Like every Friday for the last year and seven months, on September 8, 2006, in Bil’in, villagers gathered to organize the weekly protest against the construction of the separation wall on village lands.
The separation wall (or fence) consists of a set of fortifications and barriers constructed by Israel since 2002. The objective is to separate the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria from Israeli population centers. Some 70 demonstrators began walking towards the wall, among them villagers and Israeli and foreign human rights’ activists. Demonstrators held banners in Arabic, Hebrew, and English, and they carried olive branches and Palestinian flags. The protesters included a man in a wheelchair and an Israeli activist on crutches. There was a detachment of Border Guard soldiers facing the demonstrators.
The march progressed up the village’s main street towards the fields. The company commander announced over a microphone, in Arabic and Hebrew, that the area was a closed military zone, but the demonstrators continued to advance.
L., a human rights activist and a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), looked afraid; she was injured in the previous demonstration by a rubber bullet fired by the soldiers. She hesitated, but continued to walk with her hands in the air — like all other demonstrators — towards the soldiers.
ISM activists have rented an apartment in the middle of the village. They have been constantly present during the struggle against the separation wall, and they can calm down both soldiers and the locals.
A tear gas grenade was fired at close range at the demonstrators, who dispersed to the sides of the road to avoid inhaling the smoke. They then returned to the march. The Border Guard soldiers were centered in one row and began to push the demonstrators back using clubs. In a few minutes, several demonstrators were injured by the blows, including Israelis and foreigners. They were taken to the side of the road by other demonstrators and a Red Crescent ambulance was called to evacuate a demonstrator who could not walk. One Israeli activist returned to the middle of the village after he was injured in the hand. After being taken to a hospital in Israel, it was found that his hand had been broken by the clubs.
Hundreds of demonstrators have been injured by clubs in previous demonstrations.
During the protest, no rubber bullets were fired. An Israeli activist, attorney Limor Goldstein, was injured three weeks ago, on August 11, when a rubber bullet him in the head, causing serious neural damage. A resident of the village also suffered a similar injury during the demonstration.
The demonstration lasted about 90 minutes, during which tear gas was fired at protesters, as well as between houses and orchards near the road. The protesters returned to the middle of the village when they were unable to reach the wall.
After the demonstration, several village children threw stones at the Border Guard force, despite attempts by adults to convince them not to do so. The Border Guard force continued to fire tear gas in their direction.
Caroline, a 19-year-old student from Belgium, was walking with the foreign activists in the march. She arrived following growing global awareness of the village after the beginning of demonstrations in February 2005, and she wants to try to understand the conflict. Caroline talks about the great concern for the issue shown by the progressive Jewish movement in Belgium. Caroline was lightly injured due to gas inhalation during the demonstration, but she did not require medical attention.
Adnan, a resident of Belain, talks about the petition filed with the High Court of Justice and about the ruling suspending the construction of buildings in the settlement of Modein Elit, in the Matityahu Mizrah quarter. The High Court of Justice considered the petition filed by the residents of Bil’in against the confiscation of village lands for the construction of the separation wall. Some 60% of the village’s land was confiscated, or 2,300 dunams out of a total of 4,000 owned by the village. Attorney Michael Sfard represents the villagers in the case. The judicial panel that heard the case included Justices Barak, Beinish, and Rivlin.
In the petition Sfard argued that the objective of the land confiscations was not to build the separation wall, but to expand the Modein Elit settlement: “The course of the wall was not determined using security considerations, but for the Modein Elit settlement, which has demanded and continues to demand expansion at the expense of lands to the east,” Sfard said. “The course of the wall, in the section addressed by the petition, is drawn in accordance with the [settlement’s] structural plan—which has not been approved—and part of it falls outside the administrative boundaries of the settlement — that is, not in accordance with topography or the borders of the settlement’s homes, or any borders that could be considered security – related. In fact, a big part of the future wall will pass at the bottom of the hill, which cannot at all be considered a strategically important place.”
Justice Ayala Procaccia ordered a suspension of construction in Bil’in until the ruling on the petition, and the Civil Administration admitted that the construction licenses for Matityahu Mizrah were granted illegal. In addition, the Justice Ministry has admitted that construction on the site aims to expand the Modein Elit settlement.
Over the last 18 months, three petitions have been filed with the High Court of Justice. The first was filed against the current course of the wall, which separates the villagers — most of whom are farmers — from their land. The second contests the legality of the construction of the Matityahu Mizrah quarter in Modein Elit, and the third contests the legality of declaring village lands behind the wall as state lands. On the second petition, the court ruled to suspend construction and the inhabitation of Matityahu Mizrah until the petition was settled. Sfard’s office said that there was nothing to support allegations that the land had been legally purchased from villagers, and no documents had been submitted to prove these allegations, despite repeated requests from Sfard.
The village’s opposition has received widespread global media coverage. The struggle has not continued so long in any other Palestinian village from which land was confiscated for the construction of the wall. For a year and seven months, every Friday a demonstration is organized in the village. The IDF was not prepared to face such a long-lasting resistance. Photographer and director Shai Carmeli Pollack filmed a documentary here entitled “Bil’in, My Love,” currently showing in Israel. It documents the resistance in Belain since its inception.
Some 1,700 people live in Bilin, most of them farmers who plant olives and figs and raise goats. It is a small village with two grocery stores, one school, and one mosque on the main road. The residents speak fluent Hebrew — an indication of their long-standing trade and work ties with Israelis.
Politically and religiously, the village is moderate. No terrorists have come out of the village, and no help has been given to terrorists. This may change, however, if the agriculture land that is their livelihood is not returned.
We return to the middle of the village. Demonstrators take stock of damages and relay their impressions. Nir, the Israeli activist who was injured during the protest, talks about the friendship between Arabs and Jews here; everyone agrees that the one good thing to come out of the wall is this friendship and cooperation. Village children now know Israelis who are not soldiers, and Israelis’ images of Palestinian Arabs have been shaken. They conclude from this that the wall has brought the two peoples together, not separated them. The struggle against the wall is the one ray of hope for Palestinian-Israeli coexistence in this country, a small ray of hope.
Bil’in is one of the few places that has witnessed cooperation and friendship between Muslim Arabs and Jews. It is widely believed among the Israeli public that the separation wall is the only solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but things look different now in Bil’in.