He stands on a small sandy hilltop wearing a bright yellow t-shirt, cigarette in hand. He is calling out to the soldiers on the other side of the fence “Do not shoot, do not shoot. There are children and internationals here, do not shoot.” Thin white wisps of tear gas linger in the gentle breeze, a moment of calm in the confrontation.
Suddenly a tear gas canister whizzes past the camera making an audible “clunk” as it hits something to the right. He tries to let out a scream, but all he manages is a stifled yelp. One can almost hear his breath being cut short as the projectile punctures his chest. Another muted scream of pain. He falls to the ground then jumps up quickly, running a few steps before collapsing again.
His body rolls a few times as he hits the ground, his limbs flapping loosely underneath him. Two fellow demonstrators run to him, looking almost surprised and unsure of what has just happened. They turn him over, lifting his shirt and calling his name. But he is unresponsive. His eyes are open but his body lies motionless. His bright yellow shirt now quickly growing a wet red stain over his heart.
And so the occupied people of Palestine sacrifice yet another one of their young men. Another one. Again. Just like that. In an instant. Caught live on camera for the world to see. Twenty-nine-year-old Basem Ibrahim Abu Rahme was later pronounced dead at Ramallah hospital on Friday 17 April 2009 after being shot in the chest with a high-velocity tear gas canister by an Israeli soldier. A faceless, nameless soldier who will likely never have to explain or account for taking the life of another human being.
Basem posed no threat to the security of Israel as he stood atop that hill. He was not armed, nor was he throwing stones. Ironically, he was calling out to the Israeli forces to hold their fire because children and internationals were present, when he was shot. He was involved in a nonviolent demonstration when his own life was so violently taken. Basem is the 18th Palestinian to be killed in nonviolent anti-wall protests in the West Bank since 2004.
For four years now the residents of Bilin have nonviolently protested the annexation of their land by Israel’s wall. This barrier has effectively annexed roughly 60 percent of Bilin’s farming land to the Israeli side. As this village is almost exclusively sustained by agriculture, it’s no exaggeration to say that at least 60 percent of its economy has disappeared, with dire consequences for the community’s socio-economic welfare.
In 2005 the International Court of Justice ruled that the barrier in its entirety is illegal under international law, recommending that Israel halt its construction and demolish the parts that had already been completed.
In addition, the Israeli high court has ruled on three separate occasions that the route of the barrier in Bilin is illegal under Israeli law. The Israeli army has been ordered more than once to reroute the barrier in order that it not usurp such large tracts of Bilin’s land. To date, not a single meter has been removed in Bilin, or anywhere else in the West Bank for that matter.
The Israeli army’s claim that the wall is a security measure is simply preposterous. One doesn’t have to look far across the barrier in Bilin to see what the land is being stolen for — the extension of yet another illegal settlement. In this case, the beneficiary of Bilin’s land is the Matityahu East neighborhood of the Modi’in Ilit settlement.
Bilin has become somewhat of an inspiration and example in the West Bank for its now famous weekly protests. The small village has also gained international recognition for its steadfastness and commitment to nonviolent protest, as documented in the award-winning film, Bil’in My Love.
The villagers, along with international and even Israeli demonstrators, have faithfully upheld their weekly protests every single Friday, without exception, for the last four years. While these demonstrations are strictly nonviolent and consist mainly of chanting, waving the Palestinian flag and attempting to access the confiscated land, the response from Israeli forces is always harsh.
Every week demonstrators are showered with copious amounts of rubber coated steel bullets and tear gas. Last year, Israeli soldiers killed four youths in separate incidents in the West Bank village of Nilin, who were also participating in nonviolent protests against the barrier in their village.
Lately, however, Israeli troops have employed a new and deadly tactic in an effort to quell protest. This involves the use of a new, high-velocity tear gas canister that is being shot directly at protestors. These canisters are relatively quiet when fired, emitting only a faint smoke trail, which makes them difficult to detect. In addition, their 400-meter range makes them lethal when fired directly at people.
This is the same type of tear gas canister that nearly killed 37-year-old American activist Tristan Anderson in Nilin on 13 March when he was shot directly in the face from 60 meters away. He remains in a coma in a Tel Aviv hospital.
Designed to be fired upwards in an arc-like projection, Israeli soldiers have realized the deadly potential of these canisters and are using them as bullets. It is likely yet another attempt by the Israeli army to attempt disguise their intentions by not shooting ordinary ammunition.
While Tristan Anderson remains in a serious coma, he was lucky to escape with his life. Basem, however, was not as fortunate. And because he is Palestinian, the mainstream international media will not be interested in his case. He is simply not important enough.
His story will be relegated to the bottom corner of a back page of a newspaper somewhere, probably in biased language that blames him for his own death — if even that. As the haunting sound of his last painful screams play over in my head, I wonder just how much more the collective Palestinian spirit can take before another mass uprising.
For now, the resilience of Bilin lives on. The next day, hundreds turned out for Basem’s funeral. His body, draped in the Palestinian flag, Basem was held aloft by mourners as they chanted, “The martyr is beloved by God,” eventually bringing him to the final resting place where so many have been taken before.
And while Palestine waits patiently for the international community to stand by its side, the fearless people of Bilin will be out again this Friday. Ready to sacrifice their blood and their souls for something very simple — just to have returned what has, and always will rightfully be theirs.
Sayed Mohamed Dhansay is a South African who volunteered with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank in 2006-07.