Media Distortion of Palestinian Non-Violent Protest

by on October 29th, 2006

Every Friday for the past year and a half villagers from Bil’in, a small West Bank village near Ramallah, march with supporters toward the triple-layer fence separating them from their olive trees. They are always blocked by Israeli soldiers and border police, who typically escalate from tear gas and concussion grenades to water cannons, rubber bullets, live ammunition, and a variety of apparently experimental weapons. This weekly interaction gets a lot of important attention in the alternative press, but is mostly ignored by Western mainstream media.

Israeli media generally provide brief reports that mostly mirror the official view. Last Friday, though, I was able to see for myself how inaccurate those reports actually are.

According to the Jerusalem Post, this is what happened at the October 27th protest:

Two border policemen were lightly wounded on Friday during a violent protest by some 500 Palestinians, left wing Israelis and foreign activists against the construction of the security barrier in Bil’in. The protesters threw stones at security forces and attempted to damage the fence using ladders….

A short article in Ha’aretz was less one-sided but made it seem that the violence was even-handed. Both Israeli papers glossed over the actual sequence of events. (I’ve posted photos that demonstrate some of what follows.)

The group I’m traveling with this week — Jewish Voice for Peace — arrived in Bil’in at about 10:30 am. It looked like we were the first to arrive, before soldiers later set up roadblocks. Then others started arriving — journalism students from Norway, International Solidarity Movement people from all over, TV journalists, a busload of German Pax Christi members, and more and more Israelis from Tel Aviv and elsewhere, at least 200 or 250 of them according to organizers from Anarchists Against the Wall. The street was filled with people speaking Hebrew, surely an unusual sight in Occupied Palestine. For more than an hour the anti-Occupation activists talked in small groups, ate, took photos, were interviewed by journalists, and waited on the long bathrooom line. The weather was pleasant, the excitement contagious. There were a lot of smiles.

It wasn’t until 12:15, after the end of prayers at the mosque, that the village organizers started off the march. We walked in good spirits down the main street, toward the Separation Fence. On the way we passed at least two groups of Israeli soldiers standing beside clumps of trees on either side of the road. We had been told these soldiers would be there, waiting to attack demonstrators later on as they tried to make their way back to the village.

Unlike some other recent Friday Bil’in protests, this time the military let the march reach the fence. Those leading the march stopped at the tank blocking the way as the marchers came up behind. According to the times on my photos, this  was about 12:28 pm. Most of us stood there facing the Israeli soldiers and border police who stood there facing us. On our side were the protestors and also the TV cameras and what seemed to be dozens of news photographers with Press clearly visible. The marchers’ goal, or course, was to cross the fence to reach village land on the other side, now reserved for the growing Jewish settlements built on the site. This is olive season, after all.

At the same time the march reached the fence, a small group of people mostly from Anarchists Against the Wall walked just south of the tank carrying a ladder, which they used to try to scale the fence. They did this calmly and openly, without weapons or violence of any kind. Several soldiers walked toward them on the other side of the fence and soon tossed a tear gas canister their way. This was the first use of violence — the first attempt to cause physical harm to another human being.

Fortunately, the wind cooperated and blew the gas further south away from everyone, and the 6 or 8 fence-breachers tried again, with the same tear gas result. The larger crowd both watched what was going on and began chanting at the soldiers on the tank, still mostly in a pretty good frame of mind. I thought at the time that the soldiers were trying not to escalate because of the heavy presence of international media. Tear-gassing elderly peace activists from Pax Christi would not be a good PR move. What they did instead was constantly photograph the big crowd while other soldiers/border police (I’m not sure how to tell the difference) kept tear gassing the slowly growing number of fence-climbers, some of whom by now had crossed over the first of the three fences.

This cat-and-mouse game went on until about 12:45 — half an hour after arriving at the fence. Most protestors remained in one large crowd. By this point a couple of dozen were using ladders to make it across the first fence. The military was using more and more tear gas, some of which was wafting north to the edge of the big crowd. I think there were concussion grenades used by now, but I’m not sure.

At that point, something flew over the heads of the soldiers from the northern side of the crowd. A couple of minutes later someone toward the back of the crowd threw a stone. I saw three protestors immediately rush up to him, one of them saying that this wasn’t what the protest was about. The guy reached down, picked up another stone, and threw it toward the soldiers.

Within maybe half a minute tear gas canisters and then concussion grenades came down throughout the crowd, and things got chaotic as we tried to escape the gas. Most of us moved to the side or back toward the village, but it quickly became impossible to retreat because the soldiers lobbed tear gas between us and the village. And they soon started tear gassing on the sides as well, so at times it was impossible to move in any direction, and of course also impossible to just stay where we were. I moved through the grove of olive trees, trying to avoid the road where an Israeli vehicle was now making its way lobbing tear gas (I think) into houses. According to my photos (some of which were pretty blurry at this point) this went on for about 25 minutes. But even as most of us reached the center of the village, stragglers came up with clouds of tear gas behind them.

After all this activity — the peaceful symbolic and nonviolent direct actions and the extraordinarily excessive response to a couple of thrown stones — when most of the demonstrators were back in the village hanging out in front of the grocery, young villagers back at the fence were throwing more stones at the soldiers. Others told me this was the weekly ritual. The soldiers know that eventually someone will throw a stone — that’s their apparent signal to respond with excessive violence against everyone, if they haven’t done so already — and they know that after the peaceful march ends there will be more stone throwing, which the soldiers respond to with rubber bullets and, as on Friday according to some reports, real bullets as well.

What was different yesterday was only that the soldiers waited for the first stone to be thrown before extending their attack. When there’s less media, they increasingly attack before the nonviolent marchers even reach the fence.

Back at the street in front of the grocery, I saw one man whose face was hit with a concussion grenade. One of our own group members was right next to another exploding grenade that left him with a bruised toe and a lot of pain. I was lucky to just get tear gassed, which never got so thick that I couldn’t breathe at all, though it wasn’t much fun. Tastes awful.

Given the sequence of events, it seems clear the mainstream media completely distort what actually occurs. In Israel that’s not surprising, perhaps. For the Jerusalem Post to report that yesterday there was a violent 500-person protest can only be intentionally dishonest. Even Haaretz’s effort to be evenhanded feeds the dangerously inaccurate image that Palestinians and their supporters are inevitably violent.

The long multi-pronged effort at Bil’in to prevent the taking of village land for the use of growing Israeli settlements offers a variety of lessons for the course I’ll teach next month on Psychology, Law, and Justice at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, Israel, and then again in December when I work with students and faculty at Birzeit University in Ramallah. I  expect to find a variety of conflicting perceptions on both sides of this very complex divide.


Dennis Fox, Emeritus Associate Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, reports on his visit to Israel and the West Bank on his blog.

Dennis Fox