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West Bank wall still triggers weekly protests in village

By Paula Hancocks, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Protesters, Israeli soldiers clash every Friday afternoon in two West Bank villages
  • Object of protest is Israel's security barrier; Palestinians call it a wall of separation
  • Palestinian group: Six protesters have been killed in two villages since July 2008
  • Despite the mayhem, protest is billed by organizers as nonviolent
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Bil'in, West Bank (CNN) -- Tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and rocks: It must be Friday afternoon in the West Bank village of Bil'in.

It's billed as a nonviolent protest against what Israel calls its security barrier, what the Palestinians call the apartheid separation wall.

The barrier separates the villagers from their farmlands. Protesters come from all over the world to support the Palestinian cause.

A few Palestinian youths covering their faces with scarves throw stones at a couple dozen Israeli soldiers in full riot gear and armed with tear gas, stun grenades and bullets.

The protest soon degenerates into chaos as it has nearly every week for the past five years. Six protesters have been killed in Bil'in and the neighboring village of Na'alin since July 2008, according to the Palestinian group, Popular Struggle, one of several organizers of the weekly protests. Several hundred have been injured by tear gas canisters and Israeli bullets. One hundred Israeli soldiers have been injured from stone throwing, according to the Israeli military.

The organizers say they have little control over the youths who prefer to throw stones at the rallies. They insist that non-violence is the best weapon they have to fight against Israel's wall and occupation.

Video: Crackdown on weekly protests

Israel has increased its nighttime raids into the West Bank in recent months, arresting those it believes have acted violently or those who are suspected of organizing the protests.

"They cannot be above the law, and that's what we're dealing with," Israel Defense Forces spokesman, Peter Lerner said, referring to the protest organizers.

Critics say Israel is simply arresting those who oppose its policies towards the Palestinians. Mohamed Othman, one of the organizers of Stop the Wall campaign, was detained in September upon his return from Norway where he was lobbying the government for support.

He said he was held for four months -- three in solitary confinement -- then released without charge. Israel does not comment on these cases.

"We can see that Israel is starting to be afraid of the popular resistance because it's coming from inside the people and the people decide," Othman said.

They cannot be above the law, and that's what we're dealing with.
--Peter Lerner, Israeli military spokesman

Israel has arrested at least 150 protesters from the two villages' demonstrations over the past two years, according to Popular Struggle. More than 30 are still locked up, the organization said. The Israeli military told CNN it was checking those figures.

One coordinator of the Bil'in Popular Committee Against the Wall, Abdallah Abu Rahmah, also a teacher, was arrested in December. One of the charges against him was arms possession for collecting tear gas canisters used by the Israeli military against demonstrators and showcasing them.

The anti-wall demonstrators say this is a grass-roots movement. The Israeli military accuses those it has arrested of incitement.

The IDF denies it has changed its tactics in dealing with the anti-wall protesters, even though the number being arrested has risen sharply. The IDF on the ground now considers Bil'in a closed military zone on Fridays.

CNN was refused access by Israeli military forces stationed outside the village, who said only those who lived in the neighborhood could enter. But IDF spokesman Peter Lerner said the closure was meant only for protesters.

A few hours later, in Bil'in, the Israeli soldiers withdrew from the village under cover of tear gas. Some Palestinian youths followed them with stones, while the vast majority of nonviolent protesters head home.

Same time, same place, next Friday.