A small victory against apartheid wall

On September 7, the weekly demonstration in the Palestinian West Bank village of Bilin against Israel's apartheid wall became a celebration. Protesters danced and sang as they marched to the wall. Three days earlier, the Israeli Supreme Court had ordered the Israeli defence ministry to re-route 1.7 kilometres of the 703-km wall, which has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice.

The court had declared that it was "not convinced that it is necessary for security-military reasons to retain the current route that passes on Bilin's lands".

For the past two-and-half years, Bilin has been the site of weekly demonstrations against the wall. The village, which is located 16 km east of Ramallah, is home to 1800 residents, whose demonstrations calling for the tearing down of the wall and an end to the Israeli occupation, have been joined each week by Israeli and international peace activists.

The construction of the wall has resulted in more than 60% of Bilin's land being stolen by the Israeli state. While the wall had been built on 26 hectares of the village's land, it blocks access to another 170 ha of the village's land.

Under Israeli law, which has been cherry picked from Ottoman and British mandate law, if land is not accessed by locals for three years, it becomes Israeli state land. The fact that it is the Israeli state that prevents the Palestinian owners from accessing their land against their will is irrelevant under Israeli law.

Along with Bilin village, the land of five other villages — Midya, Nilin, Deir Qadis, Kharbata and Saffa — has also had hundreds of hectares stolen in order to expand the illegal Israeli settlement block of Modiin Illit. This is made up of eight separate settlements, the largest of which was established in 1993 and is now the second largest illegal Israeli colony in the West Bank with over 28,000 settlers, primarily ultra-Orthodox Jews.

According to plans issued by the Israeli housing ministry, the Modiin Illit block will be spread across 173 ha of stolen Palestinian land by 2020 and will house 50,000 Israeli settlers.

In 2005, a report entitled Under the Guise of Security, issued by the Israeli Centre for Human Rights (B'Tselem) and the Israeli Planners for Planning Rights (Bimkin) on the situation in Bilin, noted that the route of the apartheid wall had little to do with Israeli "security considerations". Instead, "one of the primary reasons for choosing the route of many sections of the Barrier was to place certain areas intended for settlement expansion on the 'Israeli' side of the barrier".

The report found that "for all intents and purposes the expansion constituted the establishment of a new settlement".

Mohammed Khatib, a leader of Bilin's Popular Committee Against the Wall told Green Left Weekly that while the villagers "were happy to get every centimetre of the land back that they can", they would not stop their struggle. Khatib said that through the court case "we achieved something but it is not enough" because "it will not give us all our rights".

He said that the involvement of Israeli and international activists in the struggle was essential. "We are partners in this struggle together. One cannot do the work without the others. It was very important and very necessary. It was a common struggle."

Khatib said that the involvement of international and Israeli activists was key to not only helping to reduce the violence perpetrated by the Israeli occupation forces against the villagers, but also helped to raise broader awareness of Bilin's struggle.

"If it wasn't for the Israeli activists and the internationals, I think a lot of people would have been killed", said Khatib. "The Israeli army would have used live bullets, but they are not allowed to use them when there are Israeli citizens or internationals involved in the demonstrations."

Khatib said that the villagers chose to carry out a non-violent struggle because their non-violence allowed people to document the the violence of the Israeli military against them. "It showed the reality of the situation. No-one was confused."

He hoped that the non-violent struggle in Bilin would become a model for the Palestinian resistance. "What happens in Bilin is what is going on in general in Palestine. The occupation is everywhere — in the macshoms [checkpoints], the settlements, the roadblocks, the wall.

"The resistance must be continuous against the occupation. We hope that our struggle and our victory will encourage more people to follow in the steps of Bilin and we will try to put our abilities and experience in the hands of other villages."

Khatib said that the key goal for the villagers now is to ensure that the Israeli court decision is actually implemented by the Israeli occupation authorities.

In 2004, the Israeli Supreme Court made a similar decision forcing the Israeli government to revise the route of the illegal wall near the nearby Palestinian village of Beit Sourik, moving the route of the wall a few hundred metres closer to the Modiin Illit settlement block. The report issued by B'Tselem and Bimkin, however, notes that the most of the constructed route around the Modiin Illit block "does not conform to the revised route", despite the court ruling.

In addition, one day after the ruling on the route of the Bilin section of the wall, the Israeli Supreme Court also ruled that the illegal Israeli colony of East Matityahu, which is part of the Modiin Illit settlement block would not be dismantled.

On September 5, despite recognising that the settlement had been built illegally on Palestinian land, the court rejected a petition filled by the mayor of Bilin and Israel's Peace Now organisation.

The villagers are now discussing how they will continue their struggle through creating "facts on the ground", reclaiming their land and cultivating it, and continuing to carry out non-violent direct action in opposition to the wall.