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Public Culture

An interdisciplinary journal of transnational cultural studies

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Farewell Bil’in

David Shulman

In the bus, conversation turns to the effectiveness of antidotes to tear gas. The tried-and-true method is to slice an onion and hold it to your nose and mouth, perhaps scraping it over your face as well. But Eli, a trained combat medic, thinks raw alcohol, soaked up by cotton swaps, is even better. We wonder if next time we come we should bring along bottles of Merlot.

After innumerable delays, the case of Bil’in will again be coming up before the Israeli Supreme Court in the next few days. Over the last twenty months, Bil’in has come to symbolize the mode of Gandhian-style, nonviolent resistance adopted by Palestinian villages west of Jerusalem that are to lose their lands to the Separation Wall. It should be stated very clearly that the route of the wall at Bil’in has absolutely nothing to do with Israeli security and the fight against terror. Here the wall passes deep inside Palestinian territory, and does this for one purpose only — to appropriate a huge chunk of land for the extension of the Israeli settlements of Modiin Ilit, Matityahu, and Kiryat Sefer. Modiin Ilit is an ultra-Orthodox urban settlement with some 20,000 inhabitants today; blueprints for its development envisage its eventual growth to some 300,000. One can see why they need more land, and what better source is there than this helpless village situated at the top of one of the most beautiful hills in Palestine, with a spectacular view over the western slopes of Judea, to the east, and the coastal plain to the west? Bil’in, a village of 1,600 people, stands to lose nearly two-thirds of its land, 1,980 dunams out of a total of some 3,000.

Each Friday, after communal prayers, the villagers march to the site of the wall to protest together with Israeli peace activists. Very often the army reacts to these peaceful demonstrations with extreme violence: hundreds of the villagers, and some of their Israeli partners, have been wounded, many seriously; hundreds more have been arrested. Still, the village has persisted, week after week. Now the Supreme Court is to make its judgment. In fact, three appeals are pending: one against the illegal apartment complexes that have gone up, and are already full of tenants/settlers, on land stolen from Bil’in; another against the trajectory of the wall; and one against the declaration of the village lands taken by the wall as “state property,” in order to hand them over to the settlers. Opinions vary as to what will happen. Since I was last there, some ten months ago, the prognosis has become increasingly bleak. The settlers’ huge apartment blocs have an eerily solid, immovable look.

It is Friday morning, demonstration time; some 250 Israeli activists are on their way to the village, in the hope that Bil’in’s struggle will, at this critical moment, find its way into the headlines. Perhaps even the august judges will read about today’s protest — and be moved. I know the struggle moves me. Bil’in is like nowhere else in Palestine, a laboratory for creative, nonviolent resistance. I am glad to be going back.

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Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at Dukejournals.org.

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