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My first time in Bil'in

It was the first time I was intimidated by my own people. I mean the IDF. Might they shoot me like they shot Lymor?

In April 2004 a group of Israeli anarchists joined a struggle against the ‘Separation wall’ that has been taking place in villages near Ramallah.  The struggle, originally by residents of the villages, was joined by those activists and later by international ones. Demonstrations have been taking place regularly ever since and are now located in the village of Bil’in. Every Friday, members of the group travel to Bil’in to take part in a non-violent demonstration. Public figures, international press and other people who care also attend sometimes. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) never fails to show up. These demonstrations are videotaped by members of the group weekly. The films are free for every body to watch (Check out: http://mishtara.org/blog).

The joint initiative can also be followed in a breathtaking documentary named ‘Bil’in Habibti’.  The film, directed by Shai Carmeli Pollak, follows the struggle for a year. Watching the film one has a rare chance to follow a well-organized and occasionally theatrical struggle. One can see people chaining themselves to ancient olive trees to protect them from being pulled out. One can see men tying themselves to the ground or demonstrators (women, men and a goat) locking themselves in a cage.

On the darker side, the film also documents the weekly confrontations with the IDF which does its best to stop the demonstrations. Watching the movie one can see that even people who seem to be sharing a mutual background, a common language, a common nationality and a similar age can fail to see eye to eye, no matter what.

Watching the movie a week ago, I had the feeling that had I been there I could make a difference.  I thought that I could easily talk to the soldiers and make them understand (only later I found out how silly I was!) With that feeling at heart I decided to attend the next demonstration.

As to joining the group in these times, I should tell you it was not easy.  On the 11th August this year, an Israeli activist named Lymor Goldstein got shot in the head.  (See: link .) After that incident, the group decided not to have new people coming along, and narrowed down to a small team of no more than a few members.  But after pulling a few strings, I did manage to sneak in.

We were to meet at the central bus station in Tel Aviv at 11:00 am. ‘We’ meaning the said group of Israeli anarchists and - myself. Being about to meet an anarchist group one can expect any thing but punctuality. In this case, expectations were thwarted. At 11:00 am sharp everybody was there. Everybody included a handsome young man who is now limping on crutches (he got shot by a rubber bullet in the leg two weeks ago).

The instructions emailed in advance were to dress modestly. There is no point in offending the Palestinian villagers. As I arrived, after an obligatory hello, I was asked whether I am carrying an extra long-sleeved shirt (I was wearing a vest; it was as hot and humid as an early local September day can be and then slightly warmer). I nodded to reassure them that I am OK.

Along with the extra shirt and a bottle of water I carried an onion (I was advised by my mother to take one case I am to face tear gas); I also carried a tummy ache (that last burden is not a part of this report).

It seemed to have taken no more than a few minutes before we moved on. Being a newcomer to the group I got the privilege to ride in a private car. The car is an old Subaru that was donated to the group.

We drove towards a second meeting point in the territories. A local minicab was to wait for us and take us to Bil’iin. The old Subaru was parked at one of the gasoline stations on the way and the excitement began - right away. We took a non-route downhill. We marched on rolling stones, bypassed the thorns, and trusted the unstable ground. Mother earth was generous that day. We all made it safe and sound

I do not know which way the others, including the guy on crutches, took but they appeared down the same hill at more or less the same time, all sound and comfortable in a local cab. Then the adventurous hikers and myself took another cab and as we started moving I was advised to wear the extra shirt.

Our first and last stop was a house in the village.  That place hosts the internationals while they are staying there. To me the place was a cozy two-roomed ground floor apartment.  Mattresses were piled in one room and a kitchen was set in the other room.  The walls carried posters announcing a local show of the new film:  Bil’in Habibti.  The bathroom carried an instruction for water flushing saying: ‘Do not throw toilet paper in the toilets’.  the shower said: ‘The water installation does not work - do shower elsewhere if you don’t want the place to be crowded with mosquitoes.’ The sign on the fridge said not to buy Israeli products.

