written by Conor
The game of cat-and-mouse with the army intensifies… We’re not exactly sure what is going on here, but the army has become much more aggressive towards the internationals in Nablus. A few days ago three internationals were arrested after trying to bring food to an occupied house. These are homes that the army rolls in and takes over, usually keeping the family in one room in the basement or first floor and locking them in while they trash the house (we’ve seen campfires built in stairwells and toys and clothes strewn about). Because of the illegal curfew the family are not allowed out of the room and are sometimes locked up for weeks at a time. The checkpoints have become much more intense and impenatrable. When a group of internationals tried to enter through the main checkpoint at Huwarra village they were told that “No internationals, no Palestinians, not even press may enter Nablus. Not even that donkey there may enter.”
When a group of us went to the demonstration at Huwarra on Saturday we had not even crossed the checkpoint when a jeep drove up and told us all to leave Nablus, “I arrested three of you yesterday and I will arrest you if I need to. You must leave.” There were no negotiations. We are very worried because this is what happened in Jenin a few months ago with the massacre/invasion there, closing off the town to press and internationals so that no one would know what they were doing there. (The three arrested, by the way, were released in Jerusalem. They had been charged with “shielding rock-throwing children with your bodies.” Can you even fathom that? Charging someone with a crime for preventing soldiers from shooting children who pose zero threat to their armored tanks? No dissent or resistance is tolerated in Nablus. The charges were later dropped–there weren’t even any children around when they were arrested–it seems they just wanted them out of Nablus.)
On Saturday a group of about 30 internationals from GIPP (Grassroots International Protection for Palestinians–a largely European group) and ISM (International Solidarity Movement–my group) traveled to Huwarra, the village right outside Nablus and next to the main checkpoint, for a joint Tayush (Israeli Peace Group)/Palestinian/International demonstration against the occupation and curfew. Huwarra, being right next to the main military base in Nablus, thus bears the full brunt of the occupation. The town has been under almost continuous curfew for TWO YEARS and has had food shortages for about two months. Virtually nothing has been allowed in or out of the town since the beginning of the intifada in 2000. Can you imagine being threatened by a foreign army with injury/arrest/death (snipers) if you left your house for two years? Apparently there was a TV announcement of the demonstration and the last one ended with the arrest and injury of several activists, so were were nervous already when we found out that no one was even being allowed out of Nablus today. We then took a route that included three separate legs of taxi drives (one by my friend Ibrahim who is proving ever resourceful) to get around the roadblocks and checkpoints (without crazy/genius taxi drivers and cellphones this movement would not be possible) and a 2 kilometer walk along a settler road–not a very safe route to take.
When we made it into Huwarra we found the march ready to start and, sure enough, it did 3 minutes after we arrived. There were dozens of Palestinians with banners and flags chanting and moving through the streets and we didn’t really have time to prepare or get in position. Military police (the most brutal of the military we deal with) showed up immediately, so we tried to position ourselves between the police and the Palestinians, holding up our hands and shouting that this was a peaceful demonstration. There were no rocks thrown or any weapons anywhere in the crowd, but the police jumped out of their jeeps and tossed several bright orange concussion grenades at us (also known as flash-bang grenades–they explode with a loud flash and a boom and it disorients and shocks you–like a mild concussion) and shot several tear-gas mortars into the crowd, including the long range kind meant to be fired in an arc but they shot many straight into the crowd–two wizzed by my head and legs. I had not had time to take my contacts out, and you can be blinded with the gas the army uses if you leave them in so I ducked down an alleyway coughing and choking and frantically pulled out my contacts. I couldn’t see for a few minutes but soon there were arms helping me to my feet and someone shoved an onion under my nose–it cuts the gas quite effectively– and as I regained my senses I found it was a small crowd of Palestinian children helping me, looking quite concerned for this foreigner. We ran back into the street where the army continued tear gassing and tossing concussion grenades while driving their jeeps through the crowds at intimidating speeds. Once close enough they would toss tear gas grenades out the back of the jeeps, which was bad because those things just explode in a cloud of gas that’s very hard to escape. All the while we tried to stay within and in front of the crowd and document the whole thing. I suspect the presence of internationals at the rally kept things from getting quite nasty.
As it was it only generated a paragraph in a story buried deep within CNN’s website. They know if internationals were killed then it would be a huge story, and in solidarity with the Palestinians we used that privilege to protect them. We moved back from the main street, regrouped with the Palestinians, and then heard the chanting of the few hundred Israeli peace activists who had bussed down for the demonstration and dodged their way through the tanks of their own army with trucks of food for the village. We joyously joined together and Palestinian embraced Israeli embraced International. Together we turned to the army and began to chant in Hebrew and Arabic, “Peace, yes! Occupation, no!” The Israelis and Internationals linked arms and surrounded the crowd to protect the Palestinians as a long train of armored personnel carrier’s and tanks entered the village and people were laughing, crying, and hugging while the Palestinian children banged together the cans of baby formula the Israelis had brought with them. It was one of the most beautiful things I have been blessed to witness.
