Al Jazeera spoke with 11 villagers on the anniversary of Bilin's weekly protests against Israel's separation wall.
February marks 11 years since Palestinians in Bilin began a weekly protest against Israeli plans to build a concrete wall through village land.
Initial plans would have seen around 1,950 dunams (1.95 million square-metres) of Bilin’s land walled off and likely used for the construction of the nearby illegal Israeli settlement, Modiin Illit. Outraged at the plans, villagers began protesting each Friday. Residents of other Palestinian villages and towns soon joined, as did Israeli and international activists. The weekly demonstrations have continued up until today.
The villagers achieved a partial victory when the Israeli high court ruled in 2007 that the planned route of the separation wall was not necessary for security reasons. The decision effectively won back around 650 dunams (650,000sq metres) of land for the village.
But the villagers have paid a high price for their continued activism. In 2009, Basem Abu Rahmah was shot directly in the chest with a tear gas canister, while his sister Jawaher died as a result of tear gas inhalation in 2010. Organisers say around 1,000 people have been injured over the years, with more than 200 arrested and detained.
Yet, 11 years after the first protests were held, the villagers continue to demand their rights and an end to the Israeli occupation.
Aerial view of the separation wall
Iyad Burnat runs a media centre in the village of Bilin. During the first Intifada in the late 1980s, he was imprisoned for two years but has continued nonviolent protests against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Last year, he collected the James Lawson Award for nonviolent resistance on behalf of Palestine.
“We want to reach the whole world. In some ways, we’ve succeeded to do that and teach people about the real lives of Palestinians. We believe the media doesn’t show the reality of life under occupation. We wanted to send the message that this is not a security war; it’s an attempt to confiscate our land, demolish our homes and demolish our lives. We are working very hard against Israeli propaganda to explain the lives of the Palestinians.
We have also spread the message to many villages in the West Bank. After our success in Bilin, we have around 15 villages that are making a weekly nonviolent demonstration like ours in Bilin. There is Nilin, Nabi Saleh, Kufr Qadum, and Walaja. And many activists from these villages visit us to show solidarity, and we visit them.”
Hanadi Burnat has lived in Bilin for eight years. She has three young children. She seldom attends the weekly protest, where her husband Rani is often seen leading the crowd and taking photographs from his motorised wheelchair.
“The children are too young to take part in the demonstration, so I don’t have to worry about that now. But in general, it is not easy to raise children in this kind of environment. My children are afraid sometimes; they don’t want to die ... In the future, it will be up to them if they want to take part in the demonstrations. They will get to choose. As a family, we were able to adapt to the presence of the Israeli soldiers and we are able to live our lives.
The effect of occupation is mostly psychological because I worry about my kids, and they are affected psychologically by what happens. They are always saying, 'We don’t want to die. We don’t want to be arrested. We don’t want to be targeted.' When they see a martyr on TV, they are affected by the sight of that, as well.”
Abdallah Abu Rahmah serves as a coordinator on the Bilin popular committee. Following the rerouting of the separation barrier, Abu Rahmah has led efforts to spread Bilin’s model of nonviolent resistance to other Palestinian villages in the occupied West Bank. He spent 16 months in an Israeli military prison after being convicted on charges of incitement and participating in an illegal demonstration. During his detention, the European Union named Abu Rahmah a human rights defender, while Archbishop Desmond Tutu called on Israel to release him. Following his release in 2011, Abu Rahmah vowed to continue his activism.
“I’m proud to be one of the leaders of this movement and this committee. We made many families happy because they are still living and working on their land. We have paid a big price for this. We lost two of our friends who were killed by Israeli forces. The military forces have spared no effort to punish the people of Bilin. Over 11 years, we have seen curfews, sieges, night raids and arrests, using many types of new weapons to try to stop us.
But from the first moment, the people said they would continue the struggle until the end of the occupation and removal of the settlement from our land.”
Anas Mansour was shot in the chest with a live bullet at a Friday demonstration in April 2015. He says he was standing and watching proceedings with a group of men when he was hit by a .22-calibre bullet.
“It was a serious injury, and I spent 20 days in the hospital before being released. It could have killed me. I was shot last year, and I’m still having treatment at the hospital. I used to be athletic and play sports, like football and running, but I can’t do that anymore because of the injury. I have not been mentally affected because I am used to seeing the soldiers. I was only worried about my mother and how she would cope with losing me. She told me to stop going to the weekly demonstrations because she doesn’t want me to be injured again, so I decided to stay behind and not to risk injury. But it’s also my choice. It was really hard being injured, so I decided that I don’t want to go through that again.”
Subhia Abu Rahmah has lived in Bilin all her life. The mother of seven has paid a considerable personal price during Bilin’s 11-year struggle against the separation wall. Her son Basem was killed in 2009 when an Israeli soldier shot him directly in the chest with a tear gas canister. The following year, her daughter Jawaher died as a consequence of tear gas inhalation. Pictures of her two children dominate the living room in her home on the outskirts of the village.
