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(en) Palestine-Israel, Media: Bil'in story of the Jerusalem Post - the Israeli English daily *

Date Sun, 07 May 2006 15:55:24 +0300


The violence typically begins as hundreds of protesters advance on
lines of badly outmanned troops trying to block the way to the
village's land, which lies on the other side of the fence. The pushing,
shoving and shouting, along with the troops' inability to keep the
protesters back, is what sets off the use of tear gas, concussion grenades,
batons, rubber bullets and, in at least one lethal incident, live fire.
'The army thought there were no Israelis present, then they saw that there were.
I heard the commander shout to his soldiers, "Go back to regular open-fire
orders, there are Israelis here."' - anti-fence activist Jonathan Pollak
From the city of Modi'in, just on the "Israel proper" side of the
Green Line, the drive to Bil'in takes you past the large haredi
settlement of Modi'in Illit, past the IDF checkpoint and along
twisting roads that pass through a couple of other Palestinian
villages before reaching this village of about 1,500 people. The
Friday demonstration leaves at about 1 p.m. from the local mosque
after prayers.

There are dozens of media people here from all over, including CNN
and NBC, along with about 100 Palestinians and some 100 Israelis,
foreigners and media. As usual, a group of youngish, exuberant
Arab men are leading the chants on the march from the mosque
down the road through the valley to the fence, and a smiling Asian
man dressed in Buddhist robes, a regular, is beating a drum.

At the end of the road stand about 25 border policemen in riot gear,
backed by another 25 or so soldiers standing in front of the gate to
the fence. Beyond the fence lie the olive groves that may or may not
develop into the Matityahu East neighborhood that Modi'in Illit
plans to build - the reason for the demonstration - and beyond them,
about 2 kilometers away, is the Israeli settlement itself.

Theoretically, the aim of the protesters is to advance through the
gate to the olive groves, but with all the big media present, the
demonstration turns into confrontation for confrontation's sake - a
constantly repeating surge by groups of Palestinians and, to a much
less frequent and forceful degree, their supporters, to get right into
the young troops' faces, to rage and holler at them to "get off our
land!" - to provoke a reaction. They push forward and the troops
push them back.

"Where is it you want to go?" an exasperated soldier asks a few of
the charging protesters, who ignore the question.

The media presence gives the demonstrators the advantage,
restraining the soldiers' response. There are no batons, no fists, no
loss of control. The staged quality of the protest becomes a little
ridiculous at times. A Palestinian who has sat down on the ground,
defying orders to disperse, is carried off holding out an olive branch
to the soldiers straining under his weight, as the cameras close in. A
young American woman calls out to journalists to come see how a
Palestinian man of about 50 has lost consciousness after being
"beaten by soldiers," as she puts it. On approach it turns out he has a
medical condition; his friends are taking pills out of his pocket so he
can swallow them.

"No, I was mistaken, he had some kind of attack," the American girl
calls out.

With the soldiers making way for the stricken man and even offering
to treat him in the army ambulance stationed at the site, the
Palestinian men carry him through the gate and toward the
ambulance, then turn around and carry him back.

"We'll take care of him ourselves," one of the men says defiantly.
May. 4, 2006 8:46 | Updated May. 7, 2006 7:47

In the heat of the confrontation, with dozens of bodies pressed up
against each other, the protesters take wooden mallets they've
brought along and enthusiastically destroy the styrofoam model
they've built of red-roofed settler houses. The border police
commander declares the area a closed military zone and the
demonstration illegal.

"I wanted to let you demonstrate, to express your opinions, that was
fine with me," he says through a bullhorn. "I thought you were
adults, but you're not, you don't even respect yourselves," he adds.

Standing next to a line of young border policemen who don't appear
too sure of themselves, the Buddhist, Gyosei Horikoshi, 50, a
Japanese man who's been in Israel since the 1991 Gulf War, beats
his drum. The ground near him is smoking with spent concussion
grenades fired in a futile try to disperse the protesters.

"This is a Buddhist prayer for peace," he explains. But it doesn't
seem to be having a calming effect on anyone.

