By Matthew Edwards
I first heard about the weekly protests at Bil’in and Nil’in on a cold and gray March day in 2008 while standing outside the Israeli consulate in San Francisco. I was told that for close to five years, first in Bil’in and then later in Nil’in, weekly protests were being organized by village popular committees against the building of the separation wall that was cutting off Palestinian villagers from their land. A fellow rebel against the empire had been critically wounded by Israeli soldiers while participating in one of these weekly protests at Nil’in near Ramallah, Palestine. I was on the streets that day because I needed to say publicly with the presence of my body that violence against protesters, the building of the separation wall, and the occupation itself are not acceptable with me.
The consulate demo ended with police whacking people with batons and a few arrests.
When D.A.M. was invited to attend the Friday protest in Bil’in on Nov. 13th it was accepted with little question that we needed to see with our own eyes what happens there. D.A.M.’s research prior to us leaving pointed to a few areas that seemed to act as flashpoints of direct confrontation between the IDF and settlers against Palestinians, Internationals, and Israeli activists. Along with Hebron and East Jerusalem, it was decided that Bil’in was a place that needed to be visited for a deeper understanding of the effects of militarism.
In the past two years there have been five murders of civilians by IDF troops at these weekly demos. Over a dozen people have been left in wheelchairs, maimed, shot with live ammunition, or are dealing with the effects of brain damage. Dozens more have been injured by rubber coated bullets and rocket propelled gas canisters. Hundreds if not thousands have been gassed.
When we got to the house of Iyad Bournat, a Bil’in Popular Committee member and the one who invited us to the protest, I met an Irish activist who produced from the bookshelf a high velocity teargas round. These palm length inch and a half diameter rounds are supposed to be fired from great distances and not at individuals. I was told that the particular round that I was holding in my hand was the one that killed Bassem Abu Rahme, the last death to occur at Bil’in in April 2009. He was shot in the chest from a few meters away with this “non-lethal” round. It was said he got up off the ground after the initial impact, took a few steps and collapsed suffering from hemothorax, or blood filling the lung cavities caused by blunt force trauma. This is the same type of round that struck Tristan Anderson and brought me to the consulate that gray March day.
After a series of speeches by local activists, Knesset members, PLO functionaries, and D.A.M., we marched to the fence. Alcohol wipes were passed out to help protesters breath during gas attacks. The smell and sting of tear gas is unforgettable. Even a few parts per million can be felt on the tip of the nose, in the back of the throat, or in the eyes. Besides the acidic twinge of gas was the sulfur undertone from the rocket propellent used to push the gas grenades faster and higher.
As the march rounded the village and opened up into what remained of the agricultural land, it was met by a small skirmish between the IDF forces and masked “shabab” – young men from the village. Over 60% of Bil’in was annexed by Israel when they began building the wall, meaning that the village has lost most of its access to the olive trees and other agricultural land. This was what the villagers were fighting for. The rocket propelled gas grenades produced their first injury of the day. An American had been hit in the head and was bleeding. He would be fine, later taken to a hospital for stitches.
We had heard that it was preferred for Internationals to go to Bil’in first before going to Nil’in. This way folks can acclimate somewhat to the nature of protest in Israel and Palestine. Bil’in’s protest has been going on for some time and because the fence was already in place the protest has turned into a contest of wills. Palestinians, Internationals, and Israelis endure gas attack after gas attack while trying to get to the gate of the fence. A squad of soldiers stands at the ready with rifles, shields, and gas grenades just incase any protester gets to close to the gate. On the hill above the gate more soldiers with rifle fired gas canisters stand prepared, firing in unison, trying to push the protesters back. Rocks are thrown by masked youth presumably from the village. Most hit the fence and bounce off harmlessly, others ricochet off of shields. Soldiers have been known to get injured but none that day.
If people weren’t killed on a regular basis it would almost seem a game. Under fire from multiple grenades one man was able to post a small Palestinian flag on the fence. As soldiers attempted to remove the flag he was met by a shower of stones. The army responded by using the vehicle-mounted gas delivery system that launches 30 canisters at once. Falling from the sky like rocks they blanket the area with thick smoke. Most of the internationals and Israelis had fallen back and the protest was called off. Those two hours seemed to go by like a snap of the fingers. Tea was served at various houses and stories of near misses by rocket grenades were told.
The next week I found myself in Nil’in. I was alone as the rest of D.A.M. was meeting individuals in the Golan Heights. I wasn’t totally sure why I’d decided to go to Nil’in. I hoped it want a silly sense of bravado. I really just wanted to see what it was like for people to truly put themselves on the line for what they believed in.
Two weeks, before activists had torn down one of the eight meter high concrete slabs to mark the fall of the Berlin wall. Last week, two activists were shot with live ammunition. The same was going to happen that day as well. The atmosphere at Nil’in was solemn. A hundred Palestinian males were praying together in an olive grove overlooking the protest sight while another hundred internationals and Israelis stood behind them. There were rumors that the Israeli secret service was going to arrest internationals. The night before the Israeli SS kidnapped a Palestinian activist from Bil’in.
The concrete wall separating Nil’in from the Israeli settlement of Modi’in Illit could be seen on the horizon. I understand now why Internationals are asked to go to Bil’in first. The protest at Nil’in covers a larger area that spans a kilometer of the wall. So while the action is dispersed across a larger area, that action takes a much more sinister form. The crack of live ammunition is unforgettable. The twang and pitch of the sound lets you know how close it came to you. While the wind was with us that day it did not stop the canisters from flying. The falling canisters from the vehicle-mounted systems were raining down on us. Huge plumes of gas were wafting into the settlement on the other side of the wall. Sections of the wall were billowing black smoke either from Molotov cocktails or burning tires. The Red Crescent was rushing into action with stretchers and gas masks as the live rounds fired into the crowd were meeting their marks. It was intense. I left after 3 or 4 hours. It went on longer. In the end people just started to go home. The protest was over.
A Jerusalem-based Israeli activist who has been going to these weekly protests since they began in 2005 told me why for the past few months he’s been training a team of medic to operate as support for the Red Crescent. “The injuries being sustained,” he said, “are horrible, but they can be planned for. They are the injuries that people get when they get shot by bullets or rockets. Some of those who’ve died did not have to. So we train people and supply them with the things they need to keep people stable until they can be driven to a hospital.” Later over drinks this same activist told me about his feelings about the weekly protests. “We’ve made Bil’in and Nil’in into symbols that can be understood by all people, including Israelis. People are fighting for their land in a real direct way. So yes, we’ve made symbols out of Bil’in and Nil’in, the walls were still built, and we’re still out there saying no. But people died creating those symbols, the walls are still wrong, and we’ll be back next week. We all fought to have people pay attention and the people in those villages have earned it.”