May day in the West Bank, and as a village marches in protest against the wall that will cut them off from over 50% of their land, the digger continues, picking away at the hillside relentlessly. Bil’in is one of the places that has protested vigorously against the wall – demonstrations are held here at least once a week, usually twice, and the pattern seems well established. A combination of villagers, internationals and Israeli activists and peace groups march from the mosque in the middle of the villiage to the destruction site. They are dispersed before they reach it and spend the day getting shot at – usually by tear gas, sound bombs and ‘rubber’ bullets (which are actually metal coated with a thin layer of rubber). The Palestinians retaliate with their weapons of resistance – stones – and have had ample opportunity to perfect their catapulting skills. I’m telling you, if catupulting was a new olympic sport they would be certain of a gold – if only they had a state and were allowed to compete.
On Sunday there were about 150 Palestinians, 8 Israelis, 9 internationals, loads of photographers and a film crew from Al Arabia. The view on one side of the track leading to the site is beautiful – rolling hillsides of olive trees and farmland with a couple of villages and some scattered houses. On the other side there is a massive quarry supplying, no doubt, materials for the wall and the settlement which is visable next to it. It is one of eight, and apparently they are going to be joined up to make a huge city, once the wall has annexed the neccessary land. The settlements look horrible – I just can’t get over the uglyness of what is being done in Palestine. It’s obvious when the Israeli apartheid machine has got a bit of land in it’s clutches because it’s covered in concrete. Criminal, literally.
As we approached the site we were met on the track by big kids with guns, who were unable to produce the neccessary documentation to prove that the area was a ‘closed military zone’ and that they therefore, apparently, have the right to disperse the protestors. Needless to say, this didn’t stop them and within twenty minutes or so the explosions of sound bombs were ringing in our ears and mists of white tear gas were rising from canisters shot into the crowd and the trees. No stone-throwing had taken place before they started firing. Everyone scattered, and a few minutes later I was on the other side of the hill with one other international and a few ‘shebab’ (the stone-throwers) choking, eyes and nose streaming, face stinging, head pounding. Its been two and a half years since I’ve felt that disorientation, at a demonstration against the wall in the West Bank village of Jayyous, which is now cut off from its land and has lost trees, greenhouses, water sources, access to family members outside… All that time the wall has been being constructed, crushing the Palestinians into open-roofed prisons. Meanwhile, the international community has done nothing – apart from ruling it illegal at the court in the Hague, but who is Israel to take any notice of international law? We need sanctions. It worked for South Africa.
Most of the day was spent hanging out at the top of the track by a house (poor family) while the Palestinians around us and in the olive trees played their crazy game with the stones and the soldiers and the tear gas and rubber bullets. Our job was to witness and record what was going on, make sure that injured people could get to the waiting ambulance, know what was happening if people were arrested. At one point we came out into the track with our hands up shouting “Internationals! Don’t shoot!” in order to put out a fire that had started on some dry grass after a gas cannister or sound bomb had exploded there. And then suddenly the stakes of the game changed and in amongst the gas and rubber bullets live ammuntion was being fired. And everything carried on, just as it was. Perhaps most of the younger shebab – aged six or so upwards – had gone home by then. A couple of the ones around us commented on which rounds were potentially lethal (I think i can probably tell the difference in the sound by now) and then carried on catapulting stones. Apparently its unusual but not unheard of for them to use live bullets at these demonstrations.
At about five o’clock the army retreated closer to the destruction site and we moved forwards. There was a lull in the procedings as Palestinians who had been working on the settlement finished their shift and walked past us along the track. The man I was chatting to, who was part of the local Committee Against the Wall which organises the demonstrations and keeps a track of whats going on, told me that they are all people from outside the village, from other parts of the West Bank. There were quite a lot of them, most of them looked a bit shifty as they passed. Some greetings were exchanged.
Not many shebab were left by this point, although it was quite hard to tell as they were mostly in the trees. Most of the internationals also left; i stayed on with a two others. Some of the Palestinians started shouting and laughing – a soldier had got really wound up and had taken off his gun and helmet and was offering to fight one of the shebab – ‘man to man’, no doubt. What had they been calling him? Coward? The other two internationals disappeared into the trees somewhere and i started filming a few young lads who were messing about playfighting. They couldn’t have looked less like terrorists if they tried. When the other internationals re-appeared J said to me “I’ve been hit”. They had been standing under a tree as a soldier was firing about 200 meters or so away. Something had hit J just above his groin, it had pierced his skin but had not ripped his clothes and was not a serious injury. The boy standing with him had also been hit, in the head. He had disappeared with someone else. J was trying to work out what had hit them, and thought perhaps it was a piece of the tree which had splintered off as a rubber bullet hit it. He said his ears were ringing from a loud noise. It was only when we got back to the ISM flat that someone told us the round had been live.
J went back to where it happened with another international and they found fragments of lead in the trunk of the tree. A couple of people went to the hospital to see how the boy was. He had fragments of lead in his head. That night we ate in stunned silence, J struggling to digest what had happened to him.
Two others were taken to hospital that day – one had a tear gas cannister fired at his head and the other sustained a leg injury, possibly from rubber bullets. There were eleven injuries in total.
There was a big demonstration three days earlier, during which soldiers were using gas-powered guns not previously used in the West Bank. They fired rapid rounds of plastic bullets filled with a white powder that caused intense pain to the people shot. The powder is currently being analysied. Two Palestinians were arrested and beaten up whilst in custody. They tried to charge one of them with attempted murder, apparently because an undercover Israeli special forces agent fell and hurt his head. The Palestinian has a good lawyer and now faces a lesser charge.