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After Villagers’ Protest Campaign, Israel Removes Part of West Bank Wall

Palestinian protesters run a bulldozer into a fence barrier and others demonstrate behind, while Israeli soldiers fire a stream of foul-smelling liquid, near the village of Bilin on the West Bank, June 24, 2011. The fence, a contested barrier, is to be repositioned by the Israeli army in compliance with a court order. (Photo: Rina Castelnuovo / The New York Times)

Bilin, West Bank – Residents of this tiny Palestinian village, along with Israeli and foreign supporters, on Friday held what organizers billed as the last of their trademark weekly demonstrations against the Bilin section of Israel’s West Bank barrier. It was a milestone that illustrated both the success of the unarmed popular movement that was born here, and its limitations.

The six-year campaign is winding down because the Israeli military has begun to dismantle the fence that separated the village from about two-thirds of its agricultural land. This is in belated compliance with a2007 Israeli Supreme Court ruling against the country’s influential security establishment.

The court ordered the military to reroute this section of the barrier so it would run closer to the neighboring Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit and take in less of Bilin’s land. The new section of the barrier has already been erected — a nearly two-mile wall of concrete slabs meant to protect the Jewish settlement against sniper fire.

The new barrier route has returned about 150 acres of village land to Bilin, but another 340 acres remain on the “Israeli” side.

“My feelings are mixed,” said Muhammad Khatib, a local leader, shortly before the march. “Even with the new route, not all our land will be returned. But without popular resistance, none of this would have happened.”

Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, came to show his solidarity. He joined the beginning of the march along the main street after noon prayer at the mosque.

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“It is a beginning, not the end,” Mr. Fayyad said. The Israeli occupation, he said, was “beginning to be rolled back.”

“It is a victory for this approach of nonviolence,” he added. “A sovereign state of Palestine in the territories occupied in 1967 — that is what this is about.”

The organizers of the Bilin protests say that they are committed to nonviolence, but that they cannot stop youngsters from hurling rocks at the Israeli soldiers. The Israeli military says the antibarrier protests are illegal and violent. Tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets are used to disperse the protesters who reach the fence, and the stone throwers. The military has also cracked down on the movement over the last year, detaining many of the grass-roots leaders.

The Bilin organizers have vowed to continue their struggle. But with the distance to the new wall making weekly marches there less practical, they were discussing alternative strategies like cultivating the newly reclaimed lands or building on them.

The weekly protests here turned Bilin, in the central Ramallah district of the West Bank, into a symbol of Palestinian defiance. Drawing international attention, it became a model for Palestinians campaigning against the Israeli barrier or the expansion of nearby settlements. The localized protests have spread to the nearby villages of Nabi Saleh, Deir Qaddis and others in the Bethlehem area.

With Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations stalled, there has been much talk of a new Palestinian popular uprising and mass marches around September, when the Palestinian leadership says it plans to seek international recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.

So far, though, there has been little indication of any mass movement taking shape in the West Bank.

In a sign of frustration, Mr. Fayyad said Friday that the Palestinians must have “their freedom from Israel or the right to vote in Israel. We prefer freedom.”

Significantly, Mr. Fayyad was suggesting that if a two-state solution is unachievable, the alternative is a single binational state.

Michael Sfard, the Israeli lawyer who represents Bilin in the Israeli courts, said Israel had “pulled every possible trick,” to avoid carrying out the Supreme Court decision. The state submitted two alternative paths for the Bilin barrier that the court deemed inadequate, finally offering one that the court accepted in April 2009.

Mr. Sfard recently warned the military that if the old fence were not removed by July 1, he would file a contempt of court motion against it.

Still, Mr. Sfard said, this was the first time that the strategy of Palestinian popular struggle had brought “tangible results that can be measured in acres.”

Israel began building the West Bank barrier in 2002, amid a violent Palestinian uprising, stating that it was essential to prevent suicide bombers from reaching Israel.

But most of the barrier runs inside the West Bank, deviating from the pre-1967 boundary, leading the Palestinians to accuse Israel of a land grab. The International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled in 2004 that the construction of the barrier inside occupied Palestinian territory was contrary to international law.

In the case of Bilin, the Supreme Court rejected the state’s argument that the route was created according to security considerations. The court determined that it had been routed to allow for the expansion of Modiin Illit.

Several hundred protesters — many more than some recent protests here have drawn — marched off the main street Friday along a path toward the old fence. This time a bulldozer drove at the vanguard, intending to dismantle it before the Israelis could.

The bulldozer and several protesters with wire cutters managed to damage the fence in a few parts. But the bulldozer was soon disabled after soldiers shot at its tires from across the fence, puncturing two of them and shattering a window.

There was some stone throwing, and protesters were driven back by repeated volleys of tear gas and a foul-smelling liquid known as Skunk.

Mr. Khatib, the local leader who was among those trying to cut the fence, was badly affected. Eyes and skin burning, he ripped his clothes off, wrapped himself in a flag, and had to be driven back to the village.

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