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A promise: My first time in Bil'in will not be my last

(photo: Ami Kaufman)

Last week I went to the Friday demonstration in the West Bank village of Bil’in for the first time.

Some of the people who know me found it hard to believe. “Only now? Next week they will be marking eight years of demos, and only now you come, Ami?”

Yeah. I guess I’m what you call a “couch-leftist.” My battle is done in my home, my sword is my keyboard. I’m proud of that sword, I must say. But for the past year I’ve been feeling it isn’t enough.

I live a privileged life in a suburb of Tel Aviv. Although certainly no comparison to the occupation of Palestine, I live under a “corporate-capitalist occupation” of sorts. Work and family and all the usual stress of living in Israel take its toll, and those four hours every Friday, with my two girls in kindergarten and me and the missus alone, seem like a small window where we can come up and gasp for air.

Go to Bil’in instead of brunch in Tel Aviv? Nuh-uh.

I used to be a much more vibrant demonstrator in my “youth.” I guess I’m losing a bit of that with age, and with the responsibilities that come. My latest “burst” was during the social protests of 2011. As opposed to the occupation, the fight against corporate capitalism brought me to the streets. Sure, they were just a mile away. Not twenty, God forbid.

But for the past few months, I’ve been thinking about Bil’in a lot. I knew I was about to go, but just couldn’t get my act together. And then Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s Five Broken Cameras came out, and of course Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, both up for oscars in just a few days.

And it felt like something was coming together. Like it was now or never. So last Thursday I dropped a line to Haggai Matar and told him I want to go to Bil’in, and sure enough he sorted me out. “And bring a scarf,” he reminded me in our email correspondence.

The next morning I sat in the back of a car next to a French activist who was visiting her grandmother in Israel, and an Israeli who just returned from a few years in England. He was shot in the knee by Israeli forces during a demo in the West Bank, and this was his first demo after his return to the region.

Up in front were two young activists, veterans of the protests who gave us some tips on what to say if we get questioned at the checkpoint.

When we got to Modi’in, we took a left and it was a short drive to the village, through the lush green hills of the West Bank, green from the rather wet winter we were having.

In Bil’in we entered a house where we were given instructions about how to act during the demo, what weapons we should be aware of and such. It was a very smooth briefing, almost too professional.

(photo: Ami Kaufman)

Outside, there were children trying to sell us trinkets. There seemed to be a bit of “protest tourism” going on in Bil’in. Both the briefing and the tourism bothered me. Not because I care that the locals are making money off of it. God knows, I support anything that would alleviate their suffering.

No, what bothered me was that for a briefing to be so smooth, and for protest tourism to develop, you need time. An occupation that goes on, and on, and on.

We had some good coffee and chatted before the demo began in a local cafe.

(photo: Ami Kaufman)

After the briefing, Haggai showed me the backyard of a house. These are tear gas canisters collected by the locals, and sometimes used as “decorations” in various events.

(photo: Ami Kaufman)

After the locals left the Friday prayers at the mosque, it was time to demonstrate. Before jumping into the nearest car, I shook hands with Burnat. I tried to find the words to say what I thought of his movie, but typical of me, just shut up. I do that in front of people I admire sometimes. Weird that way.

We parked a few hundred meters from the separation wall and started walking.

(photo: Ami Kaufman)

As we approached the wall, I saw that on the new and unfinished buildings of Modi’in Ilit, the largest settlement bloc in the West Bank, groups of Haredim were gathering on the rooftops to get a good view of the violence.

(photo: Ami Kaufman)

I also saw two soldiers perched up on the wall, apparently to show the “Skunk truck” below them where to spray the “water.”

(photo: Ami Kaufman)

It is the most foul stench I’ve ever encountered, and you don’t see it coming sometimes (below).

Lower left corner shows skunk water, upper right corner a tear gas canister in mid flight (photo: Ami Kaufman)

On the hill to the right, the officers who “managed” the demo had an overview of the site.

(photo: Ami Kaufman)

It was an odd feeling for me, to see the soldiers in green uniform, the same uniform that I have worn in the past, aiming tear gas and skunk water at me. I felt like I knew them and wanted to talk to them. But I felt angry at them, too. At the situation.

Haggai gave me some pads with alcohol to sniff in case the gas got to me. We were only two dozen people there, since most of the youngsters were demonstrating that day in front of the Ofer prison in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike. Yet one veteran activist told me he was surprised by the amounts of gas the army was using that day on so few protesters here in Bil’in.

