West Bank road trip part 1: the Bil'in scene

The original impetus for a trip to the West Bank was to attend the regularly scheduled Friday demonstration in the town of Bil'in, which a friend of mine often attends. This demonstration, which has been occurring every Friday for over a decade, is of some renown (it was featured in the documentary Five Broken Cameras), and I wanted to check it out before my friend returns to America soon. 

A bit of background: Bil'in is a West Bank village near the West Bank's southwestern border with Israel. The settlement of Modiin Illit, a large Haredi Jewish settlement in the West Bank, is directly adjacent to Bil'in. In 2005, Israel began construction on the security/separation/apartheid barrier (choose the adjective compatible with your ideology) in the Bil'in/Modiin Illit area, and the government built the barrier significantly east of the eastern edge of Modiin Illit, effectively seizing 60% of Bil'in's agricultural land. Following the construction of the wall, several construction companies began illegally developing apartments on the newly seized land west of the new barrier, confirming the suspicions of many village residents that the construction of the barrier was a pretext for a land grab.

In 2007, following a legal challenge by residents of the village, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the barrier's route was based on an intent to seize land for the expansion of Modiin Illit and not on security concerns, and ordered that the barrier be moved west, allowing Bil'in residents to return to some of their land. However, the regional planning council for the West Bank retroactively legalized the illegal housing developments, and the developers were allowed to continue construction. Even though the High Court ruled in 2007, the barrier was not moved until 2011. Today, several large apartment complexes, which  were initially constructed illegally, remain in eastern Modiin Illit on land claimed by Bil'in residents (property and land use law in Israel and the Palestinian territories is incredibly complicated and contested and it's hard to find credible sources, which is why I'm not saying that the land is owned by Bil'in residents, because I'm not sure I can prove it; suffice it to say that the land has been used and claimed by Bil'in residents for decades, and the construction was deemed an illegal land grab by an authority no less than the Israel High Court of Justice).

So the protests. They began in 2005 after the initial construction of the barrier, and they've continued to occur every Friday at noon in the years since.  The protest is usually made up of Palestinians from the village, Palestinians from elsewhere in the West Bank, Israelis, and internationals (mostly Europeans, based on what I saw). They can get pretty creative: in the linked article, you'll see pictures of the protesters dressed up as the blue-skinned beings from the movie Avatar. It's apparently common for the protesters to wear costumes that reflect something going on in the news or in popular culture, although I didn't see this. The general pattern is something like this: people march from the village to the wall and begin to protest, the IDF shoots tear gas at the protesters, people leave. Sometimes there are arrests, sometimes other weapons are used by the IDF, but this is the general pattern. Over the years, there have been two deaths among the protesters, hundreds of injuries (most not serious), and hundreds of arrests. As you'd expect, the Palestinian protesters bear the brunt of the harsh treatment.

Whether one considers the protests non-violent depends significantly on your ideological priors, I think. Left-wing sources tend to describe them as non-violent, while right-wing sources tend to describe them as violent riots, and like most things here, the truth is somewhere in between. It's true that no weapons are used, but it's also true that during most of the protests, stones are thrown at the soldiers, and while most of the time the stone-throwing doesn't result in injuries, a soldier did once lose an eye as a result of a stone thrown in Bi'lin. Whether the stone-throwing is the act of a few disorganized village children or a more systemic enterprise, whether the stone-throwing precedes or follows the tear-gassing, and whether throwing a few stones at heavily armored soldiers qualifies as violence depends a lot on who you ask. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to go.

When people ask me why I came here, my usual answer is that I often feel conflict between what I'm told about this place in the Jewish community in which I grew up and what I'm told about this place the leftist communities in which I often find myself, and I need to figure out some perspective on this conflict based on first hand experience. This isn't just the bullshit answer that I give when I'm asked to give a brief introduction in a meeting-I fundamentally believe it, and I've tried to plan my time here in such a way that would give me that perspective. Going to Bil'in seemed like an important part of that, although a somewhat scary part.

So go I did. Bil'in isn't accessible by public transportation, at least not via public transportation that's navigable by people who don't speak Arabic, so the only option is a private car. Since I knew a few people who wanted to go, renting a car seemed like a reasonable option. On Friday morning, I picked up a small Kia hatchback at the somewhat ominously named Good Luck Cars in East Jerusalem, and we set off.

