Peaceful protesters of Bil'in say struggle is far from over

After Israel's military finally implemented a ruling by the Supreme Court that the separation barrier through the West Bank village of Bil'in had taken too much Palestinian land, 150 acres began to be returned on Friday: but villagers intend to carry on fighting for the rest.

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BIL'IN, WEST BANK // A dedicated supporter of his village's weekly demonstrations against Israel's separation barrier, Ahmed Abu Rahme, 38, turned up to Friday's protest in a solemn mood.

Two days earlier, Israel's military began re-routing a 3-kilometre segment of the massive barrier that severed his community of 1,800 people from an estimated two thirds of its farmland.

Israel's Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that an alternative route had to found because the barrier's path through Bil'in was unjustified on "security-military" grounds. When Israel's military began to implement that decision on Friday, 500 people, including the Palestinian Authority prime minister, Salaam Fayyad, showed up for a rally.

Yet Mr Abu Rahme, a Bil'in native and father of five, was not in a celebratory mood when he arrived. Only 150 of the nearly 500 acres of the village's land has been returned as a result of the repositioning, and he has vowed to carry on protesting until it is all back.

His community's struggle, he said, is far from over. "I'm happy to get some of our land back, of course," he said, "but our land is still under occupation."

After marching alongside both Israeli and Palestinian activists, Mr Abu Rahme contemplated the costs of peacefully struggling against an Israeli military determined to hold onto Palestinian land.

Bil'in has become a symbol of anti-barrier protests over the past six years, and his family has suffered as much as any in the town.

During a demonstration in 2009, his younger brother died when an Israeli-fired tear-gas canister struck his chest. In December, his sister fell ill while observing another protest and died the following day as a result of what doctors at a hospital in nearby Ramallah said was tear-gas asphyxiation.

"I wish they could be here to see this," said Mr Abu Rahme, who was wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with his brother's image.

He pointed to a grove of olive trees where two months ago a rubber bullet struck his leg. He hopes the memory of his fallen siblings will continue to inspire Bil'in's non-violent ethos, but admits that Israel's protest-dispersal methods could push people to resort to violence.

Mr Abu Rahme admits that not everyone believes in the usefulness of peaceful marches. Many youth protesters throw stones at Israeli soldiers, provoking barrages of rubber-coated bullets, tear gas and a foul-smelling chemical spray called Skunk. "People have different opinions about non-violence but now, non-violence is important," he said. "It's our only option."

As he spoke, a man interrupted in frustration. "You live here and all you see is the wall surrounding you," he said, declining to give his name. "And you think, 'Look, that's my land, and they have it.'"

Built on some of the land that residents of Bil'in claim is an expanding section of Modi'in Ilit, an Israeli settlement. Construction on the separation barrier's new route, an imposing chain of concrete slabs, has encircled the settlement and seemingly cemented its hold on Bil'in land.

Mr Abu Rahme opposes violence, but he said the Israeli occupation "doesn't respect our non-violence. They don't respect peaceful marches".

He continued: "Just about everyone one in Bil'in has been affected, whether it's arrest by the military or injuries from tear gas and bullets."

Even though Israel has begun tearing down the old segment of the barrier, Mr Abu Rahme and others claim Israeli military's intentions to defend it to the last minute with volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets.

Protesters attempted to ram the remnants of the fence with a tractor on Friday, but its tires were shot out. The protesters were then dispersed by tear gas.

"The whole world is supporting the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya," he said. "Here, the UN, the US, the whole world, closes its eyes."

Even so, Mr Abu Rahme said he was determined to continue the demonstrations. "All I want to do is give my children a life, a comfortable, normal life," he said. "We want peace."