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Confrontations and Conversations in Bil'in
by Orit Soudry
EGEND has it that the name Bil’in comes from the Arabic bila-ein, “no spring.” For indeed, this West Bank village lacks a water source of its own. On the other hand, the village is flooded with currents of another kind: the national current in the Fatah movement, the anarchists that come in from Israel, and the members of the International Solidarity Movement. All merge in harmony against the separation barrier.
Lying between Arab Ramallah and Israeli Modiin, Bil’in has become the spearhead in this campaign. The West Bank settlement of Modiin Ilit (aka Kiryat Sefer) was built on 500 dunams (ca. 125 acres) that were taken from Bil’in in 1982. Israel used an old Ottoman law, according to which land that has lain uncultivated for three successive years may be expropriated by the state. This law was used again in 1991, when another 1000 dunams were lifted from Bil’in for a neighborhood in Modiin Ilit.
As originally conceived, the separation barrier would have cut Bil’in off from an additional 2400 dunams. In the matter of a village called Beit Surik, however, Israel’s Supreme Court, on June 30, 2004, forced the government to change the course of the fence. The effect for Bil’in was not great. The new barrier will gobble up 270 dunams while cutting the village off from another 1700 – about half its lands. These will remain west of the fence, with Bil’in on the east. Israel’s government approved this line in February 2005. At the cabinet session, Communications Minister Dalia Itzik of the Labor Party announced with satisfaction: “In the first Sharon government I was the only one who supported the separation fence, and Sharon used to bawl me out. I am happy that now everyone supports it.”
In September 2005 the Popular Committee of Bil’in petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to move the planned line beyond the village lands. No date has been set for discussion. The work continues. A few days after Bil’in presented its petition, in fact, the government approved a plan to expand Modiin Ilit precisely onto the land that the fence will separate from Bil’in. Here 3000 housing units are to be built.
The moment Israel uprooted the first olive tree at Bil’in, the villagers started to demonstrate. In the first two months they protested almost daily. Then they shifted to demonstrating every Friday afternoon, and they were joined by Israelis who came to express solidarity. The Bil’in demonstrations are organized and run by a popular committee. Like similar committees in other Palestinian villages, it stresses nonviolence.
The road to Bil’in
The route from Tel Aviv to Bil’in has two parts. The main one takes about thirty minutes to drive. The second, about 5% of the total, can take many hours. In recent weeks the soldiers have managed to prevent the entry of demonstrators from Israel. The few who succeed in sneaking through are likely to meet the same soldiers later at the demonstration.
On Friday, September 30, I joined a large group of Israeli demonstrators that were delayed several times by an IDF patrol while trying to reach Bil’in. The picture was surrealistic: young people in uniform opposite young people who refuse to don this uniform. The banter that developed between the two groups consisted mostly of mutual put-downs spiced with cynicism, but considering their age, they could have been high school pals who met again, a few years later, on opposite sides of the issue.
The soldier who escorted us back to the bus yelled, “Yeah, yeah. I know. I’m a Nazi, a Fascist, a Capitalist, what else? A War Criminal. See you at The Hague!”
The presence of Israeli demonstrators has a moderating influence on the army’s behavior. The rules for opening fire have been altered. There are fewer rubber bullets and a total ban on live ammunition. All nine of the Bil’in fatalities at the anti-fence demonstrations fell when no Israelis were with them. Of the 1500 villagers, 150 were wounded by rubber bullets and stun grenades. Now the presence of photographers makes the officers think twice. The pictures taken by film director Shai Pollack even altered a court decision, clearing the village head, Abdullah Abu Rahima, of a charge of throwing stones.
What Bil’in learned from Budrus
I met Muhammad Elias Nazal (Abu Elias) during my first visit to Bil’in in July. He represents the Palestinian Authority on the committee that coordinates the activities of the various popular councils. I asked him why the councils adopt the nonviolent approach.
“We are trying to correct the false notion created by the second Intifada. In the eyes of the public, we went from being victims to being attackers. The truth is that we are the occupied and Israel the occupier. The imbalance of forces permits Israel to take as much land as it wants and to enter the villages when it pleases. It’s important to us that the world should receive the correct picture, and it’s important for us to include other forces in our struggle.”
“Who are your partners today?” I asked.
“There are the international volunteers, Women in Black from all over the world, and organizations from within Israel, including the Anarchists against the Fence, Taayush, Gush Shalom, and Rabbis for Human Rights. All take part in the committee to coordinate protest activities. The committee also has representatives from the various Palestinian currents, including Hamas. But we have an agreement that the only flag at the demonstrations will be the flag of Palestine.”
“How did you arrive at this way of working?”