“The Israelis took our land and they killed two of my children. I find comfort in the fact that they are martyrs because, for us, there is no bigger honour than to die while defending your country. I try not to cry over the loss, but still, it hurts and leaves pain in my heart to have lost two of my children. As a village, we have achieved some success. The first planned route of the wall was very close to my house, but it was moved back, so we were able to save some of our land from confiscation. I hope to see this wall disappear. Not just from Bilin, but from every village in the West Bank.”
Fadi Mustafa has worked as a medic in Bilin for nine years and has treated a huge number of protesters. “I’ve seen it all,” he says, before reeling off a list of injuries and the types of weapons or bullets that caused them. Friday is his busiest day and he is always on standby. Working amid the demonstrations makes for a challenging work environment, and Mustafa has been injured on four separate occasions. The front windshields of two ambulances he has been in had been shot at and shattered.
“Usually on Fridays, I prepare myself mentally for the protest. I wake up, eat breakfast, and then I chat with the coordinators of the protest and political figures to get an idea of the turnout expectations. To tell you the truth, before I leave the house, I make sure I say goodbye to my family. I kiss my kids and say goodbye because, in my experience, I know that nobody is immune to Israeli fire. I know that there is a risk I could be injured or killed, so I always say a proper goodbye to my family. I will keep doing this work because it is my duty.”
Luma Abu Rahmah cannot remember a time before the anti-occupation struggle in Bilin. She attends school in the nearby city of Ramallah, where her favourite classes are science and mathematics. She hopes she will become a lawyer in the future. She began attending the weekly demonstrations five years ago after her father was imprisoned for his role in organising the marches. Every week, she carried a picture of her father. When he was released, she attended alongside him each Friday.
“At the beginning, it was really hard for me to get used to the idea that soldiers could raid the village. My studies were affected at first when soldiers would come into our house or raid the village, and it used to make me afraid. But after a while, after I started going on the demonstrations and faced the soldiers, they no longer scare me. I got used to it. It’s hard to imagine what Palestine would be like without the Israeli soldiers and the occupation. But I hope and believe the occupation will end.”
Hamdi Abu Rahmah has worked as a photojournalist in the village since the weekly demonstrations began in 2005. Every Friday, he dons a bulletproof vest, helmet and gas mask and documents the protests with his camera. Over the years, he has been invited to European countries to speak about nonviolent resistance in Bilin and other parts of the occupied West Bank.
“In Europe, many people don’t really know about what is happening here.
Many people think it’s a war, but it’s not really a war. It’s more like genocide. Taking people’s land, demolishing people’s homes, step-by-step to try and stop the world from noticing what’s happening. Also, many people don’t really understand our problem. Our problem is not with the Jewish people. The problem is with the occupation. That’s why we accept Israelis and Jews to take part in our demonstration.”
Ilan Shalif lives in Tel Aviv and has been attending the weekly anti-occupation demonstrations in Bilin since 2005. Everyone in the village knows him, and he was made an honorary citizen of Bilin in recognition of his dedication. Born in Jerusalem before the establishment of the Israeli state, Shalif remembers hearing the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre through the windows of his fifth-grade classroom.
“Even as a child, I didn’t like mainstream Zionism. My father worked with the people of Deir Yassin. The people from there used to visit us at the end of Passover and bring us cookies. I came to Bilin for the first time in May 2005, and I’ve come back every Friday since then. I was born in Jerusalem before Israel came. Every week is different. There is seldom something the same.
The units change and the commander changes, and they have the freedom to do what they want. The last commander was belligerent, but now we are able to go up to the wall. In the first two or three years, there were more Israelis. Today there are fewer, maybe because it is less exciting - the wall is old news. Also, there are many other villages to support, as well.”
Intisar Sabri was born in Bilin in the 1960s but fled to Jordan during the war of 1967. She returned with her family 10 years later. She always takes part in the Friday demonstrations, describing it as a duty and the least that can be done.
“It is something that is in our hearts: to show opposition to the wall and the occupation of our land. I don’t think the rerouting of the wall is a victory. I’m happy, but we still have lost 1,000 dunams [one-million square metres] of our land to Israel. I will only be happy when there is no more occupation.
Women, children, elderly people, even people who are injured - everyone should go to protest. International activists, whether they are Jews or not, are welcome to join our struggle. The entire world should protest until Palestinians win back their rights.”
Hamza Burnat studies law at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. He was 11 years old when villagers began to protest each Friday against the planned route of the separation wall. Looking back over the past 11 years, he thinks that the constant pressure of the occupation and the struggle to resist stole part of his childhood and adolescence.
“I was 11 years old when the village started to protest the building of the wall. Back then, it was more intense. The Israeli army would raid the village and they would stop people from accessing their school or places of work.
So a lot of people didn’t have access to school, and they developed a hatred for school because they were afraid to go out during these closures and raids. We were no longer normal kids who are only interested in normal things. We were exposed to Israeli occupation crimes too early.”
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