Testing the Waters—
Palestine & Israel, 2006

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Journal, March 11, 2006—Bil'in

Dedicated to Tom Fox, giving his life to peace and justice in Iraq

International Solidarity Movement’s message:

A first for me: resistance to the Separation Barrier in the Palestinian village of Bil’in.

After reading so much about the villagers stalwart resistance to occupation—tearing down a part of the fence, placing a caravan (temporary dwelling, like what the Israeli settlers use to establish a new settlement, a fact on the ground) on Palestinian land, having it torn down by the military, then putting another up, this torn down, and now constructing a small one room concrete block building that will serve as a sort of organizational center, generally a continuing nonviolent defiance of authority, a peaceful resistance to the incursion of the apartheid wall so close to their village—I had the opportunity to observe and witness with my camera this exemplary group of people. I’d heard about the weekly action from Hisham at Faisal, contacted the International Solidarity Movement’s media center (conveniently for me) located in Ramallah, found the office in Ramallah’s Old City, and after waiting around the apartment for some 2 hours meeting people from the Philippines, Germany, Sweden, Holland, Australia, and the US, all younger than 30 years I’d estimate, we headed out in a jammed service taxi.

On the ride and in the village, several times people prepared us for the action: we must remain nonviolent, we will de-escalate any violence, you can pull back at any point if you are not comfortable with what is happening, usually there is an almost scripted sequence of events: a march thru the village to the fence, blocked by the army, push thru or go around, army pushes back, some might be arrested. Arrests is especially serious for Palestinians, then next for internationals, and least of all for our Israeli Jewish counterparts who are usually released after a short period of detention. Then the kids start throwing rocks at the soldiers and the soldiers fire back with tear gas and maybe rubber bullets. Or they might fire in the air. Rarely is anyone injured. Don’t worry; you’ll be all right.

For me, trepidation and excitement set in. How will I respond to tear gas, to rubber bullets flying my way, to rock throwing? Will I turn and run, or continue into the midst of the action? The renowned photographer, Robert Capa, always wisely said, if the photo is not good enough, the photographer was not close enough. A landmine blew him up during the last days of the French-led Indochinese War.

How will Bil’in resemble the arrest I was part of on the Cambridge Common last summer when the US Army put on a recruitment extravaganza and I was inadvertently arrested while photographing? What will be the demeanor of the soldiers? How might that compare to police action in the States?

This particular event was characterized by yet another brilliantly creative stratagem—a huge mock tombstone, made of fabric and wood, carried by villagers to the site, inscribed in Arabic, Hebrew and English with words, R.I.P. VICTIMS VILLAGES WHOS LAND WAS STOLEN—REASON THE WALL AND THE OCCUPATION—YEAR 2006

The march was festive, people were smiling and chanting, youth were in the forefront. All this apparently had been coordinated by the village’s popular committee, and supported by various internationals like the ISM, and by Israeli activists, often aligned with the anarchist movement. The festive tone continued even when the march front line encountered the soldiers. Soldiers blocked the procession. The leaders of the procession then pushed against the soldiers, trying to reach the fence. Soldiers shoved back, and in minutes the tombstone collapsed, a heap of white fabric and wooden sticks. Then a mixture of chaos and order ensued, rancor and succor, conversation with the soldiers and arrests. Eventually two young men were arrested, both Israeli. The army detained them behind the fence and I saw them both later in the village. There are virtually no ramifications from such arrests—Israel supposedly would rather duck the publicity, and the courts would most likely not convict. Or so I was told.

At times, soldiers attempted to arrest or at least pull out Palestinians, but each time other Palestinians and internationals—this is where internationals play a crucial role—would grab onto the person pulled by the soldiers, hanging on, sometimes being dragged across the rocky terrain. And each time, eventually, the soldiers relented, releasing the Palestinians. I was up close and in the faces of people during these confrontations and must witness to their determination and courage in resisting the army’s mission. At one point I observed a young woman with flowing brown hair shouting at the army in Hebrew, acknowledging that she was Jewish from the States, and she was ashamed of what her people’s country, Israel, was doing in her name. Several times I saw her linking with arrestees. During one of these conversations, I was standing among soldiers and I heard one exclaim at each of her points in Hebrew a Hebrew phrase that I took to mean bullshit. Soon, she was weeping.

Despite the close-to-the-surface violence, I observed many conversations between Palestinians and soldiers, sometimes in English, but if not, I assume the gist was, this is our land, you are illegally here, we have every right to be here, the fence is illegal, we want it gone, go home and let us live our lives. One Swedish woman was explaining to a young soldier who appeared to be listening—now look here, if you came to my country, Sweden, and said you had a right to be here, we would throw you out, it is not your land, not your country. Same situation here, this is Palestinian territory. You have no right to it.

