In the West Bank, protests yield little results

BILIN, West Bank — The Palestinian villagers, in their weekly protest against the Israeli-built security fence, this time clutched Egyptian and Tunisian flags as they marched down the roughly asphalted road.

But unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, these Palestinians have not managed to spark a mass protest movement and appear a long way from shaking off their oppressors. Their small numbers, in fact, reflect just how limited their influence is and perhaps just how beleaguered the Palestinian movement has become.

"From Tahrir Square to Bilin, the Arab people will determine their own destiny!" shouted Muhammad Khati, the grey-haired leader of Bilin's weekly protest. He held an Egyptian flag in one hand and in the other, an umbrella printed with the black-and-white, checkered pattern of the Palestinian kefiya, or headdress.

About 200 Palestinian men and boys surrounded him, some carrying signs supporting the Egyptians.

"The people here are demonstrating for the right to live in a free Palestine, and the people there [in Egypt] are asking for the right to life," Khatib said. "Also, we are part of the Arab nation with the people in Egypt. We would like to see Arabs around the world live in democratic states with free rights."

For six years now, far longer than the more than two weeks Egypt’s protest movement has been urging the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, Bilin's residents have gathered every week with little result.

They are fighting the path of a security barrier Israel began building roughly along its border with the West Bank following the second intifada, or uprising, which began in 2000. Palestinians complain that the wall loops into the West Bank to include Israeli settlements.

In Bilin, half the village's land is on the "Israeli" side of the fence. Last year, the army began moving the fence, following a 2007 Israeli Supreme Court decision that ruled the path illegal. But the new route will still cut off part of Bilin's lands, and the villagers have vowed to demonstrate until they recover every last olive tree.

Bilin's vociferous and long-running protest has become the symbol for all the Palestinian border villages that have had their land annexed by the security barrier. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has visited the village, along with Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Two Bilin residents have died in or near the weekly protests.

In recent years, the protests at Bilin and other villages are the only regular, vocal Palestinian resistance to the 43-year-old Israeli occupation.

On the first Friday in February, two lines of Israeli soldiers stood on the road on a hill in the distance. As the demonstrators edged toward the fence, the Israeli soldiers fired black canisters that spewed acrid plumes of tear gas. While this time the Palestinians were subdued, in other weeks teenage villagers have hurled stones at the soldiers.

"There is no difference between our protests and those in Egypt," said Abu Nizan, another protester in Bilin and the village's deputy council head. "Egypt has 80 million people. If they get a million people at a protest, it's great. But Bilin has 2,000 people. If we get 200 protesters, that's OK."

Rateb Abu Rahme, 46, shared his enthusiasm. In a grey mock turtleneck, a black jacket and brown slacks, Abu Rahme hoisted Egyptian and Palestinian flags on his shoulders. He pointed to the wall and recalled the Israeli court decision to move it.

"This was a big achievement," he said. "In Tunisia and Egypt they learned from the Palestinian popular struggle."

But according to Sameeh Hammoudeh, a political scientist at Birzeit University, "in the West Bank, not a lot of people follow what's going on in Bilin."

"Some Palestinians feel that it's not going to get them anywhere, and that it's not going to get Israel to change policies in place since 1967," Hammoudeh added.

Moreover, he said, Mubarak's potential fall makes the Palestinian leadership nervous. In the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas is a moderate leader who enjoys the support of the United States and Europe, like Mubarak once did. And Hamas, which rules Gaza, is wary of harming its relationship with Egypt when the border it shares with the country is the only way for aid to enter the isolated Palestinian strip of land.

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas have allowed small demonstrations in solidarity with the anti-Mubarak activists. But they, too, had little of the momentum blowing through Cairo.
Palestinian Legislative Council Member Hanan Ashrawi attended one solidarity rally in Ramallah. She conceded it had little influence.

"I don’t think there is a popular movement being suppressed," Ashrawi said. Rather, the Palestinians are carefully considering their next move.

"People are thinking," she said. "They have lost faith in the peace process, they don’t trust the Americans, and they certainly don’t trust the Israelis."

In Bilin, Khatib said he hoped the Palestinian leadership would take a more active role in the weekly protests.

"[Mahmoud Abbas] and the Palestinian leadership must support and lead the popular movement," Khatib said. "We ask them to come to the ground and support us and mobilize more people."