Thursday, April 15, 2004

Israel-Palestine, Media, Picking their battles ["The Fence War" in the Hebrew original]* 15/04/04

It's called 'the separation fence intifada' - an unarmed civil protest - but hundreds of Palestinians are getting hurt, and so are their Israeli supporters. ["The struggle against the route of the fence takes a new form: 'passive [nonviolent] civilian resistance' documented by video, with the participation of Palestinian women, old persons and children, reinforced by Israeli peace activists*. In spite of that, even these demonstrations are always ended with massive fire of the IDF [Israeli army] - from time to time in contradiction to the official instructions, and with already hundreds of wounded. The demonstrators are sure that the first Israeli [demonstrator] to be killed is going to happen soon." [The summary of the Hebrew original - I.S.]

It's become an almost daily routine. Every morning the residents of villages located on the planned route of the separation fence - from Elkana in Samaria to the outskirts of Jerusalem - wake up to the harsh metallic noise of the bulldozers. In the early morning hours the heavy machinery rumbles into the area, surrounded by security guards and army and Border Police troops. The villagers go out to their land in full force: men and women, young and old alike. They position themselves opposite the soldiers, wave flags, sing and try to get to the giant machines or sit down on the ground in an attempt to block them. And then what? Only God knows. Some speak of December 26, 2003 as the turning point. That was the day on which an Israeli demonstrating against the fence, Gil Na'amati, was shot and wounded by Israeli soldiers at the village of Maskha, in Samaria. "What happened at Mes'ha, and the noise it created, shook up the Palestinians," says an Israeli who took part in some demonstrations. "They understood that they had to organize for a struggle against the fence and that the struggle could have an impact." Some of the interviewees term this uprising, which involves a civilian population of all ages, the "intifada of the fence," as distinct from the more familiar one of the terrorist organizations, the attacks and the armed fighters.

The Palestinian Authority has played a very small role in the events of the past few weeks. Although it was the PA that encouraged the Palestinians to protest against the fence while the international court at The Hague was discussing its legality in February, the current uprising started from below.

In some of the events, the Palestinian demonstrators are bolstered by Israelis, ranging in number from a few individuals to dozens, mainly from the Anarchists Against the Wall group, and by international peace activists. When the latter take part, they also document the events on video. It's clear, after watching hours of this footage, that the Palestinians may be reverting to the protest method of the first intifada, but the Israel Defense Forces is moving forward. Stun grenades and tear gas are often hurled at groups of elderly women or at high-school girls, and it is common to see civilians fleeing for their lives from rubber-coated steel bullets. In one case - the exception, as far as is known - soldiers used live fire against demonstrators, killing three residents of the village of Biddu, near Jerusalem; one of those killed was a boy of 11.

"There was a hitch at Bidu, a loss of control," admits a senior IDF officer. However, there are no reports of anyone having been brought to justice for the fact that three people paid with their lives for that "loss of control."

Legitimate struggle

What underlies this new, popular style of struggle, waged without the use of firearms? According to Ayid Murar, from Budrus - a village near Ben Shemen, where the route of the fence was moved toward the 1967 Green Line in the wake of the residents' protests and diplomatic pressure - the Palestinians have good reason to stick to a civil struggle.

"Our struggle is not against Jews and not against Israelis and not even against soldiers - it is against the occupation," he says. "We don't want people on either side to be killed. The occupation is a big problem, and the Palestinians can't cope with it alone. They need the help of the Arab states, of the world's governments, and in order to get it they have to adopt a method of struggle that has legitimacy in the eyes of the world. We already feel an increase in support and interest from all over the world about what is happening here. Once we were a marginal phenomenon even in the Arab press, but now we are back in the headlines."