Now back home in the good old USA, on the Cambridge Common for instance, during the Army recruitment party when I was arrested along with the others of the Cambridge Seven (our case is still pending, by the way, but close to resolution with an agreement with the city to drop charges in exchange for us not suing them and they negotiating with us and others about military recruitment in the schools, among other issues), would such an event as what I just photographed at Bil’in be likely?

No. On the Common, a public space, just 1.2 mile from my home, exercising our civil liberties, several of us tried to talk with the police, receiving only that ice cold, rock hard glare that police might be trained to give when confronted with other viewpoints, maybe the truth, the illegality and immorality of the war on Iraq. When I asked that the handcuffs that were binding my wrists so tightly that I was losing feeling could be loosened, the men in black, without IDs, the Tactical Police, just stared at me and said and did nothing. My sense is that although the context is severe here in the territories—the 350-400 mile long separation barrier, 700 checkpoints and permanent obstacles, nearly 1/2 million Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, 97% of the Palestinians confined to 70 tiny enclaves, farm land and olive groves stolen, water resources confiscated, 12,000 homes demolished, i.e., the Matrix of Control (quoting the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions and Jeff Halper)—despite this overwhelmingly tragic condition, the Bil’in villagers, for the most part, acted nonviolently. And so did the army—very impressive.

No clubs, no tight cuffs, no dragging of faces over stony surfaces. Indeed, conversations between all parties, extraordinary for this gringo to observe, as I am more and more familiar with the high degree of militarization in the States, the nearly fascistic enterprise. At times in Bil’in, soldiers and villagers conversed with smiles.

Later, some explained to me that, first, this is a weekly event. People on all sides come to know each other. Second, the army is made up of poorly trained conscripts who in some cases might actually empathize with villagers. Third, the army has tried rough handling in
Bil’in, planting rock-throwing provocateurs for example. They were caught and the outcry was heard around the world. Fourth, the international media is here, although the Israeli media is not, in part because of governmental restrictions on travel by Israelis into the West Bank and Gaza. This is yet another parallel with South African apartheid: Whites were prevented from visiting the townships.

But this was only phase one of the action. As I was heading for the village, walking with the legendary David Nir, the Israeli Jewish activist that I’d met in the village of Yanoun nearly 3 years ago while helping harvest olives, we encountered phase two. It was less surprising, given the viewpoint usually expressed in the corporate media: the stone throwing. Earlier I’d heard small explosions from the village which was some 2 kilometers from the main action. These were tear gas grenades exploding, shot by soldiers at young boys hurling stones. To some extent this is scripted and expected, but danger looms. Stones do occasionally hit soldiers, soldiers will fire back, sometimes, rarely, with live ammunition. This time, as we from the main march walked back to the village, we encountered d this second phase, and I found myself enthusiastically but cautiously joining the action. The boys were 10 meters from me, the soldiers some 100 meters from them. Stones whizzed overhead, propelled with speed and accuracy y by slingshots. Photographers and videographers thronged the site, many heaving themselves very courageously into the midst of the fight. I ducked behind gravel hills and metal wreckage, trying desperately to show something of the apparent insanity of this action. To what point rock throwing?

It is mythical. Did not David slew Goliath with a stone? Did not the relatively feeble American Revolutionary Army crush the domination of Britain. Did not the Soviets overthrow the once mighty Czar? Did not the African National Congress use limited violence in ending apartheid? Always a hope, I suppose, even if when objectively assessed, the situation seems hopeless. But I did see energy, fierce courage, steadfastness, collective action, and a willingness to suffer in the bodies and faces of the boys. And they did drive back the soldiers who were ducking stones. After a full retreat, soldiers fired gas grenades, an equally useless action. Grenades announce themselves almost like firecrackers—first the gun’s report, then the unfurling smoke, and finally the boom and gas cloud. Just watch the sky, keep your ears open, and know which way the wind is blowing.

One landed near me, I knelt as I saw my colleagues doing, pulled out my handkerchief and breathed thru that., Several men came to me to check on my condition—as many had earlier to lend me a hand up when I fell wobbling up and down rocky slipper hills on shaky knees, several times losing my balance and crashing to the earth, my most serious injuries a scraped palm, bruised thigh, and crunched knee, I’ll do better next time with this experience. We noticed another man lying prone. He could barely breathe, one of the more serious effects of tear gas inhalation. One man plucked a piece of green leaf that resembled sage, and rubbed it across the injured man’s nose. Later, he explained that this was fujah (or a name like that) that is medicinal, quells the gas effects, and when steeped in boiled water can cure the ill stomach.

Later, at the ISM media headquarters in Ramallah’s Old City, just a 10 minute walk from my apartment, we each downloaded our photos into their computer, and soon you might be able to see and read a collective account of this most inspiring action.

Come join one for yourself, it is weekly.

For photos, part one, about Bil'in

Other photos and writing


International Solidarity Movement’s report, with photos, about Bil’in:



“Tell me, kid, did you throw stones?,” By Amira Hass, Haaretz, 15 April, 2003