Among tear gas and injuries, Bil’in celebrates victory

Posted: June 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, The Settlements | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Hundreds gathered in the West bank village to witness the removal of the Separation Wall after more than six years of protest, but the IDF was in vindictive mood

Protesters march from Bil'in to the wall, June 24 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/activestills)

Protesters march from Bil'in to the wall, June 24 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/activestills)

Bil’in, West Bank – It was a hot Friday in Bil’in – one of those early summer days here that remind you what to expect come August. The crowd at the village’s center was unusually large: The weekly march to the fence—a protest which made this village an international symbol of unarmed resistance—was to take the form of a celebration, after the Israeli army has began moving the infamous barrier that separated Bil’in’s people from their land.

Some context: Instead of having its separation wall on the Green Line—the internationally-recognized border until 1967—Israel decided to have it run deep into the Palestinian territory, cutting through villages and neighborhoods, separating farmers from their lands and families from their loved ones, and most important, annexing to Israel lands which had excellent market value, for their proximity to the Israeli cities along the Mediterranean coastline. Under the pretext of “security concerns,” communities like Bil’in, Nil’in and Budrus saw their fields being taken away, olive trees uprooted, and valuable land annexed to nearby settlements.

Palestinian residents of these villages made two important choices: To fight for their lands—the source of most of their livelihood–and in doing so, to use popular, unarmed resistance. It wasn’t something new for Palestinians–general strikes and mass protests were common in the years leading to the first Intifada–only that this time, the Palestinian farmers weren’t alone: Almost from the beginning of the protest against the security barrier they were joined by international and Israeli activists.

You can read about the role these activists played in the struggle, and the effect it had on the Israeli society in this piece Joseph Dana and I wrote for The Nation a few months ago.

Every week, and sometimes every day, Palestinians and activists would march to site of the planned wall, confront the army and try to reach the lost lands. Some tied themselves to the bulldozers, while others sat on the road in front of it for hours. In places where the work was completed, the protesters tried to make it to the wall or the fence, occasionally crossing or cutting it. They were met with beating, tear gas, arrests and even live bullets.

A young Palestinian is seen injured during a protest against the wall in Bilin, April 2004 (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills)

A young Palestinian is seen injured during a protest against the wall in Bilin, April 2004 (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills)

Around the time the protest began, the people of Bil’in filed a petition to the Israeli high court, demanding the barrier be removed and their land returned to them. It was not an easy decision on their part: Petitioning to court is seen as recognition of the Israeli occupation and the authority of its institutions over the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, who have no civil rights or representation in those institutions. But the need to get even some of the land back overcame this argument.

The Israeli Supreme Court is a relatively liberal institution, but at the same time, it is extremely hostile to Palestinians – contrary to its public image, the court rarely rules against settlements or the army, and in most cases it wouldn’t even hear Palestinian petitioners. This time, however, even the Israeli court couldn’t ignore the obvious attempt to rob Bil’in’s people of their property. In a landmark verdict against the army and the defense ministry, the court ruled that the land was taken from Bil’in not to increase security, but to make way for the nearby mega-settlement Modi’in Ilit. It ordered a new barrier to be constructed in a route that would have some of the land returned to the people of Bil’in.

The court didn’t order the removal of Modi’in Ilit settlement, or the return of the land already built upon. It never does.

What happened next was even more shameful: the army didn’t carry out the verdict. Months and years passed, and the barrier–part fence, part wall—wasn’t moved. Only after an escalation of the demonstrations and a threat of contempt of court on behalf of the defense establishment, did the work on the new barrier begin.

A few days ago, after more than six years of struggle, the removal of the old security barrier near Bil’in began. the new barrier, already seen in the hills surrounding the village, will be a concrete wall.

All these years, the protest in Bil’in continued. Every Friday, dozens of Bil’in residents marched in the direction of their lost lands. Occasionally, some kids hurled stones at the soldiers, but most of the time the protest was peaceful and creative. Yet it was met with brutal oppression: Hundreds of people were injured. Two – a brother and a sister – killed. Warning – graphic images]. Dozens of Palestinians, many of them minors, were arrested and held without trial for months in military prison. At nights, the army raided the village’s homes (as seen in the video above, one of many), searching for suspects in “incitement” offenses, i.e. organizing protest.

One of these organizers, Abdallah Abu Rahmah, was tried for one year in military prison. When he finished his term, rather than releasing him, the army simply kept Abu Rahmah in prison, and meanwhile appealed the sentence. While serving his time, Abdallah met in prison his cousin, Adeeb, who was also arrested, tried and imprisoned. 99.8 percent of Palestinians’ trials end in conviction. Watch this emotional outburst by Adeeb in front of the soldiers in one of the protests:

Both Adeeb and Abdallah remained men of peace. Like the rest of the people of Bil’in, they didn’t let their persecution change them. During the worse days of the struggle, they kept declaring that they are fighting the army and the occupation, not Israelis or Jews. When Jawaher Abu Rahma died from IDF tear gas, her family and friends invited the Israeli activists to her funeral.

