This article by Haggai Matar was first published on the +972 website as part of the project The Wall: 10 years on. You can read the original article here.
I guess it’s no coincidence that whenever I think of the beginning of the popular struggle against the wall I think of Gil Na’amati. The story of Na’amati, who was just out of the army after three years of serving as a combatant when he was shot in the knee by soldiers while trying to break open a gate in the fence in December 2003, was what drew my attention to the struggle. I was still in prison at the time, for my own refusal to enlist, and it was this story that led me to start reading about the new struggle I was missing on the outside.
I guess it’s no coincidence, as even after having been involved in joint activism against the occupation before prison – something of the racism of Israeli political discourse stayed within me too. Like the demonstrators who yelled at the soldiers “don’t shoot – we’re Israelis,” like the soldiers themselves who usually use less violence towards Israelis and white solidarity activists, like the local media which is more easily shocked when a Jew is hurt during a demonstration (especially a former combatant and son of the head of a regional council in the western Negev like Na’amati) – so was my attention drawn to the story of a young person, of my people, who was shot by one of my peers, more than it was by the stories of Palestinians killed in nonviolent demonstrations. But the struggle, in fact, had started long before Na’amati was shot.
(The shooting of Gil Na’amati, broken down and narrated)
‘There was no plan – people just went to protect their trees’
In fact, the whole struggle began quite spontaneously. The year 2002 was the bloodiest of the second intifada, with 47 suicide attacks killing 225 Israelis, and 989 Palestinian casualties (421 of them did not take part in hostilities, according to B’Tselem). In September alone, eight Israelis were killed in three suicide attacks (one them in central Tel Aviv), and 51 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, 19 of them non-combatants. As mentioned in the first chapter of this series, suicide attacks were what led to the beginning of the construction of the wall in April of 2002, while political pressures and Israeli expansionist aspirations drew the route of the wall so that it would run through the heart of the West Bank and de facto annex large tracks of land.
It was in this deadly month of September that bulldozers arrived in Jayous. The original route in this area would later engulf most of the village’s agricultural lands, also leaving one house on the wrong side of the fence. The villagers, whose income depended on agriculture, saw the bulldozers and ran to their groves to protect their tress. They stopped construction work, hugged the trees, got beaten and dispersed, some were arrested – yet the next day they came out again. Almost two years after Israel crushed the popular demonstrations at the dawn of the second intifada and Palestinians turned to arms – nonviolent popular resistance was making its initial comeback.
“We didn’t have a plan – people just saw the trees being shaved down and ran to protect them,” says Sharif Khaled, a farmer and leader of the Jayous actions. “There were men and women, people from all families and parties, and we went to stay on our land. It took several weeks before we were joined by Israelis and the ISM [International Solidarity Movement], and started holding meetings before demonstrations in order to plan better. We were also joined by people from neighboring villages, and that’s how the concept began to spread.”
And spread it did. Similar demonstrations started taking place in other locations along the route of the wall, and as 2003 began, a central struggle tent was erected in the village of Mes’ha. Raad Amer was just 23 when he helped erect the tent in the path of the wall, and started organizing multi-lingual workshops on nonviolence and demonstrations in the same spirit. The tent stood for four months near the settlement of Elkana, founded in 1977, and was de-facto annexed by the wall. Eventually the tent was demolished by the army.
Palestinians together with Israeli and international activists participate in the weekly demonstration against the occupation and the Wall, in the West Bank village of Bil'in, June 8, 2012. Photo by: Ahmad Al-Bazz/Activestills.org
“The primary and only tool for that struggle was nonviolent protest in all forms,” says Amer, who now lives with his wife in the United States. “People maintained a presence in the camp 24/7, protests where people marched through the village toward the confiscated lands and direct action against the wall like the one in which Gil Na’amati was shot – all these are diverse nonviolent tools of resistance.”
Over the years the popular demonstrations spread further, and as suicide attacks subsided, it became the central and leading tool in the Palestinian struggle for independence. Demonstrations started in Bidu, Budrus, Beit Likiya, Qafin, Azun, Bil’in, Nil’in, Beit Sira, Walaje, Beit Jala, Ertas, Ma’asara, Wad-Rachal, Beit Umar and many other villages – some of them still active to this day. Gradually, villages not directly affected by the wall started using the same tools in their own struggles against settlements and land grabs, and some of these – like Nabi Saleh and Qadum – are also still very active in their resistance.
With time, the struggle became partly institutionalized with popular committees operating in each of the uprising villages and determining the local demands and tactics. In most (if not all) villages the main demand is that Israel move the wall to its internationally recognized border, alongside calls to dismantle settlements and end the occupation in full. The pattern of action varied from one place to another and from time to time, some focusing on direct action, some on slogans and dialogue with soldiers, and some on creative protest using music, theater, costumes and more. Almost all invited Israelis and foreigners to join the struggle, either as a safety tool, by forcing soldiers to be less violent; as a political statement of joint resistance and belief in equality and peace; or as a mixture of both. Most Israelis in the weekly demonstrations are activists in Anarchists Against the Wall (like myself), but others join as well. In some villages, the first phase of demonstrations, shared by all, is utterly nonviolent, making way for a second phase of stone-throwing by local youth (usually after the army attacks) and in some, the nonviolent approach lasts until the end.
But whatever the tactics, the army always responds with varying degrees of violence, having killed a total of 21 demonstrators (10 of them minors) in demonstrations against the wall, and 275 in all popular demonstrations (figures taken from Jonathan Pollak, spokesperson of the Popular Resistance Coordination Committee). Hundreds have been severely injured, hundreds arrested, trees have been burned and farm animals killed by tear gas.
As for the other side – over the years, one soldier lost an eye after being hit by a stone, and others were less severely injured. Another effect demonstrations had on the army is a financial one: according to one army officer, who testified in the trial of a Bil’in activist, over the period between August 2008 and December 2009, the army spent NIS 6.5 million on weapons against demonstrators in Bil’in and Ni’lin alone, an extra NIS 423 thousand on repairing damages caused to the fence in these villages and NIS 8.5 million on building a second wall to protect the fence in Nil’in. Multiply that by a decade of protest in tens of villages – and you’ll get an astounding figure.
And yet, after 10 years of demonstrations, casualties, injuries, arrests and trials, pain and joy and one wall still standing – what did the popular, joint and unarmed struggle against the wall actually achieve? This we shall see in the next chapter.