The joint Palestinian-Israeli demonstration of Thursday 28 April in Bil’in was a most successful one, despite the participants’ feelings of frustration. About 1,000 demonstrators – 700 Palestinians and 300 Israelis, stood in the burning sun and the choking tear gas for long hours and demonstrated together, in a rare display of brotherhood and partnership. Even groups of Israeli left-wing activists who in recent years have become accustomed to participating in joint actions with Palestinians had not seen many cases of mass Palestinian participation and such mutual political understanding. Such understanding, such partnership, and the willingness to express them in popular demonstrations are developments that apparently drive sleep from the eyes of senior members of the political-security establishment who are comfortable with the continuation of the occupation.
It is important also to remember another thing, which was the main reason for the demonstration at Bil’in on Thursday: the fence, which harms the agricultural lands of the residents of Bil’in in order to allow for the expansion of the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox Jewish] settlement of Kiryat Sefer. Bil’in is one of the cases that illustrate most clearly the connection between the route of the fence and the project to expand the settlements, which is at its height, sheltered and assisted by the fence that cuts off Palestinian villages from lands and highways and access roads. With the help of the fence not only are they expropriating lands and creating conditions for future expropriations, but they are also creating “Palestinian-free” zones, the necessary condition for new settlements or, in this case, for a new development in an existing settlement.
The profile of Bil’in was raised in the media by Thursday’s demonstration, after a large number of Palestinian demonstrations with a handful of Israelis were silenced by the indifference of the Israeli media to all that is popular and non-violent (that is, “not interesting” in the eyes of some of the correspondents and most of the editors). Those demonstrations and the many meetings during them and afterwards created the infrastructure of mutual trust that was expressed in such an impressive way on Thursday. Neither were the “security forces” indifferent to the small demonstrations and took pains to break them up with great violence with a double goal: to show the Palestinians that popular protest is pointless and to deter Israelis from solidaric participation in protests there. Thursday’s demonstration proves the ongoing failure of instigators of violence in the political and “security” ranks. The struggle over the fence has a popular and broadly-based character. It is stimulating growing interest within Palestinian society far beyond the fence area and is also attracting Israeli and international solidarity.
This is the backdrop against which can be understood the provocative resistance – to the extent of endangering life – of the “security forces” last Thursday. They decided to create a confrontation at any price, to cause it to deteriorate into violence and to use the demonstrators as guinea pigs for new methods of repression. On the one hand, they allowed the mass of the demonstrators to flow unhindered to the appointed place. For a moment we could have thought that somebody had wised up and decided to let the villagers and their solidaric visitors to express their opposition to the theft of lands and the expansion of the neighbouring settlement. One innocently could have thought that work on the fence would not take place that day in the face of the demonstration. But no. The plan, apparently, was to give the demonstrators substantial access, to allow them to get within sight of the work and there to create a violent confrontation. When the first barrage of gas and “salt bullets” provoked not a violent response, but cries of “this is a non-violent protest! Don’t shoot!” – and after most of the demonstrators returned to organize and did not disperse, more barrages of gas followed, and when those did not work, the time came for the new secret weapon to create violence at demonstrations: provocateurs.
Until the moment when two masked thugs began to throw stones at the uniformed ones, the few attempts of youngsters to gather stones were met with clear shouts from village youths and demonstration organizers. They took pains to calm and turn back every boy who at any point moved to the side and picked up a stone. Because all the adults and even some of the other youngsters were so decisive, there was no stone-throwing. Thus the appearance of two and then three grownups with masked faces attracted attention and they were immediately met with shouts and requests to stop throwing stones. At first people thought that they were residents of another village, as all the residents of Bil’in were demonstrating with their faces exposed, without fear and without shame. When the masked men continued to throw stones despite all the entreaties and the Border Guards resumed firing gas in response, a number of adults approached them and tried to prevent them by force from throwing stones. Then, suddenly, weapons and police hats were produced and some of those who had tried to prevent stone-throwing became detainees accused of “attacking a policeman”.
In the situation that was created only a few people tried to block the way of the armed masked men who had just thrown stones. Not everyone understood that they were police (members of the Prisons Service, as the newspapers reported the next day), but many were alarmed by the weapons and cleared a path for them. Only by a miracle did the effort to rescue those whom they had snatched not produce a mass skirmish. In a slightly stormier demonstration, with people slightly less calm than were the demonstrators of Bil’in that day, it could have ended with gunfire and many killed and wounded.
In the responses of the Prisons Service and the IDF Spokesman it was stated in detail that new methods of repression were being tried. According to all the accepted conventions, experimentation on humans requires very specific authorizations and that very special conditions be met. To all appearances, somebody was so alarmed by the joint demonstration and the possibility of the expansion of popular protest against the fence that he decided to create the conditions, come what may, in which the new methods of repression could be implemented. Up there, on the level of the military command or the political elite, there is someone who is very afraid, to the point of behaving with total irresponsibility. Somebody wants blood to be spilt. The demonstrators against the fences and the theft of lands will not give him what he wants and neither will they stop the legitimate protest. It is he who must be stopped.