Here are some things Abdallah Abu Rahmah wrote in a public letter from Ofer military prison. The entire text can be found here. It’s more than worth reading.

I have been accused of inciting violence: this charge is also puzzling. If the check points, closures, ongoing land theft, wall and settlements, night raids into our homes and violent oppression of our protests does not incite violence, what does?

Despite the occupations constant and intense incitement to violence in Bil’in, we have chosen another way. We have chosen to protest nonviolently together with Israeli and International supporters. We have chosen to carry a message of hope and real partnership between Palestinians and Israelis in the face of oppression and injustice.

.

Tear gas, shot by the army, inside a bulldozer driven by a Palestinian protester, during the weekly protest against the Israeli wall in the West Bank village of Bilin, June 24, 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

Tear gas, shot by the army, inside a bulldozer driven by a Palestinian protester, during the weekly protest against the Israeli wall in the West Bank village of Bilin, June 24, 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

Politicians love to co-op success, so Bil’in saw visits from Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad and Israeli Palestinian MK Muhamad Barakeh prior to yesterday’s festive protest. There were around 40 Israelis present, and many international activists. A few hundred Palestinians led the march. A pickup truck with large speakers played music. At the village’s edge, a bulldozer joined the convoy—the people of Bil’in wanted to take part in dismantling the fence that had become the symbol of their misfortunes, and their lack of freedom.

The army had other plans. When the bulldozer approached the old fence, dozens of tear gas canisters were shot simultaneously at the crowd. Live fire was used to stop the bulldozer. A teargas grenade penetrated the driver’s cockpit. He barely made it out alive out. The rest of the crowd—unarmed and not threatening anyone—was sprayed with “skunk,” a stinking liquid, one of the most humiliating and dehumanizing crowd control weapons there is (and naturally, an Israeli invention). A few brave Palestinians in storm suits were trying to collect samples of the awful liquid (to be analyzed later, I was told), before collapsing from the effect of the smell and the gas. It all happened so fast that many members of the media didn’t have time to put on their gas masks and started chocking themselves.

Standing a couple of hundred meters back, I couldn’t open my eyes and could feel my throat burn. I figure the army shot around 60 or 70 canisters at the protesters.

A protester, injured from tear gas, lies on the ground during the weekly protest against the Israeli wall in the West Bank village of Bilin, June 24, 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

A protester, injured from tear gas, lies on the ground during the weekly protest against the Israeli wall in the West Bank village of Bilin, June 24, 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

As we walked back to the village, everyone around me was coughing and choking. Yet the spirit was high. The unbelievable violence – aimed against unarmed people, for the defense of a fence that is already been taken down (the new barrier is up and ready for a long time now), showed how scared and confused the army is, how lost it is because of the immoral and self-destructive mission it carries out.

In the next few days, the army will continue to dismantle the fence it so vigorously protected yesterday.

The people of Bil’in might continue the weekly demonstration. Even with the removal of the old barrier and the construction of a new one, much of their land won’t be returned to them. The simple fact is that as long as the occupation goes on, the Palestinians have every right to resist it.

Israeli army begins to remove parts of the separation barrier, Bil'in, June 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/activestills.org)

Israeli army begins to remove parts of the separation barrier, Bil'in, June 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/activestills.org)

Whether they chose to do so, or prefer to heal their community from the long struggle – it’s up to them. But the victory of Bil’in’s people—however partial or limited it was—has taught us a valuable lesson: Israel will have to either give up the occupation or to considerably escalate its methods for maintaining it, at a growing cost. Either way, the occupation’s days are numbered.

A protester in Bil'in, October 2009 (Photo: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

A protester in Bil'in, October 2009 (Photo: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)


IDF on Bil’in: spins, half-truths, lies

Posted: January 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements | Tags: , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Jawahar Abu-Rahmah of Bil’in was rushed to Ramallah hospital last Friday during an unarmed protest against the fence in her village. She passed away Saturday morning.  Her death gained relatively  wide publicity, and the IDF scramble to  pushing its own version of the story, first claiming that Abu-Rahamh took part in a violent riot, and later saying she wasn’t even there, and the whole thing was a Palestinian hoax.

As it happens, I was in Bil’in on Friday, so I got the opportunity to compare the IDF’s version with what I saw with my own eyes, and with what I know. The IDF spokesperson, and even anonymous IDF sources, are seen by Israeli and international journalists as a credible source of information. This story, I believe, shows why Israeli and Foreign journalists should be more careful before repeating the army’s version of events. They should certainly make an effort to bring other sides of the story, and to put things in a wider context.

