18. Good Friday in Bil’in

On April 22, 2011, the Friday protest in the Palestinian village of Bil’in honoured Bassem Abu Rahmah, a beloved non-violent activist murdered here by Israeli soldiers two years ago today.

After prayers this Friday, Bil’iners marched from the center of the village to the wall, accompanied by Israeli and international peace activists.  As usual, the Israeli army fired high velocity tear gas canisters (one of which fatally crushed Bassem Abu Rahmah’s chest in 2009), sound bombs, rubber and live bullets; soldiers also beat protestors with batons and rifle butts.  At least a dozen people suffered moderate to severe injuries.  (See full report by journalist Hamde Abu Rahme.)

Among those beaten by soldiers was village leader Mohammad Khatib.  When I met Mohammed on my travels to research Our Way to Fight, he had already been assaulted more than once by soldiers, and imprisoned by the military court for organizing non-violent protests.

In 1991, Israel confiscated two hundred acres of Bil’in farm land to build the Kiryat Sefer settlement.  Villagers protested, without effect.  Then in the early 2000s, as the apartheid wall sliced through Palestinian land, most villages in its path resisted as well as they could.  When the bulldozers approached Bil’in late in 2004, the villagers learned that this time more than half their food-growing land would be stolen.

“When the wall comes,” said Mohammed Khatib, “the occupation comes to your door.  You have no chance to escape, so you have to resist.”

Village leaders called a public meeting, which launched the Popular Committee against the Wall and Settlements.  Mohammed Khatib would be its first coordinator.

“For three months we tried to stop the bulldozers, but from protests in other villages the army has learned how to keep people away from the bulldozers.  So we failed, the wall continued, and olive trees were destroyed.  But one day when they came to destroy more trees, they found us in their way.  This was new thinking for us, a change of strategy.  We went very early in the morning before the army came, chained ourselves to the olive trees, and waited for them to come.  For them it was a surprise.  From that day, this is how we have continued.”

Every Friday since, villagers have continued to invent creative tactics to resist the wall and the strangehold of military occupation.

Like other occupiers, from its inception Israel has met non-violent resistance with escalating violence.  Mohammed commented, “What we are doing is more dangerous than to shoot a gun and then run away.  If you tie yourself to a tree, you wait for the army to come, maybe to shoot you, to kill you.  You also have to learn how to control yourself, because when you react to violence with violence, you are out of control, and in that field your opponent will win.”

At their home in Bil’in, Mohammed’s wife Lamyaa Yassin described one of the regular night invasions by Israeli forces.  “When they surrounded our house, Mohammed wanted to talk to them, to find out what they wanted so they wouldn’t come into the house.  We were trying to protect the children.  But before he could get to the door they broke it open with their weapons.  The baby started to cry. Khaled (their son, aged three) was shocked, he just stood there. They put the whole family into one room, then they searched the house.  Three soldiers stood at the doorway with their weapons, and their faces painted black.  Khaled didn’t cry, he didn’t say anything, he just stared at them.

“We stayed in that room more than an hour while they searched. Then Captain Fouad, as he’s known, came and said, ‘As of now Mohammed is under arrest.’  Mohammed kissed the children, then they put a blindfold over him.  At that moment all the children started to cry, except for Khaled.  When the soldiers took Mohammed downstairs, we followed them.  I heard screams and calls for help from the neighbour’s house.  The soldiers had arrested three people there, they beat everyone.  When they took the arrestees out, the soldiers wouldn’t let us follow, so we watched through the window, we saw them push Mohammed into the jeep. When the soldiers left our house we went outside.  We heard ambulance sirens.  Then I saw my brother Abdallah covered in blood.  When we saw him like that, I put Khaled down, and he threw a stone at one of the army jeeps.  That was his only reaction the whole night.”  (For more on Bil’in, see chapter 18, The safety of sleep, in Our Way to Fight.)

In Bil’in, as in many other Palestinian villages, on one side of the wall are besieged villagers, with their Israeli and international peace activist allies.  On the other side are the Israeli settlers, government and army — by most accounts the most powerful military apparatus in the Middle East, unconditionally backed by the governments of the United States, Canada, Australia, and most governments in Europe.

Each of these governments considers itself democratically elected, and presumes to act in the name of all its citizens – in our name.

Next Friday, after prayers, Bil’iners will march again from the centre of the village to the wall.

“As time goes on,” said Lamyaa Yassin, “the soldiers get more violent.  I think they see that everyone here is still strong, still struggling, and this bothers them very much.  They must think that by now, after so many home invasions, jail and beatings, people would be too afraid, but this is a struggle for our land and our lives, so we continue.”

About Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.
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