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At the heart of the struggle in the Occupied West Bank is the fight over land. Palestinian agricultural land has been systematically seized by Israeli settlements. Community based struggles over land annexed by the route of the Apartheid Wall in villages like Bi'lin have been partially successful. As a continuation of that Palestinian activists, supported by international observers have moved onto creating temporary villages on land that settlers have tried to grab
The following is an eyewitness account of a Brighton-based volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement who witnessed a recent non-violent Palestinian attempt to reclaim some land and the Israeli Army's very violent response to it.
Burin is one of a group of small Palestinian villages near Nablus in the Occupied West Bank. Burin has been having a lot of problems off the local settlers, especially from one settlement in particular: Yitzhar, which currently holds the distinction of being the most violent settlement in the West Bank. The Yithzar settlers wanted to steal some more land from Burin and the other surrounding villages. Palestinian farmers or shepherds that have attempted to approach the land in the last few months have been shot at, severely beaten or hospitalised. They wont let anybody on to this hill, which amounts to about a few hundred dunums worth (one dunum is 1000 m²) of land.Yitzhar is situated right in the middle of five or six Palestinian villages. On a map it's clear that the only way for it to expand is to move into these villages' land.
The action entailed setting up a peaceful non-violent camp, dubbed Al Manatir, on a hill outside of Burin that the settlers have laid claim to. The ISM were asked to attend as internationals to witness the day's events and to stay there in solidarity with the Palestinians in case to settlers or the army did attack, which they certainly did.
In Burin the ISM have been supporting West Bank's umbrella grassroots organisation- the PSCC (Popular Struggle Coordination Committee). Word has it that the Palestinian Authority iteslf was fronting the money for the action.
We arrived at about 11 o'clock in the morning on the 2nd of February. There were already a few structures erected on the hill- these were dome-like structures similar to the Anderson shelters that we used to have during the Second World War to hide from the Blitz. Some of these were already on the hill but it was an ongoing process of getting them up the hilltop. We jumped out of the vehicles and carried stuff up the hill. It nearly fucking killed me but it didn't take long for everybody to get the rest of the gear up. There must've been between twenty and thirty internationals there and between 250 and 300 Palestinians.
Considering the problems the Palestinians have had from this particular settlement this was a very brave attempt to wrestle back their land. Let's be under no illusions: the Yitzhar settlers are a dangerous bunch of fuckers: they mean business. They know that if you control the hilltops then you control the area surrounding it. Hills are very significant places in the West Bank and control of the hilltops is the settlers first priority. The settlers had just recently declared that this land was theirs, but they hadn't properly established themselves on it- it was still an empty space. For the Palestinians it was worth a shot to try and take it back before more settlement buildings sprang up on the site.
Everything was nice and peaceful- people were enjoying themselves. We were catching our breath because it had been a bit of a slog getting up there. The army turned up within twenty minutes of our arrival, followed closely by a group of settlers who were in the distance watching. Nothing happened in the first half an hour but then for whatever reason the army opened fire, whilst the settlers looked on. They opened fire on the internationals and the Palestinians- they were quite liberal with their use of their silver cylindrical gun launched tear gas canisters. These were being fired at head height. Flash grenades were thrown directly at people. I witnessed one incident where a flash grenade exploded under the leg of the person in front of me.
The Palestinian response was to fall back due to the effects of the tear-gas. They would then move forward again and there would be chanting. They were also dabka dancing (dabka is the traditional Palestinian dance). They were not throwing stones.
We regrouped and went back forwards to confront soldiers. In the meantime the settlers had picked up rocks and were throwing them and firing them from slingshots. From what I could see the Israeli soldiers were doing nothing to stop them.
So we went forward; it was the same again. At this stage the soldiers started snatching Palestinians. I don't know if they were targeting specific Palestinians but a group of soldiers would target one person and drag them away, give them a bit of a kicking on the hilltop and then detain them. Where we could we would try to de-arrest if there was enough of us around.
The tear-gas forced people to disperse. It was a particularly nasty type of tear-gas apparently they've changed the formula. The latest formula cleanses your land whiter than white.
We tried to defend the area because a lot of effort had gone into this. There was a lot of press but from what I saw it was mostly Palestinian and international Arabic press. They were getting rough treatment- I witnessed journalists get beaten up by the Israeli army. I was also threatened- they threatened to arrest me and break my legs if I did not comply with their orders. I tried to reason with them I tried to explain to them the situation. It's always worth a try I suppose. You can well imagine the response we got.
All the while the army was pushing forward and taking ground from us. We tried the tactic of sitting down and raising our arms. They would throw stun grenades into the crowd of us as we were sat there. There were still around 300 of us, even though we were quite widely dispersed all over the hilltop by now. But people still did not leave the hill. This carried on for a good two or three hours.
Eventually they pushed us toward a stone structure. As one final attempt to stay there we decided to sit down in a circle near this house. I was with two internationals and about half a dozen Palestinians. All I could see was the legs of Israeli soldiers stood around us in circle. And then a stun grenade got lobbed into the middle of us and exploded under the leg of a friend of mine. Thankfully it was only a stun grenade.
By then we decided enough was enough and that we tried our best; the Palestinians certainly had. We were the last group to leave the hill. For me the funniest episode of the day was as we came to the bottom of the hill there was a tea stall giving out chai to anybody who was fleeing from the hill.
Afterwards I heard that as we were up on the hill the settlers decided to attack the village. From what I gather a 17-year-old Palestinian lad had been shot in the leg. Last I heard he was okay. The settlers also torched about 100 olive trees.This was the first phase of the action to take back the hill.
We retreated back to the village. We were sat around in square near the mosque having a nice cup of tea and winding down, until about two hours later when tear-gas canisters started landing amongst the crowd in the village. We were in a very tightly packed small area, people started panicking and fleeing in all directions. Then the army moved into the bottom of the village they parked a couple of Jeeps by the intersection. They had two direct lines of fire into the village. They were heavy with the tear-gas.
Then they started firing live ammo.I could hear the signature zip zip zip. You could hear the bangs in the distance. They were actually firing at us.
It became a running battle as the shabbab [Palestinian youth] defended their homes from the army. They tried to keep the army at the bottom of the hill. To their credit they held them back.
Throwing rocks can be quite an effective tactic even against a heavily armed military force like the Israeli army. When it's your homes and your families and that's all you have to hand, what else are you going to do? I was there as a non-violent international but I certainly felt within me that that is what I would have done if it was my home. Most definitely.
You see so many images of Palestinian boys throwing stones at tanks. And it seems like that's a completely ineffectual form of resistance. It's quite refreshing to hear that people armed with nothing more than sticks and stones, can sometimes hold an army at bay.
There followed about two hours of tear-gas rounds after tear-gas round. The army didn't get anywhere with it and in fact just before the sun went down they packed up and went home. And we were all back to drinking cups of tea in no time.
This was a petty revenge attack against the Palestinians for having the audacity to take back their own land.
Physical occupation of threatened areas of their own land is the latest strategy by the Palestinians to resist the seizure of their land.This seems to be one of the most effective tools that the Palestinians have to regain what is rightfully theirs.
Non-violent direct action as a tactic has been gathering pace over the last few years and the Palestinians are getting more organised. As they are happening more frequently across the West Bank each time the Israelis respond more and more brutally each time. There is no room for negotiation - the Israelis will open fire on unarmed peaceful protesters; that is their standard response. This happened in Bab al Shams, it happened here, it's going to happen in other places. But what choice do they have?
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