Monday, June 06, 2005
From Bethlehem to Bi'lin
posted by: peacerider at 1:32 PM

Bidayat...The sounds are washing over me. Washing away the stains of gas, tempering my frustration; soothing my confusion. Palestinian music, "not from another Arabic country but from here" - from this land which I am now firmly placed upon with my two tired feet, tired heart and bursting mind. One tired foot begins to tap as my confused head sways. The clarinet mingles with the oud and then the drums begin to thump. Without thinking I am not remembering, just swaying and then a small smile as a familiar tune rises from the air around. Local anesthetic for a general pain. Light cultural relief. "We hope that you will enjoy this evening's performance." The drums speak to one another, beating out their own rhythms, eye contact retained. Another slight smile - the hint of satisfaction, the grin spreads as the other band members relent and begin to join their comrades. Wissam hugs his buzuk as if it is a continuation of his self. I close my eyes and replace the world with an internal sound, which surrounds all of us. Even as I write, I do so with my eyes in my ears. "This next song is from the Palestinian folk...and it will be the last piece"; the clapping from the audience grows louder. It claps a different beat, but the same. Together, the stage and the seats perform as one. Voices mumble unable to keep to their role as the passive audience. I don't know the words, but I know the rhythm as it takes over both my feet and my head. It's so powerful. I am not remembering. I walk away. I cannot forget.

This morning (Friday 3 June) I left Beit Sahour to go to Bi'lin, a village of approximately 1,700 Palestinians which lies to the West of Ramallah and 5km from the Green Line. The primary source of income for Bi'lin is agriculture. Generation after generation have cultivated their 4,500 dunam of land; tending olive, fig and almond trees. As I write and as you read, the 'separation barrier' is winding its way towards Bi'lin, and threatens to appropriate 2,000 dunam of its land. Redisents have been forced to witness the uprooting of their liveli-hood, as the Isaeli Army rips up their olive trees and constructs Israel's answer to Israel's problem. In Bi'lin the separation barrier is actually a 'Fence' and despite looking less imposing and permanent than Bethlehem's concrete Wall, its visible transience is misleading. The Fence eats up more land as it necessitates a greedy system of trenches and patrol roads, which easily swallows an additional 6m of land on either side. The Fence, which almost touches the houses of the village, threatens to separate Bi'lin from 43% of its land, upon which the ultra-orthodox settlement of Kiryat Sefer will be further enlarged. This settlement is already built wholly on land taken from the adjoining Palestinian villages.

By invitation of Bil'in, two coaches full of Israeli and international activists joined them in a non-violent demonstration. We went to show our solidarity; to fight along side the people of Bi'lin against the military face of this injustice and ultimately to prevent the further destruction of their livelihoods by reclaiming their just control over their land and olive trees upon it.

As always, I was amazed at the commitment of my fellow Israelis and their fellow Palestinians, which was demonstrated by the organisation of the day and the activist 'unit' through which it transfigured. We were well briefed, transported to a village close to Bi'lin, where we were met by military jeeps and small shy children, who were sent by their parents to bring the us bottles of cold water. We were forced to dodge the jeeps which persistently drove towards us while we followed the lead of the experienced Israeli's activists and continued to march up to the waiting mini-van, which took us directly into the centre of Bi'lin. Bi'lin was buzzing. Flags carpeted the crowd, media dodged between the public and public figures, as members of the Israeli Knesset and Palestinian politicians stood together draped in kaffirs; the former independent Presidential candidate, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi; West Bank Hamas leader, Hassen Yousef; the Palestinian Minister of the Wall Affairs, Ahmad Majdalani, and Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli member of the Knesset.

Members of the traveling circus complemented Bi'lin's own 'resistance street theatre' as they stood on each others shoulders, donned red noses and matching kaffirs and juggled their batons. Announcements were shouted from the mosque, above the sign, "Peace needs Bridges not Walls". Another corner boasted an exhibition of Bi'lin's creativity, and bearing witness to their determined resistance. Examples of past Actions stood, lay or hung on display; these included a resident chained to an olive tree, a resident with a noose around his neck, a resident bolted to the ground below a 'fence', and three 'human containers', standing to attention besides a shining pile of empty tear gas shells and sound grenades. A baton was dropped, and then another.

For the past three months Bi'lin's residents have been fighting the Israeli Army and their bulldozers using the only resources they have; their solidarity and resourceful determination. I watched in amazement as 1500 home made Palestinian flags were paraded. I was left wondering why Bethlehem hadn't put up such a fight during the formation of our ghetto? But villages such as Budrus had, and after 55 demonstrations, many arrests and injuries they had succeeded. Through non-violent resistance, Budrus had halted the construction of the Wall and prevented it from destroying their main olive groves. Inspiration in Success. Desperation in the extent of the fight; as every village along the route of the Wall is forced to respond, either as the 'defeated', in 'detention', or simply as victims - or like Budrus - surprised 'David's' against this unstoppable, merciless Goliath.

