“I am here because this village’s struggle is much more [than just] about the wall,” former Israeli parliamentarian Mossi Raz said as hundreds of Palestinians and Israeli and international supporters converged in the occupied West Bank village of Bilin on 7 January. “This is about the occupation as a whole and it is time for civil society on both sides of the wall to mobilize.”
A small village nestled softly on a hilltop overlooking the large settlement of Modiin Illit, Bilin has resisted the Israeli occupation through nonviolent protest for the past five years. The village’s struggle has been recognized from South Africa to Japan while its leadership has been systemically jailed or killed for its nonviolent resistance.
Last week’s demonstration was organized to commemorate the killing of Jawaher Abu Rahmah one week earlier. Jawaher, 36, succumbed to fatal injuries after inhaling tear gas fired by the Israeli military on 31 December 2010 during one of the village’s weekly protests against Israel’s wall and occupation. Jawaher is the sister of Bassem Abu Rahmah, who was killed on the spot in 2009 when an American-made, high-velocity tear gas projectile was fired directly at his chest by an Israeli soldier during a demonstration.
Since Jawaher’s killing, the Israeli military has launched an aggressive propaganda campaign of disinformation and half-truths to cover up its culpability in her death. Iyad Burant, one of the leaders of Bilin’s Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, put it simply after the demonstration: “Nothing scares Israel more than nonviolence, so they attack us any way they can and then lie to the media about their actions.”
Throughout the week following Jawaher Abu Rahmah’s death, Israel claimed Abu Rahmah was not at the demonstration, did not die of tear gas inhalation and could have died of cancer. Instead of providing evidence to support these assertions, Israel fanned the flames of the right-wing blogger fervor that Palestinians sources can’t be trusted, simply because they are Palestinian.
The demonstration began with an unusually large number of Israeli and international supporters as well as representatives of more than thirty women’s organizations from the occupied West Bank and Israel. Evie Soli, a Norwegian activist who stays in Bilin, told The Electronic Intifada that “the atmosphere of this week’s demonstration was encouraging.”
“I have never seen so many women leading the demonstration, and because of their passion, we were able to make it right next to the barrier,” Soli added. “I did not think that we would make it all the way to the barrier — but we did, and the feeling was amazing.”
Indeed, with the help of women from various parts of the West Bank and Israel, the demonstration was able to reach the area of the barrier and protesters were able to chant “No, no to the wall” and “Free, free Palestine” in Arabic directly in front of Israeli soldiers.
Within minutes, however, the army responded by spraying the entire crowd — which included European diplomats, former and current Israeli members of parliament as well as droves of international media — with a petrochemical dubbed by demonstrators as “the skunk.” The chemical, which stinks beyond belief, has the ability to stay on one’s clothes and skin for weeks. The skunk smells like concentrated sewage and once on one’s body, is impossible to get off. Often demonstrators with long hair who have been sprayed with the skunk will cut off their tresses as it is the only way to get rid of the odor. The skunk is one of the Israeli army’s main weapons against demonstrators, along with rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas projectiles, live ammunition and the “scream” — a device that releases a paralyzingly loud noise.
Despite the skunk spray, villagers were able to successfully dismantle small portions of the fence. Once the majority of international press was leaving the village, the Israeli military began using the poisonous American-made tear gas that killed Jawaher Abu Rahmah only one week before. The gas is made by Combined Systems, Inc., a weapons manufacturer based in Jamestown, Pennsylvania.
Soldiers began firing the gas in every direction of the protest, and within minutes the protest looked just as it did one week before — covered in poisonous tear gas.
Iyad Burant was one of the protesters who was caught in a cloud of tear gas and was evacuated from the scene by an ambulance. “It was like I was looking at death,” Burnat told The Electronic Intifada about the experience.
Bilin resident Wagee Burnat, no relation to Iyad, has an easy-going and charming demeanor. At his porch, mere meters from the last line of demonstrators in Bilin, he stood up and greeted the first-time solidarity activists there that day a warm smile and an offer of tea.
When asked what happened in last week’s deadly demonstration, Burnat said, “You know, I had a conversation with one of the soldiers during that demonstration. I was standing right next to the wall and he asked me what all this chaos was about.”
Burnat added, “I was completely in shock that a soldier commanding others to fire tear gas at unarmed nonviolent demonstrators had no idea what this protest was about.”
According to Burnat, as tear gas rained down on the protest, he explained to the soldier how the people of Bilin are farmers who live off the land like they have for thousands of years and Israel’s wall prevents them from reaching their livelihood.
“The solider gave me his phone number and said that I can call him next time I want to reach my land on the other side of the barrier,” Burnat explained. “You know how many times I have heard that one?” Burnat said, laughing.
“I do not believe the Israeli media,” he said bluntly of Israel’s attempts to evade responsibility for Abu Rahmah’s death. “My village has been struggling for almost six years and they have lied about everything that goes on here. You know they did the same thing with Bassem [about the circumstances of his death] and there were three different video recordings of what happened!”
Throughout the demonstration, whispers of Jawaher Abu Rahmah were heard on every corner. Evie Soli said that during the past week in Bilin, “every conversation would lead to Jawaher.”
“You could sit and talk about something else but the conversation would end up talking about the tear gas or where Jawaher was,” Soli said. “It was on everyone’s mind.”
Meanwhile, a steady stream of protesters made their way back to the village — each wearing a small yellow star with “Palestinian” written in small Arabic letters. The organizers of the demonstration wanted to draw a distinct parallel to the position of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Jews under Nazi oppression during the Second World War, when Jews in Germany were forced to wear yellow Stars of David. The stars were given out by organizers at the beginning of the demonstration to Palestinians, Israelis and internationals to show unity against oppression. In a powerfully symbolic act, Israeli and Palestinian demonstrators stood in front of Israeli soldiers guarding the wall while wearing the yellow stars on their chests.
“The struggle has been going on in the same way for the past six years,” Iyad Burant said. “Israel has tried every trick to crush our nonviolence and we have maintained our values. The whole world knows Bilin and even Israeli parliament members are joining our protests. Israel will not be able to keep Bilin quiet even if they kill our brothers and sisters.”