Last friday I visited Bil’in. I saw the protesters, learned about the history of the community, and ate a wonderful lunch at my friend’s home. What has happened and continues to happen at Bil’in is eerily symbolic of the repression, theft and apartheid that happens everywhere in this place, and of the inadequacy of the possibilities that exist to resist against these injustices.
I won’t say that I participated in the protests – because that wasn’t my intention. But regardless of intention my friend and I walked with the internationals who come every friday to peacefully resist against the separation wall which cuts Bil’in off from many dunams of village land. But in fact, we did the same as all the other internationals – we walked up when things seemed calm, and then ran back as tear gas canisters rained down all around us. They call this “protesting”, but I think a fairer name would be “being attacked while trying to observe a protest”. The real protest, or what there was of one, was happening right up next to the wall and consisted mostly if not exclusively of Palestinians who are by continued exposure immune to the effects of tear gas and stand and shout curses, and throw rocks in a vain attempt to hit soldiers who can just duck down behind the wall that protects them.
The protest had a strange, ritualistic feeling to it – we breathed tear gas, they shot tear gas. It’s hard for me to call it “resistance”, because what is being resisted, what is made more difficult to any Israeli or Israeli institution because of this protest? Is it any trouble for them to rain the protestors with tear gas, probably donated or at least financed by the US? I suppose some people might read about or see pictures of these protests and wonder why Israel is so cruel to unarmed internationals, or so over-reactive to a few youth throwing stones at a fence that steals much of their town’s land. But would seeing these pictures really change anyone’s mind, anyone already convinced that Israel has a right to steal land in the West Bank? And for most pro-Israeli viewers, the presence of a single rock thrower would probably justify a full out armed assault on the protesters, let alone a hail of tear gas canisters.
It is true that the protests in Bil’in have achieved some victories. They played a part in motivating the supreme court in ordering the military to slightly alter the route of the apartheid wall, liberating some of the village’s land. Before the wall was moved, apparently the protests were attended not only by internationals and a few militant palestinians who don’t care if they are arrested, but by the whole village. Once even, after the decision had been made by the IDF had yet to move the wall, the village used an earth moving machine to push at the gate – the response to this was heavy gunfire from the Israelis. But since the wall has moved the protests have apparently been smaller. This is understandable – what more can the protests achieve? Could they really pressure the evacuation of Modi’in Illit, built on the villages lands and on the East side of the Green line? Israel believes that settlement will remain under Israeli jurisdiction in a final status agreement with the Palestinians, and the Palestinian leadership seems to have agreed.
What comes across most strongly, either at the protest or sitting on the roof deck of my the fine home of my friend’s family in Bil’in, is the awesome power of Israeli colonization and the inadequacy of all possible resistance against it. When you look out you don’t just see a wall and a few trailers, you see the construction of modern cities with tower blocks. And when you realize these tower blocks are built on land stolen from the Palestinians not in ’48 but in ’67, you see explicitly that these civilian buildings are part of a military project, not a domestic matter but a matter of inter-national relations, because they exist to pre-determine the international boundary of the Israeli state. The appropriate response to a military instillation should be a military response, but no such response is possible that would not be immediately termed “terrorism” by Israel and the international media. What exists is literally a much stronger power wrestling with a much weaker power, and the weaker power simply does not have the tools it would need to resist effectively, at least not at this place in this time.
I shouldn’t allow it to come across that the separation barrier creates unimaginable physical suffering for the people of Bil’in. At least the family I visited have a remarkably self-sufficient backyard farm and grow much of their own vegetables and olive oil on their own property. They have lemon trees, olive trees, orange trees, pomello and avocado trees. They even grow their own wheat and while I was there I ate home made Palestinian bread, made from their own wheat which they crushed themselves, and cooked in a traditional Palestinian oven on a bed of rocks.
There are Palestinians, of course, who live in poverty. And on the whole, they live much poorer and with greater inequality in their society compared to the Israelis. But the principle issue with respect to colonization is not poverty, but dignity. The dignity of the villagers of Bil’in is defended by the protests so long as they cause a problem for Israel’s occupation of their lands – something I am unsure the protests currently do. And the dignity of the villagers is insulted by the apartheid wall, and by the construction of settlements on village land.