Israel Is Forced to Return Land to a Palestinian Village

June 25, 2011

By ISABEL KERSHNER, The New York Times

BILIN, West Bank — Residents of this tiny Palestinian village, along with Israeli and foreign supporters, on Friday held what organizers billed as the last of their trademark weekly demonstrations against the Bilin section of Israel’s West Bank barrier. It was a milestone that illustrated both the success of the unarmed popular movement that was born here, and its limitations.

The six-year campaign is winding down because the Israeli military has begun to dismantle the fence that separated the village from about two-thirds of its agricultural land. This is in belated compliance with a 2007 Israeli Supreme Court ruling against the country’s influential security establishment.

The court ordered the military to reroute this section of the barrier so it would run closer to the neighboring Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit and take in less of Bilin’s land. The new section of the barrier has already been erected — a nearly two-mile wall of concrete slabs meant to protect the Jewish settlement against sniper fire.

The new barrier route has returned about 150 acres of village land to Bilin, but another 340 acres remain on the “Israeli” side.

“My feelings are mixed,” said Muhammad Khatib, a local leader, shortly before the march. “Even with the new route, not all our land will be returned. But without popular resistance, none of this would have happened.”

Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, came to show his solidarity. He joined the beginning of the march along the main street after noon prayer at the mosque.

“It is a beginning, not the end,” Mr. Fayyad said. The Israeli occupation, he said, was “beginning to be rolled back.”

“It is a victory for this approach of nonviolence,” he added. “A sovereign state of Palestine in the territories occupied in 1967 — that is what this is about.”

The organizers of the Bilin protests say that they are committed to nonviolence, but that they cannot stop youngsters from hurling rocks at the Israeli soldiers. The Israeli military says the antibarrier protests are illegal and violent. Tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets are used to disperse the protesters who reach the fence, and the stone throwers. The military has also cracked down on the movement over the last year, detaining many of the grass-roots leaders.

The Bilin organizers have vowed to continue their struggle. But with the distance to the new wall making weekly marches there less practical, they were discussing alternative strategies like cultivating the newly reclaimed lands or building on them.

The weekly protests here turned Bilin, in the central Ramallah district of the West Bank, into a symbol of Palestinian defiance. Drawing international attention, it became a model for Palestinians campaigning against the Israeli barrier or the expansion of nearby settlements. The localized protests have spread to the nearby villages of Nabi Saleh, Deir Qaddis and others in the Bethlehem area.

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