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Bil'in: (Partial) Triumph in a Political Vacuum
hile the Israeli Occupation hardens and the Fatah/Hamas split deepens, a remote little village near Ramallah has celebrated a victory. This is Bil'in. It went to the Israeli High Court and won a change in the route of the Separation Fence, which gobbled up half the villagers' land. What lies behind this victory? Can we find here, perhaps, a new model for national liberation? On September 8, 2007, I went to Bil'in to meet with the activists and find out.
he 1800 villagers of Bil'in have waged a determined campaign of two and a half years against the Fence, which expropriated 2300 of the 4085 dunams (ca. 1000 acres) belonging to them. Every Friday they went out, men and women, young and old, to confront the army at the building site. They were joined by activists from Anarchists against the Fence and the International Solidarity Movement. Many were arrested, at least a thousand were wounded, and all became acquainted with tear gas. But they kept on going, despite the attempts of the army and collaborators to frighten them, and despite the frustrations that attend a lengthy non-violent campaign.
Now Bil'in celebrates. On September 4, the High Court of Israel determined that the State must change the route of the fence that passes through the village lands. The decision returns 1200 dunams, about half the amount the Fence had taken. Although the pretext had been security, in fact the land was grabbed with the idea of building two settlements on it, called Mattitiyahu East A and B. Mattitiyahu East A has since been built; it consists of 1500 apartment units.
The empty lands of Mattitiyahu East B were returned by the Court to Bil'in. The day after this decision, the question of Mattitiyahu East A came up. Although the 1100 dunams that it occupies belong to the people of Bil'in, the High Court determined that the settlement must be allowed to remain. Justice Miriam Naor wrote in the decision: "Is it for us to take steps whose result will be to destroy what has been illegally built? … My answer is in the negative. Such a sanction would be disproportional under the circumstances. Innocent purchasers will be harmed, some of whom already live in the flats…" (Haaretz September 6). Thus the High Court takes from Bil'in with one hand while giving to it with the other.
Despite the partial nature of the achievement, Ahmad Samara of the Popular Committee against the Fence told Challenge: "Many doubted the effectiveness of our undertaking, but we've shown that you don't need to despair and give up, despite the difficult local and international conditions. We managed to break the fear barrier in confronting the army." This is indeed among the most important achievements of the lengthy Bil'in affair.
Another Popular Committee member, Abdullah Abu Rahma, told us: "Our achievement is better than nothing. The decision has given the village breathing space. We've gotten back half the expropriated lands, including five plots inside the settlement. The confiscation of 58% of our lands, farmland mostly, paralyzed the village's economic life. The High Court has enabled us to enter now, already, the lands that are west of the Fence, until the route is changed. The people of other villages are prevented from doing this. The Fence also kept us from building new homes, and this forced many of the villagers to seriously contemplate the hardest choice of all: to emigrate."
On Friday, three days after the High Court decision, Bassel Mansour, representing the Popular Committee, praised the Israelis and the foreigners who had come to celebrate with the villagers. His speech was published in Haaretz on September 11: "We went to the court of the Occupation not because we believed in it, but in order to prove that the courts are nothing but tools of the Occupation. They are like a soldier who shoots you in the head and kills you, then puts a white bandage around your head in order to seem to be giving first aid. This court proved by its decision how cowardly and unjust it is. We direct your attention here to the fact that our campaign was against the very principle of the Wall and not against its route."
Mansour's words raise questions. There was no need to expose the nature of the High Court, for this is already well known. And if the campaign's goal was to bring down the Fence altogether, as he says, why then was the Court's first decision, on September 4, greeted with such celebration in Bil'in? The Court decided to shift the Fence's route, but even if that happens, the Fence will still be there.
The High Court does not intervene in political or security considerations like those that led to erection of the Fence. It was built because of an Israeli political decision. Its destruction will likewise require a political decision—or, more generally, a change in the political situation. On the Palestinian side, however, there is a political vacuum. That is why the Bil'in villagers needed the Court to step in.
We talked with Hassan Khreisheh, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, on September 13. "The lack of political leadership," he said, "enables everyone to approach the [Israeli] courts independently and demand his rights, although it is known that these courts don't return people's rights."
Abdullah Abu Rahma describes the hard choice that stood before the villagers: "We didn't have many options. We used what there was. Approaching the Israeli court was a weak gamble, but if we hadn't tried it we'd have lost a lot more. We didn't want to boycott the Israeli legal system and then find ourselves with no lands at all. People have lost their faith in the political approach. The settlements are growing, the checkpoints multiply and the Fence advances. What's left for us is either mass demonstration or armed struggle."
