A day in Bil’in, my third. Distinguishing this day was the presence of about 10 French members of the European Parliament, in the region for some sort of mission, and tear gas, clouds and clouds of it, some claimed stronger than usual. I was gassed repeatedly, at one point nearly incapacitated, difficult to see and breathe, coughing, spitting, weakened. This occurred when the marchers, about 100 of us, roughly half local and half international were 200-300 meters from the Fence—the only females were one young village girl with her father in the front line, several from Anarchists Against the Wall, and some internationals. (One other minor distinguishing feature: my new telephoto lens. Using it for the first time, experimenting with it, I discovered the world glows differently thru it.)
Father and daughter
Let’s back up to understand why people march and in other ways attempt nonviolently to stop or alter Fence construction. Bil’in is a small agricultural village about 10 km west of Ramallah, unfortunately on the route of the Separation Barrier. The Barrier separates the villagers from their land. In the Bil’in region the Barrier is a fence. In more populated regions it is an 8 m high concrete wall, with watchtowers and sometimes ditches and security roads adjacent. Here it is a 3 m high chain link fence, with electronic motion detectors, razor wire on both sides, a ditch, one security road and one gravel road swept regularly so it can detect footprints. To build either form of Barrier (often called the Apartheid Wall or the Annexation Wall—based on questioning why the Wall regularly departs from the Green Line, the internationally recognized border between Israel and Palestine) the Israelis confiscate huge swaths of Palestinian land. Israel claims the Barrier is solely for their security, in this case protecting the huge and growing illegal settlement or colony of Modi’in Illit. In 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled that the Barrier, when on Palestinian land, is illegal. Israel does not recognize the Court, nor does its chief and compliant patron, the United States.
For more than two years the Bil’iners have organized daring and creative nonviolent actions against the Barrier, finally winning a case in the Israeli High Court which decreed that the Barrier in Bil’in had to be moved toward the Green Line. However, the Court also ruled that the most recent Modi’in Illit expansion is legal. The Fence has not yet been moved, and may never since the army rules in Israel, often ignoring its own High Court decisions.
Apparently the Bil’in organizers decided for now they’d achieved all they could by their actions and would end the weekly demos in Bil’in. Others differed and the actions have continued, in fact, they’ve spread to other regions of occupied Palestine, notably a site along the Israeli-only Highway 443 cutting thru the southern section of the West Bank, the village of Budrus, and in southern Bethlehem.
A bucket of hand-launched tear gas grenades, on display to internationals
During the orientation for the French parliamentarians and others we viewed buckets of tear gas grenades, sound bombs, rubber bullets, rubber covered metal bullets, and other elements of Israeli weaponry, some or much of it made in the US. A local leader showed us a spent tear gas container with a flower. I assumed this would be one of the themes of the march, but never saw them again. Nor did the French make a particularly strong showing. Usually in the back of the line wearing their Palestinian caps, they were tear gassed and retreated to Bil’in’s interior. However, about 13 months earlier a French activist (aged 70) was shot by a live bullet while standing and conversing at the yard of the house next to Wajij’s home where we sat having tea after the action ended. Fortunately the bullet caused only minor bone and tissue damage to his right arm. He was hospitalised in Ramallah. That was when many dignitaries participated, including the mayor of Ramallah and Palestinian parliament members. That happened just as the clashes between the stone throwers and the soldiers was over. One soldier sprayed a group from the interior of his departing jeep (as reported by David Nir). On the day I participated the French parlimantarians were observers only: how much did they actually witness?
At least they were present. Imagine if members of the US Congress were to appear suddenly in Bil’in, joining a march, smell the gas, take a blow to the head or a rubber bullet to the leg. As did the Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire in April 2007. She was shot during a demo, receiving much publicity. Palestinians are injured and killed regularly as they struggle for their human rights and few notice. Thus the need for international attention.
Thus my presence. I was frightened, stimulated, cautious, heedless of caution, energized, stunned, alternately. I was bewildered, clarified, angered, made more loving, alternately. I was a mish mash of emotions and directions. Photography is my anchor: where do I have to be for the best photo? How close to the action? Ducking or in the line of fire? If not for photography, if not for the thinking this requires (a form of consolation, a distraction, similar to concentrating on breathing when in trauma or confusion), I suspect I’d be much less willing to face the danger. And if something serious happens to me—injury, say a bullet in the eye as happened to the young Israeli activist at Bil’in 2 years ago, Matan Cohen, now studying at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, suffering permanent eye damage, rendering me less a photographer, or death—would the price be suitable to the cause?
