Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Planting Trees with "the Palestinian Gandhi"

Two winters ago I attended a demonstration in the village of Bil'ain in protest of the Wall that Israel was building between the village and more than half of its land. It was the second Friday in a row that the community had come together to protest their collective imprisonment and dispossession. Now, two years later, the Wall around Bil'ain is complete. Yet the village continues, week after week, to come together to demonstrate in new and creative ways, in spite of the obstacles.

In two years of demonstrating, Bil'ain villagers have prayed on their land. They've constructed giant dioramas. They've marched with a giant paper-maché grey snake with a dove in its mouth to symbolize how the Wall is suffocating peace and the village. They've held a wedding on their "forbidden" land, and World Cup parties. They've invited drummers to give a beat to their marching for freedom. Bil'ain has dressed up like Abu Ghraib prisoners, and worn masks of Bush and Condi. They've spelled out their message with mosaics on their streets. They've resolved to build a hotel on their stolen land, where any person will be free to stay no matter what ethnicity or religion.

Bil'ain has paid a price for its determination. Villagers have withstood kidnappings, rubber bullets, sound bombs, tear gas, beatings, live ammunition, arrests, threats of deportation, arson, and more, yet they continue. When the Army declared overnight curfew on Bil'ain, villagers held a volleyball tournament from midnight to 3am between teams of Israelis, internationals, and Palestinians. When the Army declared internationals were forbidden from entering the village, they invited foreign musical groups to sing and dance on their land with them. When they lost their first court case, they filed another. When a nearby settlement continued expansion on Bil'ain land, villagers built their very own outpost!--a trailer resembling those used by ideological settlers to illegally squat Palestinian land, but this one open to internationals, Israelis, and villagers to affirm Palestinians' right to live on their land. They call it the "Center for Joint Struggle," and although the original was destroyed, another towed, and yet another burned, the villagers return each time to reassert their rights and build a new community home on their stolen groves.

I visited the Bil'ain outpost for the first time today. I arrived with a caravan of Israeli activists from Tel Aviv early in the morning, and was embarrassed to realize we had woken two villagers sleeping inside. One, named Ashraf, insisted he was already awake as he rubbed his eyes, and shuffled around to prepare tea and drag out mattresses for us to sit on under the olive trees. It was a beautiful day, and I admired the fort held together in part by sheets and tree trunks, and the organic garden they had created next to it. We chatted and munched on chocolate wafers as we waited for other villagers to arrive for the planned action. Ashraf was disappointed when his friend Yonatan--an Israeli vegan--declined each round of cookies, and squinted through the ingredients on everything in his snack stash desperate to find something without milk. Eventually the others arrived and we began walking towards the settlement of Modiin Elite.

I had forgotten how quickly settlements can grow. Modiin Elite is a large Jewish-only colony built on Bil'ain village land, home to more than 33,000 Israelis and about twice as many homes, according to an Israeli activist I drove through with. In spite of generous financial packages, the Israeli government has not succeeded in transferring as many Israeli families as they have made room for, yet construction continues aggressively.

Modiin Elite is also known as Kiryat Sefer, and its extensions are sometimes called Matityahu East or Green Park. According to my friend Kobi, an Israeli professor and activist, "Giving settlements different names are part of a general strategy of obstruction and disinformation by developers and the Civil Administration. Master plans are not available, construction is not announced, the planning laws are alternatively Ottoman, British, Jordanian, or Israeli, whichever suits the settlers' purposes at any particular moment. This makes it harder for opponents to know what they're up against and to monitor it." If the court rules something illegal for one settlement, they continue activity under a different name. For example, the court recently required developers to cease all activity in certain areas that the settlement annexed from Bil'ain, but as we drove in we saw cranes working away.

Bil'ain villagers have filed a number of lawsuits against Modiin Elite. Today's action was to plant olive trees on two fenced-in enclaves near the settlement that the court has finally determined do belong to Bil'ain villagers. Contractors have been required to remove all infrastructure and restore the land to its previous state. As expected, while digging holes--ostensibly for the trees--we uncovered all kinds of illegal activity. In the first enclave, we found water pipes, telephone lines, and remnants of an old concrete settler road. In the second enclave we found parts of a building foundation that had been simply covered up with mounds of dirt. As we dug, we were approached by settler security and eventually the contractor himself, who was visibly nervous. Half a dozen Israelis and internationals were extensively documenting his illegal work, and he's likely to get into a lot of trouble. After we finished planting, the Israelis scooted back under the fence to the settlement where they'd parked, and we began the walk back to Bil'ain, where we hoped to catch transport back to our home in the West Bank.

