Bilin marks five years of West Bank barrier protest

Despite the barrages of Israeli tear gas, sound grenades, foul-smelling spray and sometimes bullets - rubber coated and occasionally live - the protesters at the Palestinian village of Bilin keep going back for more.

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And as they mark five years since their first protest against the barrier Israel has built on their doorstep in the occupied West Bank, they seem as determined as ever.

The villagers - together with Israeli and international activists - see their weekly Friday demonstrations as a leading example of Palestinian non-violent, grassroots protest.

They march to the wall, chanting slogans and carrying flags, and have even tried dressing up as characters from the film Avatar, and kicking around a football to mock an Israeli mobile phone advert.

But they say the protests are marred - it is hotly debated how often - as masked Palestinian teenagers use slingshots to hurl rocks at Israeli security forces.

The barrier, here a tall wire fence, snakes over a rocky hillside covered in olive trees, cutting the villagers off from - according to their lawyer - about 2 sq km (200 hectares or 500 acres) of their land.

Barrier moved

Last week, Israel finally began implementing a court order dating back more than two years to reroute the barrier near Bilin.

But the new route puts only a third of the land the villagers claim as their own on the Palestinian-controlled side.

Some of the remainder had previously been designated Israeli state land and allocated for the expansion of a Jewish settlement.

Mahmoud Samarra, 64, says he will get only a tiny fraction of his 93 dunums (9 hectares or 23 acres) of land back.

He points over the hill beyond the coils of barbed wire and the towering mesh of the fence.

"It was like paradise," he says, describing how he planted olive trees with his children and watched them grow over 17 years.

Bilin residents are allowed to access their land during the daytime, through a pedestrian gate in the fence. But Mr Samarra has been only once.

The direct road for cars is long gone. Mr Samarra needs a stick to walk, and says he can barely cover the 1.5km to his land on foot.

And anyway, he says, much of the land is surrounded by the Jewish settlement of Matityahu. He says that his trees were uprooted when it was built, and now he is too afraid of the settlers to visit.

The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the fence's route could not be justified purely on security grounds.

This settlement and the land around it was part of the controversy.

"I feel really, very sad," says Mr Samarra. "To whom we can complain?"

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, as he sees it, "the judge and the enemy is the same".

'Sacrifice'

Back in the village, Subhiyeh Abu Rahma, 55, uses her headscarf to wipe away the tears that start to flow as she talks about her son, Bassem, who died last year, aged 31, after he was hit in the chest by a tear gas canister during a protest.

"I miss him every minute," she says, sipping coffee in a small, bare concrete house, adorned with posters of her dead son.

He had brushed aside her suggestions that he renovate his house and look for a wife, focusing instead on the demonstrations, week after week.

"One has to sacrifice everything for his homeland - even if it's a high price," she says.

Bassem's brother Ahmad says he believed in peace and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He even once suffered criticism among the villagers for choosing to wear a T-shirt showing the Israeli and Palestinian flags side by side, Ahmad adds.

'Violent riot'

Israeli military spokeswoman Avital Leibovich said his death took place during "a violent riot". But there is no obvious stone-throwing taking place in video footage of the incident, which can be seen on YouTube.

Palestinians say Bassem was hit by a high-velocity tear gas canister - a type which has been blamed for severe injuries at other protests.

Ms Leibovich would neither confirm nor deny that they are used.

She insists that these are not quiet protests "in which protesters come and sit on the ground".

"Those rocks they're throwing can kill people," Ms Leibovich says.

Damage costing hundreds of thousands of shekels has been done to the fence and 77 Israeli soldiers have been injured in the past two years, she adds.

"They go to the fence and tear it down, then we have no choice but to show up and defend the fence. And then they start throwing rocks."

Live ammunition is used only "rarely", in cases of "life and death for our forces", she said.

But the Bilin organisers deny trying to damage the fence, although a few sympathetic blog posts mention the use of wire cutters.

Suicide bombers

They say they try to discourage young protesters from hurling stones, and this happens only infrequently as a reaction, when the soldiers fire tear gas and rubber bullets first.

"We don't have planes or tanks or rifles, all we have is the rock. And they are afraid of the rock," says Mrs Abu Rahma.

Israel says the barrier was established to stop Palestinian suicide bombers entering from the West Bank.

But Palestinians point to its route, winding deep into the West Bank around Israeli settlements, and say it is a way to grab territory they want for their future state.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague issued an advisory ruling that the barrier was illegal and should be removed where it did not follow the Green Line, the internationally recognised boundary between the West Bank and Israel.

Ratib Abu Rahman, a protest organiser and university lecturer in social work, says the rerouting of the barrier is just a partial victory.

"We hope it will be all our land. If the wall is destroyed, that will be a big achievement," he says.

He says he has been injured about 10 times, and his brother, another organiser, is still in an Israeli prison. Some 1,200 protesters have been hurt, and 85 arrested, he says.

"We pay a big price," he says, "but we are in the right, this is Palestinian land."