TEL AVIV // Every Friday, as midday prayers draw to a close, a few dozen people meet outside the small mosque in Bilin and march though the West Bank village, calling for an end to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory. By the time they have entered a thin, dusty grove of olive trees, adjacent to the barrier that separates Israel from the West Bank, and often farmers from their land, the crowd has usually grown to at least 100, mostly Palestinians but also foreigners and Israelis.
On the other side of a barbed wire fence, Israeli soldiers in riot gear wait. They blast a siren, then warn the demonstrators that they have illegally entered "a closed military zone". Seconds later, the soldiers fire tear gas into the crowd. Sometimes, they shoot rubber-coated bullets. The non-violent demonstrations in Bilin, which began in 2005, have made the village a popular symbol of the grassroots struggle against the separation barrier and the illegal annexation of Palestinian land.
Although the High Court two years ago ruled the barrier illegal and rejected the government's claim that it was for security purposes, there has been little move to dismantle it. In fact, the military has taken a harder line against the protesters, detaining known Palestinian activists in the village of about 1,600 and arresting Israelis. In recent months, soldiers have been conducting raids in Bilin searching for leaders of the protests.
Supporting the Palestinian cause is not simple for Israelis - it can come at a steep price. B, 20, an Israeli boy who requested his name not be used, takes part in the Bilin demonstrations every week. None of his friends or family knows he does, and for good reason: two years ago when he defected from the army, just weeks into his mandatory service, his parents threw him out of the house. Members of his family are mizrahi, quite literally eastern, Jews of Arab origin. Like most mizrahi, they are conservative and right wing, supporting hard-line political parties such as Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party.
B does not consider his actions unpatriotic. By demonstrating in Bilin, he said, he was guarding Israeli democracy. He cites an example of a recent demonstration, when a soldier tore down a Palestinian flag a protester had placed on the separation barrier. "Taking the flag down doesn't protect anyone. The Palestinians have a right to display their view - I was told in school this is a democratic country."
So B put on a gas mask and draped another Palestinian flag on the barbed wire. "The protest is also about justice and being moral." Arthur Nelsen, a Middle East analyst and author, comments that neither B's attitude nor age is surprising. "There does seem to be a new generation of youngsters making themselves heard." And, according to Mr Nelsen, Israeli democracy does indeed seem to be under fire. He cites attacks on Breaking the Silence, an Israeli NGO opposed to the occupation, raids against the left-wing organisation New Profile and attempts to ban the Nakba commemoration as clearly aimed at repressing dissent. "The current authoritarian government in Tel Aviv has had a chilling effect on free expression."
Still, Israelis continue to speak out. Suzanne Moses, 80, is another peace activist. Now retired from her career as a flight attendant, she divides her time between a home in Switzerland, which she shares with her husband, and Tel Aviv. "I don't have some huge ideology," Mrs Moses said, pointing out that, like the majority of Israelis, she supports a two-state solution. "I don't wake up in the morning thinking 'I'll fight the occupation!' I just think that we should act morally."
As a Holocaust survivor, Mrs Moses experienced inequality firsthand. Born in southern Germany, she was sent to Gurs, a concentration camp in France, at the age of 11. After the end of the Second World War, she was stateless until she immigrated to Israel from Switzerland at 29. But the Holocaust does not excuse the occupation or settlements, Mrs Moses said. Settlements have become a political flashpoint in recent months as a new US government tries to push Israel to stop building new outposts in Palestinian land in hopes of revitalising peace talks.
Mr Netanyahu, however, has refused. Earlier this week, the defence forces confirmed building in at least 11 settlements in occupied land was taking place. And when Mrs Moses and others join Palestinians in the olive groves, there is often the risk that they will face violent settlers, intent on destroying the annual harvest. In one such olive grove on the edge of Jamma'in, a small village nestled in the hills of Nablus, Israelis and Palestinians pluck fruit from the trees, side by side. Idyllic at first glance, the scene is fraught with tension - just days before, gun-toting settlers from Kfar Tapuach harassed Palestinian families. Sometimes the settlers throw stones and human excrement; occasionally, settlers set fires to the groves.
Without the aid of Israeli volunteers, Palestinian farmers are often too frightened to gather their crop, even if they depend on it for their livelihood. That is why Nurit Tohai, 62, joins. "Everyday, something happens to the Palestinians because of the settlements," Mrs Tohai said. "As an Israeli, I feel like I need to do something. "If you don't go," she said, "they don't eat." For Keren Manor, 32, there is a need to better her society.
"As an Israeli, I have a responsibility to fight the things being done in my name," she said. Ms Manor, once an officer in the army, now attends demonstrations on a regular basis. She has been arrested and fined "many times". In January, during Operation Cast Lead, she was held in jail for three days before being released. And at one non-violent protest in the West Bank village of Nilin, an Israeli soldier shot a rubber-coated bullet into her leg. Surgery was required to remove the bullet lodged in her thigh.
When she first started participating in the protests, Ms Manor's parents, whom she described as "mizrahi- mainstream and militaristic", thought it was dangerous for her to be around Arabs. "Now they worry about me going to places where the army and the settlers are." Her parents' political attitudes have also changed, and Ms Manor credits her activism. In the last election, she said, her father voted for Meretz, a left-wing party that is opposed to both settlements and the occupation. It is a testament, Ms Manor said, to the power of grassroots movements.
Such shifts in the mizrahi community, which hovers around 50 per cent of the population, are particularly threatening to the Israeli government, Mr Nelsen said. "The establishment has also tended to punish [mizrahi] more severely, as an example to others in their community. Many believe that Tali Fahima, a Moroccan Jew who befriended a leader of the Jenin Al aqsa Martyrs Brigades, had to be vilified with a lengthy prison sentence so as to deter others in her community from following her lead."
But Ashkenazis, Israelis of European descent, also find themselves the targets of censorship or punishment as Ben Ronen, 26, a peace activist, reports. During Operation Cast Lead, Mr Ronen attended a non-violent demonstration at the Sde Dov air force base near Tel Aviv. On January 11, Mr Ronen, along with 18 other protesters, was arrested. That was only the beginning of his trouble. When he got out jail three days later, he returned to his apartment in Tel Aviv only to find that it had been torn apart by police. They had taken posters that called for boycotting Israel, and T-shirts that included slogans against the separation wall.
The items police took, Mr Ronen says, were "nothing too radical". A few nights later, however, Mr Ronen was stopped on a busy Tel Aviv street. "I was standing at an intersection," he recalls, "and all of a sudden there was a hand on my shoulder." Two detectives joined the first and they informed Mr Ronen he was under investigation for the posters and T-shirts they had obtained from his home. They took him to the police station. After two hours, they released him.
The harassment, which Mr Ronen calls "KGB style", continues still today. The detectives call him by name, he says, stop him in the street day and night, and search his belongings. "You have to deal with it if you live in this country." * The National