Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Night Watch in Bil'in

I am sitting here on a rooftop in Bil'in with Sami, Luis, and some ISM activists. It is near midnight and we are waiting for the soldiers to come. They do arrests in the middle of the night- it is standard practice- and these activists try to observe the arrests to prevent brutality and at least film it and act as witnesses when it does happen.

Besides the foreign activists, nearly every rooftop at the edges of the village has a Palestinian look-out watching for the soldiers. Gaggles of pre-teen boys follow us wherever we go, joking with us, practicing their English, and excitedly telling us about themselves and their friends. Their smaller brothers toddle behind, sucking their thumbs.

On nights they do arrests, the lights of their jeeps can be seen on the Israeli-only roads near the wall, on the outskirts of the village. The lights go out and then the soldiers wait, as do we. Between one and three in the morning usually, the soldiers quietly cross the fields and enter this tiny village of 1,700 residents by foot to make what arrests they can.

There are some 150 names on the list of Palestinians to be arrested, but generally the soldiers are only able to make one or two arrests per night. The List has come into the hands of some anarchist Israeli activists and so by now everyone on it knows they're on it. They have begun to take precautions against arrest accordingly by moving locations at night.

One may wonder why nearly 10% of the village's population (and about 29% of the adult male population) is wanted for arrest, and there is an answer. Bil'in holds protests against the wall and the occupation in general every Friday. These protests are peaceful and are attended by international observers and news media, but the villages' participants are persecuted anyway with impunity.

Perhaps #1 on The List is Ashraf Abu Rahma, who has been dubbed the Palestinian Che Guevara for his non-violent but fearless and relentless protests against the occupation. (My previous writings about his travails here) Standing on the roof with me, he asks if I know the story of how he was shot by an Israeli soldier after being blindfolded and handcuffed. Indeed, I remembered vividly the event from last summer since it was captured on camera by 14-year-old Salam Amira. Salam's father was later arrested in what was believed to be an act of retribution for the filming.

Ashraf's character is significantly different from what I expected, given his exploits. He is small, kind, childlike, talkative, and a little goofy. He freely admits he is crazy for doing what he does. He speaks little English and the words he does use are frequently slightly incorrect. For example, he says baby for maybe, five for fine, and, my personal favorite: menstruation instead of demonstration. Everyone in the village knows him and as we walk the streets together, looking for more signs of soldiers, everyone enthusiastically welcomes him to sit with them.

So far this evening, we have seen 8 pairs of headlights converge upon the hill and go out. This means somewhere between 70 and 100 soldiers will probably enter the village tonight. So we await their arrival.


At one in the morning, we left our perch atop the roof of the house and walked to the edge of the village, where the soldiers usually emerge from the field. Our plan was to alert the other members of the mission, by phone, so everyone could follow the soldiers together to observe their behavior. We all sat side by side in the road, under a clouded half-moon, waiting for the soldiers to step out of the shadows.

We chatted in hushed tones, smoked cigarettes, and dozed. The two Israeli activists who had just arrived discussed their passions and taught us Hebrew words. The Palestinian residents of Bil'in taught us Arabic words we didn't know, and the foreign participants taught the others some English words. With a combination of the three languages used, we all made it a merry, if subdued, night.

At 3:50, the muezzin sang the call to prayer and we all agreed that most likely the soldiers would not come now that everyone was up and about. We waited another half hour and then sleepily made our way home.

It may be that the soldiers knew we were there, waiting for them. Certainly they are light years ahead of this grassroots movement in terms of available technology. And it is rumored that the tower perched atop the highest hill in the village holds a camera which captures the village's movements. Throughout the night, the soldiers set small, controlled fires at what seemed random locations around the outskirts of Bil'in. They do this even on nights they don't make arrests, I am told, perhaps to cause confusion among the activists.

Some believe the last week (during which no arrests were made) served to cause the activists to lose interest and leave so that the Israeli military can swoop in and make several arrests in one night, without international supervision to hinder them.


Lael said...

good dramatic writing!

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