The army knew we were coming - which is not surprising, since the people of Bil'in had been demonstrating every Friday for the past several months, and Israeli activists are every week coming to join them. Moreover, for today - the anniversary of the ruling by the International Court in the Hague (which Sharon is violating with impunity) a particularly intensive mobilizing effort was made by various Israeli groups, a lot of phone calls were made and email messages sent out, and also the weekly Gush Shalom ad in Ha'aretz contained a call upon supporters to come to Bil'in.
An armoured jeep was parked across the road, and in front of it were five soldiers and an officer. Quite sufficient to block any vehicle - but we have left our bus inconspicuously parked near the giant settlement of Kiryat Sefer (whose constant expansion is the main cause of Bil'in's plight) and continued on foot, easily by-passing the blockading soldiers. The lieutenant could be clearly heard, speaking into his communicator: "Too many people, sir, we could do nothing"...
Up the ridge, through a bramble-filled field, and down the other side under the July sun. The young anarchists who carry out the anti-war struggle, week in and week out, were today joined by other Israelis as well as by visiting members of a Dutch squatter community, with much experience of tangling with the Amsterdam police.
From the hilltop we could see the jeep speeding along the narrow track, to get ahead of us and cut off our descent. Soldiers, shouting "Closed military zone, advance no further!" tried to detain random member of the group. They were met with calls of "I'm an Israeli citizen, you soldiers have no right to arrest me! Only a policeman can do that!".
This legal distinction was made decades ago, mainly to benefit the settlers. The lieutenant had to let us proceed, a look of anger and frustration on his face.
At the main square of Bil'in, there were already hundreds of villagers gathered. The Jerusalem contingent - including many Arab Israeli students from the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus - was already there, having also successfully avoided the army patrols. The well-known Tel-Avivian artist David Reeb walked around, busily taking in the scene on his video camera.
Bil'in organizer Rateb Abu Rahma, for whose release from detention we had recently conducted a widespread campaign, had ominous news: "Yesterday, Abdulla [Rateb's brother, also just released from detention] was suddenly summoned to a meeting with a Shabak operative. He threatened that if we continue our struggle, the same will happen here as at Bidu". In Bidu, as everyone on the West Bank knows, the army had killed five anti-wall demonstrators some months ago.
"We are not alone. We have you from Israel with us, and the internationals, and all the Palestinians - the leadership and the people on the ground." Rateb had in his hand the new resolution of the National Committee Against the Apartheid Wall: "The heroic village of Bil'in so far conducted forty-five demonstrations of protest against the ongoing theft of their land (...) The International Community must take firm steps to make Sharon submit to International Law and the ruling of the International Court, which declared the Wall illegal".
Muhammad Elias (Abu Elias) of the committee, whom we knew from previous meetings, introduced the many VIPs who came to Bil'in to walk in the front row of today's procession. There were legislators, former and present ministers, a presidential candidate, senior officials of various civic groups - representing the entire Palestinian political spectrum, from the ruling Fatah party to the Islamic opposition and the smaller groupings in between, both those with a decades-long history in the PLO and those which sprung up during recent struggles.
The event provided also a rare opportunity to talk with such a person as Sheik Hassan Yusuf, accounted the senior Hamas leader on the West Bank. As he speaks only Arabic, Fares Kadura, former Palestinian Authority Minister for Prisoner Affairs, volunteered to act as interpreter.
(...) "We are glad of this chance to meet and talk, Sheik Yusuf. In our view, a strong and lasting peace needs to include the Palestinians who support Hamas, as it needs to include the Israelis who support Likud".
"At this moment, the entire Palestinian people is willing to give Israel a chance - all Palestinians including Hamas. But Sharon does not want it, he just wants our land. He intends to get out of Gaza just in order to increase the land grab on the West Bank. What is going on here in Bil'in is a good example." "We completely agree about Sharon and his intentions. But the Israelis who vote for him, the grassroots Likud supporters, don't really care about the West Bank. Today most of them accept Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza. If tomorrow another PM would withdraw from the West Bank, they will likely accept that, too." "Insh'allah!" (The last world, meaning "let that be Allah's will" needed no translation, as it had long since passed into colloquial Hebrew).
The march started. The creative Bil'in villagers, who on previous occasions came up with such innovative props as cages, barrels and mock tombstones, had made something new for today: the enormous "Scales of Injustice", carried at the front of the procession, in which the ball wrapped with an Israeli flag heavily outweighed the entire terrestrial globe - with the balance held, as in the actual diplomatic arena, by Uncle Sam.
It was not far to go at all, marching among the village houses, with small children waving from windows and balconies, and out into the fields and olive groves scarred with months of the bulldozers' work. A clear indication of how little would be left of Bil'in's land once the Wall goes up. There, as on every Friday, the soldiers were waiting.
The local commander had evidently set the scene with some care. A roll of barbed wire blocked the road. Just behind it, a wooden notice board had been set up: "Under my authority as military commander in Judea and Samaria, I hereby declare the area delineated in the enclosed map a closed military zone,entry into which is forbidden except by special permit..." A considerable distance behind the barbed wire and the notice board stood the soldiers - a compact mass with conspicuous helmets and guns and plastic shields.
It was the great moment of Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, head of the Muslim Courts in the Palestinian Territories - owing allegiance to Abu Mazen's Fatah Party. With perfect aplomb, wearing his resplendent robes of office, he moved aside the barbed wire, gracefully entered the forbidden zone, spread out a beautiful prayer rug, kneeled in the direction of Mecca and began praying. Hundreds of others followed suit, with villagers making do with carton placards to protect their knees and foreheads from the hot asphalt. The army's notice board, with its stern prohibition, was overturned, to also become an improvised prayer mat.