Here is my take on the version the IDF has been pushing regarding the death of Bil’in’s Jawaher Abu-Rahmah.

1. The event: “a violent riot”

On Friday, the army treated the protest in Bil’in as a usual one. An army spokesperson’s tweet didn’t mention a higher level of violence than in previous weeks, or in other villages:

~250 rioters in Bil’in now hurling rocks @ IDF forces-area declared closed military zone to prevent escalation but open to village residents

Only after the death of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah was reported, the need to justify the killing came (check out this tweet by Peter Lerner, Spokesman of the Central Command). The IDF Spokesperson released photos of a few kids throwing stones and one unidentified glowing object, later described by the army as a fire bomb. The pictures were clearly taken from a great distance, but that was all the army had for its attempt to  create the impression that the soldiers were defending their lives against a violent mob.

The truth couldn’t have been further – as those who have actually been to the Bil’in know. The protest in Bil’in takes place on a road leading to the fence. Usually, most protesters simply try to march towards the fence, until the army decides to disperse them with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets. When stone-throwing does occur, it usually begins after the army disperses the march. Very few people throw stones – and it’s usually some Palestinian kids, the “Shabab”. As for the soldiers, they are standing on the hill, heavily protected, and the stones normally pose no real danger for them.

Last Friday, the march was larger then usual. Even PM Salam Fayyad was there, though he didn’t venture outside the village. The march was completely peaceful – there was even a brass band present. From what I could see, the tear gas was fired by the IDF well before the march got even close to the fence – and it was fired directly at the unarmed protesters walking on the main road. I remember feeling surprised, because the soldiers usually let the march go a bit further before they shoot.

You could see it all very clearly on the following video, taken on last Friday’s protest. You can see how far the soldiers are from the protest when they start shooting tear gas. The stones are thrown [min: 3:20] off the road. An effort by the protesters (including a brave sax player) to march again to the fence is met with more gas – this time, the canisters are shot directly at the protesters [min 4:00], in the illegal way that led to the death of Bassam Abu-Rahmah last year.

In my own army service I faced real riots in the West Bank, when hundreds of people were hurling stones at us in a small city alley. Scary as it was, we didn’t use as much fire power as the army now does in Bil’in and in other villages I visited. Not only that the death of Bassam and Jawahar Abu-Rahmah is not surprising, I actually think we are lucky more people weren’t injured or killed in those unarmed protests.

2. The context: “The fence will be removed anyway”

Facing a PR meltdown, the army held a “special briefing” on Monday for bloggers (all of them from the rightwing, pro-IDF side), in which it put forward its own narrative. This sort of unofficial briefing took place with military reporters in all of Israel’s major news organizations. One of the interesting points in the briefing referred to the context of the demonstration. This is from a report by one those bloggers:

Israel’s High Court ruled that the IDF must change the path of the security fence to go outside of Bil’in, thereby agreeing to the Palestinian claims. The new fence is under construction and should be completed within a few months. The IDF will remove the older fence once the new one is complete — therefore the current riots are completely propaganda.

But here are the facts: The huge Israeli settlement Matityahu-East was built on private Palestinian land, taken from farmers in five villages, including Bil’in (this is not surprising: every story in the West Bank ends up being about a settlement). According to a Supreme Court ruling from 2007, the route of the “Security Barrier” was planned with the intention of annexing even more land to that settlement. The Court ordered the fence to be re-built on a different route – one that returns some of the land to the village.

More than three years after the verdict, the army still hasn’t moved the fence. Only recently, when it was about to be charged with contempt of court,  did the work on the new route begin. And again – even with the fence moved, much of the village’s land won’t be returned, so Bil’in’s farmers have every right to continue their protest, both morally and according to international law.

3. The Death: Maybe it was a Palestinian who killed her

The unofficial briefings were part of the army’s counter-attack, initiated in Central Command [UPDATE: Yossi Gurvitz reveals that it was Central Command CO himself, Gen Avi Mizrachi, who led the briefing], which is in charge of Bil’in and its surrounding areas (and not in the IDF spokesperson unit). It was meant to discredit the Palestinian version, cast doubt, and more than anything else, move the burden of proof to the other side. This last fact is important: While the Palestinians presented a medical report on the death of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah as well as a few testimonies, the army never investigated the event. The IDF spokesperson didn’t release an official statement, and all the army’s comments were released through anonymous sources and in informal briefings.

Among other things, the army claimed (through proxies) that Jawahar Abu-Rahmah died of cancer, that she wasn’t present at the demo, and that only after her death (from natural causes), the Palestinians decided to claim she died of tear-gas poisoning.

