Saturday, June 23, 2007
Bil'in: Teargassed again but the struggle continues...
June 23, 2007
For the past two and half years, every week, the villagers of Bil'in have staged a heroic struggle against the Israeli occupation, as well as the illegal construction of the Israeli Apartheid wall and the theft of their land. On Friday (22/06), myself and three of my team mates were fortune enough to join the 124th demonstration staged by the villagers of Bil'in.
Bil'in has become famous as a model of non-violent resistance against the occupation and wall. It is home to around 1600 Palestinians and is located approximately 12 kilometers west of Ramallah and around 4 kilometres east of the 1967 Green Line. The construction of the wall will result in 60% of the village's farming land being stolen. On the land stolen from Bil'in, a new illegal Israeli settlement is being built called Modi'in Illit .
To get to Bil'in from Hares we need to travel to Ramallah (anywhere between 1 hour and two hours) and then to Bil'in (anywhere between ½ hour to 1 hour). We had arranged to meet some of the activists from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and other internationals in Ramallah and to travel to Bil'in.
When we arrived in Ramallah, however, we received some bad news – one of the activists from the ISM had been literally "snatched" at Qalandia checkpoint the night before, when Israeli Border Police were waiting for him to come through (the IOF or Israeli Occupation Forces aka as the IDF can not arrest internationals, Palestinians or Israelis, only the Israeli Border Police can. Instead the IOF work hand in glove with the IBP to detain you until the Border Police arrive). At the time of his abduction, he was travelling with another ISM activist, however, she was let go as she had Israeli citizenship.
Discussing the incident with other ISM activists, while many were upset, they were also were not going to let such an event stop their activity. As one told me, reflecting the attitude of most internationals working in Palestine, "we all know this can happen, what we need to do now is regroup and make sure we keep doing our work. That is the most important thing".
While it was a shock to hear about the arrest, it was heartening to hear that resolve in the voices of the other ISMers. I felt inspired not only by their resolve but also by another: the simple fact that all of those who had made it to our meeting point in Ramallah were women.
Our little group of 9 women represented such a wonderful cross section: women from all over the world, who had come to show solidarity and oppose a brutal occupation. Our ages spanned a spectrum of 30 years, with the youngest being 21 years of age and the oldest being in their early 50s. We were women, who were represented not only the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, but also women who were atheist. Some of us were teachers, some students, some journalists, some human rights workers, while others were artists. While our back grounds and belief systems may have been varied and many, we were united in one thing: our belief that the Palestinian people had the right to live lives free from Zionist occupation and oppression.
As we made our way to Bil'in, I recalled how in 2004, I had attended a number of demonstrations against the construction of the wall and theft of land in Budrus, the village right next door to Bil'in. At this time, the construction of the wall had only just begun and the illegal settlement of Modi'in Illit did not exist. As a result, I was keen to see if much had changed in the region, since I was last there. As we approached the village, myself and my team mates sat in stunned silence as we viewed the landscape in front of us. After few minutes of staring at the sight in front of us, one of us let out a shocked gasp.
Although, the region around Budrus and Bil'in is dotted with olive trees, across a range of hills, devastation was everywhere. I had seen photographs of clear felling of dense forests and photos of the environmental damage and ravages of open cut mining and the scene in front of me seemed to be a combination of both. In amongst this devastation, an alien entity seemed to be growing up slowly. I suddenly felt like I was on an alien planet or the set of a sci fi show, where a completely alien structure or city had been plonked, with little care for the surround environment or population. This alien structure in this case, was of course, the illegal Israeli settlement of Modi'in Illit. It was shocking to see such destruction on such a vast scale, so much so I still find it hard to fully take it all in.
A few minutes later, however, we arrived in Bil'in and we made our way to the "International House" the meeting point for the demonstration. Already at the house were other internationals, Israeli peace activists and Palestinians. Over the past two and half years, the size of the demonstrations have varied, from 100 people to 2000. At every demonstration, the villagers have been violently attacked by the IOF who fired on them indiscriminately with tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunition and sound grenades. Today, we expected much the same again, although, the demonstration was on a smaller scale with around 120 people attending, most likey due to the recent Palestinian crisis.
We soon made our way down to where the wall had been constructed, we found the IOF waiting. They had already blocked of our approach about 300 metres from the wall/fence in a gully, with razor wire. As we reached the razor wire, the villagers began chanting and making speeches against the wall. Within in minutes, despite the protest being completely peaceful and the IOF being in absolutely no danger, the IOF began shooting of the first rounds of teargas and sound grenades.
