June 20, 2014 – Bil’in
Feigning bravado and an ambivalent sense of group confidence, our delegation sets off for the West Bank village of Bil’in (see the documentary Five Broken Cameras), for the weekly demonstration against the separation wall. There is no direct travel service on Fridays, so this involves several taxis and lots of negotiation. A group of Palestinians from Ramallah who hold annual conventions, (usually in someplace like Detroit), for all the former inhabitants and descendants of the city, is celebrating in Ramallah this year and they are unusually joyful, keeping their memories alive and grappling with today’s ugly realities. One uninitiated 20-something was shocked to learn that there are Palestinian refugees, camps, and other inconveniences his protective and perhaps traumatized parents had wished to avoid. Black flags and posters are everywhere portraying a strong man breaking his chains over his head, in solidarity with the prison hunger strikers that are very much on everyone’s minds. We hit one massive traffic jam, a combo of a checkpoint and a wedding and an army of frustrated testosterone driven drivers.
I think how much our delegation has really been traveling in a bubble. We have had calls from a variety of frantic family members, basically demanding, “Do you know where you are and what is happening there????” Our next door neighbors, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon are imploding in various dangerous ways, the Israeli press and the Palestinian street are full of calls to avenge the missing Yeshiva boys and as usual every Palestinian is a suspect. Every cab driver we talk to thinks this whole episode is a ploy to give the IDF reservists some target practice before the big post-Kerry bang. We have had almost no checkpoint delays, no anxious humiliating interrogations (expect of course for our Palestinian leader, but that is normal for her which just shows how distorted normality is around here). We slept through the night house raids, were too far away to hear the first Israeli raid in 14 years at Birzeit University which involved rounding up (and emasculating) the university security guards and confiscating flags, banners, and posters from the student union, as well as searching the campus. And we live with our unconscious mostly white American privilege, presumptions, and passports that allow us to walk the streets of cities that our Palestinian hosts can only dream of. Why we are not hated is still unclear to me, but the warmth and generosity is truly genuine.
So today we set off for some blunt reality, an unarmed resistance march against the separation wall in the town of Bil’in. Mohammed Khatib, one of the leaders of the organizing committee wearing a tee shirt that says “Water and salt = dignity,” a reference to the diet of the hunger strikers in Israeli jails, meets us at the entry to the town. He explains that Bil’in has 2,000 inhabitants, and another 2,000 living elsewhere, and 5,000 dunams of land. 3,500 was confiscated by the wall, 1,500 returned after a long struggle. Soon we are sitting under a tarp on plastic chairs in his patio, sipping mint tea, and admiring his beautiful stone polished home that he has poured years of work into creating. I see a modern kitchen, a sunken living room with a poster of a young Arafat, and an amazing fireplace carved into an ancient dead olive tree. His five-ish year old daughter coyly joins him, wearing a traditional embroidered dress. Our cab driver joins us too, this is after all a grassroots struggle.
The story of Bil’in is the common tale of land confiscation, the building of a wall starting in 2004, the massive growth of an expanding Jewish settlement, Modiin Illit, (later we can see the cranes and high rises). In 2005 the Palestinian villagers started to get creative, tying themselves to their olive trees, placing themselves on the land in cages, coffins, and shocking the Israeli soldiers with their nonviolent resistance. This drew media attention but no changes on the ground. They built a caravan on the land taken by the settlements (reminiscent of the right wing Jewish hill top youth that often stake out claims before the official settlement is approved) which slowed the construction; the IDF said that mobile homes are illegal (except of course for Jews). So in one frenzied night, they built a fixed home with a door and windows, to the appropriate specifications, and this stopped settlement growth for one year. Ultimately the Israeli construction company actually went bankrupt. (A victory for our side!) Then the route of the wall was changed to return some of the Palestinian land and the settlement construction resumed. The Palestinians are still not allowed to work their land that they won back, though they built a (truly shocking) brightly colored playground on it, (you never know what these terrorists will do) so I am not yet calling this a victory, especially since the battle is really about the end of the occupation.
