On the fifth anniversary of the start of demonstrations against the separation fence, nearly 1,000 protesters gathered on Friday in Bil'in, dwarfing the weekly protests that usually draw 100-200 demonstrators. Rallying demonstrators from the radical left and a large portion of the local village population, the mass protest took on a near festive character, with the participation of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
The world's media was also there in large numbers to cover the anniversary, as was Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite television station that is there every Friday broadcasting the demonstrations. Overlooking the site more than 20 television crews took up position, and many dozens of journalists and photographers too.
The strong media presence highlights the fact that over the past five years Bil'in has become a symbol of the Palestinian struggle against the separation fence, which has great media appeal.
Each of the participants in the event had a role to play, and each was prearranged with diligence. Ro'i Wenger, one of the leftist protesters who is a regular at the Bil'in demonstrations, gathered together the many Israeli protesters - mostly in their 20s or younger, wearing T-shirts comparing Israel's policies to apartheid - at a home in the center of the village, across from a mosque with a sign of the "Popular Struggle."
"We celebrate five years to the demonstrations in Bil'in," Wenger tells the young protesters packed in one of the rooms. "Popular demonstrations organized by the Palestinians against the fence," he adds.
But the organization is controlled by a very small group of locals and Israelis, who coordinate events in an exemplary fashion and even have people directing the media vehicles into a parking lot. One of the local activists, Abdullah Abu Rahma, in whose home the briefing is being held, is under arrest in Israel. He was arrested in one of the IDF's evening raids.
The villagers of Bil'in say that the fence, which passes near their community, prevents access to some 90 percent of their land, estimated at 2,000 dunams (some 500 acres). A Supreme Court ruling has ordered the Defense Ministry to move the fence, restoring 700 dunams to the village. The activists insist that they will not cease protesting until the fence is razed.
Senior IDF officers of the Judea and Samaria Division insist that the protests in Bil'in are anything but popular, and claim that it is a drama created by a small number of activists who, along with Israeli and foreign volunteers benefiting from contributions from international peace groups, are stirring up trouble and profiting from it too. As evidence to their allegations, the officers point to a number of recently refurbished homes and new SUVs belonging to the activists.
The activists maintain that their demonstrations are peaceful. However, youths were preparing slingshots, and took up positions in front of an IDF checkpoint on the other side of the fence, throwing stones. IDF statistics claim that since the start of the demonstrations 110 members of the security forces suffered injuries, and one officer lost an eye as a result of projectiles fired with slingshots.
On the Palestinian side, there have been hundreds of wounded and one dead, Bassem Abu Rahma, killed last April when a smoke grenade hit him in his chest.
Expecting violence to break out on Friday, the security forces took defensive positions much further away, and avoided responding when the protesters broke through the outer gate of the separation fence. Eventually a vehicle specially designed to counter demonstrations was used to drive the protesters off, with a water cannon firing specially designed, foul smelling fluid. Tear gas pushed the demonstrators back toward the village.
Security forces said that the damage to the fence is estimated at NIS 100,000.