Rateb Abu Rahma, likewise a member of the Popular Committee, sums up the situation: "The Palestinian leadership is busy with elections or infighting, and ordinary people are busy looking for a way to make ends meet. This situation has a detrimental influence on their steadfastness and their willingness to fight. As a result, the Occupation kills and oppresses, but there's no one to respond."
"We fought the First Intifada for national liberation," says Ahmed Samara, who is a veteran leftist, "but today our very existence is at stake because they are taking our lands. In the First Intifada, the PLO led the struggle from outside, while the fighters took action in the field. Today we have no fighters, and the politicians are preoccupied with their own narrow interests. The Bil'in Popular Committee avoided accepting the aegis of any political group, because we have no faith in the current leadership. We led the campaign because we are the people who are living here, and we accepted support from the international and Israeli Left."
Hassan Khreisheh comments: "The Bil'in villagers achieved something on their own, because there's a leadership vacuum. The national questions have been pushed to the side as a result of the internal schism. Folks don't see a leadership defending their interests and that's the basic reason why they're doing this. The Palestinian people has become hostage to the Occupation. It has also become hostage to the immoral, unjust internal conflict between the two factions [Fatah and Hamas—AA], which bear equal responsibility for the demise of the national question and the paralysis of the effort against occupation."
From a struggle for the homeland to a struggle for land
he partial success of the Bil'in campaign has inspired calls to copy this mode of struggle to other villages, as a new way of seeking national liberation. Is this possible? Abdullah Abu Rahma answers: "Many hesitate at the prospect of a popular campaign, requiring patience and endurance, at a time when there is no vision in the leadership and no internal unity. We're ready to travel to every village and take part in every endeavor, because we oppose the Fence on principle." But does the Popular Committee propose to become an alternative leadership? Abu Rahma answers: "We're a modest group. We aren't fighting in order to become an alternative. Our purpose is to liberate the land, and this we've achieved by a popular campaign that delivered a clear message to the world. Bil'in has made history."
The mass struggle of the Bil'in villagers, conducted with persistent determination, is indeed an exceptional phenomenon amid the general decline, deserving respect and appreciation. But it is far from offering a new example of struggle for national liberation. The horizon of the campaign, in the end, narrowed to the scope of Israel's High Court, which delivered a decision that perpetuates the Fence and legitimizes a settlement built on private Palestinian land.
The Palestinian political vacuum, and the absence of popular trust in the parties, including the Left, have opened the door to individual actions. This was not the case before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. It was not the case, that is, when the PLO was in control. The PLO did not permit the entry of factors, political or otherwise, who acted outside the general endeavor. It was the PLO, rather, that determined the method and form of struggle. This principle included approaches to the High Court of Israel: these too were coordinated with the political leadership.
Muhammad Abu Rahma, also in the Popular Committee, explains the conflict quite frankly: "After the failure of Hamas and Fatah, people are looking for a new way. Nevertheless, this is not to say that we have a new program. We don't have the strength to work for the entire homeland, so we concentrate on our own misfortune. I have to admit that if the Fence did not cut off my land, I wouldn't have taken part in the demonstrations as often as I did."
A struggle that lacks a political agenda may easily serve the interests of people with agendas of their own. There was, for instance, the visit of the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, to the village's victory celebrations. The members of Bil'in's Popular Committee were invited to an audience with President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) at the Mukataa in Ramallah. Editorialists attempt to enlist the Bil'in achievement in their criticism of Hamas with its military approach. These factors seek to suck the affair into the internal strife between Fatah and Hamas.
At the end of the day, the erection of the Fence was the result of a political decision, and this decision has remained in place. The border that Israel will propose to Abu Mazen, it is generally assumed, will be the Fence. The Bil'in villagers, victims of the political vacuum, chose to save their lands. The members of the village's Popular Committee found in the Anarchists devoted allies, who prefer local, direct action, rather than a broad political strategy. In this respect, these allies held back from challenging, or seeking to replace, the very leaders, Palestinian and Israeli, who have brought the situation to the edge. Popular struggle is important, as is legal struggle, but they will remain very limited in their achievements if they are isolated from an overall political effort. The example of Bil'in can be no substitute for the most important and difficult task of all: the building of an alternative political leadership.