I had never been to the town of Bil’in. For more than 5 years Bil’in has been in the news. When we began building the Fence-Wall around the West Bank our army left about 1,700 dunams of agricultural land belonging to the town’s farmers on the Israeli side of the fence. We engineered similar “annexations” to a long list of Palestinian towns, but Bil’in became a central focus in the protest battle and the legal battle for the return of land. Palestinians from the town and its surroundings came every Friday after prayers to confront and attempt to disrupt the building of the Fence. A few Israelis (very few) and a few “internationals” would join the local protesters. Young people from the town would throw stones at the soldiers, Soldiers would shoot back with rubber bullets, tear-gas and stun grenades. Many protesters were seriously injured by the rubber bullets and by direct hits by grenades. During the last couple of years, rubber bullets were banned, grenades continued. Last year a local youth was killed by the direct hit of a grenade. A couple of months ago, a young woman from overseas lost her eye to a grenade. Meanwhile the legal battle continued, and in 2007 our High Court ordered the army to move the fence. In a landmark decision the Court rebuked our army for falsely using “defense calculations” as an excuse for the location of the Fence, while in reality it located the fence with a desire to give settlements on our Israeli side more land for expansion. It took our army three years and a number of additional court rebukes to at last, in 2010, begin to move the Fence. In it’s new location 700 dunams were returned to the farmers, but 1,000 still remain on our Israeli side. The Friday protests and the legal battles, therefore, continue.
I came to Bil’in out of some kind of desire to join in supportive solidarity with the town, their protest and their legal battle. Support needs to be based on more than talking and writing. It needs a minimum of participation. But also I came to see, to observe, to feel and to comment.
After Friday prayers were over and the mosque’s muezzin silenced the town’s loudspeaker, the procession began. About 150 marchers, mostly local Palestinians, perhaps 30 or so “internationals” (summer vacation, I was told), and about ten Israelis (half of them belonging to the Israeli branch of “Anarchists Against the Wall”). The procession left the center of town and reached its western edge. From here there will be another kilometer or so to the Fence. On Fridays our army announces this area to be a “closed military area for the day”, making it illegal for anyone to enter. Any protest gathering becomes illegal and accounts for what follows.
Our procession left the edge of town towards the Fence. Half way there I stopped. From here on, I thought, I’ll watch and photograph (with 100-X zoom) from afar. I had no intention of entering the “battle zone”. I saw the procession reach the Fence. I heard the discharges of grenades. I saw the entire procession beginning to run back in my direction. They reached me and I kept filming them running past me. Suddenly I was left in the rear of the fleeing crowd. I didn’t imagine they would be pursued this far.
My lungs have seen better days. One lung still has a bit of oomph to it. The other won’t ever again see a decent day. I can walk on a flat stretch of ground. Downhill is pretty good also. But uphill my pace is somewhere between a turtle and a snail, with a bunch of long pauses in-between.
Tear-gas affects eyes and breathing….. Eyes smart, sting terribly and have a problem staying open. Breathing becomes difficult. You gasp for air, choke, stop breathing and perhaps collapse…….not appetizing for people with defective lungs. But I had no previous plans of being even close to the line of fire. I had stopped following the line of protesters on a rise half-way between the edge of town and the fence.
I turned around and looked in the direction of the fleeing procession. It was uphill, all uphill. I began my turtle pace upwards. My goal was reaching the edge of the village, that invisible border considered legal for congregating protestors. Suddenly I heard more bursting discharges. Two smoke grenades fell ahead of me and a few others to my right. A breeze was blowing from my right and in front of me was a cloud of smoke. In the field to my left I saw vague outlines of running soldiers. I took a number of slow steps forward through the slightly transparent cloud of tear-gas. Ahead of me I saw a foreign photographer (with gas mask) filming my slow advance. My eyes were smarting and I needed to close them while taking quick peek-a-boos making sure I was still aimed in the right direction, uphill. My breathing became difficult and I was choking. I knew what I needed to try. I paused inside the gas-cloud and took out my Large-Half-Onion.
Earlier in the day I had given a ride to a young woman (graduate of Jewish Reform School Leo Beck in Haifa). She too, unaffiliated to any organization, wanted to participate in sympathy with the town’s grievance about the Fence. On our way to Bil’in she handed me a half an onion and told me she heard this should help breathing when attacked by tear-gas grenades. I had experienced previous encounters with tear-gas grenades……….in the army during some training exercise…….and in our Israeli town of Um-El-Fachem when extremist settlers from the West Bank came to march thru the Israeli Arab town in a provocative gesture meant to show them who owns their land. These were not pleasant tear-gas experiences. But in neither case do I remember hearing about the benefits of the onion.
I paused inside the gas-cloud and took out my Large-Half-Onion. I pressed the onion to my nose and mouth and breathed….and breathed….not easy……but much better. I continued my snail pace through the cloud of smoke, didn’t rush (I can’t), stopped for a number of pauses, and continued pressing my dear onion for my dear breath. Slowly but surely, my onion brought me safely beyond that cloud of gas. I could now rest and swallow some cleaner air.
I think throwing stones at soldiers by the Fence is counter-productive. So, too, is the use of tear-gas and stun grenades by the soldiers. Neither we Israelis nor the Palestinians have learned the use of power through passive means. Both are entrenched in the belief that good results come through the proper abuse of violence. I think both are wrong. The Palestinian youths throwing stones would be more effective in the Israeli public eye and media if they lay down their stones, lay down their bodies next to the Fence (gas masks in hand), and stayed there day in and day out, not Only On Friday. We (few) Israelis would be more effective if we held our protest on our side of the Bil’in Fence with public rallies and demonstrations which bring many more Israelis than the few who are willing to find the round-about long route and army checkpoints in order to reach Bil’in through the West Bank. Our Army would look much better both to us and through the eye of the foreign camera if it knew better restraint and understanding for the plight of the local farmers. Our Government would be a better one if it showed more Jewish Humanity to the “stranger living in our midst”, and/or to the one living next door. Theft of private (occupied) lands (and with no compensation), even when proclaimed legal by government decree, is still theft.