Murar and his brother, Naim, a former employee of the Palestinian Interior Ministry, have for years maintained close ties with Israeli peace activists. They are a salient example of a new class of local leaders who are taking key positions in the forefront of the current struggle. Israel, though, looks askance at such activity. At the beginning of January the two brothers were arrested within a few days by the Shin Bet security service, on the grounds that "the intelligence material attributes terror-supporting activity to them." However, the military justice system itself rejected this. The military court at Ofer Camp released Ayid within a few days, stating: "It is out of the question for the military commander to use his authority to order a person's administrative detention [arrest without trial] only because of his activity against the fence. This is a mistaken decision that does not stem from security considerations." A month later, the military court at the Ketziot detention camp released Naim, stating that the military prosecution and the Shin Bet had misled the court by claiming he had been involved in terrorist activity and adding that protest activity against the fence does not constitute a cause for arrest.

Even though it is only at Budrus that the protests have succeeded in getting the route of the fence changed, Ayid Murar is convinced that this is the right path to follow: "We have to bring the entire Palestinian people into the struggle against the occupation - women, children, the aged - and they cannot take part in a violent struggle," he says. "But they can take part in this kind of struggle, which also contributes to the unity of our nation. We also know that a nonviolent struggle puts more pressure on the Israelis. When you have armed individuals and shooting, one Jeep with soldiers can deal with it. When the army has to deal with civilians, it has to bring in a far larger number of soldiers. After all, they can't open fire at them freely, or at least I hope not."


Ghassan Andoni from Beit Sahour, south of Jerusalem, is one of the founders of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the organization of volunteers that promotes nonviolent protest and seeks to internationalize the struggle against the occupation. His ideas have been gaining popularity.

"I don't agree with the view that the nonviolent protest has begun only now. It has actually existed since December 2000 and has taken the form, for example, of dismantling roadblocks by hand. However, it's true that it is now far more widespread," he says. "I'm glad it's happening, but it is still too passive, too much based on reactions. The villagers go out to protest only when the bulldozers show up and not as part of an overall perception of struggle against the occupation. The struggle should be comprehensive and not stop until the fence falls. The real test will be if every village will continue to be part of the struggle even after the fence is built. Until that happens, I can't say it is a success."

One of the leading activists in the village of Hirbata is Aziz Armani, 34, who after years of working in Israel speaks fluent Hebrew. In reaction to the contention that the current struggle has not recorded any impressive achievements, he says it has had "success here and there, though not a great success that we could flaunt. We are facing a tremendous force, while we are helpless and have nothing. Still, the main thing is that we feel we are doing something - if not for ourselves then for the coming generations. Even if we are able to get the fence moved two meters and save a few meters of our land, that will be something. I think that this struggle is giving us a great deal of strength. It doesn't belong to any organization, not to Hamas or to Fatah and not to the leadership of the PA; it belongs to the people. Each village has a council that is responsible and is scrupulous in ensuring that the demonstrations do not turn violent. We are not fighting the citizens who live in Tel Aviv - we are fighting the bulldozers."

Israelis vs. the fence

One of the major features of the struggle in its new form is the cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. At every opportunity, the Palestinians make it clear that they are interested in furthering such cooperation because of their desire to influence public opinion in Israel, and more especially because the presence of Israelis, they hope, moderates the reactions of the soldiers. One of the Israeli activists explains that the reverse is also true: The presence of Israelis also moderates the Palestinian side.

"Our presence makes an important contribution to nonviolence," the activist says. "We push in this direction during the coordination that takes place before the demonstrations. It's true that if someone throws a stone we don't stop to preach to him, but there is always someone who will do it for us. Right away they tell him to stop. There's a feeling that they want to uphold their promise to us and not endanger us."

The IDF views the involvement of Israelis in a different light. The IDF Spokesperson's Office told Haaretz Magazine: "Unfortunately a handful of Israeli activists and foreigners who create provocations act as agitators and turn the demonstrations into violent disturbances."

One evening during the intermediate days of Pesach, I got a phone call from Yonatan Pollak, who sounded distraught. Pollak, 21, the son of the highly regarded actor Yossi Pollak, is considered the Israeli leader of the struggle against the fence (though as an anarchist, he disowns that description). Tall, charismatic, confident of his path, Pollak, despite his young age, has participated in numerous protest activities and does to the soldiers - who encounter him on an almost daily basis - what a red flag does to a bull.