Our colourful and diverse crowd chanted our way down to the olive groves. We didn't have to walk far, after all Palestine is (was) one huge olive grove. Despite the burnt tree stumps and bare earth, it still blooms with pride. Beautiful. The Fence scars the hills; it crawls across the landscape, edging towards Bi'lin, with a wide berth of desolate dust guiding it further towards their lives. We walked as one; old, young, men and women. About 150 conscience Israelis, with many international activists camouflaged amongst them. Photo-journalists, camera men and women. Quakers, ISM, news organisations. Anarchists, peace lovers, academics, visitors, residents, mothers, sisters, children, workers, 'livers'.

On the facing hill the green 'olive' fatigues careered down to meet our colourful delegation. The guns stood behind their riot shields. Although we were still about 150 meters from the start of the Fence, our physical movement was continued verbally as the loud speakers echoed the crowds resignation; a truth which was was demonstrated by the beginning of the Friday prayer session. Bi'lin's residents stood in amongst their trees, lining up row after row on their land, which has bore witness to generation after generation and now to desecration. They knelt, touching the soil with their foreheads; peaceful resignation, resistance - before God.

The prayers stopped, soldiers strutted forwards. In the same second as stones were thrown the crowd turned and stumbled up the hill. I could hear the responding shots of gas, but their effects were yet to meet our hiding faces. We followed the flow, which took us over rocks, dodging branches and boulders. More shots and rubber bullets, more shouts, more stones. Young men swung their catapults as the army fired their rounds of suffocating cloud. The clouds would land behind us, in front of us; besides us. Still moving away - or nearer? It was hard to tell. Medics picked up those whose respiratory systems had surrendered, although their legs stumbled on as their eyes cried. We ran towards a courtyard of houses; the gas landed amongst us. We climbed over fences and barbed wire, and still it chased us. I wanted to throw rocks. I wanted the rocks to stop being thrown. I wanted the soldiers to stop playing with their guns. I wanted the old woman next to her house to move her hijab away from her mouth and to take her hand off of the wall upon which she was leaning.

We would pause for a little. Listen to the silence further down the hill, while listening to the muffled shouts surrounding us. Eyes and noses were streaming. Coughing, spitting, throwing, walking further away/ towards. Another bang. Another cloud of gas. Relax; don't inhale too deeply, keep your mouth shut. I held my hand out as onions were hastily torn and distributed. I pushed it under my scarf. We moved on. Soldiers barricaded themselves into disused houses at the edge of the village and continued their offensive as we continued our retreat.

Meanwhile, the Army (attempting to keep pace with Bi'lins own resourcefulness) used a new weapon - a vehicle that emitted sound at high frequencies, which caused dizziness and pain, to which the Palsolidarity report commented:

Villagers quickly distributed an effective defense: cotton earplugs. Another useless bit of offensive wonders what's coming next?

As the panic, running and shouting began to settle, I tried to touch base with those I could no longer see.

A phone call to a friend:
"You ok?"
- "Ok, and you?"
"Were fine, whose left down there?"
- "Just the Israelis and the Army."

I liked the distinction; no longer the 'Israeli Army' but the activists against the passive. The passive shouted, 'You should be ashamed of yourselves', the activists returned the complement. Two were arrested. One of whom had served a two year sentence for 'refusing' to serve in this Army which was once again punishing his moral consciousness. The arrests were illegal, as the arresting officers refused to identify themselves or to tell them what they had been arrested for. Both were charged and released on bail, with conditions not to return to the route of the separation barrier in the Bil'in area for fifteen days. A conversation with another Refuser on our return journey revealed,

They [the Army] don't really like arresting Israeli's - its bad press. But sometimes they want to get us out the way so they put us to one side by arresting us all, and then they can shoot the Palestinians. Today I was arrested [I frowned]. Well they were busy, so they told me to go over to the other soldiers and tell them I was arrested. [Thus explaining why we were able to have this conversation.]

I asked him about the interaction between the 'Israeli's' and the 'Army'; The two spoke the same language, and although they held different reference points and definitions of the notions of 'peace', 'justice', 'citizenship' and even 'religion' (as one loyal Jewish boy wore a kippah under his cap), it was clear that they held more authority than 'internationals' (who are often viewed as interfering) and certainly more than 'the Arabs'. The Refuser told me that he enjoyed speaking with the soldiers - and that they did speak and not just shout. I asked him what he thought they had achieved today and he replied that the soldiers were forced to temper their brutality against the residents of Bi'lin; that they may have made some of the soldiers question what they were doing; and of course that they had stood in solidarity with the Palestinians, encouraging them in their fight.

I had a similar conversation with another Israeli activist; a man more than twice the Refuser's age, who worked with Ta'ayush, and who I wished had a daily question and answer session on prime-time TV. The man held authority when he spoke, and he spoke with conviction. Instead of asking him questions, he told me his answers. He told me how important it was for Bi'lin to persist in their futile cat and mouse demonstrations, that the Actions would have a cumulative effect by gradually claiming more and more media attention, until neither the Israeli nor the international politicians could deny the legitimacy of the resistance. He was disappointed with the two bus loads of Israeli activists, and wished that more would join them in their fight for justice:

This is not a matter of Religion or nationality, but what is happening here is a disgrace. These olive trees mean the difference between starvation and survival; and I don't just mean for one family but for half of Bi'lin.

