Bil’in: A village in mourning

One West Bank family has paid the highest price for their village’s peaceful pursuit of justice.

tear gas at Bil''in
Bassem Abu Rahmah, a pillar of non-violence in the village of Bil’in, was shot in the chest with a high-velocity teargas canister and died on his way to hospital in 2009 [Credit: Lazar Simeonov]

People say that time heals, but the Abu Rahmah family feels as though it is living in a recurring nightmare from which there is no respite. Their nightmare is set in the West Bank village of Bil’in, which has been cut into pieces by Israel’s “separation” wall.

It is a unique village: On the front lines of the conflict with Israel, it has also been the site of weekly non-violent protests since the wall was constructed 2005. It even has its own website, which describes “a Palestinian village that is struggling to exist” and “fighting to safeguard its land, its olive trees, its resources … its liberty”.

But what really makes the village stand out is the people that inhabit it – in particular, the Abu Rahmahs, whose misfortunes really began about three years ago.

All six Abu Rahmah siblings were non-violent activists – only four of them are left.

Their tale begins in July 2008, when one of them, Ashraf, was detained by Israeli soldiers in the nearby village of Ni’lin. The soldiers tied him up, blindfolded him and, as their commander watched, shot him in the foot at close range with a rubber-coated steel bullet.

The term “rubber-coated” can be misleading; this type of ammunition is consistently mislabelled as ‘rubber’ bullets by the army, leading people to think that it is relatively harmless. But the rubber coating is, in fact, paper-thin and encases a marble-sized steel ball that can break bones or even kill.

The whole incident was captured on video, making it impossible for the Israeli military to deny responsibility.

Ashraf’s case went to the Israeli Supreme Court where a strong indictment against the commander was unanimously ordered. The soldier who committed the deed was put under investigation, but just two weeks later the charges against him were dropped and he resumed duty.

Bassem’s story

On April 17, 2009, Bassem Abu Rahmah, another of the siblings, made his way to the front of the weekly protest as he did every Friday. Reaching the wall, he stood before dozens of Israeli soldiers, who have a reputation for regularly using violent means of “crowd dispersal” against non-violent protesters.

On this occasion, the Israeli military used a new type of high-velocity teargas canister – the sheer velocity of which, unlike the normal canisters, made it nearly impossible for the protesters to evade them.

Several Israeli activists had become trapped between two fences and, disorientated by the teargas, were unable to escape. Bassem shouted in Hebrew at the soldiers that they were shooting teargas at their own people and should stop for a minute to allow the Israeli activists to get out from between the fences.

One of the Israeli soldiers responded to Bassem’s request by shooting a high-velocity teargas canister directly at his chest from a distance of about 40 metres.

By this point, many of the protesters and media had been driven away by the billowing teargas, but those still present heard a desperate call for an ambulance. There was no ambulance in the village that day and, after, a few drawn out minutes, a small, beat-up car sped down the road to the spot where Bassem lay. As it approached, the soldiers shot at it with teargas canisters. Bassem’s limp body, his chest covered with blood, was carried to the car and driven the 30 minutes to the nearest hospital.

He died before reaching it.

It was the first time that somebody had been killed at one of Bil’in’s weekly demonstrations and it soon became clear that Bassem had left a considerable mark not just on his family, but on the entire village.

Over coffee at her home, I told Bassem’s mother in my broken Arabic that my own family in the US had heard about what had happened to Bassem on the news and that people all over the world knew of his story. It seemed to offer her little comfort.

I remembered how Bassem had been the first person in the village to introduce himself to me, how he seemed to know everyone and was always going from one place to another, helping people and spending time with his friends.

He worked with the Bil’in Popular Committee, which espouses non-violent and creative ways to attract attention to their cause, was deeply committed to non-violence and always spoke peacefully to the Israeli soldiers.

Who will look out for them?

I also recalled how on that fateful afternoon, Bassem had joined the other villagers and activists at the centre of Bil’in as they chanted slogans and began to walk towards the village’s annexed land.

As always, Bassem was initially at the back of the crowd, trying to finish a conversation before the march began. But he had a long stride and, with his mobile phone blasting Arabic music, he had passed everyone by the time we reached the wall.

As he walked past me, told me, as he always did, to be careful and warned my friend to look out for me during the protest. But who was looking out for him?

Bassem’s family were devastated by his death, so when I heard about the death of his sister, Jawaher, a few days ago, I immediately thought of them.

Jawaher died on New Year’s Eve as a result of inhaling teargas at the village’s weekly protest.

There has been some speculation over the type of teargas used on that day, with other activists emphasising the large quantity and unusually strong effect it had on them.

The Abu Rahmah family has been left to deal with yet more injustice, grief and loss.

Waiting for justice

Israel began building settlements on the village’s land during the 1980s. Gradually more and more land was confiscated, until, in late 2004, the Israeli army ordered the construction of the “separation” wall, which would annex almost 60 per cent of Bil’in’s land. The land, which was mostly agricultural, was essential to the economy of the village.

Soon after the decision to build the wall was announced, the Bil’in Committee of Popular Resistance Against the Wall and Settlements (Bil’in Popular Committee) was formed and in February 2005, the weekly non-violent demonstrations against the wall began. The have continued ever since, despite the harsh reactions of the Israeli military, which has, among other things, raided the homes of and arrested protest organisers in the middle of the night.

The village has had some success in its legal battle to get its land back. At one point, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that construction on the nearby settlement of Matityahu had to be stopped and ordered the path of the wall to be moved back – returning almost half of its land to the village.

But, like many court orders impacting the occupied territories, this was never carried out. Construction continued on the nearby settlements and the Supreme Court reached a new decision, whereby only about 10 per cent of the land would be returned to the people of Bil’in.

Even this ruling, however, has not been carried out and for the people of Bil’in the struggle continues in the hope that the deaths of Bassem and Jawaher Abu Rahmah will not have been in vain.

Source: Al Jazeera