Bil’in is the kind of village that no-one should know about. Nobody ever had a reason to go to Bil’in. There wasn’t anything to do.
Until 2005, when the Israeli government decided to construct the Apartheid Wall on the hills of Bil’in. Ever since 2005 after the Friday prayers the villagers march to the Wall (in Bil’in it’s actually a Fence) every single Friday to protest. International and Israeli peace activist have joined the Palestinians in Bil’in. The non-violence of the Friday demonstration is in sharp contrast with the violence that is used by the Israeli army (IDF). The Friday demonstration in Bil’in has thus become the symbol of non-violent resistance against the Wall and the occupation.
One of the leaders of the popular committee of Bil’in is Abdullah Abu Rahma. Because of his non-violent struggle he is also called the “Gandhi of the West Bank”. In December 2009 Abu Rahma was taken from his bed and ever since then he’s been imprisoned in an Israeli cell.
Now that I’m in the Bethlehem area I decide to join the Friday demonstrations in Bil’in. Participation is something you have to give due consideration, because the army can use violence. Hence the reaction of the director of the centre I volunteer with. He said bluntly: ”Please be careful Ruben, we don’t need another martyr.”
The calm before the storm.
The village gives the impression of being deserted, but more and more activists pour in. The press is clearly present too. Cameramen and photographers in every corner. Every language in the world can be heard around you. Then, it seems as if you are preparing for “battle”. People exchange information on how to deal with tear gas, because the question is not if the soldiers will shoot tear gas canisters, but when and how often. I see a cameraman with a gasmask hooked on his belt and photographers with army or crash helmets (to prevent head injuries caused by canisters). Meanwhile, the crowd is growing. More and more people and more and more Palestinian flags. Suddenly I see an American activist pass by and he’s handing out packs of impregnated cleaning tissues. Not to clean, but when inhaled, the alcohol in the tissues diminishes the effect of the tear gas. An ambulance drives through the crowd, stops and stands by. The next moment I see a Palestinian doctor dressed in a white coat, walking through the crowd. “Right, this is going to get serious”, I think to myself
At around 1pm the Friday prayers are over. The Palestinians leave the mosque and “march” right through the crowd to take the lead, followed by all the international and Israeli activists. The procession finally starts moving. I estimate there are 150 persons or so. We walk out of the village and Palestinian youngsters sing all kinds of songs and clap along. “It seems as if we are going to war”, I think. I had been advised not to go any further than the last line of houses of the village, but once I arrive at that line it’s kind of hard to stay there, because group of German seniors is passing me by to the left and right..
1. The crowd is growing.
2. The “march” begins.
3. We walk out of the village.
Picture this: outside the village of Bil’in there are vast olive orchards. A path runs right through the middle of those orchards. This path is about 400 meters long and ends at the Fence in the middle of nowhere.
1. The olive orchard and in the background the path that ends at the Fence.
2. The Fence…
Behind that Fence, armed soldiers are waiting for us. The crowd moves down (and up) that path singing and clapping and finally arrives at the Fence. A universal “battle hymn” rises when a voice shouts: “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR!”, and the crowd answers: “OCCUPATION NO MORE!”. The voice continues: “FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, EIGHT!” and the crowd shouts: “ISRAELI FASCIST STATE!”.
This chant is repeated, but in the middle of the third repetition we suddenly hear three fierce cracks: “TACK, TACK, TACK…and consequently a screeching hissing sound. Tracks of smoke in the sky. The first wave of tear gas canisters falls down on us and we weren’t doing anything but standing and singing. One of the Palestinian leaders starts to shout: INTERNATIONALS, INTERNATIONALS, INTERNATIONALS!!! urging the foreigners to get the hell out of there, because they don’t want to have injured foreigners. By that time (a few seconds after the firing of the first canisters) there are white clouds of smoke everywhere and the sound of stamping feet is getting louder and louder as everybody runs for it. Not only from the gas, but also because the Israeli soldiers are entering through the Fence to arrest activists. And an arrest might lead to deportation, so: LEG IT!!
1. Having arrived at the Fence, Israeli soldiers are waiting for us.
2. Protesters are standing and singing near the Fence.
In the chaos that evolves, I run down the path like crazy and I suddenly smell the scent of gunpowder, just like the stuff used in fireworks, but then much more acid. I can deal with that smell, but a second later….it’s incredible. You inhale the gas and it sets your throat and your lungs ablaze. It’s horrible, you don’t get air anymore and you have to fight against panic and puking. Your eyes feel the worst, as if soap is in them, but then a hundred times more painful. You have to run as hard as you can and at the same time you have to avoid rocks and stones and people who are standing still because they can’t breathe anymore, while you don’t get any air yourself and your eyes are completely stuck. And stumbling…… is not a good idea!!!
After a minute of running you’re out of harm’s way (for the time being) and you can recover for a minute. I turn around and as soon as my eyes are open again, I see three Palestinian youngsters with covered faces throwing stones right in front of me. They are throwing the stones into the orchard. A second later I understand why, because suddenly I see an Israeli soldiers coming out of the orchard running towards us. So they are trying to surround us from the flanks. There’s no option but to start running again in the direction of the village.
Throwing stones is new in Bil’in. In the beginning of the Friday demonstrations, throwing stones was strictly forbidden as it was considered a form of violence. The Israeli soldiers are so well protected that the youngsters might as well throw pieces of wadding at them. During the demonstrations that I participated in I saw that the stone throwing didn’t start any earlier than the firing of canisters.
1. Soldiers run down the path and re-group.
2 and 3. Canisters are being fired.
4 and 5. Teargas
Then you see and hear another wave of canisters screeching through the sky to fall down on us. The crowd starts running again in the direction of the village. This continues until everybody is pushed back to the village boundaries.
At a distance I can see that the soldiers are in retreat. At the village boundary protesters are coughing up the last remnants of tear gas. Gasping, puffing and tears everywhere. The village doctor offers everybody who is affected by the gas a bit of cleaning fluid containing alcohol on a tissue. Some sniff an onion. The Palestinian youngsters return from the orchards. And then people joke and laugh and get photographed with each other. In the meantime the first service taxi vans enter the village and the activists leave Bil’in. Silence is restored once again. And it goes on like this every Friday in Bil’in. Every Friday the same images.
1. soldiers in retreat down the path
2. getting photographed together
Bil’in is strange combination of a tourist attraction and a deadly serious event. Sometimes it goes terribly wrong. Like in August 2006 when an Israel activist was hit in the head by a rubber coated steel bullet. He survived but has brain damage. In April 2009 Bassem Abu Rahma, a villager of Bil’in, was shot to death by the Israely army. These (sometimes) fatal events are known to every (international) activist, but a feeling of solidarity urges you to participate. If there are no international and Israeli protesters, the violence used by the army would only get worse.
Bassem Abu Rahma, shot to death during a Friday demonstration in April 2009.
At YouTube you can watch countless films about the demonstrations in Bil’in.
The demonstrations in Bil’in often have a theme. The Israeli attack on the Gaza Freedom Boats (May 31st) was decisive for the theme on the 4th of June (the Friday after the attack). This boat (built around a car) “set sail” towards the Fence. On June 11th the theme was the World Championship. Eleven boys walked to the Fence dressed in the outfit of the “Palestinian National Selection” to throw footballs (instead of stones) to the Israeli soldiers. In the beginning of 2010 the theme was – for obvious reasons – “Avatar”.
Postscript: on Friday 31st of December 2010 Jawaher Abu Rahma (sister of Bassem Abu Rahma) was brought to the hospital after inhaling an excessive amount of teargas. On Saturday 1st of January 2011 she died of gas poisoning.