Out in the West Bank with a dead terrorist and a park director

Out in the West Bank with a dead terrorist and a park director

Attending the funeral of an Islamic Jihad activist, and visiting an ambitious new development project nearby, our Palestinian Affairs reporter charts a study in contrasts

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Locals Palestinians at a new park area taking shape near the West Bank village of Bil'in. (photo credit: Haitham Khatib)
Locals Palestinians at a new park area taking shape near the West Bank village of Bil'in. (photo credit: Haitham Khatib)

BIL’IN, West Bank — Dozens of people crowded the exit from Bil’in, trying to hitch a ride to the nearby village of Beit Lakiya to attend the funeral Wednesday of Islamic Jihad activist Mohammed Aazi, which was about to begin. Four men climbed into a car, chatting about the most recent shahid (“martyr”), the cave in which he hid in the open area near Kfar Nama, a village located just outside of Bil’in, and the IDF’s siege on his hiding place.

The journey would have been just like one of the many shuttles to the funeral if it hadn’t been for the one Jewish Israeli in the car — this reporter. When the boisterous passengers realized who else was with them, there was an uncomfortable silence that was quickly replaced with a heated but not hostile discussion about the differences between the Bil’in and Beit Lakiya accents: One of the passengers explained that “we knew exactly who the undercover soldiers at the Friday demonstrations were, because they spoke Arabic like the northerners, not like we do.”

When the afternoon prayers ended at about 12:30 p.m. local time (daylight savings time in the Palestinian territories ended several weeks ago), the voice of the imam erupted from loudspeakers at the Beit Lakiya mosque. He politely asked the village women to remain indoors and not attend the Aazi funeral. Aazi was killed Tuesday in a confrontation with IDF forces in Kfar Nama, located several kilometers northwest of Beit Lakiya (west of Ramallah, not far from Modiin).

There were approximately 200 people at the cemetery, many of whom were children, waving Hamas and Islamic Jihad flags and loudly chanting “With blood and fire, we shall redeem you, O Shahid.” They awaited the procession that would carry Aazi’s body from the mosque.

And indeed, about 10 minutes later, the din of the approaching masses was heard. They marched towards the cemetery, led by a member of the Islamic Jihad who lamented Aazi’s death as he proceeded. He repeatedly pledged to take revenge on the Zionists, declaring the movement’s commitment to fighting the occupation and explaining the connection that binds Aazi to Fathi Shiqaqi, founder of Islamic Jihad (killed in 1995 in Malta by the Mossad, according to foreign sources). “The Islamic Jihad has proven,” he shouted hoarsely into his megaphone, “that the negotiations are not the key to a solution.” This was an unsubtle criticism of the PA. “The shahids are the only solution.”

Though in retrospect, Mohammed Aazi himself might not agree that “the shahids are the only solution,” he certainly seemed to believe so until his death. He was given several opportunities to exit the cave and surrender to the IDF, but chose to fight to the death. The man who dispatched a terrorist armed with an improvised explosive device to Tel Aviv during Operation Pillar of Defense last November became an instant “leader” and “commander” upon his death, suddenly seen as the successor of Shiqaqi and others. Aazi was never granted such honor during his lifetime. The attack that he helped organize resulted in several dozen injured Israelis, most suffering from shock, and was never considered a remarkable “success.”

The scene of Wednesday's bus bombing in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
The scene of the November 21 bus bombing in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

Aazi had managed to escape detection by the Israeli and Palestinian security forces since the attack by hiding out in the rural area near Beit Lakiya, where he had spent his childhood. This explains why he chose to hide in a cave in the open area near the Kfar Nama chicken coops. He likely assumed that the Israelis would never be able to approach undetected.

As soon as Aazi’s death was publicized, both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad claimed him as their own member. Just like the unforgettable scene from the film “Bethlehem,” where Hamas and Fatah supporters quarrel over the corpse of a wanted terrorist, here too the struggle for credit began before the deceased was laid to rest.

Back at the funeral, Islamic Jihad’s designated speaker continued. “The Saraya [as the Islamic Jihad military wing is known], will continue to fight against the Israeli occupation,” he vowed. He then added Hamas, the sister-rival movement, to the list of those who fight alongside his own organization.

The sounds and sights at the funeral bring to mind the long-forgotten days of the Second Intifada, when massive funerals for the latest heroic shahid were daily affairs. The slogans remain just as threatening, awakening old traumas from previous wars. But reality has changed completely.

The West Bank is much calmer than before and even this potentially volatile funeral, well attended by supporters of various Islamic groups, was relatively quiet despite the frequent threats voiced against Israel.

It is also hard to ignore the absence of weapons. Funerals for Fatah members are still attended by groups of armed militants who shoot in the air and pledge to resume terrorist activity. Here, at the funeral of an Islamic Jihad activist, not a single shot was fired.

“Are you crazy?” asked one of the people at the funeral when I asked why. “Anyone who dared to shoot here, out in the open, would be arrested.” Who by? “Either the PA or the Jews.”

IDF soldiers carry away the body of armed Palestinian terror suspect Mohamed Aazi near the West Bank village of Bil'in, near Ramallah October 22, 2013. Aazi, 28, was wanted for his alleged involvement in the November 21, 2012 Tel Aviv bus bombing (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi /FLASH90)
IDF soldiers carry away the body of armed Palestinian terror suspect Mohamed Aazi near the West Bank village of Bil’in, near Ramallah October 22, 2013. Aazi, 28, was wanted for his alleged involvement in the November 21, 2012 Tel Aviv bus bombing (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi /FLASH90)

The cemetery grounds filled up completely by the end of the funeral. Over 1,000 people attended, waving black Jihad flags or green Hamas ones. Outside of the village, I noticed IDF and Border Police forces positioned along the road leading to Route 443, the major nearby highway, in case clashes or violence erupted. But despite the impassioned pledges made by the speaker at the funeral, the villagers quickly resumed their daily routines. No violence today.

