The ten-month settlement moratorium on "new" construction in the West Bank has been described by the Prime Minister as a "painful concession". Luckily for him the agony will cease with the termination of the freeze this coming September. In Bil’in, however, I doubt much will change. The future without the moratorium may not prove to be much more difficult than the past ten months have been under it. The separation wall protecting the illegal settlement of Modi’in Illit and its future extension, Mattiyahu East, sits currently on 60% of Bil’in’s farmland. Freeze or no freeze, every day that the barrier exists represents another day that the farmers of Bil’in have limited access to their land. To my knowledge this painful concession was not expressed in the White House press room.
This past Friday –as every Friday for the past five years- local demonstrators accompanied by Israeli and international peace activists took the one kilometer walk from the center of the village down to the construction area of the separation fence. These people can make a rare claim for activists: they have seen some success. Thanks to the September 4, 2007 court ruling ordering for a rerouting of the wall, the villager’s are supposed to see 40% of their stolen land returned. As of today, however, this has not occurred and as one veteran peace activist told the group in a pre-demo briefing, "This is no solution".
Bil’in has also garnered occasional attention in the news due to the killing of Bassem abu-Rahma last April. After being hit in the chest from close range by an IDF fired tear gas canister, abu-Rahma died on the spot. The army claimed that he was throwing stones thus provoking the soldiers to fire tear gas into the demonstration. This past Monday, however, in the face of overwhelming video footage to the contrary the Military Advocate General ordered the undertaking of a criminal investigation.
Despite the over 800 injuries sustained by the activists I was told that Bil’in is considered "a relatively non-confrontational demonstration site" meaning that the IDF is not as aggressive as in various other West Bank villages. On the other hand, as we journeyed towards the fence, one activist noted the unusually high number of soldiers present.
"How do they determine how many soldiers are necessary on any given day?" I asked.
"I don’t know," the activist responded. "Maybe it depends on how much tear gas they have to spare."
The walk which begins from the home of Abdullah abu-Rahma -who has been held in detention since December 2009 on obscure charges- first weaves around an olive grove and then begins to head down a long hill which bottoms out at a valley just one hundred meters from the slightly elevated steel and barbed wire separation fence. The villagers lead the international activists down the hill while waving Palestinian flags and chanting rhythmic songs of liberation. Many carry signs in remembrance of their deceased or detained compatriots. As the demonstrators approached the bottom of the hill, the IDF soldiers began to spread out around the edge of the fence, weapons drawn. It was less than a minute after the demonstrators approached the area of the fence that the first tear gas canister went whistling through the air. I, naively, was shocked.
No stones. No provocation.
I cannot attest to any soldier firing at any particular individual. Rather the soldiers, now lined around the southwest corner of the horseshoe shaped fence indiscriminately fired innumerable tear gas canisters –flaming projectiles- into the center of the crowd of peaceful protestors. As clouds of gas erupted from the many canisters the crowd began to disperse in various directions, mainly back up the hill. The initial canisters could be sighted early and dodged by the demonstrators fairly easily, but as the amount of gas increased it became quite difficult to see and follow their projectiles. More canisters continued to rain down. The conditions unfortunately favored the IDF today as the wind was blowing from the west carrying the tear gas up the hill in pursuit of the fleeing group of elderly, women, children, and even the disabled. Virtually everyone was tearing profusely from the eyes, coughing and choking while half-running, half-walking their way to safety.
The protest was finished. The army was not.
The hill approaching the fence runs east-west. As the activists continued to flee in an eastward direction I noticed two soldiers to the north side of the fence standing between two trees in the distance firing teargas canisters at the people on the hill who were now hundreds of meters from the fence. The demonstrators still coming up the hill were forced to run through more tear gas in order to escape the range of fire–avoiding the potentially deadly tear gas canisters obviously being the primary objective before avoiding the temporary effects of the tear gas itself. For the soldiers there was no way of knowing who they may or may not hit and if they did happen to hit someone I doubt that they would know. I wondered what could make someone treat human lives like a game –we human beings must have appeared as ants fleeing pesticide.
A number of Palestinian youth stayed in harm’s way in order to remove the canisters from the ground which I was told can sometimes "set the trees on fire and burn the field." These youngsters, sometimes without any cover for their mouth or nose, navigate their way through the smoke in order to remove the still flaming canisters from the ground and toss them to the other side of the fence.
At the ground level by this time the army had opened up the fence and entered the interior hoping to arrest any straggling activists. They have, over the past five years, arrested over 40 Bil’in residents -9 remain in detention today (not to mention Israeli and international activists who usually spend only a night in jail or less). On this particular day the army continued to move towards the base of the hill firing only the occasional tear gas canister but by now most of the demonstrators had made it back to the village and were making sure that all of their friends were accounted for.
The above is just one story of the many Palestinian villages whose future is in jeopardy. I was only a visitor and cannot comment on what it must feel like to be defenseless as your world evaporates. I can only imagine. The regional conflict often takes center stage in media outlets throughout the world- yet few have heard of Bil’in. Few have heard of the nearby Nil’in or Al Masarah. Nobody talks about Beit Ommar or Al Walaje. While Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama take photo ops in Washington and pundits debate on the meaning of the word ‘the’ in UN Resolution 242, these people wonder if they will be here in the future. And while the right wing complains about a settlement freeze and the pain it causes them to endure the wall is being constructed, looming evidence of the scarcity of tomorrow for Bil’in. Every Friday the people of Bil’in stand in the face of these ‘facts on the ground’ demanding for the right of their village and its 1800 inhabitants to exist. They stand in peace, unarmed; yet week in and week out they are attacked with tear gas, sometimes rubber bullets, and sometimes live ammunition. Many have been injured, many arrested, and some even killed. Yet week in and week out they continue to return because the price of failure is too costly.
Painful concessions indeed.