BEYOND THE theatrics, there is a very weighty matter at hand in
Bil'in.

"That is my grandfather's grandfather's grandfather's land, those
olive trees, and they won't let me go there," says Othman Mansour,
at 48 the village elder on the scene.

By Israeli regulation, the farmers are supposed to be allowed to pass
through the gate and tend their groves. "But that's all on paper; in
reality the army doesn't let us through," says another protester.

During the close-in confrontations, one of the Palestinians demands
of a soldier: "Why are you doing this? It's not for your country, it's
for some contractors who are getting rich."

Under orders, the soldiers don't say a word.

Akram Hatib, 33, sitting on a low ridge of rocks, argues that Israelis
"don't even know where the fence is" - they think it's being built
according to security considerations alone, yet it just happens to
transfer vast Palestinian agricultural lands to the western, Israeli
side. "The fence is being built just so the millionaires can put more
money in their pocket," insists Hatib.

The demonstration passes with relatively little violence; even
Jonathan Pollak, a leader of Anarchists Against The Wall, which
usually dominates the Israeli presence at the protests, says the troops
have behaved "about as well as they can."

The one serious injury is to a Palestinian protester whose hand is
badly bloodied by a concussion grenade - evidently fired in a flat
trajectory at fairly close range, although army regulations call for
them to be fired in a long-range arc. Soldiers also fire rubber bullets
and tear gas at Palestinian boys aiming slingshots at them from
about 100 meters away - a distance, by the way, from which it is
extremely hard to hit a human target, and virtually impossible if the
target takes minimum safety precautions.

By the end of the afternoon, five Israelis, including Pollak, and six
Palestinian protesters are arrested.

"They brought the Israelis to the police station at Givat Ze'ev and
released us after we signed an agreement that we wouldn't go back
to Bil'in for two weeks," says Pollak. "The Palestinians arrested were
released without being taken in."

But once the confrontations subside, some of the Palestinians in
Bil'in show their "war wounds" from previous protests. Hatib pulls
down his shirt to show welts on his neck and shoulders. "I got these
from a young woman soldier when she was beating me over the
head," he says.

Mustafa Hatib, a cousin, says he once took a "baton to the balls"
that laid him up for awhile. He adds that troops frequently come into
the village and "go into people's houses and beat them up, out of
habit."

PROTESTS LIKE the one at Bil'in on March 24 have been largely
ignored here, even as the anti-fence campaign has gained
considerable attention abroad. The protests, which have been going
on for three and a half years, are seen as part of the intifada, part of
the "terror war" - a baseless attack by Palestinians, pro-Palestinian
Israelis and foreigners on the barrier that has proven its worth by
deterring suicide bombers. The claim by Palestinians that the fence
cuts them off from much of their farmland is seen as a negligible
issue; after all, of what importance are Palestinian olive groves
compared to the lives of innocent Israelis?

Invisible to most Israelis are the injuries that protesters suffer during
the demonstrations - injuries like those to Matan Cohen's left eye,
for example, which is discolored and cannot focus. Sitting in a Tel
Aviv cafe, Cohen, 17, says he was hit by a rubber bullet fired from 25
meters away by a border policeman during the February 24 protest at
Beit Sira. The border policeman was in no danger whatsoever, he
adds.

A military source with long-standing, first-hand experience of the
anti-fence protests insists that Cohen is doing what his colleagues
have been doing throughout the campaign: defaming Israel with lies.

"[Cohen] told me he had been standing near a soldier who fired a
rubber bullet that hit him in the eye, but our investigation showed
there were no soldiers at all in that area who had fired rubber
bullets," says the military source. "It's all lies. He was really hit by a
rock coming from a slingshot fired by the Palestinians. We have
soldiers who say they saw one of the Palestinian boys fire a rock that
hit [Cohen] in the eye."

To this, however, Cohen replies: "No investigator from the police or
the IDF ever talked to me. I have eight witnesses, including two
Israeli cameramen, who saw the border policeman shoot me, and
they've never been interviewed either in this so-called investigation."

