The villagers of Bil’in in the West Bank, Palestine, and their supporters protested last week to mark the fifth anniversary of Israel’s seizure of their land.
Bil’in is located a few miles north of Ramallah. Five years ago Israel seized nearly half the village land for a planned settlement, and erected a barrier and military outpost to guard it.
Since then, a popular resistance committee in the village has spearheaded a high profile campaign against this theft of their land, which has drawn in Palestinians across the West Bank and international activists. The Israeli military have responded with arrests and repression of protests, in one incident killing a member of the committee.
Last week I attended the protest in Bil’in organised by the committee. I arrived outside the village hall, which had a large banner for the resistance committee draped over the front of it. Already gathering in the center of the village was a mix of Palestinians and international activists, including some Israelis.
The numbers swelled by midday to around 1,000. The mood was angry, determined but also good natured. A band of Palestinian boy scouts provided music, and some “Clown Army” activists mixed with local people.
Speakers addressed the protest in the village square. The mayor of Geneva denounced Western governments’ silence over Palestine.
The protesters then set off to the barrier, which cuts across a hill close to the village. Behind it sat the Israeli army outpost.
There were no Israeli soldiers to be seen as we arrived at the barrier. Seizing the opportunity protesters tore down a 30 foot section of the barrier and began to celebrate, waving placards and Palestinian flags. For a brief moment they could walk in the land that had been theirs for generations.
Some then managed to climb onto the roof of the unmanned military outpost, increasing the feeling of excitement and defiance.
But after about ten minutes a detachment of Israeli soldiers in military vehicles appeared over the other side of the hill.
Suddenly I became aware of a terrible smell, and my first thought was that I had trodden in shit. I saw my shoes were clean and thought maybe I was standing near to a dead animal. I then realized that all the other protesters could smell the same thing, and that this was a stink bomb let off by the soldiers. They followed this by firing a salvo of pepper spray grenades over our heads. Some of these were fired a long way so there was no option but to run back through the spray for a few minutes.
The grenades dropped down around us leaving plumes of white smoke. Many protesters ran into the fields, scrambling over small stone walls. A young boy beside me was bent double on the grass, tears and snot streaming down his face. I saw a pile of what must have been old pepper spray grenades under a tree. They looked like black pomegranates.
As I got further back I saw groups of protesters sheltering under olive trees, and a man being carried in to an ambulance who looked like he was having a severe asthma attack.
Gradually protesters re-grouped, although at a distance from the hill where the soldiers were. I could see that there were still around 100 protesters, mostly Palestinian, who had remained on the hill, although they were scattered in small groups.
Now the Israeli soldiers, from bunkers set back 30 feet or so behind the barrier, fired targeted pepper spray grenades at the people who remained on the hill.
But they remained defiant, playing cat and mouse with the soldiers, dodging the grenades and managing at times to throw them back over the barrier at the soldiers.
This lasted for over an hour, with the soldiers unable to dislodge the protesters. Some protesters came back down the hill, only to be replaced by fresh forces. As the assault from the soldiers continued, some protesters resorted to throwing stones.
This defiance was very courageous, as the soldiers were only around 200 feet away—they have a track record of shooting Palestinians for taking part in such protests.
The soldiers then tried sound bombs, which let off a deafening boom. When this too failed to dissuade the protesters on the hill, a group of soldiers with riot shields were dispatched to confront them. They detonated a huge smoke bomb, which produced a column of gas so thick it looked like marble. Only this managed to finally dislodge people from the hill.
As the protest united and made its way back the wind blew the stink bomb odour through the village, causing a huge amount of flies (presumably sensing dung) to descend on us.
I later found out that three villagers were injured by rubber bullets, and dozens treated for effects of gas inhalation.
But the mood at the end of the day was defiant. “Today was about refreshing popular opposition to the occupation,” said Nasser. “We hope to see this kind of protest all over Palestine”. The road to the liberation of Palestine has a long way to go, but the protest in Bil’in was an inspiring spark of resistance.