Every Friday afternoon, a crowd assembles on the main street of the picturesque West Bank village of Bil’in to protest against the security fence separating residents of Israel from the Palestinians of the West Bank. Local Palestinians, fresh from the midday prayer, join up with dozens and sometimes hundreds of out-of-town supporters waiting for them not far from the mosque, and together they descend from the center of this hilltop town, situated about forty kilometers northwest of Jerusalem, twenty from Ben Gurion Airport and 12 from Ramallah, to the security fence that runs just outside. Every week since February 2005, the residents of Bil’in and their supporters have made this short march at the hottest point of the day to condemn the occupation, the fence and, of course, Israel.
Knowing what to expect, the regulars have gas masks at the ready as they lead the group in a chant: “Israel is a fascist state!” As the group approaches the fence itself, the dancing and chanting reaches a fever pitch, and the group’s members begin to taunt the dozen Israel Defense Forces (IDF) border patrol troops who are stationed 150 feet uphill from the fence on the western side. On the right flank of the mass of protesters Arab boys hurl stones at the soldiers. Others grandstand and make a show of climbing the fence.
The “operation” rarely lasts for more than a few minutes, however. Very soon come the sharp pops of tear gas canisters flying overhead in all directions. The exploding gas typically breaks up the line. The protesters sprint madly back toward the safety of the village while a few IDF soldiers proceed in formation through the fence in slow pursuit. A few particularly feisty protesters hold back to test the moral character of the 19-year-old conscripts. Each week a few of these are arrested and usually released later the same day.
The soldiers do not pursue the group back to the village, where, once reassembled in safety, they congratulate each other and wipe themselves down with wet washcloths to ease the burn of the tear-gas chemical. “So, how was it for you?” one Israeli university student asked her dreadlocked American friend after emerging from the smoke on one occasion. “Just great”, replied the latter, exhausted, but deliriously excited, like a skydiver after a safe landing. All told, ascent and descent last no longer than 15 minutes.
The “official” Bil’in town website, billin-village.org, claims that 60 percent of its land wound up on the Israeli side of the security fence, making it inaccessible for agriculture, commerce and basic human movement. The weekly gathering in Bil’in, its population numbering about 1,800, began back in 2005 ostensibly...