A West Bank town tries to protest the wall nonviolently

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

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

But the focus on nonviolence has not protected protesters. Four Palestinians have died in Biddu at the hands of security forces since February, three from gunfire and one, 72-year-old Abdul Rahman Abu Eid, apparently from the effects of tear gas.

According to doctors, 262 people have been treated for injuries in the town's clinic. Among them was a 75-year-old man who lost an eye to a rubber-coated metal bullet and a paralyzed man who walks with the aid of sticks who had two teeth knocked out by security forces, says Dr. Ayash.

Responding to rock throwing

The army says that on Feb. 26, when three of the Palestinian fatalities occurred, security forces faced a large demonstration in which rock throwing broke out, and used rubber-coated metal bullets only.

The police and army said they do not have precise numbers on how many security forces have been wounded. The army says "about a dozen" soldiers have been hurt.

Police spokesman Gil Kleiman takes issue with the Palestinian definition of the protests as nonviolent.

"There is no such thing as a peaceful demonstration with occasional rioting," he says.

The goal of the police, he says, is to "end the day with the least amount of damage to the police and the rioters themselves." Israeli police and army spokespeople say that security forces use force only after stone throwing breaks out.

But last month, during a protest against the fence, this correspondent witnessed security forces firing tear gas and stun grenades into a peaceful demonstration. The firing continued for about 45 minutes before Palestinian youths began throwing stones.

Later that day, Israeli police tied a 12-year-old Palestinian boy to the hood of a Jeep.

The boy, Mohammed Badwan, said he was beaten by soldiers and then tied by his belt to the jeep for four hours as a human shield. "The soldiers would come by and slap me," he said.

When rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of the dovish group Rabbis for Human Rights, tried to intervene on behalf of the boy, he was himself handcuffed and forced to serve as a human shield, Ascherman said.

The local police commander, Shahar Yitzhaki, seized Ascherman by the throat and headbutted him, the rabbi said. Kleiman says the incident is under investigation.

In another incident three days later, Dia Abu Eid, a Biddu resident, was fatally shot while in a field after Palestinians staged a demonstration in which he was not involved, Mr. Mansour said. The army says that a protest that day turned violent and rubbercoated metal bullets were used.

A senior Israeli army officer with responsibility for Biddu and the surrounding area told Haaretz newspaper recently that soldiers often feel endangered by the Palestinians. The officer said gunfire is more strictly regulated when Israelis are involved in the demonstrations than if Palestinians alone are protesting.

"When they shoot at you, there is no dilemma, it is black and white and you know what to do," he stated. "But in these kinds of events [where there is no shooting], which are now taking place almost every day, there is a large gray area."

Mansour Mansour, another protest organizer, says the force being used against protesters in Biddu has a clear explanation.

"They are trying to frighten people so that they won't demonstrate," he says.

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