There is a huge gap between what the average Israeli thinks of these
protests, together with the way Israeli security officials portray them,
and the reality from "the other side."

Pollak says 10 Palestinians have been killed in the anti-fence
demonstrations, citing reports by Israeli media, B'tselem, Palestinian
villagers he's in regular contact with and his own experience.

"I was at the demonstration in Biddu on February 26, 2004, when
three Palestinians were shot to death. An elderly man there died later
in the hospital from the effects of tear gas fired into his home. I was
standing 10 meters from a man when he got shot in the forehead and
killed. I saw limp bodies with blood all over them being carried
away," says Pollak.

He says he himself has been mildly injured about 30 times, mainly
by rubber bullets, but that a year ago during a demonstration in
Bil'in, which has become the focus of the Friday afternoon
demonstrations, he was hit in the right temple by a tear gas canister
fired at him by a soldier from 20 meters away.

"I had two brain hemorrhages, I was in Tel Hashomer for three or
four days, I can't remember exactly how many, and I couldn't stand
up for two weeks," says Pollak, 23. Besides Matan Cohen, two other
Israelis, Gil Namati and Itai Levinsky, have been shot, with Levinsky
ending up losing an eye.

Besides the 10 Palestinians killed, Pollak estimates that "hundreds"
of them have been severely wounded at the protests, not counting
the many more who've been mildly injured.

In the face of these accusations, the military source replies: "They
could just as easily say 20 dead, or 200. I don't know of one person
who has been killed in these demonstrations, and if there had been, I
would have known about it. We would have felt the consequences
on the ground. I don't even know of any demonstrator suffering an
injury that required hospitalization - except Matan Cohen, and that
was because of a slingshot, not because of us. These people lie, they
make this all up to besmirch the army."

The interview with the military source was arranged by the IDF
Spokesman's Office. The source defended the army and made
counter-accusations against the protesters with vehemence, as if he
fully believed what he was saying. Yet his account - including his
remarks that Cohen's eye injury at Beit Sira had been "investigated,"
and that no anti-fence demonstrator had ever been killed or even
seriously wounded by Israeli troops - is simply untenable.

Footage filmed by members of Anarchists Against the Wall at
several past demonstrations shows a soldier opening fire with an Uzi
submachine gun on advancing demonstrators, with one of the
protesters getting hit and having to be carried off. From short range,
troops fire tear gas canisters that explode amid tightly-packed
protesters, causing panic. From long range, tear gas canisters are
fired at a group of wheelchair-bound protesters. Face-to-face,
soldiers and border policemen beat milling protesters with batons.

In all these demonstrations, the protesters are unarmed, except for
some young Palestinian boys firing slingshots at a great distance.
The violence typically begins as hundreds of protesters advance on
lines of badly outmanned troops trying to block the way to the
village's land, which lies on the other side of the fence. The pushing,
shoving and shouting, along with the troops' inability to keep the
protesters back, is what sets off the use of tear gas, concussion
grenades, batons, rubber bullets and, in at least one lethal incident,
live fire.

Asked what serious injuries Israeli troops had suffered during the
years of anti-fence protests, the military source replies that one
soldier suffered "irreversible damage to his eye" from a stone fired by
slingshot. Another soldier suffered two broken fingers when a
Palestinian demonstrator he was carrying off bit him. Many other
soldiers have been hit by rocks, he says, but the wounded eye of one
and the two broken fingers of another were the only serious injuries
to troops that he can recall.

The thorough imbalance of power between Israeli troops and
protesters resembles not the "terror war," but the first intifada, the
"war of stones," except that the protests are much, much less
violent. And if the anti-fence protests are also a "propaganda war,"
then Israel - through its military's implausible accounts of the
clashes - is definitely holding up its end.

EVEN FOR Palestinians, this issue has cooled off, at least
temporarily. As the "terror war" has subsided, so has the battle over
the fence, whose ranks are and always have been filled mainly by
Palestinians, with Israelis and "internationals" playing a small
supporting role - mainly to keep the issue in the Israeli and world
media.

