Coby Ben-Simhon
January 15, 2010 - 1:00am

An old man in a black galabia who is leaning on a walking stick catches the attention of Ferdino Madno. In the center of Bil'in, while waiting for the start of the weekly demonstration against the separation fence, Madno, 41, scurries around with two cameras slung over his shoulders.

"I came here with some of my fellow students," he says, pointing to a group of 10 Italians who are sitting peacefully on a stone wall, each carrying a camera with a spectacular zoom lens. "We are studying photography in a school in Rome. We have finished learning how to take portraits and now we are working on reportorial photography. That is why we are here, as part of a workshop on reportorial photography. We have been to Myanmar and now we have come to Bil'in to take pictures," Madno explains.

The budding Italian photographers are not alone. Today, New Year's Day, the hard core of Palestinian and Israeli demonstrators who have been waging their unusual civil struggle against the route of the separation fence for years, was conspicuously joined by tourists.

"This is my first time in Israel," Madno adds, as he tries to get a shot of the old man, together with an Israeli holding a gas mask. "For us it is like a vacation. I like photographing children most of all."

Amid a babble of French, Arabic, Hebrew and English, about 150 demonstrators set out from the center of Bil'in, and head down the narrow paved road that winds toward the fence. Dozens are a stone's throw from the fence, and are being assaulted by more and more stun and tear-gas grenades.

Pilar Nirby, a 70-year-old Protestant cleric from Normandy, France, does not look particularly upset. He himself does not dare approach the fence, but every explosion prompts him to snap another photo with his digital camera, in an attempt to capture the perfect shot.

"I spent a week in Nazareth, a week in Bethlehem and a week in Jerusalem," he says, as a cloud of thick gray gas drifts toward us. Instead of backing away, he takes a deep breath and fills his lungs. When the bitter taste rises into his nostrils and slides into his throat, he wipes his stinging eyes with a handkerchief and flashes a strange smile. "I came to Palestine with two friends. We are communists and we love Palestine," he says.

He waves his right hand, on which is a string bracelet bearing the image of the Palestinian flag, which he bought from children in the village. "I believe that it is very important to come here and support these people," Nirby adds, and then asks in all seriousness which side of the fence Israel is on.

Dr. Roy Wagner, an Israeli left-wing activist, admits that he finds this scene disgusting. "It's occupation tourism," he says in a tone of disappointment. Wagner, 36, who teaches mathematics at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, has been taking part in the Bil'in demonstrations every Friday for the past five years.

"There is a large variety of international activists here," he says. "There are those who spend weeks and months in the village and take the political issue seriously, and there are others who, as part of their trip to Israel and Palestine, drop in at Bil'in to see what's happening. Some of them have a strong political awareness, others come to take pictures. Everyone who comes adds to the feeling of solidarity. But yes, it can also generate antagonism if you feel committed to the struggle and find yourself surrounded by tourists.

"On the other hand," Wagner continues, "I am glad that they are here, despite everything, even though it's funny. In the end, the struggle brings this whole gamut of humanity to the same place at the same time. I feel that even people who get dragged here for all kinds of less binding reasons come away more committed to the struggle. And that's what's important."

Yuska Fijasua, a 26-year-old art student from Japan, watches the events through black Gucci glasses. As stun grenades and a never-ending series of tear-gas grenades leave smoke trails in the air, he sits alone on a large rock.

"I saw a movie about Bil'in on YouTube and I decided to come here," he says. "I wanted to see the fence, the people, the soldiers. In my opinion, when there is an international presence here, the army attacks the Palestinians less. But what I like to see most here is the presence of the Israelis. Their presence is more important than anything else, I would say. This is a bad place. I don't understand why tear gas is used against people who only want to say something."


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