He casts his eyes to the ground and let them wander to the blackened branches of the nearby olive 'skeletons'... I ask what we had achieved today, which leads him to mumble about International ultimatums. "In sh'allah", as my less cynical friends would say, but we can't just sit back and watch, and do nothing. We can't - No Way.

"I don't think I could go every week" a photographer mutters; I'm not sure if she is asking herself or telling herself. And neither am I. A real contradiction; you feel so inspired and yet so frustrated and at times it seems so very futile. We both agree we have admiration for those that do; For both those who can walk away and yet still take the bus back Friday after Friday, and for those for whom there are no buses and for whom the only alternative is to either sit and watch or to pick up the stones and throw them against the clouds - 'the cumulative effect'?... Of weeks of gas clouds? A village which continuously holds a faint sniff of tear gas, where small rocks litter the route to the olive fields, and where its children have adopted a new hobby of collecting empty bullet shells and gas canisters. Meanwhile the use of onions for culinary purposes brings a too violent association to be appetising...

Two of my friends from the UK were visiting this week. I took them to Jerusalem, they saw the Nativity church and Shepherds fields, they enjoyed the travelling circus when they travelled to Dhisehe refugee camp and before they were taken on a tour of the camp including, "the triangle of death" and the "child martyr Kifah's house". They had to take the mountain route past the check-point to visit the famous soap factory of Nablus. They were shown the new women's internet centre and the martyr's graveyard in Balata camp. They ate humous and fresh figs in Hebron, before a tour of the desolate Old City and patriotic settlement areas led by a veteran member of the Christian Peace Maker Team (CPT). I thought they were prepared for Bi'lin. They weren't. But, as painful as it was for them, they were glad to have witnessed the unconditional Army brutality and the chaos which the separation barrier has brought to the villages like Bi'lin.

Through bitter tears, one friend explained she was scared - not for herself but for those running around us; for the young boys who would expertly load their home-made catapults, but whom only minutes earlier had flashed a shy smile and asked her to take their photograph, and whom (if the Occupation is not ended) will in the too near future, be paying a more painful price for these small acts of resistance. She told me how shocking she found the organisation of the demonstration. How there is a real sense of camaraderie between the activists; "it's too normal for you all" she complained. My other friend had made a similar observation, he commented that it seemed like a well rehearsed play, where each actor took their roles and then performed with precision. Indeed our bus briefing had been accurately re-enacted. We marched, the soldiers approached, rocks were thrown as tear gas and sound grenades were launched over our heads and the arrests began. Their reaction forced my introspection. It required me to examine my own reference point of what was no- longer-shocking. The army's reaction was merely an extension of their check-point mentality. The injustice and futility of the day's events was a reflection of every act of theoretical and practical resistance to this Occupation.

Indeed, I stood talking with friends I hadn't seen since a previous demonstration. I had automatically worn a scarf and trainers this morning in anticipation to running up away from disproportional Army force and covering my mouth from their gas. However, the 'camaraderie' I found to be a source of strength. I felt inspired by the routine as if it was a statement of hope - 'that we will not give up' - and that 'we will stand and fight together', week after week; day by day. Today had indeed been foretold by the banal announcements on the bus here, but its accuracy was by forced experience whereby lawyers' phone numbers were distributed through wisdom and not one which triggered a preordained effect. The announcements on the return journey gave out this same mixed message - of hope and despair:

Who has a car and can go and pick up the two arrested Israeli's please let us know. They should be released before Shabatt (7pm)... There's a demonstration against the Wall at Salfit tomorrow, starting at eight in the morning.

From one Action to the next... A new friend leans over and says, "You're welcome to come tomorrow", I reply I can't come to Salfit, so he clarifies, "No, for tea at our house - not everything in Israel is demonstrations." No, unfortunately, for villages such as Bi'iln and Salfit, this is true.

Meanwhile, my friends return to the UK. I asked them what the 'highlight' of their trip was. After an instant response of "there were plenty of 'low-lights'" there was a pause and then, "The kids - the kids really made this bearable." They both said that after only ten days they would return home "different" people; they had been forced to examine their definitions of 'authority' and of 'media labels' such as 'conflict', 'terrorism' and of course 'security', as well as their priorities as individuals; of legitimises of the British government and as global citizens.

On their last night in Bethlehem, we went to see the local band play, Bidayat, which means "Beginnings" in Arabic. Traditional Palestinian music played by young Palestinians and enjoyed by a mixed international and Palestinian audience. I inhaled a deep sense of relief; from what I'm still unsure. I now exhale and feel really relieved to have written this, but have I told you too much? Maybe, but as a fellow activist shared, "to be truly universal, one must be truly personal."

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