We were waiting for the men to get back from the mosque. It was Friday. We spent the time chatting. Some of us sitting in the shady garden, others in the flat.  Little children, perhaps around the age of ten years old, came by holding cartons of popcorn and some lighters: products for selling. Some of us had falafel, bought at a nearby store. I was feeling drowsy and given another hour of  waiting I  went into the house and fell asleep in the ‘guest room’ while the others kept chatting nearby and in the other room.  Lovely!  Drowsily, I overheard a conversation about the money difficulties the group is facing - they seem to be lacking 100,000 NIS (£12, 500). One should note that all through the journey, no one asked me for money, even though the cabs that took us as well as the fuel that was used for the private car are not for free (for donations, check in http://www.awalls.org/ and press donate.)

At last we were very ready to go.   We were a group of no more than 70 people and a strange one too. The group was a mixture of villagers all properly dressed, sunburnt internationals and Israelis. It was very easy to point out who is who. We spoke a mixture of English, Arabic and Hebrew. Different in origin as we were, we aimed together out of the village and towards the Wall. We walked tranquilly. I met a guy from Germany that said he is to write a book about the Wall, his friend from France who strangely had good English and a funny look, and a villager that used to work in a restaurant in Tel Aviv; while talking to me he began reminiscing about that time.

We were marching for no more than 12 minutes when a group of soldiers appeared and ordered the group to stop. Talking as I was, I found myself at the back, apart from the core group of marchers.   It was from a distance that I saw the others being stopped by the IDF.

I was asking myself what should I do next. The image of Lymor getting shot had become very vivid.  The children that gathered around were pointing at what seemed to be an abandoned building, saying: the soldiers are there! and it seemed to me that someone said, soon they will start shooting.

It was the first time I was intimidated by my own people.  I mean the IDF. Might they shoot me like they shot Lymor? Well, at that time I was not ready to risk it. I ran back shouting at the abandoned building on my left hand side:  I am passing, do not shoot!  I saw no one but I could distinguish something metal that looked like a gun.

Well yes.  I chickened out.  I ran back and I left the demonstrators way behind and way out of sight.

Having read the websites I realized that stones accompanied by tear gas were soon to come. I saw kids standing around, and a toddler playing with a rock that was way heavier than him - still, that infant seemed as if he was as trying to lift it. The rock didn’t seem to care to cooperate, let alone surrender. I imagined those little creatures holding a David-like sling for throwing stones.  Dazed and unfocused, I was running back and forth, occasionally shouting at people from the village:  I am a chicken.  I bumped into a group of villagers that stood on the road. They tried to calm me down, saying: don’t worry, it's your first time around.

Eventually I found myself by two guys that were eating an orange and white ice cream. One of them said he was banned from joining the demonstration as he was arrested in the past for participating. Therefore he had to stay in the village.

It was more or less at that moment that the shooting began. Thank god it was only tear gas. The ice cream eaters had tears in their eyes - still, they kept on eating and walking back. The German writer came running from the distance, crying. He was looking for his French mate. I handed him my onion. Surprisingly, the gas didn’t seem to affect me as badly.

It took a while till the demonstrators came and I spent the time with the villagers. Some spoke Hebrew, others were too young to. The atmosphere was warm and calm. I was not tense or worried at all.

As the demonstrators came back I noticed that one of them had his arm bandaged. He had got hit really hard with a truncheon. Later that day he was to be x-rayed to see if it was broken (it was). It was only later, when I was watching the video made during this demonstration that I realized that others were beaten hard as well. Still, no one bitched let alone boasted about it.

We, Israelis and Palestinian villagers, sat in the shed and had ice cream, bought in a local store. The shootings went on at a distance or least so it seemed then.  Soon it was time to go.  I learned an important lesson that day. I learnt I am not as sensitive to teargas as others. I also learnt something about what it takes to be brave and honest and about the price of a real struggle. On the way back in the same old Subaru I fell asleep again. It must have been the gas.

For more information about the Bil'in struggles, see:

http://www.palsolidarity.org/main/2006/09/03/the-only-place-where-there%e2%80%99s-hope/