Bil'in: Deadly Political Theater

Young rock-throwers challenging the army at the security fence in Bil'in, the tear gas rising

My friend over at Magnes Zionist has a post about our Friday afternoon in Bil'in. He saves me from having to report things in detail. But I have to say I left the demonstration feeling more perplexed than inspired, given the many deaths the cause has occasioned. I left, that is, wondering if I had not just participated in something so highly ritualized, in which each of us was playing to form, knowing that it will all be the same next week--in short, something so connected to a kind of political theater, played out for a half-paying-attention international press--that fatalities on the site seem all the more horrible and preventable.

We are dealing here with a case that is even more cut and dried than what is going on in Sheikh Jarrah. The Israeli Supreme Court has already ruled that the route of the security wall, which separates the town of Bil'in from hundreds of dunams of its agricultural land, must be moved to restore this land to the town. So the Defense Ministry, in effect, is brazenly violating a decision of the Supreme Court by not complying. One activist leader told me that much of this land has already been tendered to contractors, in order to expand local settlements, so the government is also feeling pressure from private financial interests not to implement the court ruling.

The case, in other words, is appalling in a way a great many Israeli liberals could understand; and it is indicative not only of the ways the occupation corrupts the state but also of the caution with which the Supreme Court now proceeds, especially in confrontations over Arab rights, in order not to provoke a backlash against its dwindling power. But all of this also means that the weekly Bil'in demonstration could just as effectively be held, not at the site of the wall, but at the the Defense Ministry in downtown Tel Aviv. For the dozens (or in Friday's case, hundreds) of democratic activists who drive and climb and march to the town for weekly confrontations with army troops--most of them painfully young under their riot gear--the demonstration feels a little like yelling at the person who answers the phone at a call center when your bank has failed to credit your account.

For the young Arab demonstrators, of course, the ritual is very different. This is their town and, for now, the fight is the meaning of their lives. Twenty-one have died in West Bank town demonstrations like this over the last six years. (Take a moment and let that number sink in.) On Friday, many young locals were wearing masks, throwing rocks, taunting the soldiers in what seemed a rite of passage. They were accompanied to the wall with ambulances. It was as if they had seen movies of the first intifada, the slingshots and televisions cameras, and were determined to live up to this legacy--just not allow past deaths to have been in vain, a sentiment which seems, pathetically, to invite more.

The bravest move closest to the fence, virtually daring the soldiers to fire, dancing in spite, tossing stones. They scatter when a young soldier--obviously enjoying his power, his own rite of passage--goes into a crouch, pointing and cocking his rifle demonstratively. The army could literally do nothing but squat behind riot shields and the result would be the same; but that would signal "weakness" or something. Arab and Jewish activists who wish to prove their steadfastness within the bounds of nonviolence merely shake at the fence, allowing themselves to be sprayed with a liquid blended to smell like human feces, holding their ground until the squad finally gets the order to start using tear gas.

All of this posturing would be fair enough if it were only theater. But, again, now and then someone gets killed, the latest fatality, of course, Jawaher Abu Rahme, who died inhaling gas--whose death was the reason I decided to come. And when people are dying in demonstrations, you can't help ask the question whether there is some larger political context that will be moved by such terrible sacrifice; whether the demonstrations can serve to crystallize some larger political movement that will ultimately prevail, like Gandhi's salt march; whether a larger fight is a part of the strategy, or whether there is even a strategy at all. I left Bil'in simply unable to answer the question to my own satisfaction.

To the extent that the relevant audience is international opinion, have not these demonstrations achieved their purpose, or exhausted international attention span, or both? When I was myself retreating (from surprisingly stinging tear gas), I was passed by a young correspondent from Fox News, jogging purposefully, speaking into his microphone, careful to remain in his camera's range, relieved (I suspected) that there was some drama. But to the extent that the demonstrations aim to move the Israeli public, it is precisely scenes reminiscent of intifadas that cause ambivalent reactions. Again, the larger point might best be made at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.

I do not mean to imply that these demonstrations are pointless. No fight for justice is pointless. And there is such a fundamental injustice here that people with democratic instincts will, instinctively, respond. Here is a small agricultural village whose lands have been expropriated; here is a court order in a putative democracy that is not respected. What cause could be more pure? Yet I cannot help thinking about that young woman who died, or her brother who died a year ago when he was hit in the chest by a tear gas canister. Death seems a very high price to pay to become an item on Fox News.

And when you walk around the town, the goats munching on scrub grass strewn with ubiquitous blue plastic bags--a town of stone houses and rusting car parts and trash all over the commons--a town looking over the gorgeous, Santa Fe-like hills at the wierdly out of place but encroaching high rises of Modiin Ilit--you have to wonder also how much of this life is sustainable, even if Bil'in got its land back tomorrow and it was the apartment blocs of a Palestinian state rising on the horizon.

People with democratic instincts, after all, also once invented the term "modernization." Had those young people not been killed, how many disquieting wonders beyond this benighted town might they have lived to see?