"I called because within a few days there were two incidents in which Israeli demonstrators were almost killed - Itai Levinsky and me," Pollak said. "I called because if anything can stop the deterioration, it's publicity in the media. Let's leave the political aspect aside for the moment and talk about what's happening on the ground almost every day. There is a gradual but relentless escalation on the part of the army toward civilians taking part in demonstrations, which fundamentally are nonviolent. I spend a lot of time in the territories, and I've seen how riots and demonstrations are suppressed plenty of times, but what's happening here is something new. The feeling is that there are no procedures. They fire rubber bullets and throw tear gas freely, and they fire at the feet and at the head.

"Three Palestinians were already killed, at Biddu, and the day when an Israeli will be killed is approaching, too. If course, it's not worse for an Israeli to be killed than for a Palestinian, but it illustrates the escalation of the use of force. At every demonstration I talk to the soldiers via a megaphone and tell them that this is a quiet demonstration of Palestinians, Israelis and internationals - and the bullets whistle past my ears. At first we thought the cameras would deter them, then we thought the presence of Israelis would be a deterrent, but now there is nothing that deters the soldiers. I tell you: Someone is going to die out there."

Maybe it's time to stay home for a while?

Pollak: "I am a political person and I go to demonstrate. It's inconceivable that the state's response should be that I have to sit at home. Even if the army is convinced that what we are doing is a provocation - though from my point of view, of course, the provocation is the building of the fence on Palestinian land - in a democracy you can create provocations without being shot at."

Are you afraid?

"Very much. That's why I'm talking to you. But that doesn't mean we are going to stop the demonstrations. We will continue, but I don't think that's a reason for any of us to die."

Yonatan's older brother. Shai Carmeli-Pollak, a television director, has been filming the demonstrations against the fence and some of the footage documents a dramatic event in which Yonatan was the principal protagonist - the event he was referring to when he said his life was in mortal danger.

The event took place on March 29, at Bitunia, adjacent to Ramallah. Soldiers and demonstrators met on a dirt road at the entrance to the village. An army Jeep tried to move forward and a group of demonstrators, with Pollak among them, attempted to block its progress. The driver, however, accelerated and moved forward. Two of the demonstrators managed to jump aside, but Pollak, who was in the center, found himself on the hood of the Jeep.

The presence of the "hitchhiker" didn't perturb the soldiers. The Jeep kept going and even speeded up. For 50 long seconds - all of them documented on the video - the Jeep drove along with Pollak draped over the hood, grabbing at whatever he could find and holding on for dear life. A viewing of the film suggests that the vehicle was traveling between 30 and 60 kilometers an hour. It went a few dozen meters, did a U-turn and then returned to its starting point, where it slowed down, and Pollak was able to jump off.

Is driving a Jeep with a demonstrator straddling the hood - and an Israeli, at that - part of the IDF procedure for dispersing demonstrations? A senior officer says in response that "we view this event as a hitch, a serious departure. The event was investigated and the driver is being dealt with by Central Command and will face trial."

Bullet in the eye

Itai Levinsky says that he will return to the struggle after he recovers. It was Levinsky who, last December 26, saved the life of Gil Na'amati after Na'amati was shot by an IDF sniper near Maskha. While the soldiers ignored the demonstrators' pleas to summon an ambulance, Levinsky organized a quick evacuation of the bleeding Na'amati in a Palestinian car, and at the checkpoint an Israeli ambulance joined them. Na'amati lost a great deal of blood and arrived at the hospital in serious condition. The doctors told his father, Uri, the head of Eshkol Regional Council, that if the evacuation had been delayed they would probably not have been able to save his son's life.