Mohammed has a sense of humor born of struggle. While much of the world was focused on the World Cup in Brazil, (sorry sports fans), he helped organize a soccer match in front of the Ofer Prison where prisoners are on a serious hunger strike. He was arrested a day before an action to block highway 443 which cuts through the West Bank and when the police asked him for information, he referred them to social media, (I always worry that the FBI and Shin Bet just sit in their offices reading our facebook posts). When they were surprised by the action, he said, “There are no secrets, but there are surprises.”
Today many will not be at this march because there was a call to pray and march at Beitunya in support of the Ofer prisoners. We set off in a row of battered cars, a motley crew of muscular looking Palestinian men with flags, press with large cameras and face masks, women of all varieties, internationals, and Israelis, and parked under some olive trees. After a short discussion on safety (avoid getting bonked on the head by a tear gas canister, do not rub your eyes, do not run, cover your face with a scarf-done! do not panic, tear gas will not kill you, it will only make you feel like you are about to die, your eyes will tear and your throat will burn, sniff an onion, an alcohol swab, anything with a smell, and DO NOT walk down wind. The IDF only use rubber bullets when stones are thrown and nobody dies from a stun grenade.) That seemed like a pretty long list to me, but we set off. We began the march down the dusty, hot, rocky road, my brain giving me fairly strong messages about getting the hell out of there ASAP and my legs inspired by the struggle against a long list of historical injustices. My knees were sort of in between.
Before a stone could be thrown, the tear gas started and was blown up the hill to the stragglers like me, I cannot imagine how it felt at the front of the line. Europeans remarked that this tear gas seemed much more powerful than they were used to and others mentioned that Israelis are always field testing new weaponry. Great! I found myself a cluster of olive trees and some other less than brave protestors, and tried to remember the rules of engagement. There were single canisters and then showers of canisters, the occasional stun gun (very loud boom) and then rubber bullets. I am told that the Jewish settlers on the other side of the wall, cheer the soldiers on and play inspiring music while they do battle with the dangerous terrorists on the other side who would like to plant their vegetables, tend their olive olives and otherwise lead normal lives. If the wind (and the tear gas of course) is blowing towards the settlers, (one can only hope), then the IDF moves more quickly to rubber bullets. The settlers consider the blow back as some sort of badge of courage in the fight for Zionist domination. (This I confess is my own theory). I make my way across the rocky field to where people even more frightened than I are watching, when tear gas spirals through the air and lands 10 feet from me. This keeps happening, reminding me again that there is actually no safe place and that the soldiers have been known to come into the town and throw tear gas into people’s homes. Last week one child was shot with a rubber bullet and injured. The important thing to remember about a rubber bullet is that it is indeed a bullet. Such lovely people, these soldiers, “the most moral army in the world.” Sometimes the hot canisters start small brush fires in the dry grass.
The demonstrators feel that the soldiers have been more vigorous due to all the tension around the missing boys, (remember not a single stone was thrown), and the aggressive incursions and arrests that are going on all over the West Bank. Everyone talks about how these weapons are made in the US and that the solution to the conflict lies in changing the policies of the US. Congress, are you listening? This is really important if you can take time off from fundraising and getting ready to bomb the next people in need of democracy!
The demonstration finally winds down, although that burning feeling in the throat drags on for a while and suddenly we find ourselves invited for lunch at another organizer’s house where his wife just happens to have maqluba (remember that chicken and rice dish from yesterday?) and salad for some 15 people, (she must shop at the Palestinian version of Costco). So we gather around, eat to our hearts’ content, buy Palestinian embroidery from the women’s cooperative, and struggle to make sense out of the insanity of occupation, land grabs, racism, hatred, entitlement, military hardware, and the power of determined resistance by ordinary people desperately trying to create political change and to build the kind of lives that we take for granted.
Alice Rothchild MD, is Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School. She serves on the steering committee for American Jews for a Just Peace- Boston, and has worked with medical delegations to Israel and the Occupied Territories with the AJJP Health and Human Rights Project. She is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience (Pluto, 2007; 2010) and director of the 2013 documentary Voices Across the Divide.