We headed north on the Menachem Begin freeway towards the checkpoint. The Green Line (the border between democratic Israel and the occupied West Bank) is actually crossed just after leaving central Jerusalem, but the early part of the route passes through dense Israeli settlement suburbs that are indistinguishable from Jerusalem proper. As we approached the de facto border at Qalandiya/Atarot, the density of settlements decreased, the Palestinian population density increased, and the landscape became increasingly carceral: concrete walls festooned with ribbons of barbed wire separate neighborhoods from each other. The actual act of crossing the checkpoint was fairly anti-climactic. We passed a few ominous signs, navigated a confusing series of roundabouts, passed an unoccupied guard booth, and we were in. However, it was obvious that people going the other direction didn't have the same luxury: the line to cross the other direction into Israel stretched for miles.

And like that, we were in a different country. Crossing at the Qalandiya checkpoint deposits a traveler into the southern suburbs of Ramallah, in the fully Palestinian-controlled Area A. Prior to this trip, I'd been to the West Bank several times, but always Area C, which is under full Israeli control. Area C feels like Israel, albeit with more of an overt military presence. I've never been to an Arab country, but Area A feels like what I'd imagine an Arab country would be like. Obviously, the Israeli occupation is an omnipresent part of life: for instance, one can't go far without seeing the wall or a checkpoint. There are other less obvious examples, too. For instance, the currency used in Area A is the Israeli shekel. That said, if you were magically transported from the United States to the southern edge of Ramallah where we arrived after crossing the Qalandiya checkpoint and asked to guess where you were standing, you'd have a hard time guessing a place under Israeli control (I know, I know, Area A has autonomy, but final authority ultimately rests in Israeli hands). There's no Hebrew anywhere, for instance (except on the money!) If you go into a shop, you won't see Israeli products. It's a strange blend of complete independence and complete interdependence. More on this later, when I talk about my trip to Ramallah.

We continued northwest through the chaos of Ramallah. Driving was a bit of an adventure; at one point, we accidentally went the wrong way down a one-way street, because there were no visible signs, and the maps available on Google don't always match the actual streets! However, we made it with no damage to people or property, and we were eventually out on the open roads of the rural West Bank. It's hard to tell, because the different zones of the West Bank aren't contiguous (see for yourself-you'll be able to understand my confusion) and crossing points aren't always marked, but I think we were in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas for most, if not all, of the trip. I didn't see an Israeli military presence anywhere, and the road signs didn't feature Hebrew. A phenomenon worthy of note if you're traveling in the West Bank-rural roads have lots of speed bumps which aren't clearly marked and are often oddly shaped, which makes for a bone-jarring ride. Infrastructure development doesn't seem to be a strength of either the PA or the Israeli administration, that's for sure.

Finally, we arrived in Bil'in. We made our way to the town center and parked. A large crowd had gathered in the town center for the day's demonstration. My visit apparently occurred on the 11th anniversary of the beginning of demonstrations in Bil'in, so the crowd was significantly larger than normal. There was a significant press presence, as well. We hung around and chatted with the activists (unfortunately, mostly the Israeli and foreign activists, due to language issues) while waiting for the conclusion of noon prayers at the nearby mosque.

Hanging around waiting for the demonstration to begin.

Hanging around waiting for the demonstration to begin.

A quick note about demographics. There were about 150 people there, probably 80% Palestinian and 20% Israeli and international. The Palestinian participants were mostly men, but ages ranged widely, from young teens to 60s. The Israeli and international contingents were very diverse. There was at least one rabbi present. Many of the participants seemed to have participated before: they were prepared with scarves, gas masks, and other items to protect against the tear gas. One elderly Israeli man wore swim goggles. There were also maybe 20-25 people affiliated with the media there (journalists, photographers, etc).

At around 12:20, we set off. The crowd of 150+ followed a truck through the village and out to the agricultural land where the barrier is located, with families waving as we passed. The atmosphere was festive. As we walked, the demonstrators mingled and chatted with each other.

