is over. But Bil’in continues to demonstrate.
Perhaps updating Wikipedia and B’Tselem’s website isn’t necessary. The situation in Bil’in remains as it was. Veteran protesters even experience flashbacks to 2008, when the demonstrations took place near the old route of the wall. This is the same route that stole nearly half of the village’s agricultural land, and which the High Court later ordered be dismantled and moved west. This was before the new route was built and introduced in 2011 — the same one that steals only one third of the village’s land.
Over the last several weeks, however, Israeli soldiers have been waiting for the protesters on the old route, near the monument for the late Bassem Abu Rahmah, who was shot and killed at close range by a high-velocity tear gas grenade. As far as I can tell from the videos and testimonies, Abu-Rahme was likely murdered intentionally. (The IDF closed its investigation into the killing without indictment.) From high positions the soldiers fire barrages at the protesters who try to make their way along the “Freedom Road.” Afterward, the soldiers descend toward the built-up areas of the village and fill people’s homes with tear gas.
Soldiers recently set on fire a building that stands between the old route and the new one. The army issued a demolition order for a playground that was built there. During the last protest a man who said he was a village resident told me that 20 of his olive trees, which are located on the other side of the wall, were set ablaze. Arresting protesters and assaulting them while in custody, practices that have become rarer in recent years in Bil’in, are once again becoming common practice.
According to photojournalist Haitam al-Hatib, soldiers raided the village last Saturday, confiscating agricultural tools. The soldiers retreated in the end, but not before they threatened to demolish another house. Abdullah Abu Rahme, one of the leaders of the nonviolent struggle in the village, who was recognized as a “human rights defender” by the European Union and a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International, was once again convicted in military court for resisting the occupation (“obstructing the work of a soldier”) and is likely heading back to prison.
Struggling, not just protesting
The goal of the demonstrators has not changed since 2005. They are not “protesting.” They are not “expressing an opinion.” They are not taking part in the “game of democracy,” whose rules don’t even apply to the occupied territories in the first place, and where every protest is considered illegal. The goal of the protesters is to tear down the wall and cross to the other side in order to reach their lands (upon which sit military positions and the Modi’in Illit settlement).
Although the wall — which supposedly save lives — is full of gaps (proof: tens of thousands of permit-less Palestinian workers cross it regularly), it is still continuous enough to separate Bil’in’s residents from their lands. Week after week, the protesters are left on the east side of the wall, yet they are persistent about their demands.
The chances that the stolen lands will return to their rightful owners through some kind of legal or political arrangement is near zero. Bil’in’s residents understand this fact. The demand to cross over to the lands on the other side of the fence is one that embodies the demand to end the occupation and the apartheid regime on both sides of the wall. The response to the protests remains the same, whether it includes chanting or rock throwing, whether the demonstrators are able to approach the wall or remain far from it, whether the army uses tear gas and stun grenades, rubber coated bullets or live fire. Life-threatening violence by well-armed and armored soldiers against unarmed protesters.
Every once in a while, someone in the IDF will come to the conclusion that its time to put an end to these demonstrations. They invent “new” tactics, “new” weapons, “new threats.” But after more than 10 years of protests, there is really nothing new. The protesters know all the scenarios. Regardless, the demonstrations continue and as far as I can see, they’ll keep on going for many years to come. As they do in Ni’ilin, Ma’asara, Kufr Qadum, Nabi Saleh and other villages.
I do not know whether the escalation in Bil’in today, which is happening more than 10 years after the first demonstration in 2005, has to do with Operation Protective Edge, or with the growing resistance in East Jerusalem, or with the caprices of the local command. I also do not know how long the escalation will last. Perhaps in a week or two the military will relax. Maybe another protester will be killed.
The right to incite
The European-Israeli fantasy of a Palestinian Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., who will lead the popular struggle toward a political overhaul, continues to stagnate. This fantasy forgets that there is no Gandhi without Ambedkar (who fought against the British using arms), and there is no King without Malcolm X. And in any case, this isn’t India or America and the political violence of this place has its own characteristics, which adopts the cruel patterns of French colonialism in Algeria, at the expense of the less brutal tactics of British rule in India or white rule in the U.S.
Every week a few dozen Israelis and internationals come to Bil’in and join another few dozen Palestinians for a protest. Every once in a while there is a larger demonstration.
I will not pretend that additional Israelis coming to the protests will tip the scales. The Israeli public, which is unable to effectively pressure the government to change its health, housing and welfare policies, will probably not be the one to end the occupation. Those who fail to protect the rights of poor and vulnerable Israeli citizens living inside Israel will probably not be able to save the residents of Bil’in. The weekly protests will continue with us or without us.
But in a place where someone like the peace-loving Abdullah Abu-Rahmah is convicted for “incitement,” perhaps, at the very least, it is fitting to incite others to fight against the occupation. To continue and resist in Bil’in and in other places. To continue and resist on both sides of the wall that bisects Bil’in. To continue and resist in order to maintain an infrastructure of resistance, so that one day, when the political conditions change, when something here changes, it will also change in Bil’in. A place where, at least for now, there is nothing new under the sun.
The IDF Spokesperson issued a response regarding the protest in Bil’in two weeks ago, stating that:
During the illegal and violent riot in Bil’in, west of Ramallah, which included 30 Palestinian rioters who threw stones and acted violently toward our forces, our forces responded with riot-control measures, while approaching the direction of the village, in order to prevent the confrontation from reaching the area near the security fence. The rest of the claims are baseless, the IDF will continue to enforce order and will not allow harm to the security of the region.
Roy Wagner is an Israeli activist who has been attending the demonstrations in Bil’in for the past five years. This article was first published on +972’s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.