Tel Aviv — Two-and-a-half years after a Supreme Court order, Israel’s army is preparing to adjust the route of the long security barrier it has constructed on the West Bank at a key flashpoint where a fence cuts off Palestinian villagers from their own land.
For five years, the villagers of Bil’in have staged weekly protests against the barrier’s route through their land, together with Israeli and international supporters. The Friday protests against what the residents regard as a land grab by Israel under the guise of shoring up security for Israelis typically attract some 200 to 300 participants — most nonviolent, although some hurl rocks and other projectiles at Israeli soldiers.
The army has routinely declared the gatherings illegal and broken them up using tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. The weekly confrontations, which have attracted increasing international attention and outside supporters, have left one Palestinian dead and scores wounded on both sides. The Israeli army says that more than a hundred soldiers have been hurt, some seriously.
Now, the army’s pledge, disclosed to the Forward on January 26, to finally implement the Supreme Court order may give Palestinians an opportunity to claim a victory for the emergent strategy of “smart resistance,” an approach that — in the wake of Israel’s successful campaign to minimize suicide bombings and terrorism — stresses flexible civil protest tactics aimed at politically selected targets.
A senior Israel Defense Forces source told the Forward that work will start “in the coming month or two” on a new barrier route, one that will reunite Bil’in villagers with their land. The move was not in response to the weekly protests, he said. He attributed the delay the delay in implementing the court order to: “ongoing legal proceedings, the continuing dialog with the [court] petitioners and the planning process.”
Palestinian activists claim that some 56% of the villagers’ farmland is unreachable because of the barrier. An agricultural village of some 1,800 residents about seven miles west of Ramallah, Bil’in is 2.5 miles east of the so-called Green Line that marks where Israel’s boundary was until the 1967 Six Day War. The Palestinian Authority, along with international mediators, including the United States, has called for a peace settlement based on this line, with minor, mutually agreed upon adjustments. But the Israeli barrier, built for security reasons in response to a wave of Palestinian terror attacks in the early 2000s, diverges at numerous points into the West Bank itself, provoking charges of a land grab.
If Palestinian activists now claim victory in Bil’in, it will mark a success for what some of them present as a new approach in Palestinian politics, one also being deployed now in other locales.
In the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, Palestinian, Israeli and international protesters have been demonstrating each Friday for several months against the eviction of Palestinians from homes in which they or their families have lived for many decades. Orthodox nationalist groups, citing disputed Ottoman Era documents, have challenged the Palestinans’ ownership claims, and won court rulings allowing them to move in. Police have routinely broken up the nonviolent demonstrations, declaring them illegal and jailing the demonstrators.
In Bil’in, Mohammad Khatib, secretary of the village council, praised the success of the “experimental” tactic of “nonviolent demonstration” by the “grass roots” — an approach that he said was “changing history.”
Khatib told the Forward that the tactics reflect “civilian people asking for justice and looking for peace.” When those in attendance approach the barrier and try to open a gate, it is a symbolic act of trying to reach villagers’ farmland, he said. He condemned the IDF’s response as heavy-handed and unnecessary.
In April 2009, a Bil’in resident was killed when a tear gas canister launched by the IDF hit his chest. Khatib claims that in the past year, several dozen people have been injured by Israeli forces.
Khatib also denounced a series of IDF raids and arrests — often made at night — in Bil’in homes. There have been 34 such arrests since June. Khatib himself was arrested in August, and held for a fortnight on several charges, including incitement to violence
and throwing stones. He disputes the accusations but remains under investigation.
Abdullah Abu Rahma, a Bil’in resident and activist on the committee that organizes the protests, was arrested December 10 and is still in custody, charged with incitement, stone-throwing and possession of arms, all of which he denied.
In a January 7 letter to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Amnesty International voiced concern that Abu Rama was actually imprisoned for his role in organizing the protests. The letter noted that the arms possession charge against Abu Rama related to his collecting spent M16 bullets and empty sound and gas grenades used by Israeli forces to disperse Bil’in protesters. Abu Rama, the letter noted, exhibited these artifacts in Bil’in’s museum to raise awareness of Israeli practices against the protesters.
The IDF will be the first to dispute any claim of victory by the Bi’lin protesters — and not only because it claims that implementation of the re-routing is unrelated to their protests. The Palestinian claim that the gatherings illustrate a conversion to nonviolent protest is doublespeak, the senior IDF source said, given that every week, stones and metal objects are thrown at soldiers.
He dismissed the widespread use of the word “demonstration” to describe the gatherings, and instead described them as “violent riots that take place on a weekly basis.” Over the past two years, he said, more than 100 soldiers have been injured during the gatherings, including several who have been unable to continue their army service, and one whose eye socket was smashed, causing long-term damage.
“These are not sit-ins with people singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’” he said, insisting that the IDF would permit genuinely nonviolent protests that did not endanger Israeli security.
Organizers of the gatherings admit that objects are thrown. “I will not defend them, but the stones are part of the Palestinian political culture that they used in the first intifada, and it’s difficult to take that from the minds of the people,” Khatib said. He said that the organizers discourage the violence, but that it would be inconsistent for them to stop it with force. “We are using nonviolent methods against the army, so we cannot [physically] stop our colleagues from throwing stones,” he said.
The IDF regards the line drawn by organizers between themselves and those acting violently to be artificial. Officials maintain that the gatherings, complete with violent acts, are carefully orchestrated — and strategized among powerful Palestinians, including figures in the P.A. All the individuals arrested, the IDF claims, are wanted in connection with violent acts.
The army argues that the declared aim of the protests — to pass through the barrier — has involved damaging the barrier, which, as part of Israel’s security infrastructure, the army is bound to protect. This is its justification for declaring the area near the barrier a closed military zone on Fridays and deeming anybody who enters the area to be acting illegally. The senior IDF source said that minimum force is used to protect the barrier and that the troops needed to guard it from those entering the closed military zone.
But some Israeli nongovernment organizations claim that the IDF’s use of force is excessive. Moreover, they say that its conduct reflects a tacit acknowledgment among officers that the gatherings do represent something new in Palestinian society. “The IDF understands that there is a lot of [mileage] in this type of struggle,” said attorney Michael Sfard, who represents the Bil’in village council on behalf of the human rights group Yesh Din. “They want it to stop at almost any price.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org