by Alessandra Da Pra
Most men were still absorbed in prayer, when hundreds of international, Israeli and Palestinian activists gathered under the noon sun outside the mosque of Bilíin, an agricultural village situated 4 kilometers east of the Green Line, near the Israeli West Bank barrier. At first glance, life seems still among the olive trees of the village, which is home to 1,800 Arabs, mostly Muslims. A shop owner slowly opens the doors of his convenience store. A stray dog totters by. A big eyed child in a pink T-shirt sits on her fatherís lap, while the men chatter on a bench sheltered by a tree. But life in Bilíin is turbulent. Protests, clashes and kidnaps dwell in the village like cluster flies. Demonstrations against the occupation are held weekly and night raids are carried out by the Israel Defense Forces who arrest inhabitants and activists with the aim of reducing their resistance.
Every Friday, Palestinian residents, Israeli activists and international supporters march to the wall shouting slogans, carrying Palestinian flags and calling upon the Israeli forces to halt construction and dismantle the fence. Every Friday, Israeli soldiers respond with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and skunk bombs. And often, people on both sides of the barrier get injured. Sometimes, protesters toss Molotov bombs and rocks at the IDF. The rumor is that Israeli spies are among the demonstrators and are the ones who often incite the riot. Every time, the two parties engage in this chaotic waltz for a couple of hours. Although all the participants experienced the effects of the tear gas, nobody was critically harmed during the August 14th demonstration.
A few left the site with burning eyes. Others carried the reek of the chemical water. Some stayed overnight to patrol the dusty streets and to watch for IDF incursions. I decided to hang around the village for awhile. As I walked through the side streets, a bunch of children pulled me into their home, where I was promptly welcomed with a glass of juice by their father. Later, I met Iyad Burnat, the coordinator of Friends of Freedom and Justice and Popular Committee in Bi'lin. The organization aims to build a network of people from all over the world who condemn the occupation. Burnat offers his house to international activists who volunteer with the committee. At the time of my visit, a dozen French students were planning the night patrol. On my way back to Jerusalem, after having two delicious falafel sandwiches in Ramallah, I stopped at the Qalandiya refugee camp, which is situated by the checkpoint into Israel. If you ever saw the movie Code 46, think of the scene when Tim Robbins goes to Shanghai and briefly stops at the city perimeter checkpoint where the outcasts live. That's Qalandya. I was welcomed by children selling the most random things and asking for money. One even felt my purse for a wallet. Another one wanted a cigarette. He couldn't have been older than 11. As I walked alongside the wall, I was met by a group of guys in their late teens and early twenties. One told a kid to stay away from me. They all had lots of questions. "Where are you from?" "Do you like Palestine?" "Can you take a picture of us?" I felt overwhelmed and sad. I saw a hopeless youth trapped in a 60 year long conflict, stuck on one side of the wall, lost into the monotony of the same long day, every day. The questions stopped. Now it was their turn to tell their stories.
We walked together toward the sunset as Authman and Fadi educated me about the graffiti on the wall. We all smiled for a shot in front of the 8 meter high barrier. After a couple of coffees and phone numbers exchange, my new friends walked me to the checkpoint. The bus to Jerusalem waited on the other side. Authman took off his necklace with the hand of Fatima and put it around my neck. "We cannot go further. Will you come back soon?" This is an open letter to all the tourists visiting Jerusalem.
I strongly advise you to explore beyond the walls of the Old City and venture into East Jerusalem and the West Bank. But do not cheat and visit the Arab neighborhoods on Saturday only, when shops and restaurants in West Jerusalem are closed because of Shabbat. The hearts of the Palestinian people are open everyday.