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A West Bank town tries to protest the wall nonviolently

By Ben LynfieldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 6, 2004


An all-women's demonstration against Israel's construction of a West Bank separation barrier was supposed to be a quiet, nonconfrontational affair.

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Israeli participant Molly Malekar says that she and Palestinian and foreign organizers ruled out male participation to ensure that Israeli security forces would not feel threatened.

But the April 25 march of about 70 women who hoisted signs and sang was broken up by tear gas, stun grenades, and mounted police, says Ms. Malekar, the director of the Bat Shalom Israeli feminist peace group. One mounted policewoman clubbed her on the head with a baton. And in an assault that was photographed, another mounted policeman clubbed her on the back, Malekar recalls.

"Later I understood that all the conventions we thought we had about demonstrations are not relevant anymore," says Malekar. "The security forces have crossed the red lines." Police say the women were engaged in a riot.

World interest in the barrier has receded since hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague began in February. But Biddu, a town north of Jerusalem that has seen its land confiscated for construction of the barrier, has become a flash point for protest.

Israel says the fence, which snakes into the occupied West Bank, is needed to thwart suicide bombers. Palestinians say it effectively imprisons them and pressures them to move elsewhere.

Nonviolence has long had supporters as a means to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But what sets apart the Biddu demonstrations is that they are driven by Palestinians directly affected by the fence who espouse nonviolence as a tactic amid the shootings, suicide bombings, and calls for revenge that have characterized three-plus years of conflict.

"These protests are a new phenomenon," says Malekar. "They are not by urban groups or old political parties. Rather, they are a very popular grass-roots struggle of the peasants, of people living alongside the wall whose land was taken, the land on which they make a living."

Daily protests

Biddu's almost daily demonstrations since February have been devoid of any shootings by Palestinians. Organizers concede that stone throwing sometimes breaks out, though they say it comes after police use force.

Yet because their efforts at peaceful opposition have drawn fire from security forces, Biddu residents question whether they can make their voices heard.

"People are in depression because they see their lands destroyed and they cannot stop the bulldozers and no one stands with them," says Khaled Ayash, director of the local clinic.

The protests start when Israeli bulldozers are sighted, and a call is issued from the mosque loudspeaker to gather for a march.

"The general pattern is we try to march to where the bulldozers are working. We instruct the youths day and night: Do not throw stones," says Mohammed Mansour, a protest organizer. "We carry signs and some Israelis and internationals join us. Our goal is peaceful protests so that we will win in the media. We want to delay the bulldozers peacefully."

A human toll