“The Internationals,” we were called. A strange amalgamation of foreigners who arrived on one of the hottest days of the year, so far, to protest the existence of the wall at Bil’in, in the West Bank. We were German, American, French, English, Irish, and Canadian. Our presence did two things: we provided cover for the Palestinian protesters, and we drew the attention of the media. The presence of the media offered additional protection to the protesters, although the filming of the soldiers does not always stop violent attacks.
This protest occurs every Friday in Bil’in. At last week’s protest, local Ibrahim Bornat was shot in the thigh. Video of this event can be seen here. Ibrahim’s brother Rani was also shot by an Israeli sniper at another protest eight years ago, and remains paralyzed from the neck down.
Before the protest began, the Internationals were given a short speech about what to expect and how to stay safe. We were advised that the IDF first uses sound grenades, then tear gas, then rubber bullets, and finally, live fire. The most severe of these counter measures are reserved for those who throw stones, so we were advised not to stand between stone throwers and the IDF. We were also asked not to throw stones ourselves because the non-Palestinians in charge of our group strictly believed in non-violent protest. However, it was acknowledged that several young Palestinians stay after the Internationals have gone to throw stones at the soldiers.
Most of these counter measures are employed to keep people away from the fence and the 50 feet and five layers of barbed wire that separate the Israeli military from the unarmed protesters.
It all went as planned. We marched to the wall together, some marching up front to see “the action,” some staying in the back to be safer. When we reached the first layer of the fence, we stopped. Most people had stopped much farther back than this and only a small mixed cluster of Palestinians and Internationals came all the way to the edge. The media took their position on the top of the hill. The protesters chanted and banged rocks against the fence. An ear-piercing squeal was emitted from the IDF that lasted about ten minutes. Some people plugged their ears, some kept banging rocks on the fence.
After this, the first of the sound grenades was launched. They caused only a small boom, comparable to the missiles that fell on Ziqim, but without the explosion. By this time the protesters had opened two of the gates leading to the Israeli side but had not crossed over. They were still 50 feet from the closest Israeli and less than ten from where they’d started. But this was far enough for the IDF. They began, as we were warned, to launch tear gas canisters, which landed unpredictably throughout the landscape. Sometimes only one or two at a time. Sometimes they came down in thick volleys, their smoke trails in the air looking like dancers perfectly in tune to each other.
Everyone tried to avoid the gas clouds as best as they could, except the most die-hard protesters, who stayed behind in the thickest smoke, perhaps immune to its potency after so long.
We retreated slowly, only going far enough to be out of smoke range. But then they would fire more tear gas and we would be pushed still farther away.
After almost everyone had begun the trek back to the village, we stragglers noticed a few fires burning in the olive grove closer to the wall. Someone yelled, “Help me! Help me put them out!” But the IDF was firing tear gas heavily into the area on fire, which made it difficult to get close enough to put the fire out. Not that we had any realistic way of doing this.
We pushed slowly toward the fire anyway, and the soldiers on the other side of the fence yelled in Hebrew, “If you come any closer to the fence, we’ll shoot.” One man yelled back in English, “We’re not! We’re trying to put out the fire!” and followed with a string of obscenities in Arabic. But at that point we couldn’t turn back anyway. The IDF had begun to drop tear gas behind us. We were completely surrounded by white clouds of gas and the gray smoke from the fire was actually a welcome contrast to the stinging of the tear gas.
The fire had a woody smell, like a fireplace, because the olive trees were burning. Somewhere in the distance another fire was burning, this one with thick, black smoke. Nobody knew where or why.
I was one of the last to reach the crest of the hill, over which I could not see the wall anymore. I left behind me only the teenage boys who halfheartedly threw stones and yelled their anger to soldiers who did not respond.
Two days later, as I reflect on this event, I think what was the result? It’s possible that the media presence prevented violence this time, but what about next time? The residents of Bil’in and similar villages live with this every day. They struggle to maintain dignity in the face of near total domination.
Bil’in FFJ says:
The action of the Israeli Army against the whole of Palestinian Society betrays their rhetoric about security as the purpose of their occupation and instead shines light on what seems to be their true aim; the slow removal of the Palestinian people from their land by any means possible. This includes terrorizing the population through forced transfers, economic starvation, house demolitions, unwarranted arrests, and unchecked killing of the civilian population. This ethnic cleansing is cemented as a reality through the Israeli policies of land confiscation, settlement expansion, and the control of water resources which are the true aims of the Apartheid wall and system of occupation.
Bil’in homepage here.