The Bil’in National Park

A narrow, winding road separates Beit Lakiya from Bil’in, a village that has become a symbol of the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation. Every Friday, hundreds or even thousands of people would gather here to protest the security barrier being erected on lands owned by Bil’in residents.

The (relatively) non-violent protests in Bil’in set an example for other villages in the West Bank and drew dozens of Israeli supporters and international volunteers each week. The protesters confronted the Israeli security forces time and again, attempting to damage the barrier. They managed to create several media gimmicks, including avatar-style costumes and Santa Claus outfits in the late-December demonstrations, to draw international attention to their cause.

About two years ago, someone on the Israeli side finally found some common sense and the authorities implemented a ruling by the High Court of Justice and moved the barrier closer to the boundaries of the Modiin Illit settlement. The main incentive for the protests no longer existed and the number of protesters dropped steadily. While they are still weekly events, no more than 100 people continue to attend.

Mohammed Khatib, leader of the Bil’in Popular Committee that organized the protests against the barrier for years, is now involved in a unique project, unprecedented in the West Bank. The Popular Committee has decided to establish the Palestine National Park (as Khatib calls it) at the very site of the once-turbulent protests, on the lands that were returned to their owners in the village.

Locals Palestinians at a new park area taking shape near the West Bank village of Bil'in. (photo credit: Haitham Khatib)
Locals Palestinians at a new park area taking shape near the West Bank village of Bil’in. (photo credit: Haitham Khatib)

After extensive preparation and inspections, Palestinian bulldozers have begun to develop the land, which is estimated at approximately 1,500 dunams. The Bil’in residents who own the land have agreed to relinquish their property to the committee in exchange for a share in future profits from the park.

Thus, a playground and a basketball court have been built, and foundations laid for a restaurant to be called Panorama. And these are only the preliminary stages. The committee plans to build rural vacation accommodations for families, a horse ranch, petting zoo and hiking trail (which has already been marked) in the shadow of this hilly landscape, in addition to slides, omega, rappelling, ATVs and more.

It is remarkable to observe this immense initiative evolving at the precise location of such frequent clashes between IDF soldiers and Palestinian protesters. But certain Israelis seem to disapprove of a project that can potentially introduce genuine tranquility in the region.

A new national park near the West Bank village of Bil'in. (photo credit: Haitham Khatib)
A new national park near the West Bank village of Bil’in. (photo credit: Haitham Khatib)

According to Khatib, the Israeli Civil Administration has recently obtained orders to halt the project, which is partially funded by international organizations affiliated with the UN. At the same time, Israeli bulldozers work vigorously in Modiin Illit on the Israeli side of the fence to prepare land for housing projects.

Khatib said that the person who delivered the demolition order informed the Bil’in residents that they can receive approval for the project if they stop the weekly protests. (COGAT — the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories — responded that it did not make any stipulations for building permits in exchange for ending the protests. Demolition orders were submitted for structures that were erected without permits, it said.)

Khatib visits the site almost every day. “I work around the clock,” he says, as he reprimands his workers for tossing garbage on the ground.

Why do you still protest?

We were a symbol and we remain a symbol. Bil’in cannot cease its protests against the settlements and the occupation. Though fewer protesters arrive than before, the important thing is for the demonstrations to continue.

But where did everyone go? Why do you get so little media coverage? Has the idea of “popular resistance” failed?

Not at all. The majority of the village residents have reclaimed their lands. It is true that other villages did not join our protests, but Bil’in cannot end the occupation single-handedly. There is the entire West Bank.

You have to distinguish between the two types of “popular resistance” that exist today. One is organized, like in Bil’in, and Israelis and activists from abroad arrive to support our cause. The other is chaotic, and that’s the kind of resistance that you hear about all of the time. They’re the ones that throw stones and Molotov cocktails. Look at what happened in Abu Dis and Azariya. It only happens in those villages but there are confrontations and protests there nearly every day. It’s practically an Intifada. And there are many other unorganized incidents, like the bulldozer in a-Ram. No one planned that. These random incidents can easily deteriorate into something much larger and uncontrolled.”

But there is still no sign of a Third Intifada on the horizon. Why is that?

Because people have had enough. The Second Intifada, which was largely unsuccessful, ended not very long ago. The Palestinian people have given up. There are no clear goals because there is no real leadership to define them. There is a geographic and political rift between Fatah and Hamas.

And from the broader regional perspective as well, we originally hoped that the Arab Spring would inspire people to take action, but the opposite has happened. The Palestinians have seen what happened in neighboring countries and it doesn’t look good at all. And with the modern ideas of globalization, people place less emphasis on national heritage and more on their individual achievements. Everyone wants to own a car, a house and an iPhone 5, not 4, God forbid. People are less willing to pay a personal price for nationalist ideals.

Look, the Israeli occupation has managed to contain the fire of the Second Intifada, with the help of the PA security forces. It’s as if the fire fighters isolated the burning area by creating fire-resistant paths around it, while inside there are still many small fires and many smoldering coals that can ignite and explode at any time. Settlers, Jewish violence and more can be the trigger. So your “fire fighters” and the PA are constantly busy putting out these small fires.

How would you explain the recent wave of terrorism?

Most of the population is indifferent. Over 90% are not involved at all, but there will always be that 10% that were personally affected by the occupation; people that suffer from the current situation. These are the people that have taken action in recent weeks. Most of the recent terrorists were people with personal agendas, out to seek revenge. But at this point, there are theoretically no indications of a forthcoming Third Intifada. The problem is that this could change at any given moment.

read more: