The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Rent-a-Crowd Fridays in Palestine

Israeli leftists, foreign “peace activists” and the Palestinian Authority sure know how to throw a protest.

Published on November 1, 2010

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 to raise an outcry against the then newly built fence. Ever since, a collection of Israeli Jews, including among them self-described communists, anarchists or plain “activists”, have helped coordinate the Friday demonstrations at Bil’in, arranging passage for Israelis and foreigners through checkpoints to the West Bank village.

As for the other 99 percent of Israelis, the vast majority is happy with the practical consequences of the security fence, if not always with its political and moral implications. The poet Yitzhak Laor attributed the building of fences to intellectual exhaustion in a recent Ha’aretz column: “Fences, blockades—we accomplish this separation through our refusal to know.” But even unhappy Israelis, indeed even some who sympathize at some level with the Bil’in protest, are reluctant to suggest taking the fence down. Conceived by the government of Ariel Sharon at the height of the so-called second intifada in 2002, the fence marks a point of happy departure from a terrible time. That was the year in which Fatah and Hamas suicide terrorists slipped into Israel on an almost daily basis from West Bank cities and villages, murdering some 220 Israelis (compared to 85 the year before). Most Israelis today believe that the security fence broke the back of the intifada, pointing to the dramatic decrease in the number of terror attacks since the fence began to rise.

Not everyone in Israel agrees that correlation equals causation in this case. Some in the security establishment believe that old-fashioned arrests and targeted killings of terrorists did the job. They and others point out that the fence is actually a chaotic jumble of concrete shapes and observatory towers that, at about 250 miles of length, leaves several large gaps through which West Bank residents pass undetected into Israel. Determined terrorists could get through those gaps, if not through the walls around Jerusalem, where the fence turns into a gunfire proof wall bedecked by amusing, sometimes profane graffiti.

Around Bil’in, the security fence is actually a fence around nine or ten feet high. Its erection in 2004 is what prompted the creation of the “Bil’in Committee of Popular Resistance against the Wall and Settlements”, which organizes the Friday protests. On these points, all agree; there is agreement on nothing else, however.

Take the residents’ claim concerning the missing 60 percent of their land. The fence runs outside the bounds of the village and its enclosed farmland, but residents claim that their sheep and cattle always went to pasture in lands beyond the village proper. They say that this custom establishes Bil’in’s ownership, but ownership claims are difficult to credit and measure given the agglomeration of sometimes overlapping Ottoman, British, Jordanian and then Israeli systems for land recording and management. In 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the security fence should be re-routed to ease the hardships of Bil’in residents, while also affirming, a few days later, that the nearby Jewish villages on the western side of the fence in fact had proper legal title to the land. But the Israeli Supreme Court says a lot of things, many of which contradict one another, and there are times when the Israeli army listens only to the beat of its own drummers. Court or no court, there hasn’t been much change in the security fence around Bil’in.

Also, court or no court, Israeli and international leftists saw in Bil’in a perfect example of the injustice of the wall and the continued Israeli presence in the West Bank. The symbolism is too perfect: a pre-1948 village (according to a British mandate census there were 166 residents of Bil’in in 1931); a ten-foot fence; and “the settlements”, the dreaded white apartment blocks of nearby Jewish villages—all just a twenty-minute ride from Ramallah. It was as though Bil’in had been custom ordered for the BBC evening news. That is why receiving a dose of tear gas at Bil’in has become something of a rite of passage not only for some Israeli leftists but also for international celebrity activists. Celebrity protestors have included Northern Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan (who also was a passenger on the Turkish Mavi Marmara flotilla) and Canadian No Logo author Naomi Klein, among others.

As is generally the case in this part of the world, the layers of reality run fairly deep; the longer one digs, the more one finds. As it happens, the residents of Bil’in are loyal to Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah Party. This makes Bil’in a particularly easy commute from Ramallah on Friday for Palestinian state television crews and other Fatah loyalists hoping to do their moral or professional duty in Bil’in. In short, much of the Arab participation in the Friday protests is in effect rented by the local powers that be. This ensures that there is always a Friday protest, in wilting summer heat or bone-chilling winter rains, whether many others show up or not.

Indeed, enthusiasm for the Bil’in protests has ebbed and flowed over the years, but the movement has recently gained momentum from parallel protests. On May 27, a small group of Hebrew University professors led students in a short Menshevik-intellectual style march through Sheikh Jarrah, a mixed middle-class neighborhood in East Jerusalem adjacent to the university’s main campus. This protest was prompted by sporadic efforts of city bureaucrats to evict some Arab residents from unauthorized buildings which the residents claim had long been in the family.

The Sheikh Jarrah protest has become another Friday fixture, and zealous Israeli protesters can now “do” both Bil’in and Sheikh Jarrah and still make it back to Tel Aviv in time for dinner. For some Jerusalemites, Sheikh Jarrah has become the happening place to be on Friday, and not merely because most of the rest of the city is already shuttered for the Sabbath at that hour. This spring there were large anti-occupation rallies in Tel Aviv, some of which were jointly organized by Israeli communist and Arab parties. There were counter, pro-government rallies as well. Everyone worked themselves into a self-righteous lather, after which local food venders did a brisk business.

Idecided to go to Bil’in to determine for myself what Israeli leftists, as well as Palestinians and foreigners, believe they are accomplishing there. Gathering for each of these excursions in front of one of the numberless socialist-realism 1950s apartment blocks in southern Tel Aviv, we met Ilan, a gaunt self-described anarchist in his sixties who looked like a sun-withered kibbutznik version of Noam Chomsky. Actually, he was a kibbutznik, having been kicked out in the 1970s for persisting in “anti-Zionist activity.” Ilan, who had barely missed a week in Bil’in since the protests began, helps shuttle Israelis and foreigners from the coast over to the town on Fridays.

I wasn’t sure whether Ilan had a day job, but he was clearly not a weekends-only anarchist. During each drive to Bil’in he expertly navigated the dangerous side roads and detours of the West Bank, avoiding roadblocks and police, though one could complain about his refusal, on environmental (and possibly financial) grounds, to turn on the car’s air-conditioning unit even on days when the mercury topped ninety degrees Fahrenheit. On one occasion, after reaching our destination, he lit a cigarette, took three deep drags, and then put it out with his fingers. “Gotta keep the blood pressure up”, he said.

Ilan liked to make sure his passengers had a stimulating ride up to Bil’in. On a later trip, he arranged for me to travel with an American couple—a sweet community college student writing a thesis on the security fence and her boyfriend, a solid security-requires-painful-measures-but-we-still-want-a-two-state-solution Israeli. Another passenger, Ido, a red-headed Israeli in his mid-twenties, was an anarchist. Clad in a “Smash Israeli Apartheid” T-shirt, he spoke well and softly, though his obvious anti-government animus occasionally caused him to raise his voice. The student couple raised all the typical objections to Ido’s fervor. Doesn’t the security fence save lives? Aren’t the Palestinians partly to blame for not recognizing Israel?

Ido answered each question politely, as if he had heard it all before. Such “pro-system” opinions, he allowed, were the product of brainwashing rather than any malicious intent on the part of the questioner. Ido even did reasonably well with the standard “gotcha” question: If all borders are fundamentally unjust, what sense is there in fighting for one particular minority’s borders? Wouldn’t one just be replacing one injustice with another? “Ideally there are no differences between people”, he responded, “but states in our world build fences; only they have to do it on their own land.” At the end of the day Ido’s antipathy to the security fence stemmed from his concern for Palestinian property rights. Like many Palestinian sympathizers before him, he spoke reverently and learnedly about Palestinian olive trees and olive oil. If you replaced “Palestinian lands” with “kibbutz”, you could almost believe you were listening to an old-school labor Zionist.

So what did I see on my visits to Bil’in? The official town website claims that Bil’in is “struggling to exist”, but there are few visible signs of poverty. In fact, Bil’in surely must be the Subaru capital of the Middle East; streets, driveways and roadsides were full of them. At the high point of the village stands a mansion built by an old man who had come back to die in Bil’in after having made his fortune abroad. Like many homes in the town, it was new, large and well guarded.

One should not, however, rush to judge the West Bank economy on the basis of appearances, and certainly not on those of just one town. With 6.8 percent economic growth in 2009, conditions in the West Bank are surely improving. Still, Bil’in is a special case thanks to its aforementioned loyalty to Fatah and proximity to Ramallah. It takes years to learn about the real, as opposed to paper, application process for employment with the Palestinian Authority. With not much other economic activity going on in the West Bank, the competition for government jobs is surely heated, but in a different way than one finds in the red tape of, say, USAJOBS.org. You have to know the right people, who you know shapes your politics, and both may gain you a place on the public employment list. For those fortunate enough to be employed or otherwise supported by the PA, Bil’in is Silver Spring, Maryland with olive trees.

While I waited to witness my first Friday protest, my colleague, a business reporter for the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, walked along the main street to check out prices in Bil’in. Though hardly bustling, the main street had a few small markets, one larger supermarket and a large room filled with plasma televisions where idle men were smoking and watching soccer. “An efficient market”, he noted with satisfaction after learning that a Coca-Cola cost two sheqels (around 60 cents) in both the supermarket and the canteen. In Tel Aviv that coke would go for five or six sheqels. Falafel costs 12 sheqels on average in Jerusalem but only three in Ramallah and Bil’in. In the good old days—the 1970s and the 1980s before the first intifada—Israelis, inveterate bargain hunters, used to shop in the West Bank in large numbers. (Particularly hardy ones still come in search of cheaper mechanics).

When I saw the first of many European tourists munching a Jordanian-made popsicle, I decided that Bil’in was a “radical chic tourist trap.” I was wrong. German bourgeois unionist or child of Bil’in, everyone pays one sheqel; the shopkeepers of Bil’in do not mark up prices for their Friday visitors. “It seems like they don’t pay too much attention to the protests”, suggested my Israeli counterpart, “for them it’s just people popping in and out. They don’t see a close connection between the protests and their livelihood.”

How, then, do the residents of Bil’in relate to the weekly protest? It’s difficult for an outsider like me to find the answer to this question, but some Bil’in residents do speak freely. Khaled, a college-aged kid manning the shop at one of the kiosks, freely volunteered that he wasn’t actually a shopkeeper but worked on Mahmoud Abbas’s security detail in Ramallah every day but Friday. (As Abbas chanced to be in Washington that day, I asked Khaled why he hadn’t gone with the boss to meet President Obama. “Next time!” he said proudly.)

Support for the protests was not what it once was, Khaled told me. At the beginning almost everyone supported the protest. Now, some are angry and don’t support it. “If you work in Ramallah then you must protest”, Khaled explained, and it slowly dawned on me that the anger of some local residents revolved around the frustrated prospect of their getting paid to protest as well. The Palestinian Authority clearly cultivates an expansive view of job requirements; but it has only a limited number of jobs to hand out.

Khaled seemed to enjoy watching my education unfurl and, economics aside, he was not a bad amateur political sociologist. “While Fatah is in charge, in the next town over, it’s 50-50 maybe”, said Khaled in decent Hebrew; “Hamas is popular.” In Bil’in, too, there are young men—decidedly not the protesting kind—who sport the Hamas trademark “beard of piety.” “To get to know the West Bank you’d need half a decade”, added my Ma’ariv reporter colleague: “Two villages separated by a dirt road but the politics are totally different. Every hilltop in this desert is its own world. That’s true for the Jewish settlements, too.” As a member of the security apparatus, Khaled had a lot to say about the arming and training of Palestinian security forces by General Keith Dayton—a cornerstone of U.S. policy toward the Palestinians in recent years. “Without him, Fayyad could not be in power”, he said, referring to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, whom many in the United States consider to be the Palestinian people’s greatest hope.