Non-Muslim demonstrators stayed respectfully back. Over the scene, the beautiful voice of a cantor virtually sang the Muslim credo, every word clearly enunciated - a solemn moment, also for those who feel little attraction to religion in general or Islam in particular. Even the soldiers on the other side seemed to feel it, staying quiet and stock-still during the entire prayer.
With the end of the religious part and the departure of many dignitaries, the lead was taken by more secularist Palestinian intellectuals and students, among whom Israelis and internationals freely mingled. The chanting constantly shifted between Arabic, Hebrew and English: "Listen Sharon, hear the proof - here we stand, we shall not move!", "The wall must fall - the wall will fall!" "No justice - no peace!", "No no occupation - yes yes liberation!", "Soldiers - whom are you guarding?", "Soldier, it's no use - you can just refuse!". The soldiers responded with occasional warnings of the "closed military zone".
Suddenly, a stone thrown from somewhere behind hit - not a soldier, but the back of the one of the demonstrators. Hundreds whirled around, shouting in three languages "No stones! No stones!". The stone-thrower, whoever he was, was nowhere to be seen. The demonstrators then turned back to the front for another round of chanting.
"We talked with the military commander" said an organizer, "We promised that soon we will move back quietly towards the village houses, and the soldiers will go the opposite way." For a moment, it seemed that for once a Friday protest at Bil'in would end without a violent confrontation. And then - just as a BBC reporter asked us for our evaluation of the about-finished action - the barrage began.
It was very heavy, even for Bil'in standards. Usually, one can try to outrun the tear gas canisters and get to a patch of clear air. This time the explosions were everywhere and the white clouds sprouted all around - front and back, left and right. Everywhere, people were coughing and cursing and reaching for the slices of onion which we had prepared in advance as the antidote.
To many of us the army's attack seemed competently unprovoked. Later, some people who were at the front rows told that somebody did provide the soldiers with a pretext - though their "reaction" was certainly overenthusiastic.
Individuals and small groups reached the relative shelter of the first village houses. And then, some village youths started back by roundabout routes, crouching behind any bit of cover, carrying stones, some armed with slings. The soldiers started shooting - no way of knowing if they were using live ammunition or "rubber" bullets (which at short range can also be lethal). Red Crescent ambulances went screeching, with sirens blazing, carrying more and more wounded - one in critical condition - to the hospital in Ramallah. It was no longer a demonstration, but a pitched battle.
Israeli radio, completely ignoring the earlier stages, reported "an outbreak of heavy rioting at Bil'in" and "the throwing of a molotov cocktail at soldiers". "That's a lie, our boys used nothing but stones" protested a village organizer. "It is the army's own concussion grenades which started the fire". Whatever the cause, a whole row of olive trees had caught fire and burned down, one more disaster for the family whose livelihood they were.
And just as things were at last settling down at Bil'in, horrifying news came from the village of Beit Likia, a few kilometres to the south-east. There - where no large-scale demonstration took place and there weren't any Israelis, internationals or distinguished Palestinians - a fifteen year old boy, Mahayoub Aasi, had just been shot to death, very near the spot where two of his cousins were killed a few weeks ago. Beit Likia is where the army has its car-park where the Wall bulldozers are kept during nights and weekend - a spot of fatal attraction to the local young...
Saturday evening outside the Defence Ministry in Tel-Aviv, the dreary site of so many protests over the past three decades. Across the street from the locked gate of the occupation army's nerve center, more than a hundred activists have gathered in short order at the call of Ta'ayush, Gush Shalom and the Anarchists, as well as the students and lecturers of "The Campus is Not Silent" at Tel-Aviv University. More and more people continue to arrive every moment.
"Murderers, murderers - out of the territories!" rises the chant out of the ragged picket line. "An easy hand on the trigger" say the placards, and "A Palestinians child has a mother, too" and "Stop the killing, stop the occupation" and "This Wall is killing us all". A lone TV crew, from the Channel 10 News, takes footage which would be briefly broadcast later in the evening. (News editors at the other networks were not interested.)
Suddenly an activist comes on the scene, directly back from the funeral in Beit Likia, with a bundle of newly-printed Palestinian posters: the face of Mahayoub Aasi (looking far younger than fifteen) on a background composed of the Wall and of Jerusalem's the Al-Aqusa Mosque. They are distributed, to be held aloft by Israeli demonstrators on this Tel-Aviv street.
"After the funeral, Beit Likia villagers went to the spot where the boy was killed. The army opened fire again" the activist said. "A twelve-year old, the main witness to what happened yesterday, was hit in the head by a rubber bullet and taken to the hospital. And one of the wounded Bil'in demonstrators is to undergo urgent brain surgery at Mukasad Hospital, to stop the internal bleeding. He might not last the night".
Demonstrators again take up the chant of "Murderers! Assassins!". Across the street, the lone uniformed guard at the ministry gate goes into his hut, closing the door behind him.
Meanwhile, the 18-year old Saul Berger - who recently got his call-up order for August 15, when he will refuse to enlist and presumably go to military prison - is circulating among the demonstrators with yet another emergency brewing up: "The bulldozers started working at the land of villages around the settlement of Immanuel, far more north. The people urgently ask for our help. Who can go there tomorrow morning?"
The struggle continues.
For information on the ongoing anti-wall protests contact:
Yonatan Pollak Photos of the Tel-Aviv protest at w w w . g u s h . s h a l o m - o r g [remove the spaces]