Afterwards the Israelis left and we started the long journey back to Nablus through the checkpoints. We had three Palestinians from Nablus with us, and we were quite worried for them. Sure enough, our taxis got stopped by a checkpoint and we told them we were on our way to leave the West Bank, so they agreed to let us pass but they wanted to check our passports. We had put our sunglasses and hats on the Palestinians to make them look more like geeky Western internationals, and we mobbed the soldier checking passports, some of us making him check our id’s two or three times to confuse him as we slipped the Palestinians through with our group. We made it into a village outside of Nablus that night, but there was heavy shooting and reports of rockets in Nablus, so we decided to wait until morning to enter. This worried all of us as that left most of the threatened homes empty of Internationals, and most of us have grown quite close to the families.
The next morning we heard from other internationals that the hills were crawling with soldiers and that all roads were closed. Most of the internationals decided to go with some crazy/genius taxi drivers who said they knew a way around the checkpoints, but to make sure at least some of us made it back Carina, the Dane, and I led another international and one of the Palestinian women over the hills in the way we knew. We made it back into Nablus, but were confronted with the news that tanks had shelled the marketplace there (!) see the article from CNN’s website below) and that many children were injured. As I entered Balata Refugee Camp my friends and the children greeted us as warmly as ever (including shoving food and tea into my hands–I’ve never consumed so much tea or coffee in my life–the people here won’t let you get out the door without feeding you or giving you coffee). I spent the rest of the day working on my village project (have I mentioned this? I’ve been kind of sucked into the role of “Village Coordinator.” I’m doing a survey of all the villages around Nablus to find out the food, medical, and water needs and getting contacts in all the villages so we can start to get them some relief. Most have been strangled by the blockade/curfew. Roadblocks and checkpoints block the roads into the town they rely on as a commercial center and ambulances sometimes take hours to get through the army). I arrived to find my family’s house un-destroyed and with my social standing greatly elevated since they saw me on Al-Jazeera chanting “Free, free, Palestine!” with Palestinians and Israeli peace activists at Huwarra.
Today I have spent more time working on the village project, trying to finish the work before I leave Nablus on Thursday. The army has cracked down both on internationals and Palestinians. Before the curfew was imposed by roving checkpoints with arrest for those who were caught, but determined folks (like me) could usually give them the slip. Today there were tanks on all the main roads and there has been firing all day, including the deep boom of the tank cannon. As I dodged through the streets today the children would tell me where the “jeysh” (soldiers) were and my only other company was litter blowing through the deserted, bullet-riddled streets of one of the biggest cities in the West Bank. Last night an F-16 was flying over for several hours, dropping high-powered flares to illuminate the entire refugee camp. We panicked and called the US consulate to inform them that there were American citizens in Balata. The marine security guard there replied that yes, the Israeli army knew.
“We just don’t want to get bombed,” I said.
“Well, that’s why the State Department warns Americans not to travel in the West Bank,” he said.
“Well, that’s kind of why we have to be here,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Yeah… Ok. Bye”
We thought they might be targeting a building with a 1-ton bomb like they dropped on a Gaza Strip apartment building to assassinate a militant leader when he was visiting his wife and child in late July. They killed them and 13 other people. There is no value here placed on Palestinian lives. If 15 have to die to get at one, then that is acceptable. It was an apartment building full of people and they knew that just as surely as they knew he would be there that night. This is the nature of the occupation. I slept on the roof that night to better hear the army when they came, shoes on, cellphone by my side.
Conor, Balata Refugee Camp, Nablus, occupied West Bank
P.S. Here’s an article I found buried deep within CNN’s website. It’s one of the only articles I’ve found that quotes “Palestinian sources” alongside the Israeli army. The part at the end is about the demonstration. The fact that they would just decide to fire a tank shell into the crowded market to get at one guy with a rifle who posed little threat to their heavily armored tank I think just illustrates my point. By the way, CNN has been quite awful about covering Palestinian deaths and tragedies with anywhere near the same amount as Israeli, this despite the fact that far more Palestinians have died during the uprising than Israelis. The New York Times, while far from perfect, at least tries to be a bit balanced.
NABLUS, West Bank (CNN) — Nine Palestinians, including four children, were wounded by Israeli forces at a marketplace in the ” old city ” area of Nablus Saturday evening after citizens broke the enforced curfew to get food and supplies, according to Palestinian sources. But the Israeli military said people at the scene were caught in crossfire after Israeli forces trying to enforce the curfew were fired on by a Palestinian gunman and fired back. Palestinian sources said the incident took place around 6 p.m. After citizens spilled into the marketplace to buy food and other supplies, tanks and armored personnel carriers entered the area and shelled the marketplace, where about 100 people were congregated. There was heavy machine gun fire and one tank shell from the armored vehicles, the Palestinian sources said. Among those hurt were four children — two 10 year olds, a 14 year old and a 15 year old — Palestinian sources said. Two people aged 18 and 27 were seriously wounded, they said. Israeli military sources said when Palestinians broke the curfew, the army came in with armored vehicles to reimpose it. Israeli forces approached the Palestinians and asked them to go home. The forces were shot at by a gunman in an alley way, and the forces returned fire, the military said, catching the Palestinians in the crossfire. The gunman was apparently wounded in the exchange and taken away by people at the scene, the military said. Also, near Nablus, there was a demonstration against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank attended by a few hundred Israelis, Palestinians and foreigners. They tried to enter Nablus, but Israeli forces shot tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades at the demonstrators, Palestinian sources said.