(photo: Ami Kaufman)

During the briefing, they told us that if we get a whiff of gas – we’re going to panic, but try and stay calm and it will be over in a few minutes. ‘Don’t run, because you might break a leg on the boulders. Just stop and stay cool.”

Gas canister upper right corner (photo: Ami Kaufman)

The first two whiffs I got were bearable. I slowly walked away from the cloud and waited for me to get my breath again. But the next two whiffs were rough. I started to cough like hell, spit, couldn’t breath, felt like my throat was on fire, couldn’t open my eyes, started to panic – and yes, started to run fast like an idiot back up the road to where the cars were. The only time before that I experienced gas was in my basic training during army service. And I don’t remember it being so painful.

As I ran back up, I was holding my camera in front of me and managed to see out of the corner of my eye Emad Burnat, with his camera of course. Probably the sixth one…

He was just standing there, with his sweater over his nose, looking so calm, that I just pressed the shutter button without even looking through the viewfinder. His whole composure was of “been there done that,” and I must have looked like a right fool. Hope I don’t appear in his next film.

(photo: Ami Kaufman)

The demo was over fairly quickly, as the amount of people was so small. We got back into the car, my eyes still flaming. We stopped at Wajee’s house, who gave us dark sweet tea. It took me back to Sinai, which I miss dearly.

(photo: Ami Kaufman)

Wajee then asked if anyone wanted seconds. I raised my hand, and he smiled at me and said “I’m not asking you. I can already see on your face you like it.” I had thirds, too.

(photo: Ami Kaufman)

He then put some plates on the table – the most delicious olives, olive oil (I bought a bottle), za’atar, eggplant salad, endive salad and a warm salad of hubeiza (mallow) leaves.

(photo: Ami Kaufman)

On the way back home, I fell asleep in the car. I was exhausted. Not really from the physical events. I think more of mentally what I had to take in, digest.

God willing, it won’t be my last time in Bil’in. And if my Palestinian brethren will continue to have me, I promise to stand more by their side. Not only behind my computer screen.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. XYZ

      What exactly is the protest at Bil’in about? What are the protestors demanding?

      Reply to Comment
      • Haifawi

        The return of lands confiscated for the Wall and Modi’in Illit

        Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        I don’t think they are demanding anything at this point. It is basically a tourist ceremony like the changing of the guard between India and Pakistan. People come to ‘do something’ they get a relatively safe jolt of adrenaline and they feel like they ‘took part’. Then they go home and make space for the next group of protest tourists to show up to ‘continue the struggle’. After eight years any protest turns into a cliched farce with an economy built around it.

        Kundera wrote nicely about this kind of nonsense.

        Reply to Comment
        • andrew r

          “People come to ‘do something’ they get a relatively safe jolt of adrenaline and they feel like they ‘took part’.”

          This is one of those oft-repeated remarks that make me think Israel proponents don’t know their ass from their shit. On the one hand, the Palestinians are so dangerous they have to be quarantined in the West Bank, and further quarantined into enclaves. And yet internationals who visit the territory, which include Jews and Israelis, even, aren’t risking their lives at all.

          Plus you’re somehow a mind-reader.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            The Palestinians are not randomly or irrationally dangerous. Among the Palestinians there is a large number of people willing to carry out brutal and inhumane acts of terror against Israeli civilians in the pursuit of their cause. Their cause is not served by attacking people that come to support them. Which part of this doesn’t make sense to you?

            Reply to Comment
          • andrew r

            Sure, it makes sense when you leave out years of assertion that Palestinian violence is due to a Nazi-like indoctrination in their culture. Any self-contradiction can be reconciled with enough reworking.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            I have made no such assertion that needs to be left out. The last poll I saw had 40%+ of the Palestinian population supporting attacks against Israeli civilians. The last intifada saw dozens of attacks on Israeli civilians with the express purpose of killing the maximum number of Israeli civilians. Palestinian terrorists that purposefully kill Israeli civilians are worshipped as heroes by the official bodies of the Palestinian government when they die in the process and those that wind up in Israeli jail are paid monthly allowances by the same government. None of these are assertions. They are all facts. You may well argue that there are good reasons why 40% of the Palestinians wish to see Israeli children blown to bits by bombs, but in the meantime the potential danger that emanates from the Palestinian territories is very real.