While opinion is somewhat divided about the protests in Bil’in, it is not so simple a matter to draw these feelings out into the open. Khaled identified one opponent, but that malcontent, in his mid-thirties, was in no mood to talk in front of protest leaders and their aides-de-camp assembled in front of the kiosk. Away from the main street, people spoke a bit more freely. One elementary school teacher in his forties strongly favored the protests: “We’ve been here one thousand years, and they stole our land. We want it back.” He wanted either a two- or one-state solution, but like most others here, he frankly acknowledged that Israel was not going away any time soon. A well-dressed but nearly toothless gentleman in his sixties, on his way home for a nap after prayers, had no use for the protests, however. “Long ago I gave up on this nonsense”, he said in perfect Hebrew. Hussein had recently retired after years of working with Jews and Arabs throughout Israel and the West Bank. “I did everything”, he told me, “handyman, electronics, building, repairs. I made a good living.” He had always liked the Israelis, he said wistfully. “We used to be like brothers here, believe me.”

So much for life on the street. Inside the protest movement itself there was a good deal less diversity. The de facto headquarters of the protest movement is a two-story house on main street plastered with various portraits of heroes to the resistance. (Jimmy Carter’s face features prominently). In the main floor living room a group of German tourists, some with young children, heard about Israeli crimes from an elderly gentleman while their tour leader translated. They looked like vacationers at the Bodensee, except they were calmly listening to instructions about what to do if hit by tear gas, rather than tips for sunscreen application.

I then joined other protesters outside who were awaiting the descent. A college student from Massachusetts said he had come to Bil’in “because I’m Jewish.” Other Jews his age in Israel were at that moment eating hummus or preparing for the Sabbath or studying, but these were “ignorant Jews”, he said, who did not grasp that Judaism demands human rights for all. “The reality on the ground is different from what they teach you in Jewish day school.”

This is surely the most frequently repeated trope among non-Arab protesters in Bil’in, Israeli as well as foreign. Israel and the West were propagandizing and deceiving people. One couldn’t trust “textbook explanations”, “what the government says” or “television.” In sum, “theoretical views” rather than the “real facts of life under occupation” stopped people from recognizing and ameliorating Palestinian suffering.

Facts indeed are wonderful things to have, but how could one investigate “just the facts” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? There’s always another side of the story, even when it comes to facts, and few protesters seemed to make much of an effort to collect facts of their own. No one protesting in Bil’in mentioned the facts of life in Sderot, for example, where Israelis have suffered from rocket fire for half a decade. Certainly none of the foreign visitors had bothered to actually go there. A few middle-aged women from the Belgian trade union ACV (Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond), in the midst of a week long “solidarity mission”, chatted extensively about their travels in the West Bank but were stumped when asked whether they had spent any time in Israel proper. One finally exclaimed, “Yes! We met Christian Arabs in Nazareth!” Given the great differences between West Bank Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, I had to admit that this was indeed a start.

Whatever their stance vis-à-vis “facts”, most protesters seem motivated by one big idea: occupation. As an old 1960s-era radical from Oregon put it, the severity of the occupation meant one could fairly gloss over the Israeli side in good conscience. Ido, the articulate Israeli anarchist, said something similar when accused of minimizing Israeli casualties: “There is no equality of circumstance. We can’t forget who are the powerful and who are the powerless here.”

And so the old polarized images persist, the changing and mixed realities notwithstanding. The picture of poor Arab villagers with their olive trees and hard luck stories versus the powerful Israeli juggernaut lives on in Bil’in and beyond. This same image has fed support for the Palestinian cause for decades now, and is so deeply engraved on the thin skin of protest “history” that it can easily survive the non-romantic revelation that Ramallah pays to keep the Bil’in protest movement alive. It is an image that unfortunately obscures the story of Bil’in’s residents, for whom the weekly protests are sources of profit and self-aggrandizement, on the one hand, and annoyance, anger and indifference, on the other. A real view of “life under occupation” would include this mix of motives, too—not just olive trees.

There’s no time in a scripted, 15-minute protest for the big picture, it seems. After the tear gas clears and protest warriors have regrouped back uphill, a few hardened Israeli activists and Palestinians re-convene on the porch of a house overlooking the security fence and valley below for a postmortem of the day’s events. The others, meanwhile, quickly depart for destinations in Israel, the West Bank and beyond. Just like that, Bil’in returns to peace and quiet again—until the same time next week.

Neil Rogachevsky is a visiting fellow in the Abba Eban Program for Diplomacy at Tel Aviv University.