The army went as far as spreading a rumor that Jawahar was killed by a family member:

IDF has heard about the honor killing theory, that Abu Rahma was stabbed to death for being pregnant as a family “honor killing”, however they cannot confirm this and the direction they currently are investigating is death from a chronic illness.

As I said, I was present at the demo and I saw an ambulance leave the site twice. I don’t know who was in the ambulance, but this tweet by Jewish Voice for Peace director (who was present in Bil’in) mentions Jawahar by her name:

One eye injury and Jawahar – sister of bassem who was killed last year at a demo -was taken to the hospital for gas inhalation.

The tweet was posted on 2:36PM, while the protest was still ongoing (I left Bil’in shortly before 4 pm) and long before anyone knew of the deterioration in Jawahar’s condition.

Numerous eyewitnesses – all going on record – account for Jawahar’s presence on the hill at the edge of the village, overlooking the demo. The long-range gas grenades were landing nearby, and the western wind carried the gas to the hill and onto the edge of the village. I was standing on a hillside and felt it myself. People around me were constantly coughing, and we all had red eyes.

Those witnesses also describe, in detail, Jawahar’s evacuation to the hospital.

Islam Abu Rahmah: “I was standing with Jawahar, her mother and my grandmother in order to watch the confrontation that was going on just in front of us, in the area of the fence. The wind moved the gas in our direction, making our eyes itch and tear up. After that she (Jawahar) began to cough and foam at the mouth. Soon after that she became weak and lay down on the ground. I managed to carry her as far as the Abu Khamis home, about 40 meters in the direction of her house, but then she became terribly weak, vomited violently and foamed at the mouth. She was having difficult breathing and lost her sense of direction. We got a few women to help her by waving a paper fan over her face in order to provide some oxygen. After that she was taken to the hospital.”

Saher Bisharat, the ambulance who evacuated Jawahar: “We received Jawahar near the entrance that is parallel to the fence, which is where the demonstration was taking place. She was still partially conscious, answered questions, and said that she had choked on gas. I took her straight to the hospital.” (Click here to view the Red Crescent report).

During the infamous bloggers’ briefing, the IDF rejected claims that the tear gas it uses can be lethal:

We have never heard of anyone dying from inhaling tear gas (5 years of experience with this particular tear gas). There were hundreds of other rioters in the same open air location, in broad daylight and yet she was the only one “allegedly” affected by the gas.

This is a lie. There have been numerous reports on people hurt by inhaling IDF tear gas, including a number of fatalities. +972 Magazine reported on the death of a Jerusalem toddler from tear gas in Silwan just a few months ago. But when you only call your supporters to the special briefing, such details are not likely to be mentioned.

One last point on that: Israel has released – through anonymous sources, of course – personal medical details from the file of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah (no privacy for Palestinians). An Israeli journalist told me yesterday that it was the Shabak (Israel’s internal security service) that was sent to Ramallah to obtain the dead woman’s file from the local hospital. Today’s Haaretz article confirmed this: It states [Hebrew] that there was an “intelligence effort” to obtain details on the case. I, for once, find it incredible that this is what our secret service does: help the PR effort and the cover up of what seems like an unlawful killing. But maybe I’m too naive.

4. Controlling the media

One of the key elements for Israel’s partial success in spinning the flotilla incident last May in its favor was its ability to control the information. Some 60 journalists on board the Mavi Marmara were detained by Israel, and all their media and equipment was confiscated. Later, IDF spokesperson released only the footage that served its narrative. That’s how we got to see several soldiers attacked – but we never saw how nine passengers died, and dozens more were wounded.

On Friday, the army blocked the main entrance to Bil’in. While it didn’t stop Israeli and international protesters from joining the demonstrations (they marched through the hills to the village), I know of at least one international press crew that was turned away.

Without coverage from western media organizations, whatever happens during a protest becomes a matter of different versions – the army’s vs. the Palestinians’. In such events, the local press, and some of the international reporters as well, tend to prefer the IDF’s story.

Today, the IDF’s version on the death of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah is a front page story on the daily tabloid Maariv (the headline: “Bil’in conspiracy?”). Yedioth gives the army’s claims a full two-page spread, with an op-ed stating that this is another A-Durah-style fabrication. Haaretz and Yisrael Hayom also mention the IDF claims on their headlines, and one should separately note  the clear words of Haaretz’s editorial on the affair today.

The bottom line is that the army didn’t present one piece of evidence in its effort to avoid responsibility for the death of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah and to discredit the unarmed protest, the people of Bil’in and their supporters in Israel. To this moment, the army didn’t even release an official statement, but instead spread doubts, rumors and lies. Unfortunately, for much of the Israeli public, this seems to have been enough.