Arab village fence wins over some Israelis

The fence stands 10-feet tall
BILIN, West Bank The barrier was built to stop suicide bombers, but it has also gobbled up half of Bilin's land, and Abu Rahma and the other villagers say they keep marching because the survival of their hamlet is at stake. Without land, they say, the next generation will be forced to leave.

Their persistence has turned Bilin into a powerful symbol of opposition to the barrier, which is swallowing large swaths of West Bank land the Palestinians want for their future state.

Last year, the village won an Israeli Supreme Court order to restore as much as half of its land. And Israelis and Palestinians have resumed peace talks that are to determine the final borders between them.

However, the court's directive to push the barrier near Bilin westward, away from the village, still hasn't been implemented, and the peace talks seem headed nowhere.

In the end, it's places like Bilin where the de-facto division of the Holy Land is being played out - and not in the Palestinians' favor.

In trying to get its land back, the village is up against Modiin Illit, the largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Already home to 40,000 people, Modiin Illit is rapidly expanding and is to turn into a city of 150,000 by 2020, according to its master plan.

Israel's high court has concluded that the path of the fence near Bilin had little to do with making Modiin Illit more secure, and a lot with giving it more land.

Bilin's David-and-Goliath struggle, coupled with revelations of large-scale illegal construction in Modiin Illit, has taken on an unusual twist by galvanizing Israeli peace activists. "If I will not be here, then I will be part of this injustice," said David Nir, a Tel Aviv physicist and a regular at the Bilin protests.

Such an alliance is rare at a time when distrust is growing between Israelis and Palestinians.

Bilin has also stood out as a host of international conferences on protest techniques, including one in June, and because of its use of TV-friendly gimmicks, such as protesters tying themselves to olive trees. With an eye for getting their message to Israel and the rest of the world, marchers chant "No, no to the fence" in Arabic, Hebrew and English.

Israel's Defense Ministry, citing a tight budget, says it won't be able to move the Bilin fence until next year, and Bilin residents fear that with each passing day, it will become harder to get their land back.

"It's to be or not to be," said Abu Rahma, 37, looking out on the fence from his second-floor living room.

The weekly drill on a recent Friday began with noon prayers at the village mosque.

As the villagers prayed, about a dozen Israelis and a few foreigners settled on Abu Rahma's front lawn. Once the men emerged from the mosque, the entire group headed on a narrow road down a ravine to the fence, just beyond the village's homes.

Israeli troops in riot gear lined up on both sides of the fence and announced that the marchers were entering a closed military area. The protesters kept chanting, some raising arms in the air as if to underscore their peaceful intent, while others taunted the troops or banged on the fence. A few village youths hurled stones, using slingshots.

Then soldiers fired tear gas and stun grenades, sending protesters running across the rocky hillside and starting small brush fires. After about an hour, Abu Rahma and most of the others had had enough and, coughing from the tear gas, walked back toward the village.

Protesters say Israeli troops often use excessive force, but acknowledge stones are often thrown. Hundreds have inhaled tear gas, been beaten or injured by rubber bullets.

An Israeli lawyer, Lymor Goldstein, was seriously wounded in 2006 when a rubber bullet hit his eye and another lodged in his brain. Abu Rahma was beaten several times, and Nir Shalev, an Israeli who has also helped Bilin in its court case, had his hand broken by troops as he tried to shield his friend. An Israeli soldier lost an eye in 2005 after being hit by a stone.

The people of Bilin fear their Supreme Court victory is slipping away.

The high court has played a key role in reshaping the barrier route since construction began in 2002.

The judges told ministry planners that while the barrier can jut into the West Bank to encompass Israeli settlements, it must not impose undue hardship on Palestinians. In several cases, including that of Bilin, the court ordered a barrier segment taken down and moved closer to Israel.

Israeli and Palestinian critics say the route often has little to do with security and is instead meant to grab more land for expanding settlements.

In its Bilin ruling, the high court agreed, saying in September that the route had "no security advantages" and "was significantly influenced by plans to build a new neighborhood east of Modiin Illit."

Right-wing critics say the court has no right to interfere. They argue that the barrier should be moved even farther to the east, especially near strategic locations, such as Israel's international airport, 12 miles northwest of Bilin.

"The real route of the fence was too much determined by the Supreme Court concerned about the welfare of Palestinian farms and Palestinians in general, and at the expense of Israel's security needs," said legislator Yuval Steinitz of the opposition Likud party.

In Bilin, the barrier took about 500 acres, or half the village's total land area, because it swung in a wide loop around Modiin Illit.

While Bilin was challenging the barrier route in court, construction of a new settlement neighborhood, Matityahu East, was already under way, even though required permits had not been issued. Bilin's lawyers managed to get a court-ordered freeze, but in September 2007, the judges approved part of the expansion.

Villagers can still get to the land through gates, but have run into delays and closures, and fear they'll lose it for good.

Bilin's Israeli attorney, Michael Sfard, says that after he threatened to seek a contempt-of-court ruling he got a promise from the Defense Ministry that an alternative barrier route would be sketched in the coming days.

However, Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror said the Bilin section would only be moved next year. "I know that we are going to honor the court decision," he said. "It's a question of budget."

Shalev, the activist whose hand was broken, said that might be too late given the plan to expand Modiin Illit.

"Whoever builds on the land establishes the facts," he said.


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