Bilâ€TMin, West Bank; Aug. 19, 2005 – A small farming community amid the stony, rolling hills of the West Bank, spotted with olive groves and sage bushes, Bilâ€™in is a quintessential Palestinian village.
In recent months, it has become a symbol of the impact that Israelâ€™s massive barrier â€“ a network of concrete walls and electronic fences that will stretch some 670 kilometers when all is said and done â€“ is having on Palestinian life in the West Bank.
Likewise, Bilâ€™in has become a symbol of the Palestiniansâ€™ resistance to the expansion and cementing of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank while all eyes are on Gaza.
More than half of Bilâ€™inâ€™s 1000 acres will fall on the Israeli side of the barrier once it is completed. The farmland the barrier separates from the village includes some 20,000 olive trees on about 575 acres, according to accounts from village farmers.
Since construction began in this area in early 2005, more than 500 olive trees have been uprooted, according to Abdullah Abu Rahma, one of the coordinators of the villageâ€™s Popular Committee Against the Wall. On February 20, local farmers chained themselves to the trees, and thus formally began the villageâ€™s struggle against the barrier in Bilâ€™in.
"Since then we have had over 60 demonstrations," Abu Rahma said as he sat in his front yard, surrounded by puppets and placards used at the protests.
â€œWe have used many and varied demonstrations to explain our position in a non-violent way.â€ --Abu Rahma
"We have used many and varied demonstrations to explain our position in a non-violent way," he said.
[PHOTO: Demonstration at Bil'in. Â© Jon Elmer, 2005]
Samed Burnat, an 18-year-old from a Bilâ€™in farming family explained, "Every week we do something different. Last week, it was a huge black snake to symbolize the wall."
"This week," Burnat continued, "people will be wearing a variety of numbers on their chest, each with a different significance of the wallâ€™s impact." For example, the symbolic numerals included: 9, the number of Palestinians killed in popular protests against the wall throughout the West Bank; 158, the number of protestors injured in demonstrations in Bilâ€™in; and 53, the number of gates throughout the entire length of the West Bank barrier that Palestinians expect to have as exit points to access their land once construction is completed.
The demonstrations â€“ particularly the regularly-scheduled Friday afternoon protests â€“ have attracted international and Israeli participants, helping to expand the struggle beyond the community, as well as temper the reaction by the Israeli army.
Still, virtually every week the soldiers use crowd-dispersal methods and make arrests.
"I come every Friday," said Burnat. "Every Friday the soldiers shoot gas, rubber bullets â€“ sometimes real bullets â€“ and every Friday someone gets hurt.
â€œAnywhere the wall is being built and people are struggling against it, I will join them in solidarity.â€ --Barak Meiri
"The wall must fall," he continued. "And when it does, only then will the demonstrations stop."
The soldiers â€“ some dressed in riot gear for possible close-up confrontations, others armed with M-16 assault rifles â€“ use coils of razor wire to literally mark a line in the sand, well into the village, some distance from the construction site. The soldiers, sometimes accompanied by border police, stand behind their coiled, bladed barricade, preventing demonstrators from advancing anywhere near the construction site.
"Every demonstration is roughly the same," Abu Rahma said. "We go to the area of the wall, as close as we can, and sit peacefully on our land. The army declares the area a â€˜closed military zoneâ€™ and begins to fire gas, rubber bullets, sound grenades. And they beat us and arrest us."
Moments before he was carried away in handcuffs by four soldiers at last Fridayâ€™s weekly demonstration, Rabbi Arik Ascherman of the Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights told The NewStandard, "The message here is that you have no right to protest." Aescherman was one of 26 arrests that day â€“ all internationals and Israelis who positioned themselves in front of the Palestinians, for whom the consequences of arrest are significantly more severe.
[PHOTO: Soldiers make an arrest at Bil'in protest. Â© Jon Elmer, 2005]
Barak Meiri, an Israeli solidarity activist from the Galilee told TNS that he has attended "too many demonstrations to count."
Meiri participates in these demonstrations under the banner of Israeli Anarchists Against the Wall. "Anywhere the wall is being built and people are struggling against it, I will join them in solidarity," Meiri said.
â€œThe crux of the issue is where the barrier goes.â€ --David Shearer
Meiri acknowledged that he represents a tiny minority in Israel opposing the barrier, the general idea of which was first proposed by the so-called "peace camp," which in Israel is generally considered left wing.
"Most Israelis donâ€™t know about [the wallâ€™s] impact," he said, "or else they donâ€™t care."
In July 2004, the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, ruled 14-1 that "the construction of the wall being built by Israel, the occupying Power, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, and its associated rÃ©gime, are contrary to international law." The court told the Israeli government that the barrier should be "dismantled," but the decision was non-binding.