Almost three months later, on March 12, it was Levinsky who ended up in hospital. "I went to demonstrate at Hirbata," he recalls. "The army's reaction was violent to the extreme this time. They simply fired rubber bullets like crazy, even though most of the people quickly lay down on the ground among the rocks. Naturally, when you're lying down, there's no difference whether they fire at your head or your legs, because it's all at the same height. I was standing in front and talking to the soldiers via the megaphone, to make them understand that there were Israelis there, too, which sometimes makes them calm down a little. It's scary, but what can you do?"

This time, though, the megaphone and the Hebrew weren't an insurance policy. Levinsky took a rubber bullet between his nose and his left eye.

"Suddenly I felt terrible pains around the eye and nose," he says. "My eye was injured, but luckily wasn't blown up, and the left side of my nose was completely shattered. I lay on the ground but was in total focus. A Red Crescent ambulance took me to the checkpoint, and from there I got to Tel Hashomer [Sheba Medical Center]. I was hospitalized for 10 days and had an operation on my nose, and because my vision is still pretty much of a mess I'll need eye surgery, too. The truth is that I was really lucky, because a rubber bullet that enters the eye can reach the brain. It's total chance that I'm alive. For both me and Gili it's pure luck that we weren't killed."

Film shot at the Hirbata demonstration - though the actual instant when Levinsky was wounded was not photographed - reinforces his version of events. The soldiers fire massively at dozens of people who are lying on the ground and seeking shelter amid the rocks.

"At about 6 A.M., as soon as the bulldozers started working, the villagers started to demonstrate," relates Raz Avni, 23, a former kibbutznik who now lives in Tel Aviv. "We were about six Israelis that day. The soldiers were standing in a row across from the demonstrators and there was a lot of cursing, pushing and punching, and then the soldiers suddenly pulled back quickly, turned around and started firing rubber bullets. I was next to Itai. He said through the megaphone, `This is not a violent demonstration. Don't shoot.' Suddenly he shouted. I looked at him - he was lying on the ground and his eye was bleeding. I called the Red Crescent medics, who come to every demonstration. It took them a few minutes to reach us, because the shooting continued. They put a dressing on his eye and evacuated him to the ambulance on a stretcher."

Levinsky, 20, grew up in Ramat Efal and Holon and now lives in the lower-class Hatikva neighborhood in South Tel Aviv. He did not do army service. Until recently he worked in construction. He plans to go back to the demonstrations as soon as his health permits. One day during Pesach, Uri and Gil Na'amati - whose shattered knee is still in the rehabilitation process - drove from their home in the south of the country to visit Gil's rescuer, who was afterward wounded himself.

"What is left to say?" Uri Na'amati summed up. "It's heartbreaking."


As in every quarrel, here, too, the dispute revolves around the question of who started it. How does happen that demonstrations whose organizers term them nonviolent evolve into events with dozens of wounded, mainly from massive use of rubber bullets? A senior IDF officer finds it difficult to accept the pastoral descriptions of a nonviolent intifada: "I don't know of any quiet demonstration where the people stood and sang, but which ended with rubber bullets fired by us," he says. "We have set ourselves a clear line that distinguishes a demonstration from a disturbance: The moment an attempt is made to attack equipment or soldiers, it's a disturbance, and then our response ratchets up. The mission as defined for us by the political echelon is to enable construction of the fence, and as fast as possible, and if a bulldozer is burned every day the fence won't get built. The instructions to the forces in the field are clear: The first means they are allowed to use is stun grenades and tear gas. If that doesn't help, we recommend that the instigators be arrested and that a complaint against them be filed with the police, because that often disperses things. Only if we have gone through that procedure, and the soldiers are on the receiving end of stones - and from our point of view stones are a mortal danger - the next level is to fire rubber [bullets], with the authorization of a battalion commander at least, and the firing has to be aimed at someone specific, a chief instigator who we didn't succeed in arresting."

