The protest starts at the end of midday prayers, on the main road through Beita. Young people spring up, hoisting Palestinian flags, and run towards the east exit of the village, heading towards the Israeli colonial outpost of Eviatar, on Mount Sabih. That exit has been blocked off for days. To reach Beita, one has to drive along a bumpy road that passes through nearby Odala.
The military response against the protest comes immediately. They fire about 20 tear gas canisters, in front of and behind the march, which in a few moments is trapped in a cloud of thick smoke that makes everyone unable to breathe: demonstrators, passers-by, journalists. Only those four or five wearing gas masks are fine.
“Take this, wipe your face with it and cover your nose,” says a man in his 50s, handing us a handkerchief wet with perfume. He does the same for others around him. It’s a popular method that helps calm the irritation in the nose, throat and chest caused by the gas.
Up ahead, the young men are ready for another advance. “Takbir!” shouts one of them. “God is the greatest!” the others reply. And they advance in a run towards the soldiers. In addition to tear gas, the soldiers are firing rubber-coated bullets.
The scream of Red Crescent ambulance sirens can be heard shortly afterwards. The speeding vehicles come for the wounded: five, none serious, as we find out shortly. Another 20 Palestinians have gas intoxication. The protest flares up again after about 10 minutes. The young men, this time at a slow pace, walk once again towards the Israeli military. “Look, up there,” someone shouts. Everyone’s gaze turns skyward. From above, a drone drops tear gas on the protesters: it’s too late to try to escape the gas, the whole area is again shrouded in a cloud of smoke. Once again, wet and perfumed handkerchiefs help those who have inhaled the gas.
Columns of smoke rise in the countryside, in the olive groves and orchards. From afar comes the crackling of brushwood set on fire by tear gas. Calm descends, interrupted at times by the arrival of ambulances and a fire truck. The protests will resume at dusk, perhaps overnight.
“It’s been like this since May. We don’t give up, we go on,” Farid Hamayel tells us. “Today (on Friday), there were no serious injuries, but the (Israeli) soldiers are also shooting real bullets. Mohammed, the son of a cousin of mine, was killed a week ago: he was a kid, he was only 15 years old.”
Beita has already mourned four deaths, the latest earlier this week: Ahmed Shamsa, also aged 15. “They want to take everything away from us,” Hamayel continues. “The settlers have occupied the lands of our village. How will we live without the orchards and olive groves? We don’t have a choice, we will push on.”
After the Oslo II agreements, in 1995, 11% of Beita’s lands were classified as part of Area C, corresponding to 60% of the West Bank, totally controlled by the Israeli army. This provisional status was supposed to last until 1999, when—the Palestinians hoped—final negotiations should have sanctioned the birth of the State of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as capital. That never happened, and after 22 years, the pressure of the Israeli colonies on the Palestinian villages has become unbearable.
The settlement of Eviatar is illegal according to international law, and also according to Israeli law: it has never received the authorization of the army. Built on land that is part of Beita, Qabalan and Yatma, it should be evacuated. However, the settlers know that the more they develop and populate the outpost, the more easily the government will recognize it. And they describe this as the “right response” to the killing in early May of a religious student, Yehuda Guetta.
In recent days, they have brought caravans and mobile homes to the site, assembled with the help of soldiers. Forty-two families already live there. It has a kindergarten and a religious school, and according to a spokeswoman of the settlers, Daniella Weiss, it will expand on 60 hectares of land.
Zvi Sukkot, an activist with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, has collected donations of about $370,000 for Eviatar. On Monday, various right-wing organizations and the settler movement plan to set up roadblocks at various points in the West Bank to protest against “illegal construction by Palestinians,” who, they claim, “are stealing land from Israel.”
Of a very different opinion is Alex Fishman, a young Italian Jew, who, with a handful of activists from Anarchists Against the Wall, arrived in Beita to support the Palestinian cause. “What is happening is shameful,” he says. The Palestinians of Beita “are just asking to live their lives without problems, and now this new settlement is being founded on their backs, despite the promise of (Defense Minister) Benny Gantz to stop its construction. And instead, we have videos of soldiers helping the settlers. Two Palestinian boys have been killed, and I don’t understand how the world can remain silent. We are facing something inhuman.”
Beita’s story is one of demolished houses, punishments, arrests, detentions. Every family could tell its own story. Wael Jawda and his cousin Usama Jawda no longer live in the village. One Friday afternoon in February 1988, they were filmed while they were being brutally beaten by four Israeli soldiers, who wanted to break their arms because they had thrown stones at the military jeeps. These were scenes from the first Palestinian Intifada against the military occupation, which had never been seen before and which outraged the world. It was said that it had been Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin who had ordered such terrible punishment. But nothing more was heard of it—it all ended in oblivion.
“They are killing our boys, they are taking our lands, and where is the world? Why do you journalists come here? No one knows what we’re suffering, the world is silent,” protests Farid Hamayel, looking me straight in the eye.
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Your weekly briefing of progressive news.