Israelis who favor the barrier tend to refer to it as a "fence," but Palestinians consider that term ironic, since where it takes such form â€“ in rural areas such as Bilâ€™in â€“ it is often much more foreboding and problematic than the 8-meter-high concrete wall that is common along the urban stretches. In the areas where the barrier is already completed in the northern West Bank, the fence portions actually consist of two fences; one is electronic, accompanied by a buffer zone of razor-sharp concertina wire, a deep trench and a security patrol road. The whole apparatus can take up as much as one hundred meters of area.
Israel calls the barrier a security necessity, but many have challenged that assessment.
"The wall is a land grab and a political wall which, in its current path, cannot be considered a vital security need," Shabtai Gold, spokesperson for Physicians for Human Rightsâ€“Israel told TNS.
David Shearer, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) called Israelâ€™s security rationale "perplexing."
"We are told that the barrier is for security reasons," he said, "but in places where the barrier extends well into the West Bank, through the middle of peopleâ€™s agricultural land, from a laymanâ€™s perspective the security argument is rather unconvincing."
Shearer said OCHA is not opposed to the barrier, per se. "The crux of the issue is where the barrier goes," he noted. "In this case, well into the West Bank. Inevitably Palestinian land will be on one side of the barrier and the people on the other. That is the problem."
In the case of the segment slated to cut right through Bilâ€™in, the barrier will reach far past the internationally recognized border known as the "Green Line" in order to encompass the expanding Modiâ€™in settlement bloc, placing it, and the surrounding Palestinian farmland, squarely on the western side.
Hania Mohamad Hamadah is a Bilâ€™in village elder who has lived on this land for more than half a century. A short woman in colorful, traditional dress, the deep lines on her tough and weathered skin attest to her years in the sun farming the land. When she speaks, it is clear that she commands the respect of her fellow villagers; her words are emphatic, her gestures pronounced.
She has lost access to her land, she explained, most of which falls on the western side of the barrier currently under construction. Asked how many dunams of land she owned (four dunams make up an acre), Hamadah replied: "We count the size of the land not by dunams, but by the number of days it takes to plough; I own twelve days worth of land," indicating her lot using the measurement preferred by the elder generation.
Working from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., Hamadahâ€™s land comes out to about 48 dunams, or 12 acres, other farmers in the area translated.
"We have tried everything to resist the occupation and nothing has worked. We ask God to do what he can to save us from this catastrophe," she said, invoking the Arabic term "nakba," usually used in reference to the 1948 creation of Israel. The original Nakba resulted in the destruction of more than 400 Palestinian villages and the forced expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians from lands encompassed by the new Jewish state.
Though Hamadah will purportedly be able to reach her land through access gates in the barrier once it is finished, she is unable to farm now because the area under construction is protected by armed security guards and closed-circuit cameras monitored by the Israeli military (IDF), which has declared it and the surrounding farmland a "closed military zone."
Instead of farming, Hamadah has begun to work occasional shifts in her sonâ€™s small grocery store, amid sparsely-stocked shelves.
"What can I do? What is left for me?" she asked.
Israel â€“ in response to criticism about the placement of the barrier - has said that farmers will be allowed access to the land through gates in the structure. Still, representatives of OCHA who meet "regularly" with the IDF, are worried that irregular access times and insufficient allotments of time for farmers to access their land threaten agricultural communities such as Bilâ€™in.
[PHOTO: Wall construction in Bil'in. Â© Jon Elmer, 2005]
"We are concerned that people will not be able to access their land, and their agriculture," Shearer said. "In many cases, the barrier will divide peopleâ€™s land in two â€“ with village on one side and their land on the other side. Our experience in the northern West Bank [where the barrier is completed] is that it has become very difficult for Palestinians to gain access to their lands that fall on the other side of the barrier. There are gates, but they are only open during certain times, and for set periods," Shearer said, "making it difficult to farm the land."
As well, the gates do not correspond to the existing roads and paths, meaning that people often have to travel long distances, traversing other peopleâ€™s land, in order to get access to their own fields, Shearer said.
"As a consequence, people are not farming as much land, and have moved away from high-intensity, high-value crops to more low-intensity and low-value farming â€“ the pattern of which will contribute to the impoverishment of the area," he said.
Another elderly farmer from Bilâ€™in, when asked about her land, threw her hands in the air with a hapless smile: "What can I say? It is all gone!" the woman said.
"No Jews and no Palestinians will take this land with them when they die," Hamadah said, emphatically wiping her hands together in a common Palestinian gesture indicating, "it is finished."