Saturday, December 12, 2009

"A Stone's Throw from Civilization"
by Laura Logan, for pictures

A chilly winter breeze stung my face as I stood on the edge of the Palestinian village of Bil’in. I stood there in solidarity with the villagers, scanning the square kilometer that lies between the village and the wall. What would become of this land? To whom does it belong?

It was a typical Friday for the citizens of Bil’in. The noon prayer had just ended, and the village began to gather for a non-violent protest against the “separation wall” – a 760 kilometer fence built by the Israeli government in 2003. The men, women, and children of Bil'in were joined by human rights activists of every ilk: Palestinian, American, Israeli. This particular week, I was among them.

Since that day, several people have asked me why I would protest something that has been instrumental in preventing Palestinian militants from entering Israel. Why don't I support the wall?

The short answer is that I do. I believe that Israel has every right – in fact, a duty – to protect its citizens from militant threats. The construction of the separation wall is not only legal, but practical, to ensure national security. It's not the wall that I oppose. It's where the wall is.

Before Israel approved the construction of the wall in 2003, that rugged kilometer of terrain in Bil'in was Palestinian land – well within the boundary enumerated by the 1949 Armistice Agreements, U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181, and every major peace agreement since Camp David (commonly known as the “Green Line”). In fact, only 20% of the separation wall follows the Green Line. The remaining 80% cuts deep into the West Bank, annexing some of its most resource-rich lands and over half of its water supply. The land between the separation wall and the Green Line has been declared a “closed military zone”: any man, woman, or child who enters it risks being gassed, stunned, or shot by riot control agents of the Israeli Defense Forces.

Approximately 12% of Palestinians in the West Bank (around 375,000 people) are now trapped inside this zone. They live in a state of political limbo – lacking the rights of Israeli citizens, yet separated from their fellow Palestinians. And without proper permits, their houses may be bulldozed.

A surprisingly large number of the West Bank Palestinians I’ve spoken with – as well as a fair number of the Palestinian refugees I've encountered in Egypt and Jordan over the past year and a half – share my opinion. The citizens of Bil'in aren't protesting the wall; they're protesting its route.

In fact, very few Palestinians I've spoken with have denied Israel’s obligation to protect its citizens. Many have even acknowledged and praised the wall's effectiveness at decreasing attacks against innocent Israeli civilians. One Palestinian I spoke with went as far as to hail the wall as “vital to the peace process,” noting that decreases in extremist violence allow for better negotiating conditions. Sadly, the “security wall” has evolved into something more like a “temporary border,” de facto annexing 46% of what was once the West Bank.

As the wall stands today, multiple Palestinian villages are literally encircled by an eight-meter electric fence. The Palestinian city of Qalqiliya (population 45,000) is not only completely encircled, but also cut off from a third of its water supply. A similar situation exists in Bethlehem. For these unfortunate victims of circumstance, the only path to the outside world is through an IDF-controlled checkpoint. In order for a local villager over the age of 12 to return home, he is required to possess a permit as evidence of land ownership.

For a Palestinian to legally live in his own (often pre-1948) home, on Palestinian land, he is required to possess an Israeli-issued “temporary residence permit.” All houses not properly documented are subject to demolition, courtesy of a “clearing operation.” For the Palestinians who live close to the wall, a permit still might not be enough: if their houses fall within one of Israel’s planned “buffer zones,” they can legally be bulldozed without compensation.

Other Palestinian homes are subject to demolition if they are built on property needed by the Israeli government, or if a family member is believed to be a security threat. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, twelve innocent families lose their homes for every person the IDF believes to be engaging in “militant activities” (a designation which includes stone throwing) against Israel. Nearly half of the homes demolished are never even suspected of housing militant activity, according to B'Tselem.

In response to these allegations, the IDF claims that it gives prior warning in all but the most extenuating of circumstances. B’Tselem says otherwise: according to their figures, prior warning is given in less than 3% of all cases. A 2006 report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA) states, “To date, more than 3,000 Palestinian-owned structures in the West Bank have pending demolition orders, which can immediately executed without prior warning.”

According to OCHA, the typical family in a house demolition is only able to salvage a few prized possessions, as demolition squads allow, on average, between two and thirty minutes to evacuate. When no prior warning is given, the consequences can be even more severe: in addition to rendering a family homeless and ridding them of their possessions, the element of surprise often produces “heat of the moment” confrontations between tenants and the IDF. Many of these result in injuries and deaths.

The 34 fortified checkpoints (3 main terminals, 9 commercial terminals, and 22 terminals for cars and workers) that divide the West Bank today greatly restrict freedom of travel, leaving hundreds of thousands impoverished and living in ghetto-like conditions, as they are unable to find stable work. In order to accommodate the 1,661 kilometers of private “Israeli-only” roads and the other 634 checkpoints (which include military trenches, roadblocks, and metal gates), 44 underground tunnels are currently being constructed to connect 22 isolated Palestinian villages inside of 3 adjacent jurisdictions.

