BILIN // Israeli riot police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse about 100 activists protesting against the separation barrier in the West Bank village of Bilin, the first since Israel closed off the area to demonstrators. About 100 Palestinians and Israelis made the weekly march from a mosque in Bilin to the security barrier where soldiers from the Israeli Defence Forces were waiting.
A handful of Palestinian youths, who covered their faces with keffiyahs and T-shirts, hurled rocks at the heavily armed soldiers. No one was injured and despite threats to the contrary, no one was arrested. In a predawn operation on Monday, Israeli soldiers had pasted notices around the village in Hebrew that parts of Bilin and Nilin, another village with a resilient grassroots movement, would be closed military zones between 8am and 8pm.
Israelis who entered during the restricted hours risked arrests while foreigners could be deported. While there were no foreigners at yesterday's protests, Israelis seemed undeterred. Tal Shapira, a 26-year-old Israeli painter, said the military's move only served to motivate Israeli activists such as herself to show their support for the Palestinians. "[The IDF] did us a huge favour," she said.
Ms Shapira first attended a protest a little over a year ago, during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli army's three-week assault on Gaza that ended in January 2009. Since then, she has been arrested at two demonstrations - once on the Gaza border and once in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. "They're not going to scare us from coming here and expressing our rights," she said. Sonya Soloviov, 27, who only started to attend protests after the Israeli assault on Gaza, said at first she was hesitant to go to Bilin, but later resigned herself to being detailed.
Both women pointed to Israel's recent row with the United States over the growth of illegal settlements, the recent decision by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to list Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs as a Jewish heritage site and crackdowns on protests as evidence that the political climate is rapidly deteriorating Bilin has been a flashpoint for the Arab-Israeli conflict for over five years, since the demonstrations against the separation barrier began in January 2005.
Palestinians say that the wall, which does not run along the 1967 border but is carved deeper into the West Bank, is an attempt to annex their land and severs them from their olive groves and other agricultural holdings. The Israelis claim that the separation barrier is a necessary security measure to guard the country against suicide bombers. But in 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court sided with the Palestinians and demanded that the government move the wall.
In August 2006, Limor Goldstein, an Israeli activist and lawyer, was struck by two rubber-coated bullets to the head. Mr Goldstein, shot at close range after the demonstration dispersed, survived but sustained permanent brain damage. Basem Abu Rahmah, a Palestinian protester, died in April last year, after being shot in the chest with a tear-gas canister. Abdullah Abu Rahmah, chairman of the Bilin Popular Committee against the Wall, has been imprisoned since December 2009 when he was charged with arms possession for displaying empty tear gas canisters and used rubber-coated bullets - which were shot at Bilin protesters by the security forces.
* The National