            Reply to Comment
          • andrew r

            I’m talking about assertions made by Israel-proponents in general, not only you. And of course you first say they are not randomly or irrationally dangerous, then go on to assert 40% of Palestinians wish to see Israeli children blown to bits. So okay, they aren’t a society of irrational would-be killers, they are a society of calculating would-be killers. Still in line with the point I made above.

            It’s also a fact that Israel was the first to target Palestinians in their homes and schools before there were any suicide bombings. If you’re going to care about the facts, you need to put them all on the table, and the IDF doesn’t come out free of coldly killing civilians.

            Reply to Comment
          • Rauna

            K9, you can’t blame them.The attack will continue until you leave them alone.

            You’ll act exactly the same way if you’re in their shoes.The jews revolted against the nazis when their right and freedom deprived in warsaw ghetto.Didn’t your grandparents tell you that?

            Reply to Comment
      • Why are the natives restless?

        That about says it all.

        Reply to Comment
    2. directrob

      “goes on, and on, and on.”, one of your best.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Danny

      @Ami – is it me, or are you morphing before our eyes into a card-carrying anarchist? What’s next for you – refusing to do miluim?

      Of course, I admire your bravery. It’s not everyday that a blue-blooded Israeli Jew from Tel Aviv decides to cross the fence (literally) and step out of his comfort zone. If I was living in Israel, I’d do the same.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Joel

      Have you set any personal ‘redlines’, like stone throwing or waving a Palestinian flag?

      Reply to Comment
    5. berl

      I liked the article a lot

      Reply to Comment
      • sh

        I did too. And the photos. V much.

        Reply to Comment
    6. The tear gas canister dump shows a significant difference in perception between the IDF and Bil’in. The IDF lobs the canisters and is done with it. Bil’in collects them–in memory and reality.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Andrew Miller

      Great article. Keep going back to Bil’in.

      Reply to Comment
    8. XYZ

      I found the description of Wgjee’s delicious tea and the wonderful, generous table he set with the best olives in the world to be most interesting. I note that Yuval Ben-Ami also showed many pictures of the delicious foods his Palestinian friends gave him. I would imanee the message here is that people who eat such good food and are so generous with guests MUST be nice people and that it proves once and for all the people around the world are essentially the same (after all, who doesn’t like good food?) and they all , deep down, want the same things and think the same things that Ami and Yuval want. No doubt once Israelis understand how delicious Palestinian olives really are, peace will be around the corner.

      Reply to Comment
      • No, all his report means is that, as most places, there is variance in attitudes of residents. There is, here, hospitality, respect, acceptance. And a readiness to reach out to the nationality who is NOT everywhere enemy.

        Ami, your report has already made a difference.

        Reply to Comment
    9. Morgan

      This was wonderful to read. The protests in Bil’in have changed a lot from what Emad documented in Five Broken Cameras. They’re closer to the settlement, generally a lot smaller, now kind of considered a “primer” for new activists, compared to some places like Nabi Saleh and Ofer. I often felt like I wasn’t accomplishing much, like I was just a drop in the ocean. But what warmed my heart was seeing newcomers meet the people of Bil’in, find out what their resistance is about, and establish a friendship. Eating at Waji’s house and hearing Palestinians and Israelis alternate between Arabic and Hebrew and English kind of blew my mind. You don’t see that everyday in the Territories. Truly a beautiful experience, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        Actually, such encounters are not as rare as you think. I have a friend who lives near Kiryat Arba-Hevron, and he told me about similar meetings between local Jews (often called “settlers”) and their Arab neighbors. These types of meetings were common before Oslo which disrupted them, but have become renewed.

        Reply to Comment
        • Haifawi

          Ah, but your friend wants to live where he lives, and treat the Arabs he “meets” with as resident aliens, without voting rights. Don’t try to fluff the truth, if there are settlements, then there has to be a unitary state. FULL STOP

          Reply to Comment
    10. Mareli

      Looking at that tear gas canister dump photo showed me that I have one thing in common with the Palestinians: They have the same weeds growing there that I have to contend with in my garden. Writ large, we all have some problems in common, which should help us work together to solve problems which are closer to some of us than to others. I share their weed problem, but I hate to think that those tear gas canisters may have been paid for by the government of my country (military aid, of course) and that my government would probably attack me in the same way were I to oppose its wrongful acts as those Palestinians have. The wall is ugly and should come down.

      Reply to Comment
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