Monday, 11 January 2010

From Berlin to Bel'in

Jan 1

Last year saw the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a momentous occasion that allowed millions of East Germans to live and work in a newly united Germany. Yet walls still continue to cause suffering in other parts of the world. Not least, the controversial separation walls the Israelis have used to hem in Palestinians into Gaza and cities, towns and villages of West Bank in the name of keeping Israel secure.

Once such place is Bil'in, a small olive-growing village east of Ramallah. A section of wall cuts through the villagers' land, reportedly preventing them from reaching 60 percent of their crop.

          Bornat's wife, Tasaheel, lets Israeli soldiers know what's on her mind.

Since January 2005, residents have held weekly non-violent demonstrations on Fridays (although stones are sometimes thrown) in front of Israeli soldiers at the wall - protests that the army ruthlessly breaks up.

On the first day of a new decade in Bil'in, I found myself at the wrong end of the military stick.

I visited the home of Iyad Bornat, head of the Bil'in Popular Committee and organiser of the demonstrations. Over sweet mint tea, he showed us a "highlights" package of protests over the years, and followed this a video that wouldn't be shown on any major news network.

Iyad and his family

He showed footage of Bassem Abu Rahme, a friend of his who loved to play football, being hit in the chest and killed by an Israeli tear gas canister in April last year. In the film, which left nothing to the imagination, we could see the panic and grief surrounding his instant death. A brutal slaying.
Bornat then passed around the canister that killed his friend and told us of another villager who was arrested by Israeli authorities for stocking weapons - this man had simply collected tear gas canisters and other projectiles fired by the Israelis.

Bornat left us to play with his four young kids, Majd, Abdalkalik, Mohamed and Mayar (all of whom could hold a conversation in English, perhaps due to the number of foreign visitors to their home) as he went to pray in the mosque.

On his return around noon, we put down our glasses of gooey coffee and followed a colourful, upbeat procession to the gate - located on a hill overlooking the village. I kept my distance, admittedly because I was nervous, and watched as villagers (most of whom seemed to be affiliated with Fatah), Israeli activists, and foreign journalists and supporters stride to make their point to the three soldiers waiting for them behind a wire mesh fence in front of a command post.

Marching to the gate

They symbolically opened a gate "to their land" and called out to their foes, claiming that the wall was illegal and asking for permission to go and gather their crops. The Israelis used a loudspeaker to warn (for some reason they also used English) that "this is an illegal protest" (It is doubtful under international law that the walls are legal, but that didn't stop the soldiers making this statement) and moments later, the three soldiers started to lob tear gas canisters toward the demonstrators.

The protesters, many of whom sported gas masks or protected themselves with their keffiyeh scarves or plastic bags placed over their heads, scrambled back down the track to the village.

The cameraman is well prepared for tear gas

These people not so well prepared

But only momentarily. They returned several more times to determinedly make their point, only to have more tear gas thrown at them - downwind. (I saw a video later showing one soldier openly laughing at the protesters).

Itching to get a better view of proceedings, I found myself itching with tear gas in my eyes and lungs. My optical organs felt as if I'd rubbed them with a potent Mexican chili, it was hard to breathe and I was retching as I stumbled down the path. I just wanted to collapse on the ground, but I knew I had to keep going. I squinted from my mere slits at seasoned protesters using onions to stimulate their natural teardrop mechanisms and ease the agony. (I had stomach pains for the next three days.)

I stepped back from the action, and witnessed the Israeli command post further behind the line shoot tear gas projectiles, with a screeching din and bright white vapour trails. They also let off ear drum-piercing sound bombs.

Perhaps remembering what happened to Rahme, the crowd hastily scattered. After half a dozen or so more firings, the protesters called it a day and trudged back to their homes to recover and grab a bite to eat.

I'll never forget this day for my first encounter with a "chemical weapon," but this Friday, next Friday and every Friday until the wall comes down as it did in Berlin, the villagers will wake up knowing they likely will get a face and chest full of tear gas. They will also wake up knowing that a direct strike on them could mean they will never eat another olive or see their precious land again. The bravery, resolve and peaceful attitude of these men and their families is standing them in good stead and getting them noticed by the outside world.

Bil'in has two official websites in English and other languages. They show footage of the demonstrations and other activities, including the day I was present, and also the Israeli military's nighttime raids on the town.

Friends of Freedom and Justice - Bil'in

Bil'in a village of Palestine

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