BILIN, West Bank, (AP) -Once a week, dozens of Israelis, Palestinians and foreign activists trudge to a small section of Israel’s West Bank security barrier in a joint protest initially aimed at preventing its construction and now trying to force its removal.
On the two-year anniversary of the Friday protests at this small West Bank village, which has been riven in two by the barrier, almost nothing has changed. To the protesters, though, simply keeping the controversial barrier in the news is a victory in itself.
“We have patience,” said Abdullah Abu Rahma, one of the leaders of the protest. “I want my land. I want my children to live on it.”
Israel began building the barrier in 2002, saying the complex of concrete walls, razor wire and trenches was intended to keep Palestinian suicide bombers out of Israel.
The Palestinians say the barrier, which dips into the West Bank in many areas to include Jewish settlements on the Israeli side, is an Israeli land grab that locks them up in enclaves, robbing them of a future state.
The barrier, designed to stretch 430 miles, is about two-thirds complete.
Bilin has become a symbol of the fight against it.
Palestinian and Israeli protesters, joined by foreign activists, first banded together two years ago to try to prevent a section of the barrier from being built on the hills of the village, which lies north of Jerusalem.
Some 575 acres — more than half of Bilin’s land — were confiscated to build the wide barrier loop around the expanding Jewish settlement of Kiryat Sefer.
Despite often violent confrontations with police that routinely left protesters with injuries from tear gas and rubber coated steel bullets, the section of the barrier running along the village was completed.
Yet the protests have continued, with some activists trying to cut the fence with wire cutters in a symbolic act of destruction. During last year’s Palestinian parliamentary elections, the weekly protest was a key whistle stop for candidates stumping for votes.
The protest Friday was the largest in months, drawing about 800 demonstrators, most of them Israelis and foreigners.
“Soldiers go home, ” protesters shouted in Hebrew.
Stones flew from Palestinian youngsters’ slingshots, and troops fired stun grenades, rubber bullets and water cannon to keep protesters at bay. Clouds of tear gas enveloped the area for four hours.
“We are there to protect the security fence,” said Col. Yoni Gedj, regional Brigade commander. “We use only necessary force against the demonstrators.”
At least five people were wounded, rescue workers said. Two Israeli protesters were detained, Gedj said.
Protesters claim a few small victories. Mahmoud Abdel Hadi, an unemployed 44-year-old father of nine, said the demonstrations pressured the Israeli government to give him access to his 2 1/2 acres of farmland on the “Israeli” side of the fence.
“They took our land. We are now trapped here. But we will go nowhere,” Abdel Hadi said.
In addition to their protests, villagers have also taken their case against the barrier to court, where the most crucial victories against the enclosure have been scored. A court verdict is expected in the coming weeks on a request to re-route the fence in Bilin, said a lawyer for the village council, Michael Sfard.
Jonathan Pollak, a 25-year-old Israeli seriously injured in 2005 when a tear gas canister hit him in the head, said the protests were remarkable for bringing Israelis and Palestinians together to fight the occupation. They also raised awareness of the impact the barrier was having on ordinary Palestinian lives, he said.
“It is a miserable situation,” he said.