Several international bodies, including the International Court of Justice (the judicial arm of the United Nations), have declared the route of construction illegal. “The construction of the wall and its associated regimes are contrary to international law,” the 2004 ICJ ruling read. It went on to remind Israel that it is “bound to comply with its obligations to respect the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and its obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law.” According to the ruling, Israel can build a wall for security purposes, but only on its side of the Green Line.

Even Justice Thomas Buergenthal, the American judge who cast the only dissenting vote, recognized the Palestinian right to self-determination, reiterated Israel’s obligation to international humanitarian law, and conceded that there were legitimate questions as to whether the barrier, given its route, qualifies as self-defense. The United States itself has denounced the route as an impediment to the peace process: in a July 25, 2003, remark to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, President Bush stated that “the wall is a problem.”

In response to these concerns, the Knesset has maintained that the separation wall is only a "temporary" measure, to be reversed as soon as the Palestinians and Israelis reach a successful peace agreement. This position would be more convincing if the construction of ethnically-exclusive settlements on the disputed land between the wall and the Green Line hadn’t begun almost immediately after the wall was approved.

The original Israeli settlements in the West Bank (which have also been declared illegal by multiple ICJ rulings and UN resolutions, as a breach of the fourth Geneva Convention) were also called “temporary” at first. They began as military outposts and evolved into civilian settlements. Eventually, they were regarded as “facts on the ground” during negotiations. It's reasonable to wonder whether these new settlements will follow suit.

Israeli courts, though ruling in favor of a slight route revision in the Ramallah district, have opted not to accept the ICJ’s decision, even though they have acknowledged that Israel controls the West Bank in a “belligerent occupation” and that the “law of belligerent occupation…imposes conditions” on the occupying military, even in security sensitive areas. Bil'in was one of the villages in the Ramallah district that the courts approved for rerouting. Regardless, construction continues as planned.

As I stood on top of that hill in Bil’in, I observed a sandy dirt road that paved a clear path through the wild goat grass, dodging the occasional sabra cactus, toward the edge of the separation wall. A chaotic fusion of village noise consumed me: a child crying, a mother consoling. The sound of Israeli riot dispersal techniques reverberated throughout the village. The deafening boom of a 44mm rubber bullet echoed from a sister protest in the nearby village of Na’alin. Tear gas canisters hissed through the air.

Despite the non-violent nature of the weekly protests in Bil’in and Na’alin, 18 demonstrators have been killed. Of those, ten were children under the age of 18. 15 were killed by live ammunition, a method of riot dispersal banned by the IDF following the second intifada because of its highly lethal nature.

Thirty minutes after the noon prayer, we began to march toward the wall. Some chanted, others simply held signs. As soon as we stepped into the “closed military zone,” which extended far into the village, IDF riot control began to shoot tear gas into the crowd.

Some protesters fled, visibly suffering from tear gas inhalation. Others continued toward the wall, where they would plant a Palestinian flag in symbolic expression of their resistance. They were met with rubber bullets.

At no point did I witness any significant stone-throwing. This was, in every respect, a non-violent protest. I wondered how “threatening stone hurling” had become such a staple justification for violent IDF behavior in Israeli newspapers. I stuck around to find out.

A few hours after the protest ended, I re-entered the "closed military zone" to find a number of Palestinian boys hurling rocks at the IDF riot control. The most aggressive hurlers wore kifayas and sported large sling-shots. They hid behind rocks to shield themselves as the IDF returned fire with tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets.

How old were these rock-hurling militants? Probably somewhere between 8 and 12.

I felt like I was caught in the middle of a paintball game. The possibility of getting nailed by a rock or high-velocity tear gas projectile provided me with an adrenaline rush I hadn't experienced since my days playing high school soccer. It was exciting, but it didn't feel real. It felt like a game.

I watched in shock as a smiling 8-year-old boy jumped over a bouncing tear gas canister like it was a dodgeball, whirled around, and returned fire with his sling-shot. He fell short of his target by about 20 meters. Another grinning boy came up behind him, and they exchanged a high-five.

What better way to play Cowboys and Indians than with a real, live enemy? An occupier. What a great way to prove one's “manhood.” It was very difficult to take seriously. Immediately after the tear gas stopped, the kids went home. Khalas. It wasn’t exciting for them anymore.


  1. Nice to meet you, Laura!
    my name is Kyung0ho and I am a South Korean student.
    I am going to study at AUC forom Fall 2010 on.
    Are you pursuing a master's degree?
    I just want to know something about AUC, if you don't mind.
    Thanks for reading and have a nice day.

  2. Hey Kyung! I'll do my best to answer any questions you have about AUC. What did you have in mind?

  3. Hi, Laura!
    Sorry for late.
    I have a lot of things to ask you. : )
    I want get in touch with you through e-mail if you don't mind.
    My e-mail address is;
    Thanks for reading and have a nice day, Laura!