Twilight Zone, Fighting the Fence

These were not rubber bullets. You don’t have to be a ballistics expert to know that bullets that slice through a car, enter its flank, penetrate the upholstery and exit via the door are not rubber bullets. This is the red and white Ford Transit with which the driver, Nidal Rian, tried to evacuate a demonstrator, Mohammed Rian, who lay dying on the floor of the vehicle after being shot in the back during the demonstration on February 26. The vehicle is riddled with bullet holes. At least three in the chassis; the front and back windshields are shattered, as are the lights; the tires have already been changed.

The driver, Nidal, still stunned by the events, recalls that the soldiers (or Border Policemen) fired at him while he was trying to evacuate his relative, Mohammed. Because the troops did not allow an ambulance to approach the scene, Nidal had to evacuate the wounded man himself. The soldiers also threw a smoke grenade at the Transit, as witnessed by burn marks on the front seat. Nidal says he lost consciousness because of the smoke. Mohammed was apparently killed by a live bullet, exactly like the one that hit Zakhriya Eid, from the neighboring village – but what difference would it make even if it had been a rubber-coated metal bullet?

The demonstration against the building of the fence on village land included stone throwing at soldiers and policemen. It ended with two villagers shot dead. A third, Abed Ibrahim Salem, about 60, died either of gas inhalation or a heart attack. A young man, Mohammed Badwan, 22, was wounded and is clinically dead. And several dozen more people were wounded moderately or lightly, among them 75-year-old Mohammed Hamidan, who lost an eye.

Channel 10 News showed snipers on rooftops, and an eye-witness, Yonatan Pollack, said he saw them shooting at the demonstrators, but the commander of the Jerusalem District Police, Mickey Levy, did not hesitate to go on television the next day and say that maybe the whole thing was a “hamulot [clans] feud.” This is how the Israel Defense Forces, the Border Police and the Israel Police disperse demonstrations, and this is how their chiefs scatter falsehoods.

Maybe the dead committed suicide? I suggested to an IDF officer who had beenpresent at the demonstration. “Improbable,” he replied.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Office, in reply to a question about the events and especially about the live fire aimed at the evacuating vehicle, replied: “The event is being investigated by the Israel Police and by the IDF.”

The village of Biddu and its two satellite hamlets, Beit Ijza and Beit Duqu, three relatively tranquil sites during the present intifada, lie northwest of Jerusalem, not far from the 1967 Green Line, and overlook Highway 443 (Jerusalem-Modi’in), which their residents are forbidden to use. They are now trying to prevent their confinement from all sides and the plunder of their land by the separation fence project.

The High Court of Justice this week ordered the building of the fence in the area to be halted for a week. Thirty residents of the upscale community of Mevasseret Zion – a truly impressive number – joined the petition to the court that was presented by their Palestinian neighbors. “Why not build the fence on our land?” one of the residents said on television. The villagers issued a statement in Hebrew addressed to all their settler neighbors in Givat Ze’ev and Har Adar: “Peace will come only if you let us live in dignity as you live. Our blood is no different from yours.”

Carrying flags, they stood on the land into which the blood of their friends had seeped three days earlier. They chanted rhythmically, facing the valley that is going to be taken from them, with its vineyards and olive groves. “With fire and blood we will redeem the land.” A Transit bearing the logo of the Maccabi Haifa soccer team was parked by the side. Far below, an IDF armored Jeep viewed the event quietly. The bulldozers left last Thursday, after the fatal demonstration. “Slaves in the 21st century behind the apartheid wall,” one of the signs read.

A few dozen men calling to the world with parched throats. Suddenly an important announcement: The High Court has decided that work on the fence should be stopped for a week. They can go home. The protest is postponed. Descending from the hill, they aren’t sure whether to be happy – have they won or just gained a week? – and return to their daily routine in the three villages. The signs of shock from the previous demonstration, when they lost three of their friends, are clearly visible on their faces. A young olive grove, about 20 years old, in the meantime remains alive. If their protest fails, it will be overridden by a fence.

The battlefield is strewn with empty gas canisters, manufactured in Jamestown, Pennsylvania. Where Eid and Rian fell, the villagers have set up a transparent pyramid as a memorial – rather like the pyramid outside the Louvre, though smaller, of course.

A Border Police Jeep stands by the fence of the Givon Hahadasha (New Givon) settlement – whose red-tile roofs abut the homes of Beit Ijza, the village of Zakhriya Eid, who was killed in the demonstration – and observes what is going on in the village. The Border Police see everything here.

In a large courtyard, between the pen and the chicken coop, and in the shadow of the bulldozer’s shovel, they are mourning Zakhriya Eid. The plastic chairs that go from event to event in the village, from joyous occasions to tragic ones, are now here. Yehiya, the 4-year-old orphan, asks for a shekel to buy ice cream. His uncle – the brother of his dead father – says he can have anything he wants, but not ice cream: Yesterday he ate four cones and caught a cold. A photograph of Yehiya and his little sister, Saja, looking at their father’s body, which was published in the East Jerusalem daily Al-Quds, is passed from hand to hand. It was the first time they had been written about in a paper. Yehiya said his father was asleep.

Zakhriya Eid, who was 29 at the time of his death, worked as a radio and television repairman, and previously worked in Israel and in the family vineyards. During the demonstration, his older brother, Waji, the principal of the boys’ high school in Biddu, stood on the opposite hill with his students. There were no classes that day, because of the demonstration. The previous evening, the two brothers had met, as they were wont to do daily, at their parents’ home. New Givon took about 50 dunams (12.5 acres) of land from the family. The separation fence will deprive the village of about 2,500 dunams (625 acres), including the family’s land. Some of the land will be used for construction of the barrier, but most of it will remain on the other side of the fence.