The films shot at many demonstrations show that there is a large gap between these instructions and their application in the field. Time after time the camera records massive firing by many soldiers at the same time in the general direction of demonstrators, who are sometimes dozens or hundreds of meters away. One thing is certain: The firing is not aimed at a lone "instigator." As for the stone throwing, it's difficult to decide which comes first: the stones or the rubber bullets. The impression is that things change from village to village and from event to event.

"In some cases two or three children throw stones from a distance of 100 meters, and it's obvious that this is symbolic and can't hurt anyone," says Dr. Kobi Snitz, who teaches mathematics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and has taken part in a number of demonstrations. "Sometimes three hours of an encounter go by without one stone being thrown, and then suddenly the soldiers lose it - they're standing out in the sun for hours, you know - and they start throwing stun and tear-gas grenades, and then all hell breaks loose. [Some] villages have a committee that tries to keep the children under control, but it's hard."

Snitz says the escalation is the result of deliberate policy - if not at the political level, then at least at the decision-making level in the army: "There are now demonstrations of hundreds and thousands of people every day. Whoever takes 10 soldiers to a site like that tells them, `No matter what happens, [demonstrators] don't get close to the bulldozers,' knows what the result will be."

What do you expect the soldiers to do - let the bulldozers be torched?

Snitz: "A properly run state understands that when there is resistance at a certain level to policy, either it heightens the violence and crushes the resistance or it sits and listens. Naturally, I think the soldiers should refuse to do what they are doing, but beyond that, every major in the field can [inform his superiors] via radio - when he's facing this number of people - that the mission he has been given is impossible to execute unless they want the whole thing to blow up. The problem is that he then ruins his chances of promotion. I often talk to the soldiers in the field and many of them say that they're there because `I have no choice,' or `What do you want me to do,' or `I know there's something wrong, but what can I do?' When senior officers describe serious events as `hitches,' they are effectively transferring responsibility to the individual soldier."

Legal battles

In the past few weeks the "intifada of the fence" has also been keeping the High Court of Justice busy. As part of the effort to play the game according to the rules of Israeli democracy, a number of villages have filed petitions to the court against the route of the fence. Most of the cases are still pending. The lawyer in the majority of the petitions is Mohammed Dahla, an Israeli citizen whose office is located in East Jerusalem.

Dahla sums up the results of the legal battle to date: "Roughly speaking, I can say that in more than 70 percent of the routes with respect to which petitions have been filed to the High Court, interim injunctions have been issued prohibiting the continuation of the work. In another 15 percent the court allowed the state to work without limitations, though noting that if the petition is accepted the state will have to restore the status quo ante and compensate residents. And in the other 15 percent of the cases, the court allowed irreversible work to be carried out."

In some cases Dahla filed the petition together with Palestinian villages and Jews from nearby communities who support the moving of the fence from the villagers' farmlands to inside the Green Line. In one such case, a joint petition was filed by residents of Beit Suriq, a village situated across a ridge from the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion, and by 30 residents of the suburb. A far larger number of residents of Mevasseret Zion, more than 600, signed a petition supporting the moving of the fence inside the Green Line, and 50 of them joined the residents of Beit Suriq in a demonstration.

An interesting development in this case occurred when the petitioners added the names of several retired IDF generals from the Council for Peace and Security, among them Assaf Hefetz, Avraham Adan, Shaul Givoli and others, who have recently visited various parts of the fence route and reject the defense establishment's claim that the route was established with security considerations in mind. This connection between a group of security-conscious veterans and Palestinian villagers is little short of surrealistic against the backdrop of the current intifada, but has arisen due to the struggle against the route of the fence.

Last week, at the height of the army's encirclement of a house in Biddu, the residents called Dahla, who rushed to court and was able to get an interim injunction against the demolition of the house.