It was upsetting to see the completed Wall in Bil'ain, knowing all the village had done to try and prevent it, or at least change its path. Now it separates the villagers from their land, including the outpost and enclaves where we'd been. The soldiers holding the key to the gate met us along the way, and declared strictly that village residents could pass to Bil'ain, but nobody else. Abdallah, one of the villagers, explained in Hebrew that we are his friends and he was inviting us to his village. He did not ask for permission, he stated clearly that this was his and our right and that we had come in peace. Then he began walking forward and motioned for us to come along.

The soldiers didn't like that. They began yelling and formed a line to prevent us from passing. One soldier began to remove a tear gas canister from his belt. Convinced that the soldiers would not be moved, Abdallah sat down on the road in protest, and invited us to sit with him. He explained once again that there is no law against us passing, but made clear that we would not cause the soldiers any harm or use violence.

Abdallah is an active member of Bil'ain's Popular Committee Against the Wall. He's been called "the Palestinian Gandhi," and remains committed to nonviolent resistance, no matter how many times the Army beats or arrests him. He was calm and poised, and I could tell that the soldiers were not accustomed to Palestinians neither validating them nor becoming upset.

After calling a number of Army hotlines for help (in vain), we resolved to try again to walk peacefully through the line of soldiers towards the village. Abdallah led the group, with his hands up in the air. As soon as he'd passed the soldiers began pushing me and my colleagues back, separating us from Abdallah. They pushed him against the gate, hastily opened it, pushed him onto the other side, and closed it. He did not resist. He just kept asking, "Lamma? Lamma?" ("Why? Why?" in Hebrew). Another villager approached the soldiers, holding the hand of his young daughter. He asked me, "Shall we go to my village?" and I said, "Yalla" (Let's go). He stuck out his elbow for me to link arms with him, and we began to walk towards the soldiers. They immediately broke between us and shoved the man and his daughter through the opened gate before closing it. They threatened to arrest me. I said I hadn't done anything illegal, but I backed off.

The only Palestinian left was Ashraf, who would probably stay in the outpost again. By this time I realized he was slightly mentally handicapped, and hoped he would make it back okay. Abdallah called to us through the fence that he would meet us at the checkpoint a couple miles away if we could hitch a ride there with a settler security man who had recently arrived, curious about the commotion. The man agreed--if only to get us out of there--and half an hour later we were in Abdallah's car on the detour road back to Bil'ain. On the way Abdallah told us the bad news: Ashraf, whom we'd left at the scene, had been detained. We drove quickly from the village to the gate of the Wall, now opposite the soldiers we'd confronted earlier. We could see Ashraf sitting in an army tent, handcuffed and blindfolded. Abdallah called some Israeli friends and a lawyer, and I took some photos. When pressed, the soldiers explained that they had asked Ashraf if he wanted to return to his village and he said nothing. Then they asked if he wanted to return to the outpost and he said nothing. Now they were detaining him temporarily as punishment for not responding to their questions. When asked when he would be released they said they hadn't decided yet but maybe in half an hour. Abdallah felt that rather than cause a big scene we should wait and hope they were telling the truth.

We sat down next to the gate. I reflected on how disempowering it is to witness injustice through an impenetrable Wall. I prayed the soldiers would not hurt Ashraf, not sure if I could handle watching through a fence unable to try and stop it. But they left him alone, and after about 40 minutes they removed his blindfold and handcuffs and escorted him to the gate. He walked through with a sheepish smile, clearly moved that we had waited to ensure his release. We drove back to Abdallah's house--half of which he's donated as a home for Israelis and internationals to have their own space in the village. We told Abdallah we'd see him next Friday, and started the long journey back to Haris.

Thanks for reading,



Joshua Seraphim Anderson said...

How hard is it not to get screaming mad at the soldiers? How hard is it not to blow up? Or are they too scary?

Unknown said...

it's amazing to read your blog
not many people can do what you have
i am very inspired to help and write more about the bilin struggle in my country can you kindly forward me the email contact of any of the people in bilin village committee
shailendra uniyal
children of gandhi project
india new delhi

Unknown said...

Wow. You're such a tool helping terrorists kill Israelis. Lenin had a phrase for people like you--Useful idiots. GO back to Amerika and help the native americans