The crowd makes its way towards the wall

The crowd makes its way towards the wall

These Palestinian Boy Scouts marched with the group

These Palestinian Boy Scouts marched with the group

After about 20 minutes of walking, we reached a hilltop about 500 feet from the wall. A group of maybe 20-30 soldiers were awaiting the demonstrators. The news crews set up on the hilltop as some of the demonstrators (Palestinian, Israeli, and international) approached the wall. I hung back near the top of the hill, about 100 feet behind the demonstrators; I mostly wanted to observe, and I had no desire to do anything more dangerous than what I'd already done. Perhaps this was a silly thought to have, given that I'm an American Jew who was attending a Palestinian demonstration in the West Bank where the goal of the demonstrators was to provoke the IDF, but that was my logic.

The demonstrators approach the wall. Soldiers have set up near the wall, on the left. The illegally constructed apartment buildings in Modiin Illit are on the right.

The demonstrators approach the wall. Soldiers have set up near the wall, on the left. The illegally constructed apartment buildings in Modiin Illit are on the right.

When the demonstrators got to within about 30 feet of the soldiers, the soldiers released the first volley of tear gas. I didn't see any stone-throwing or any other precipitating act of violence that led to the tear gas, but as I said, I was a few hundred feet from the demonstrators. It's illegal to demonstrate in the West Bank, so under Israeli military law, the soldiers could use tear gas on the demonstrators simply for assembling.

The first gas grenades land near the demonstrators

The first gas grenades land near the demonstrators

I was a few hundred feet back, so I thought I'd be safe from the gas. Unfortunately, there was a decent breeze that day, and it blew almost perfectly west to east, from the wall to the hilltop. I didn't have the protective gear that some of the demonstrators and journalists had. I didn't even have a scarf. The only protective items I had were a couple of tissues and some packaged alcohol wipes that my friend had offered me; he told me that it's helpful to wipe your face with them, as the alcohol neutralizes the chemicals. 

The first sign of the gas was a slight burning odor: I'm not sure if it was gunpowder or similar, but it reminded me of the smell of the smoke that trailed from the model rockets I used to launch as a kid. Then my nose started to run, as if the air had suddenly filled with pollen. Then I felt an overwhelming burning in my eyes, and I turned and sprinted up the hill. I couldn't really see, but I could hear and feel that others were running next to me, and I tried to stay close to them. After about 30 seconds I crested the hill, and the pain eased a bit. I sat in a field and wiped my face with the alcohol swabs, and after about 5 minutes, I felt like I was returning to normal. Wow. That stuff was serious.

After about 10 minutes, I returned to the media area, hoping I'd be safe there. There was a faint presence of gas there, but it wasn't so bad compared to what I'd experienced. I tried to watch the proceedings, but it was difficult because of the clouds of gas. At one point, I saw an ambulance drive down the path towards the demonstrators and get hit with a gas canister, but that's about all I could see from my vantage point.

The view from the media area

The view from the media area

After about 10 minutes in the media area, I was again overwhelmed by the gas, and I again retreated to my safe spot in the field on the other side of the hill. When I returned, the demonstration seemed to be winding down. Only a few demonstrators remained near the wall. It seemed that most people had retreated to the village or to the area near the media crews. The TV news crews were set up and reporters were filming their segments. I saw a few Palestinian teenagers to the right of me, sitting in a field. Moments later, a couple of gas canisters landed in the field. The news crews quickly took down their cameras and ran. I did too, but not before I got a few solid breaths of gas. This was even more intense than the first time. My forehead felt like it was sunburned, and I was overwhelmed by nausea. Thankfully, I was able to make it up the hill to the safe area.

I waited for my group there, and they showed up a few minutes later. We made our way back through the village, stopping to buy some water in a village stop. As cars passed us, they cheered and waved to us, and we waved back. I'd survived an illegal West Bank demonstration and my first tear gassing! Now the only issue was making it back to Jerusalem. Thankfully, this was also drama-free. We got lost once in the West Bank and faced some mild questioning at the checkpoint, but we were back in Jerusalem within an hour, just as the final stores were closing up for Shabbat.

So what did I learn from this? On an intellectual level, not much. After 5 months here, I'm familiar with the dynamics of protest in the West Bank from lots of reading and conversations. However, it was entirely different to experience it on a visceral level. The chaos, the physically overpowering nature of tear gas, the camaraderie among the demonstrators (particularly the Israelis, who presumably face opprobrium in their society for participating)-it's hard to describe it without having experienced it. On one level, visiting Bil'in was a profoundly irrational decision, exposing myself to completely unnecessary risk for a cause that, in many respects isn't mine. Irrational as it may have been, however, I'm glad I did it.