“There were demonstrations against the fence at many villages before Bil’in: Marda, Hares, Shuafat, and Anata in Jerusalem, Beit Likia, Bido and others. But we learned the most from the experience of Budrus, where they used a similar concept: a combination of popular resistance and legal struggle. At first Budrus stood to lose 1300 dunams, but in the end it lost 100. This came as a result of the Supreme Court ruling on Beit Surik, which forced the government to move the route of the fence to a place outside the village.”
The Left turns its focus to the West Bank
As of today nearly all the activity of the radical Left in Israel has turned to the West Bank. Since July 2003, the organization of “Anarchists against the Fence” maintains permanent activity in the villages there. A bus takes them to Bil’in every Friday. All are young. All know each other from previous trips. On September 30, between chase and arrest in the hills around Bil’in, I managed to exchange a few words with my companions.
“What is your role in the demonstrations?”
Kobi Sanitch, active in Anarchists against the Fence: “We help the villages that want to struggle against the fence within the framework of the local committee. Before the demonstration we rent a bus and try to bring in Israeli activists. At first just a few came, but today there are fifty or more each time.”
Adar Graebski, who is in the Anarchists and also in Taayush: “In Bil’in a real partnership has been forged. These are not the co-existence activities of the Oslo Accords, and they aren’t even the sort of humanitarian activities that Taayush did when it started. We accept the rules of behavior established by the council. There is no belittling the key reason for our being here, the fact that our presence in the area forces the army to take less violent measures.”
“Are you fighting against the very fact of the fence or only against its route, as at Budrus?"
Kobi: “This is the phase of the struggle for now. We don’t interfere in the village’s internal politics or its considerations. We’re very sensitive to that. As long as they keep going, so will we. The decision is theirs.”
Eiran Nissim: “I admit that today we are fighting over crumbs, a few patches of land, and not against the Occupation itself. Despite this criticism, I see the struggle against the fence as a popular one, one that fits what matters to the village, and for me it’s important to support it. Generally speaking, in the last three years a very positive thing has happened here. I hope it will develop into more than this, into a true people’s Intifada.
“What’s your view of the disengagement from Gaza?”
Adar: “It’s hard to deal with that unless we take account of what’s happening in the West Bank. Dov Weisglass himself [Sharon’s right-hand advisor – O.S.] said that disengagement was a smokescreen to enable the annexation of the West Bank. It isn’t the first time: during the Oslo period, there was a huge expansion of settlements. Anyway, Israel will enter Gaza whenever it wants, and Gaza is locked on all sides. The Israelis feel good with themselves, because they think that the Occupation is finished. We know otherwise.”
“Is that also the position of the Popular Committee in Bil’in?”
Nir Shilo: “There is a lot of talk about that, that while people’s eyes were turned to Gaza, the West Bank underwent an opposite process of deepening the Occupation. In a demonstration that took place at the time of the disengagement, the Popular Committee put on an exhibit including a big house made of Styrofoam, symbolizing a settlement in Gaza. They showed it passing from Gaza to the West Bank. It was carried by people in Sharon masks. At the time of the disengagement, I would have liked to see the Left put on demonstrations like that in Israel. We should have demonstrated against disengagement also in the streets of Tel Aviv. We should have upset the Israeli consensus a bit, which lamented the destruction of the Third Temple at a time when millions are condemned to live in conditions of poverty and oppression behind fences and walls.”
“Would it be true to say that you’ve disengaged from Israeli society?”
Eiran: “To some extent, yes. Although my viewpoint is still that of an Israeli, I don’t have much in common with Israeli-ness. The fact that everyone’s backing Sharon can explain my distance. With hindsight, this is the result of the Labor Party’s entry into the national-unity government. Most of those who remained leftists have undergone radicalization. They don’t serve in the army, and they don’t believe in Zionism. Those who today go out and demonstrate against the fence are people who previously took part in other kinds of activism, for example against destruction of the environment, against mistreatment of animals, or against globalization. That was our school for clashing with the security forces, where we learned not to fear confrontation and jailing.”
Adar: “We came to the demonstrations out of a sense of urgency. Not just ‘to be there’ on a symbolic level, but to act. We feel it’s our duty, especially when our presence influences the results of the struggle. The unique contribution we can make is to get to the media and balance the distorted picture given by the IDF Spokesperson. There are enormous gaps between her manipulations of the media and our view of the realities on the ground.”
Kobi: “Until recently we put all our energies into building trust between ourselves and the villagers. We come out of nowhere, so it’s legitimate and even natural that trust takes time. It didn’t always work out as it has in Bil’in, where mutual confidence has developed. The criticism that we are forfeiting Israeli public opinion isn’t accurate. It’s a question of priorities. The people of Bil’in, too, told us at first: “Demonstrate in Israel, tell them what’s going on here, so they’ll know what they’re doing to us.” We explained that the effect of the message when it came from the Territories was bigger than any demonstration we might put on. For 38 years there’ve been demonstrations in Israel against the Occupation. The time has come when those who really care should cross the border, both literally and figuratively, and see the other side.”