PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES

Palestinians scale the Israeli wall of separation in Bil'in

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On Friday, February 17, a group of young Palestinians scaled the Israeli-built wall separating the Palestinian town of Bil’in and the neighbouring Israeli settlement, Modi'in Ilit. According to our Observer, it is the first time in 12 years of protests in Bil’in, the centre of non-violent resistance in the West Bank, that anyone has scaled the heavily guarded wall.

The Israeli government started building this vast steel-and-concrete “security barrier” in April 2002. The Palestinians call it the “apartheid wall” or the “segregation wall”.

Parts of the wall are still under construction, but, when finished, it will be 712 kilometres long. The wall does not follow the Green Line, which is usually accepted as the border between Israel and the West Bank. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (or OCHA), 85 percent of this wall sits well within the West Bank — sometimes even several kilometres in. Because of this, some small communities of Palestinians are actually located outside of the wall and on the Israeli side. Trapped, they are separated by a wall from the rest of the Palestinian population and sometimes even land that used to be farmed by villagers.

People protest in Bil'in on February 17. (Photo by our Observer)

The residents of Bil’in have held a protest every Friday since 2005. On the 12th anniversary of the struggle against the wall, several young people scaled the barrier and opened a large iron gate that separates their village from the rest of the West Bank. Mohammed Basman Yasin, a resident of Bil’in and a photographer, took pictures of the incident.

“That was the first time I’ve ever seen people force open the wall”

A young Palestinian climbs the wall. Behind, you can see the Modi’in Ilit settlement. (Photo by our Observer).

I have been participating in the local fight against the wall since I was 13. I am 23 now and, during the past decade, I have attended almost every single weekly protest. I will never be able to accept the fact that our olive trees, which represent the livelihood of our village, were destroyed by bulldozers as the wall was built. I can’t accept that the wall still separates us from the land that belongs to us.

We have had some victories. Thanks to our struggle, the path that the wall takes has changed. We were able to recover some of our land. However, we didn’t get it all back so we continue to protest. I’m part of the committee of non-violent resistance in Bil’in and I document our struggle with a camera given to me by the Israeli NGO B'Tselem.

I took a picture of these young people who took the risk of climbing the wall and crossing to the other side. It was their way of denouncing this arbitrary border. It was their own initiative; it didn’t come from the committee. I think that their action was not only a powerful image but also extremely brave because what they did is very dangerous. The Israeli Army could have opened fire at any time. It was the first time that I’ve seen anyone force open the wall in all these years. That’s why I took pictures of it and shared them on social media. Communication is one of our weapons against the occupation.

"We’ve exhausted the legal methods that might help change this situation. The only thing left to do is for the residents to continue to mobilise”

Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer, is the co-founder of Yesh Din, a human rights organisation. He represented the people of Bil'in in a case tried by the Israeli Supreme Court.

Bil’in is one of the most important cases I’ve ever worked on. I was part of a team of five lawyers who petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court on their behalf. On September 4, 2007, the court ruled that the army needed to plan and build a new path for the wall. We proved that the original outline was not established for security reasons, but to expand the territory belonging to Modi’in Ilit, which is one of the largest and most important settlements in the West Bank.

The ruling of the Court, which was applied in 2011 by the Israeli army, allowed residents of Bil’in to recover 800 dunams [equivalent to roughly 197 acres] of land. It was a real, if partial, victory for the residents of Bil’in. Each square metre that they get back counts. However, 1200 dunams [equivalent to 296 acres] remain behind the wall, inaccessible to the villages.

This victory would not have been possible without the mobilisation of the residents and the justice carried out by the courts. However, now I fear that the legal means to achieve anything in this struggle have been exhausted. Israel declared these territories “state land”. The only thing left is for the residents to continue to protest as a way of influencing public opinion.

This photo shows the former and the new location of the wall (sent by our Observer).

"We were inspired by great figures like Martin Luther King and Gandhi to choose a path of non-violent resistance”

Iyad Burnat leads the Bil’in Popular Committee against the Wall. He is also author of the book “Bilan and Nonviolent Resistance”.

When we learned that the Israeli government had decided to build a wall on our land, we organised a resistance group very quickly.

We weren’t going to just stand there passively as our olive trees were ripped out of the ground to make way for this wall. We chose a path of non-violent resistance, inspired by great figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Other Palestinian towns and villages, like Boudrous, which is near Ramallah, had already organised non-violent resistance movements against the wall. We studied what they were doing and started a similar movement in Bil’in.

Palestine has a long history of non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation. For example, during the First Intifada [The Palestinian Uprising that began in December 1987 and lasted several bloody years], many Palestinians participated in strikes and huge demonstrations. We drew strength from this long history of civil resistance.

The Israeli Army keeps a careful eye on protesters. (Photo from our Observer)

Since 2005, we’ve organised a protest each Friday. Anyone can participate. Sometimes, Israelis and foreigners demonstrate with us. Israeli soldiers often try to break up these protests using tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets, and sometimes even live ammunition.

However, our protests are always non-violent. Our watchword is clear: no killing. We teach our children not to throw stones and to express their anger in other ways – even if I don’t think that throwing a stone is a crime. We organise workshops to spread the message of non-violent resistance. We are always on the lookout for new ways to get media attention for our struggle, like, for example, when we dressed up as Na’vis from James Cameron’s film Avatar [Editor’s note: In the film, the Na’vi are a group of humanoids who inhabit the moon Pandora. They are discriminated against by humans and their struggle is often compared to those of indigenous groups].

Protesters in Bil’in dressed up as Na’vis from the film Avatar during this protest in 2010.

Scaling the wall isn’t part of our plan of action. However, we don’t control the residents of Bil’in and everyone is free to act how they want to.