As villagers, internationals and Israeli activists began to disperse, the tear gas canister kept whizzing over head and exploding. Everyone was crouched low to keep not only clear of the tear gas but to avoid being hit by canisters. In 2004, I had been hit from behind with a tear gas canister and it was not a pleasant experience. Israeli soldiers had opened fire on us as we attempted to lift an Israeli peace activist, who was injured, into an ambulance. This was the not the first demonstration I had attended where the IOF open fire on ambulances and medical aid workers.
For the next two weeks, I bore the legacy of my experience, carrying a massive multi-colour 30 centimetre in diameter bruise, as well as burns due to the heat of the canister. My entire body also ached all over as a result of the high velocity impact of the canister. I was, however, glad to have been hit by the teargas canister, rather then the live ammunition and the rubber bullets the IOF soldiers had also been firing at us.
While I avoided being hit by teargas canisters and sound grenades at Bil'in, one of my team mates was not so lucky. She was hit by two sound grenades, but luckily she was only lightly bruised. The most shocking aspect of the demonstration, despite the complete absence of violence on behalf of the demonstrators when we arrived at the razor wire and the retreat of protestors after the initial volley of teargas, was that the IOF soldiers kept firing on the demonstration. My team mates and I estimated that probably more than 60 canisters of teargas were shot at the small peaceful demonstration.
Tear gas works works in two ways: physically and psychologically. Physically, the chemicals in it react with the moisture on the skin and the membranes in your eyes, nose and throat. It causes a burning sensation burning in your throat and nose causing your eyes to start streaming tears, your nose to start running and you start coughing. If you take into much of it can cause severe coughing and vomiting, as well as causing disorientation, dizziness and restricted breathing. Psychologically, because you body begins to react in such a manner,it causes you first to limit your breathing (so as not to take in more gas) but the restricted breathing, along with disorientation can then lead to panic. This is why protesters are often armed with onions or lemons or something with a strong scent (such as a bandana soaked in vinegar). Breathing in the strong scent of onions, lemons or vinegar forces you brain to react and reminds you to start breathing again. This helps to stem the panic and it also gives you something to concentrate on, limiting your disorientation.
During the barrage of tear gas, the IOF and Border Police began advancing up the hill, firing more sound grenades and teargas and targeting two members of the Bil'in Palestinian Popular Committee against the Construction of the Wall and Settlements, abducting them. One member of the Committee was later released. The other member, however, was taken to a detention camp and is still being held.
The villagers and other protestors after 124 weeks of protest were no going to be discouraged by massive amounts of teargas. As the air began to clear, villagers began to make their way back towards the wall. Although it was impossible to get to where we had been, the Palestinian youth showed their refusal to be intimidated. They soon gathered under an olive tree and began chanting, singing, moving out into clear sight to let the IOF know that they would not be so easily run off their own land.
During the chaos of the tear gas being fired, I had made my way up the hill. At one point, I was finding it difficult to breath due to the intense saturation of the air from the amount of teargas being fired. As I moved to find a clear spot, the Palestinian Red Crescent workers, whose amazing bravery is witnessed at every demonstration, attended young Palestinians overcome by the tear gas. Myself and several other demonstrators sought refuge in a local villager's house. Inside we could hear the tear gas whizzing overhead and the sound grenades exploding. At one point, we all ducked for cover when the house was clearly hit by one of the missiles being fired by the IOF. Later when I went out of the house, we discovered that the IOF had advanced to just outside of the house and had been firing rubber bullets. One of the bullets had shattered the back window of a car, causing glass to fly everywhere.
At one point, when I was trying to escape the teargas, I also passed a house Palestinian workers were constructing. From the roof top, where they were working, they began shouting directions to those at the demonstrations trying to tell them the direction of the incoming tear gas. About an hour later when I passed the same construction site, I was completely astounded to see once again the amazing resistance of the Palestinian people and their refusal to let the Israeli occupation stop them living their lives. Although tear gas was still being fired (but not to the same level as earlier), the builders who had earlier sought to assist the dispersing villagers were now continuing to go about their business constructing the house. I stood and marveled their amazing fortitude and wondered if I would ever be able to display such qualities if I had to experience the occupation every day as they did.
After a tense stand off for another hour, the IOF began to once again fire a high barrage of tear gas at the demonstrators, who were probably a good kilometre from the wall and soldiers. As the tear gas began to rain down on us again, this time we moved further back into the village, with the hope that the IOF would not enter the village.
The demonstration may have been over for the day but next week, undeterred, the villagers of Bil'in will once again brave the teargas, rubber bullets and possible arrest to oppose the stealing of their land. Next week, once again, they willagain act as an inspiration to the rest of the Palestinian population (and many others around the world) by collectively organising in non-violent resistance to say no to Israeli occupation and oppression.