An Odd Birthday Party

Yesterday, on the eve of my 82nd birthday, I had a very unusual party. Emotions ran high, tears flowed as never before, there was a long parade. The whole thing took place in a West Bank village called Bil’in.

True, the tears were caused by gas. Emotion ran high because we were viciously attacked by the Border Police. The parade was in protest at the Separation Fence, which cuts off most of the land of the village in order to enlarge the huge Modi’in Ilit settlement.

For months now, Israeli peace activists have joined the villagers every Friday in a protest march to the site of the fence, turning Bil’in into a symbol of non-violent resistance. The site has already been leveled, but the fence itself has not yet been built in this sector. Last week’s demonstration was attacked by the army with special brutality, so we decided to come back in force this week.

There were more than 200 of us – protesters from all over the country, belonging to various peace movements. Before setting off, we had already heard on the radio that the village had been invaded at daybreak, that a curfew had been imposed and that violent clashes were taking place. Since all the regular routes into the village had been blocked, we had to approach from an unexpected direction.

Leaving our buses on the edge of the settlement, we started on our way through a typical Palestinian landscape – steep hills covered with slippery rocks of all sizes, olive trees, thick dry brush and thorns. The temperature had climbed to 30 degrees in the shade, but there was no shade in sight. I didn’t like walking there when I was a soldier, and now, 57 years later, I like it even less.

For two endless hours we climbed up and down, slipping now and again, helping each other. We were a motley lot – youngsters of both sexes, elderly people and everything in between. When I was almost at the end of my tether, I reached the site of the fence, a bright, long wound winding like a snake through the valley. Rachel, no spring chicken either, had the eerie experience of her legs just refusing to take orders from her brain. She was unable to move. But eventually she made it, too.

The first contingent crossed the ribbon and climbed the next hill towards the village, where they were surrounded by the Border Police in front of the mosque. I and the rear contingent were stopped at the site of the fence by soldiers and policemen, who reminded us that we were guilty of entering a "closed military area". Using threats and enticement, and noticing our pitiful state after the strenuous march over the rocks, they offered to convey us back to the Green Line in their armored vehicle, granting us the status of "detained". Except for a few who were close to fainting, we refused.

Life is full of surprises. Suddenly an army jeep drove up and offered us ice-cold water. Since we were all by now in various stages of dehydration, we accepted. (I imagined a soldier offering a girl a cup of cold water, asking "with or without gas?")

Thus fortified, we dispersed among the olive trees and started to walk towards the village. It was a very steep climb over the rocks, worse even than before. Half way up, I was overtaken by two young army officers. "Wouldn’t you consider coming back with us?" they enquired politely. I declined with equal civility. And then the incredible happened: They bade me farewell and disappeared.

I climbed on, reaching the village just when I felt that I could not take one more step. Approaching the mosque, I was met by the pungent smell of tear gas. I already had half an onion in my hand – for some reason, onions, which generally cause people to shed tears, have an uncanny interaction with tear gas, making the gas almost bearable. I had one clutched in my hand throughout the day.

Our contingent was welcomed with much enthusiasm by our comrades who had already reached the mosque, as well as by the villagers. The scene resembled a battlefield – armored jeeps were racing around, the regular percussion of stun grenades and tear gas canisters was a background music, hardly noticed, and from time to time a barrage of gas drove us into the adjoining courtyards.

How to proceed? We had reached the village against all odds, we had demonstrated our solidarity, the radio had announced the events every hour. However, we decided that the job was not complete. We had come to march to the fence together with the villagers, and we wanted to prove that even the brutal occupation of the village would not prevent this. So we marched out again, back down the way we had come. Curiously enough, the site of the fence was abandoned. We marched along it for a few hundred yards and then we climbed again towards the village, slipping on the same rocks we had already cursed before.

If we thought that that was it, we were wrong. While we were waiting in front of the mosque for transportation by Palestinian vehicles, there suddenly roared up a long column of armored jeeps, which deployed around us. Soldiers sprang out, waving their guns and shooting gas in all directions. It was an unprovoked and quite unnecessary show of force which was, of course, met with a hail of stones from the village youth.

Eventually we got out of there, conveyed by Palestinian drivers over interior roads, and reached our buses. There I regretted only one thing: the day before I had bought some bottles of wine, to celebrate my birthday in the bus on the way back. Hearing the news in the morning and expecting violence, I thought this was no appropriate occasion for such a celebration. However, I was wrong. The activists, dead tired but high-spirited after having accomplished the mission, seemed quite ready to celebrate, but the wine had been left at home.

Now I am faced with the task of drinking eight bottles of French Merlot on my own.