Hundreds mark 5th year of Israel barrier protests
Hundreds of Palestinians, Israelis and foreign activists - engulfed by clouds of tear gas fired by Israeli troops - demonstrated Friday to mark the fifth anniversary of weekly protests against Israel's West Bank separation barrier, AP reported.
Friday's demonstrations in the West Bank village of Bilin were also a victory celebration of sorts for the protesters, coming days after Israel's military began to reroute a barrier segment to restore some of the land taken from the village.
In five years of weekly protests, Bilin has become a symbol of the Palestinians' struggle against the encroachment of the barrier on land they claim for their state, and the demonstrations have since spread to several other villages.
On Friday, a crowd of hundreds, including Palestinian women in headscarves, young Westerners with backpacks, the mayor of Geneva and a troupe of clowns dressed in Israeli army fatigues, marched from the village center toward the barrier in a valley below.
A few dozen Palestinian teens at the front of the march began tearing at the fence, climbed over it and rushed to the other side. Others threw stones.
In response, Israeli troops fired a barrage of tear gas and rubber-coated steel pellets, while a water cannon aimed foul-smelling liquid at the crowd. Coughing and pressing tissues against their faces, many protesters headed back toward the village. Two people were injured, one by a tear gas canister and the other by a rubber bullet, participants said.
Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli army spokeswoman, said troops initially stood back Friday, but had to disperse the crowd when protesters began damaging the fence.
Israel says the protests are violent riots, citing the stone throwing and injuries suffered by dozens of troops over the years.
Palestinians allege that Israeli troops often use excessive force, dispersing protesters with tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and occasionally live rounds. Six protesters have been killed and dozens injured in clashes with Israeli forces in barrier protests in Bilin and elsewhere.
The Palestinians say they're engaging in civil disobedience, and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad praised the Bilin method of persistent protests.
"All we are looking for here is a way to exercise our right to life on our land," Fayyad told The Associated Press after addressing the crowd in the village square. "This is huge, this is great, as a matter of fact should be encouraged," said Fayyad, who did not take part in the march.
Israel says the barrier is a defense against Palestinian militants. Palestinians say it's a land grab, since the barrier often juts far into the West Bank.
In the case of Bilin, 575 acres (232 hectares), or more than half of Bilin's land, were taken by a barrier loop around the expanding Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit. The fence cut off Bilin villagers from their fields.
In 2007, Israel's Supreme Court ordered the Defense Ministry to move the Bilin segment closer to Israel to reduce hardship to the Palestinians.
Only last week did the military begin laying down tracks for a new route. Villagers said they were informed the new path would return 346 acres (140 hectares) of farmland to Bilin and other villages.
Bilin resident Hashem Bornat, 60, whose home overlooks the barrier, said he has lost nine acres to Modiin Illt. He said he felt both pride and sadness on the anniversary.
He lost land, he said, but added: "I'm a little bit happy because we did something that will move the barrier."