I can only answer by quoting Martin Luther King Jr: “those who have nothing they are willing to die for are not fit to live.” Also, for sustenance, for asking for help and building faith: reach out your arms, someone will gird your loins and carry you where you do not wish to go, a line from the Gospel of John.
The army first threw sound grenades, also called stun or concussion bombs, loudly exploding among us. The tear gas followed, thrown or shot from launchers on US made M-16 automatic rifles. This was devastating. The marchers and I fled, in disarray I’m afraid, apparently without a contingency plan. Clusters of activists observed the gassing, boys threw stones with sling shots, individuals fell to the ground from the gas or were hit by rubber covered metal bullets (which could have been regular metal bullets if not for the presence of internationals). The police arrested 4 activists, from what I heard all Palestinians, including Mohammad, one of the main organizers who is often targeted, and gradually the action ended, fizzling.
Activist from the United Kingdom, sniffing an onion to quell the tear gas effects
Israelis were present, not Gush Shalom who I’d seen before, but members of Anarchists Against the Wall, comprising mostly young men, and others unaffiliated. I’ve long heard of the Israeli organized photo collective, ActiveStills, and met some of them. Perhaps we’ll work together. I also met an old friend from Tel Aviv, David Nir. We’d first met in 2003 on my first journey to the region. I was on a delegation with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, some of us were helping harvest olives in Jayous, David was there also. I observed him intervene between the villagers and the soldiers and police when, threatened by settlers, the harvesters were told to leave. David attends many actions, has been beaten several times, is stalwart, as are many Israelis resisting the occupation. This is yet another element in the story that receives little international attention: dissent within. Unfortunately, at the moment, it is a small movement, perhaps growing.
After the action David invited Rick, my friend from the States and fellow Cantabrigian, and me to meet a village notable, Wajih, the father of Ronnie. Ronnie is a young man who was shot in the back by a bullet in one of the first demonstrations, he is now partially paralyzed but attends most demos in his motorized wheel chair. I noticed when looking thru my photos that he’d managed somehow to reach the line of soldiers before being turned back. A rubber covered metal bullet hit one of Ronnie’s brothers in the head, entering his skull, causing lasting brain damage. The man had been a lawyer, now does not have the mental capacity to pursue his career. I saw him wandering around the house, as if dazed.
Ronnie, a Bil’in villager partially paralyzed by an Israeli bullet during noviolence resistance to the Bil’in fence
The father: handsome, tan, muscled, with a white beard, gracious, bringing out bowls of olive oil, zatar, tomatoes, and homemade bread (blanketed by flies), he has this story to tell. I paraphrase (and perhaps conflate several episodes):
I was an early leader of the actions and thus targeted by the army. I’ve been shot and beaten repeatedly. Two weeks ago my son Ronnie fainted during the demonstration. I implored the soldiers to call an ambulance. Instead they tried to arrest me, attempting to handcuff me, I resisted. It took 4 of them to pin my arms behind my back and put on the cuffs. They tightened them severely and wouldn’t relieve the pressure. Ronnie wouldn’t leave until they released me. Eventually they let me go.
Later they came thru the village—they do this regularly after our demonstrations—while I was on my porch with my infant daughter. They were firing bullets and tear gas randomly. I yelled at them to stop. They hit me with batons, and as I was placing my son on the ground a soldier struck me on the back of my head with the grenade launcher part of his M-16. This required hospitalization.
The story came mainly thru David who was telling us parts of it earlier, and then translated as we drank heavily sweetened tea. The common language was Hebrew. Nearly all the folks who were part of this conversation were Israeli—and seemed very close to the man.
Wajih with an Israeli activist
Wajih had worked in Israel before the closures that occurred during the second intifada. Most of his farmland is now on the other side of the Fence. He is an experimental farmer, discovering new combinations of soil nutrients and water conservation practices that have enhanced his agriculture. He grows grapes on the land adjacent to his home.
I asked, how do you face danger?
He replied: danger is everywhere here, daily, you can’t escape it. I no longer think much about danger. I simply live my life.
When I inquired about how his Islamic faith might assist his actions he only said: if all who believed in their religion acted according to their ethical principles we’d have no violence, no occupation. We’d have justice finally.
My earlier Bil’in photo sets and writing from 2006