But in principle, the conflict over the fence is still very much alive
and entirely unsettled. Villages across the West Bank - Azun, Nebi
Elias, Ras a-Tira, Abud, Bitunia, Mas'ha, Kharbata, Jayyus, Beit
Likiya, Biddu, Beit Sira, Bil'in and many others - are pressing their
cases against the State of Israel in the Supreme Court, fighting to
keep many tens of thousands of dunams of their farmland from
being placed on the opposite side of the security barrier from them,
where much of it stands to fall into the hands of Jewish settlements.

An outsider might look at these demonstrators and wonder why they
go through it, what they have gained. After all, the only real victories
won by the Palestinian villages to move the fence away from their
land happened in the Supreme Court, not at the protest sites. And
while the route of the fence has been curtailed, it remains a very
hard, and likely permanent, fact on the ground.

Nonetheless, leaders of the movement believe the effort has been a
success, even at such a high blood price. After about a year of
scattered protests by individual villages, beginning with Jayyus, near
Kalkilya, in September 2002, Israelis and foreigners joined in, and
the campaign jelled, turning the fence into an international
controversy.

"A new movement of joint Israeli-Palestinian resistance that didn't
exist before came to life," says Pollak. He also thinks the protests
and early media attention affected the thinking of the Supreme Court
judges, noting that the court's landmark decision ordering the
curtailment of the fence route came only in June 2004 - after the
protests gathered steam.

One of the Palestinian leaders of the movement, Ayed Morrar, 44, of
Budrus, near Bil'in, agrees that the protests influenced the Supreme
Court, adding that this has convinced many Palestinians in the West
Bank that non-violent protest can be effective. Calling the
Palestinian boys' long-range slingshot attempts "a game" that poses
no threat to the soldiers, Morrar says the unarmed protests were
chosen both for moral and pragmatic reasons.

"First, we don't want anyone to be killed on our side or any side, and
second, we need all the people around the world to support us, and
they won't support us if we use violence," says Morrar, who has
been jailed repeatedly by Israeli authorities.

Pollak maintains that Israeli troops clearly have one set of
use-of-force and open-fire regulations for Israelis and foreign
demonstrators, and another, much more permissive set of
regulations that they use on Palestinians.

"At one demonstration in Bil'in last year, I think it was in May,"
Pollak says, "the army thought there were no Israelis present, then
they saw that there were. I heard the commander shout to his
soldiers, 'Go back to regular open-fire orders, there are Israelis
here.'"

IN REPLY, the military source acknowledges that there are, in
effect, different open-fire regulations against some Palestinians than
there are against Israelis and foreigners, but this is because it is only
Palestinians who use rocks. Israelis and foreign supporters limit
themselves "to provocations, to fanning the flames of Palestinian
violence," he notes.

The source lays 100 percent of the blame for the violence on the
protesters: "I'm happy to say that I have never witnessed an incident
in any of these protests when the violence was started by Israeli
troops."

The demonstrations, he says, aim to provoke violence for the
purpose of making Israel look like the bully in the media. "These are
illegal demonstrations, they are held in closed military zones. Even
so, our interest is that they remain peaceful, which is the opposite
interest of the protesters. They always go out to confront the
soldiers, to hurt them and to damage the fence, and when that
happens, we stop it by force," the military source maintains,
repeating his claim that all the deaths and serious injuries to
Palestinian demonstrators are "made up."

Yet the footage from past anti-fence demonstrations taken by
Anarchists Against the Wall tells an entirely different story. The
soldier firing the Uzi that severely wounds one of the demonstrators
is standing far from the action, in no danger. The crowd is unarmed.

The concussion grenades exploding among the demonstrators are
not being fired in an arc, but in a flat trajectory, which makes them
quite dangerous.

A slightly-built Palestinian man, seen with a few foreign supporters
arguing with soldiers who will not let them pass, is soon seen again
on his knees, holding his head, his face bleeding. The outraged
foreigners demand to know why he was beaten. "He was resisting
arrest," replies one of the soldiers.