"This is an interesting process," he says. "It is reviving the popular uprising. Willy-nilly, the residents are getting involved in this because they are simply losing everything they have. They understand that if they don't act, they will end up living in a ghetto, without their lands or a source of livelihood. The decision on an unarmed uprising is a strategic one. We can see that in these places there is no use of firearms, not only when it comes to soldiers but also in regard to the nearby settlements or Israeli locales located across the hill. Maybe it's because of their location - these are places [whose residents] have worked a great deal with Israelis - or maybe it's because of the cooperation with the left-wingers, or maybe it's because they understand that the important war is the one for Israeli public opinion."

However, that battle is so far not succeeding. Three and a half years of intifada, and some 37 years of occupation, have made the Israeli public and its establishments blind to developments on the other side, leaving them unable or unwilling to take note of subtleties. True, the IDF doesn't view the demonstrators as armed gangs, but disperses the protesters with a force that they perceive as a way to persuade them that even nonviolent protest is useless. The media ignore the demonstrations almost totally, and because this is a daily struggle that is also dangerous, no more than dozens of Israelis are taking part in it, joined occasionally by activists from movements such as Ta'ayush [the Arab-Jewish Partnership grass-roots organization] and Gush Shalom. "The message that Israel is sending the Palestinians who are trying to protest nonviolently is that we don't want any such protest," says one Israeli who participates in the demonstrations. "It's that we prefer a violent struggle and that we are not willing to accord legitimacy to any type of resistance by them. For years we have been asking them why they don't follow the path of Mahatma Gandhi, but when they do just that we respond with rubber bullets and tear gas. What we are doing now is shooting the Palestinian peace camp."n

Olive trees and rubber bullets

"A demonstration by Palestinians against the construction [of the fence] is a loaded business with plenty of emotions - land, work, olive trees - and when Israelis, internationals and the media join in, it becomes even more complex," says a senior IDF officer who is responsible for the sector where most of the events in the past few months have taken place. "That complexity finds expression in the way we can allow ourselves to respond, morally and in terms of values, and also taking into consideration how it looks to the world and to Israeli society."

The turning point, the officer says, was the shooting of Gil Na'amati. "That event was investigated by the chief of staff, and afterward clear instructions were issued. The most significant thing that changes when Israelis are in the field is the rules of engagement [for opening fire]. We try to make use of a great deal of police intervention and to address the subject through the courts. I've heard that the Palestinians call it a 'peaceful demonstration,' but it seems to me we have a conceptual gap here. When the Palestinians throw stones, they regard it as a quiet demonstration. And I'm not talking about one stone. It's important to point out that at one demonstration, in Beit Lakiya, there was also shooting; we arrested the squad that did the shooting, though it's true that this was the only case.

"I don't say there are no hitches. A soldier is out there for hours, being cursed. Not all of them are icemen and sometimes even commanding officers lose control. There is friction, it's not sterile. As part of the verbal friction our people also say things they shouldn't. Some of them call the soldiers 'Nazis' or 'sons of bitches,' especially if they're Israelis, and the soldiers lose their cool and call them 'collaborators.' The instructions are to try to end the incident with as few as casualties as possible, and in many cases the way to put an end to the story is to seize the chief instigators."

How do you define an instigator?

The officer: "Someone who calls out things through a megaphone, agitates, tries to reach the [construction] equipment. In most cases, the moment we try to arrest those people, the event turns violent, with stones and things. You have to remember that it's in the participants' interest for the demonstration not to occur quietly. They want the event to be talked about, for people to say that there was a demonstration at which such-and-such happened. We try very hard to restrain ourselves, but you have to remember that when it comes to mortal danger, there is also a matter of subjective feeling - standing among hundreds of Palestinians at Bitunia, which is on the outskirts of Ramallah, is not like walking through Tel Aviv. You feel threatened.

"There is no doubt that the situation of the recent period poses a dilemma for us. If you're fired at, there is no dilemma, it's a black-and-white affair, you know what to do. In events of the kind we are talking about, which are now occurring almost every day, there's a lot of gray."

By Aviv Lavie - 16-04-04 weekend supplement edition.
* [As described in the body of article - The Anarchists Against The Wall are the core of this involvement. I.S.]

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