Zakhriya talked a lot about the fence. In the past two months, since plans for the barrier were revealed, it has been almost the sole subject of conversation here. From the hilltop on which he was standing, Waji saw that some of the demonstrators had been wounded, but he didn’t imagine that his brother was one of them. Half an hour later his wife called him on his mobile phone to tell him that Zakhriya was wounded. By the time he reached the clinic, his brother was already dead. A bullet had slammed into his heart.

The bereaved brother: “I want to say a word to the Israelis. We want to live in peace with you. We don’t want war, but we don’t want you to kill our children or steal our land. If someone were to steal your home, your money, your land or whatever makes it possible for you to live, you would not remain silent. We will not forgive what has happened to us – I say that with regret: We will not forgive. Maybe the name of the soldier doesn’t interest me, but what does interest me is the person who tells him to kill.

“Ariel Sharon is not killing one Jew – he is killing a great many Jews. Arabs have parents and they have children and each of them has a heart, just like the Jews. Our heart is not a rock; it is a human heart, which loves its children and loves its land. It’s important for the Jews to know this. To know what Sharon is doing to them. He is not bringing peace closer, he is bringing war closer. Maybe you will make a note of this. Let the soldier sit with himself and think about what he did. Let him ask himself whether Zakhriya threw stones and whether those stones kill people. No. But his bullet does kill human beings. Let him sit at night and take stock of himself and of what he did. Not only the soldier who killed. All the soldiers. They should know that not everything they hear is right. They see what the government wants them to see. They don’t see what is really going on. This fence will not bring security.”

Waji Eid speaks in a whisper, his eyes downcast. Just three days ago he lost his brother. A youngster comes in: They’ve started building the fence at A-Tira. We have to arouse the young people there.

Vineyards wind their way across stepped terraces, the kind hewn by hand, on the way that ascends from Beit Ijza to Beit Duqu, a neat hamlet five minutes away by car. Mohammed Rian was 25 at the time of his death and father of a daughter, Bisan, age 3. He had been studying education at Al-Quds University, but in the past year had to abandon his studies because of the dire economic situation. He wanted to be a teacher, but was forced to become a laborer.

His brother, Yassin, like the other bereaved brother, Waji, also speaks softly, his eyes lowered, staring at the floor. The modest family compound consists of a series of lovely stone houses. The two brothers parted last Thursday. Mohammed didn’t tell Yassin that he was going to participate in the demonstration. The bullet struck him in the back. His brother said he was delayed for half an hour at the entrance to the village by soldiers, who opened fire at the Transit; Mohammed died on the way to the hospital in Ramallah.

Yassin: “At 7 A.M. there was already a police helicopter above. Then came the undercover units and the special forces, policemen on horseback with dogs that were tied up, more than 100 soldiers. They planned it all, not us.”

Assad Rian, a cousin, works in the office of Abu Mazen, the former Palestinian prime minister. “He was a simple man,” he says of Mohammed Rian. “He didn’t talk about the fence. The fence came to us. When he heard there was a demonstration, he went. Like everyone in the village. All he wanted was to be on the land. I want to tell you something: Eleven villages here didn’t do a thing. Not one shot was fired at the settlers, no one here was arrested, no demonstrations, a quiet region. And then they came and destroyed the road to the village and made us go through Nebi Samwil, where a soldier decides according to his mood whether to let us pass or not. Still, the area continued to do nothing. Now they have started up with us with the gate. The village has nothing left except for the houses. All the land is on the other side of the fence. We told the local settlers: We are your neighbors, who lived with you in peace; come stand with us against the disaster that is coming closer every day. If you have time to stand with us, then that is well and good, and if not, that’s a pity. You can tell that to the settlers. We are in favor of peace. The residents of Har Adar and Nataf say they will demonstrate with us against the occupation forces, and we thank them very much.”

Assad takes a piece of paper out of his pocket: the letter to the settlers in the area, written in Hebrew, with spelling mistakes: “During the whole period of the intifada we sat quietly … We maintained good neighborly relations and a relationship for the benefit of both sides without causing any entanglement or damage. Now we and you are at the beginning of a very difficult period, which was forced on us by your government, because of the new wave of expropriations and the intention to build the racist separation fence. We see this as a barbaric, aggressive act that will wreck the neighborly relations and destroy the relations that exist between us. The Israeli government bears the responsibility for everything that will happen after Black Thursday. We warn against the coming disaster that is being planned by the Israeli government and the occupation forces during the construction of the racist separation fence. We will not abandon our homes and our land, and we will fight the occupation forces at all times and with all means.

“We appeal to you as neighbors and call on you not to stand idly by – because the writing is on the wall. So, please move close and stand on the side of common sense and logic, and intervene to prevent your government and your occupation forces from committing more crimes. We call on you again, because the nice cat will not remain quiet as long as the occupier tortures it. Raise the voice of reason, the voice of logic, above the sound of the bullets and the sound of the oppression …”

Yassin, the bereaved brother: “It’s not just that we are eight siblings who lost a brother. After all, the demonstration did not endanger the soldiers’ lives, but hatred dictated to the soldier to shoot and kill. Every drop of blood that flowed out of my brother is a shame to the soldiers and the country, because this was a demonstration by civilians.”

Outside, next to the bullet-pocked Transit, is another Palestinian Transit, which brought a group of women in black, arriving to offer condolences. “Sharon will bring peace and security,” says a sticker on the front windshield, beneath another sticker bearing a drawing of an eagle.

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