A gathering of Palestinians in wheelchairs set out on the road that
leads from Bil'in to the fence when troops fire tear gas canisters in
their direction.

"This is a demonstration of handicapped people in wheelchairs!"
shouts a protester through his bullhorn at the troops. "Are you
crazy?"

As for the reported 10 Palestinian deaths and far more numerous
severe injuries at the hands of Israeli troops, it's unclear what
evidence could conceivably convince the military source that all of
them weren't, as he says, "made up." The names of the dead are:
Taher Ahmed Nimr Assi, 15; Jamal Jabber Ibrahim Assi, 15; Uday
Mufid Mahmoud Assi, 14; Ala Muhammad a-Rahman Khalil, 14;
Islam Hashem Rizk Zaharan, 14; Diah a-din Abd el-Karim Ibrahim
Abu Eid, 23; Hussein Mahmoud Awad Alian, 17; Mahmoud Daoud
Salah Beduan, 21; Zakaria Fadl Hashem Rian, 25; Abd el-Rahman
Abu Eid, 62. (The first nine names were documented by B'tselem;
the 10th by Pollak.)

REGARDING MATAN COHEN'S eye injury, a leading Israeli
pathologist hired by the boy's family says the initial results of his
examination of the eye "point to a very high probability that the
injury was the result of a rubber bullet."

On that day in Beit Sira, Cohen recalls, the protesters and the IDF
had an agreement that the demonstration would go off without
physical confrontation.

"Then at one point a border police jeep drove up in the middle of the
crowd, and the troops got out and started firing in the air, shooting
tear gas and concussion grenades, beating people with rifle butts and
batons, and firing rubber bullets," he says.

"Some Palestinian boys starting firing slingshots at the troops from,
I'd say, about 80 meters away. I saw and heard the IDF commander
go up to the border police commander and tell him to order his men
to stop shooting, but the border police commander told him, 'I want
to hit each of these people with a rubber bullet so they'll know that
there will be no demonstrations here.'

"There were four of us Israelis standing about 25 meters from the
border policemen," Cohen continues. "We were telling them, 'Don't
shoot, nobody is threatening you.' We were trying to calm them
down. Then one of them raised his rifle and shot me."

Cohen was taken by ambulance to Tel Hashomer Hospital, where
he spent two weeks undergoing two operations on his left eye. He
hopes that in about six months the eye will have recovered to the
point where surgeons can perform a lens transplant that could
diminish the eye's impairment. The Hebrew media gave Cohen's
story a lot of play.

"The only reason is because my hair is light," he says. "Palestinians
get injured like I did all the time - and they get killed. But what
happens to Palestinians doesn't interest Israelis, so it's as if it never
happened at all."

Bil'in's beef
At stake in the weekly protests at Bil'in are approximately 1,000
dunams of village olive groves that now lie on the far side of the
security barrier, and on which the large haredi settlement of Modi'in
Illit plans to build a 3,000-unit housing project.

The question posed by the protests isn't why Israel must build a
security fence, but why the fence must run along a route that slices
off so much land that has been farmed for so long by Palestinian
villages. The question is all the more pressing now that Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert is vowing that this route is the base line for
the country's permanent border.

The police National Fraud Squad is reportedly investigating how
Modi'in Illit acquired the land on which Matityahu East was being
constructed. The State Attorney's Office told the Supreme Court that
the roughly 1,000 dunams in dispute is "state land" that includes
land purchased by Israeli buyers from Bil'in villagers.

However, the villagers say that at most, eight dunams were actually
sold, according to attorney Michael Sfard, who is representing Bil'in.
Targets of the fraud investigation reportedly include Modi'in Illit
municipal officials, settler organizations, construction companies and
real estate dealers.

=======================================
* A story about a demonstration of about two months ago
- one of about 70 consecutive Friday demos of the joint
struggle against the fence and occupation organized in
Bil'in for the last 15 months, by the village comity for
nonviolent struggle and the Israeli Anarchists Against
The Wall initiative
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