In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, as Barack Obama's plane was probably somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, a group of Palestinian activists sneaked onto an empty, stone-covered hill and erected three large tents, a dozen smaller ones, and a massive flagpole. Jammed between several large rocks, the pole shot about forty feet in the air. They hung a huge Palestinian flag, about 20 feet wide. A highway snaked through the valley below and, over the passing cars, the massive Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim. By the time I arrived at the Palestinian encampment in the evening, a large generator-powered light illuminated the huge flag, clearly visible from the highway below, and no doubt to the settlers across the way.
This was the second incarnation of Bab al-Shams, Arabic for Gate of the Sun, what one activist described as an "anti-settlement." This winter, the activists had set up the first such encampment on an adjacent hilltop. Attracting international media attention by using the same tactics as radical Israeli settlers, the first Bab al-Shams challenged Israel's plans to build up a swath of land known as E-1, between Ma'ale Adumim and Jerusalem, where experts said increased settlement construction could finally doom the two-state solution. The Israeli army evicted the first Bab al-Shams after just two days.
The new Bab al-Shams isn't just about Obama, but it's certainly pegged to his visit. "It coincides with Obama," said Abir Kopty, a veteran activist and one of the organizers at Bab al-Shams. "We've been wanting to do this since the last eviction of Bab al-Shams," she said. The activists all agreed that Obama's presence in the country—if not the policies he pursued—served as something of a protective blanket for the encampment. Only four hours after Bab al-Shams was re-erected, Israeli police and border patrol arrived with a notice declaring all of E-1 a military zone, meaning no one could come to or stay in the hills. But by evening, the camp was still there; Israeli border police allowed me and the journalists I was travelling with to walk past them unencumbered up the hill to the camp. The Israeli army even formally announced it wouldn't evict the Bab al-Shams until Obama left for Jordan on Friday. "Now they can't afford doing it," Kopty said, referring to the Israeli military. Obama "will leave on Friday. They will say, 'Good-bye, Obama. Let's go evict Bab al-Shams.'"The activists there—numbering about 55 or 60 by nine in the evening yesterday—were harshly critical of Obama. Various banners posted around Bab al-Shams singled out Obama. "You can veto our rights, but you can't veto our dreams. Vote freedom, veto occupation," read one featuring Obama's face that was lashed to the flagpole. "Obama: You promised hope and change, you gave us apartheid and colonies," read another. Some Bab al-Shams residents said they admired Obama personally, but objected to his policies. "For me, I like him," said Ahmed Khatib, 36, of Bil'in, citing Obama's international background but being sure to speak only for himself. But he noted that "Obama and America give money to Israel and veto us at the U.N." Others were more abrupt: "He supports the terrorists of Israel," said Yousef Sherkawi of Bethlehem, one of the older Palestinians at the site.
The Palestinians on the hillside vowed to maintain non-violence. "We're not going to engage with the Israelis," said Ahmed Ayoubi, 21, of Hebron, a volunteer medic at Bab al-Shams. "Not even stones," he added, referring to the frequent stone-throwing by Palestinian youths that leads to clashes with Israel's military at many otherwise non-violent demonstrations. No clashes broke out at the eviction of the last Bab al-Shams, and the only force used was by the 500-some-odd Israeli police to remove those of the 100 Palestinians there who froze in position and refused to leave.
By nine in the evening last night, members of the media at the site had left--the group of locally-based international journalists I arrived with was referred to in Arabic as "the foreigners," a testament to the lack of outsiders and internationals remaining. Palestinians were gathering around small campfires, smoking hookahs and looking down on the highway and the settlement on the other side. Khatib chatted at length with me on a blanket he'd spread on a small patch of grass, offering cigarettes to me repeatedly, though he knew I had my own. He explained his own path to non-violent protest. For five years, Khatib worked for a militant organization in the West Bank, but was swept up in the mid-2000s by the protests in his hometown of Bil'in. He laid down his arms and vowed to remain non-violent, but was nonetheless swept up two years later and arrested, spending 13 months in an Israeli prison. "It didn't change my mind," he said, "because my mind was already changed." He bragged that, save his year-plus in prison, he hadn't missed a major action since the earliest Bil'in protests. I asked what drove his commitment. "Why I'm coming here? Yaani, because it's fun for me?" he said. "No. I want a country."
Khatib said the tactics at Bab al-Shams resembled those of Israeli settlers, but that there was a fundamental difference: "For us, it is Palestinian land." I asked him again about Obama's policies, and he cited Obama's early positions against settlements. "But at the end of the story," he said, "Obama is the president of the United States. I understand, he had to change." He said he hated American policies, but not Americans. "For us, we have the American dream: we want freedom," he said. "You want to support Israel, support Israel. But not to take our rights. Why do we live under occupation our whole lives? We aren't humans?"