The separation fence is going up along a controversial route that is generating protests and acts of resistance. In addition to the protests of those directly harmed by the fence - the Palestinians whose lands were expropriated for it and whose movement has been curtailed or limited - there are also groups of Israelis and foreigners protesting against it in solidarity with the Palestinians.
The protests are not uniform in their intensity, and range from demonstrations where protest slogans - including some that are blunt and provocative - are shouted, all the way to attempts to shake the fence physically and break through its gates. There have been incidents where protesters damaged construction vehicles, or blocked their way and when clashes between the protesters and security officials turned into active physical resistance, there have been arrests. In many cases, protesters threw stones and used slingshots to hurl stones at security forces and in one case, at Beit Lakiya last month, masked men among the local protesters fired shots, say the police.
The security forces respond, with tear gas and stun grenades, shots fired in the air, all the way to aiming and shooting rubber-coated bullets, sometimes at a close range that causes many casualties. In one clash near the village of Biddu, three Palestinians were killed and some 50 wounded. The IDF regards the fence and its surroundings as a military installation and is very strict about halting any attempt to damage it. In addition to the conscripts and Border Police operating in the area of the fence, private security firms have been hired.
In December 2003, an activist from Anarchists Against the Wall was wounded in the leg and another hit in the eye. That group, which has dozens of activists, is one of the most vocal and consistent in its protests against the barrier. Their activity, which expresses general protest, is blunt and includes personal, provocative shouting at police and troops, which intensifies the clash. Many of the group's members have experienced tear gas and stun grenades and have been hit by rubber-coated bullets. They say that the security forces use exaggerated violence against them, with the deliberate intention of hurting them - and then the security forces prevent medical crews from reaching those who need treatment, says the group.
An investigative report yesterday by Haaretz reporter Arnon Regular shows the security forces are not operating with a uniform, coordinated policy for handling demonstrators. There are various forces at various levels and local commanders on the ground appreciate the severity of the situation on the ground in different ways, treating the demonstrators in ways that endanger lives. IDF forces busy with operational activity in the territories find it difficult to understand the difference between civil disobedience along the fence and armed combat with terrorist cells. The rules of engagement have not been made consistent and uniform and there are not enough means "softer" than rubber-coated bullets and shooting to disperse demonstrations. And investigations are not undertaken as required, after particularly difficult incidents.
The security forces know how to show restraint and caution when it comes to the "hilltop youth" and they should show the same measure of restraint when it comes to civilian demonstrations at the fence. The chief of staff and chief of police must coordinate a policy and match it to the circumstances of the civil disobedience. Their duty to protect the fence from demonstrators does not justify harming protesters. Apparently, the security forces have not learned the lesson from cases when demonstrators were exposed to lethal risks. Demonstrators must not be made to pay with their lives for legitimate civil protest.