The Middle East Channel

Freedom of speech and assembly under attack in Bil’in

Last Friday, like every Friday for more than five years, Israeli and international activists joined the residents of the two villages of Bil’in and Na’alin in what has become a ritual of civil solidarity:  weekly protests against the route of the separation barrier Israel has erected on private Palestinian lands. The section of the barrier ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Last Friday, like every Friday for more than five years, Israeli and international activists joined the residents of the two villages of Bil’in and Na’alin in what has become a ritual of civil solidarity:  weekly protests against the route of the separation barrier Israel has erected on private Palestinian lands.

The section of the barrier in Bil’in and Na’alin separates the villages from more than one-third of their lands; these lands are designated by Israel for the expansion of the settlement bloc of Modi’in Ilit.

Although the barrier’s route is supposed to be dictated solely by Israeli security concerns, it actually encircles 48 Israeli settlements that were built illegally in the occupied West Bank. In places like Bil’in, the barrier also encircles empty land intended for settlement expansion.

The research done by B’Tselem, an Israeli organization that monitors, researches and advocates human rights in the Occupied Territories, indicates that the barrier’s route in general is dictated by political considerations to do with expanding settlements, rather than security concerns. In areas where the barrier separates Palestinians from their lands or from each other, protests have been generated, and Bil’in and Na’alin are two such sites.

Now the demonstrators face a new tactic by the Israeli Defense Forces–an order signed by General Avi Mizrahi, GCO of the Army’s Central Command, that designates the areas between the two villages’ built up areas and the barrier’s route as ‘closed military zones’ every Friday between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.–for a period of six months. Israeli citizens and internationals are forbidden from entering closed military zones and thus from coming to the protest sites at those times. This sweeping order replaced a weekly order issued by the regional military commander.

The joint demonstrations of the villagers and Israeli and international activists are protected by the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, and also serve to help make the rest of the world aware of the impact of the barrier in small Palestinian villages.

In 2007 the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the route of the barrier in Bil’in is illegal and must be relocated. Yet only very recently, after a second supreme court ruling that held the defense ministry in contempt for its non-compliance, has work even begun to relocate the barrier. Meanwhile, the protests continue.

The new order, following many incidents of violence and a series of midnight arrests of leaders of the demonstrations, raise serious concerns that Israel is acting to quell any sort of protest against what the International Court of Justice has ruled is an illegal and unacceptable grab of Palestinian land.

In a letter sent to the IDF Legal Advisor of the West Bank, attorney Gabi Lasky representing the demonstrators wrote:

An order of ‘closed military zone’ has to apply to the rules of justice of the Israeli law, like any other administrative action executed by the sovereign. Such an order is a severe violation of liberty and movement, and as such it is a violation of the Israeli constitutional law.

B’Tselem has documented numerous cases that raise serious questions about the behavior of soldiers during these demonstrations, which the IDF calls ‘illegal riots’. In 2008 B’Tselem publicized a video, taken by a young Palestinian girl, showing a blindfolded and handcuffed Palestinian demonstrator being shot from close range in the leg by a soldier, while the commanding officer holds the victim. The commander and soldier are now both facing trial for that incident. Other serious cases of military and settler violence, as well as stone-throwing by protesters, have been exposed. Six demonstrators have been killed by the reckless use of what should be non-lethal weapons. Given these incidents, it is worrisome indeed that the area can be closed off to outsiders who wish to demonstrate with the villagers against the barrier.

In the symbolic date of Dec. 10, 2009–International Human Rights day–the Israeli Defense Forces made a nightly arrest of Mr. Abdallah Abu Rahmah, one of the leaders of the village of Bil’in. Abu Rahmah, who has hosted Nobel Peace Prize laureates such as Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu, was arrested for ‘possession of arms‘.

In actuality, Abu Rahmah stands accused of collecting M16 bullets, empty sound canisters and used gas grenades–which the IDF has previously used to disperse demonstrators–for exhibition in Bil’in’s museum. He’s also being charged for incitement and throwing stones.

Indeed, some of the protesters do throw stones during the protests and clash with the military in other ways. The Israeli security forces are authorized to use proportional measures to maintain public order. But these measures have to employ the minimum use of force necessary to achieve this goal.

Declaring the villages of Bil’in and Na’alin closed military zones, only for the times the protests occur, is a clear and troubling attempt to stifle free speech and civic action.  And all against the backdrop of a barrier which is a constant source of hardship and a violation of the rights of these villages, and should have never been built in these locations in the first place.

Uri Zaki is the US office director of B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola