In the past week I have been to two impressive and inspiring demonstrations, one in the village of Bil’in, and the other in the village of Abud. Both are located to the west of Ramallah, are inhabited by roughly 2500 people each, and are being affected by the construction of the Wall. The Wall in Bil’in has confiscated 60% of it’s agricultural land, and the village of Abud (at which construction has just begun) they will lose a similar percent as well as access to water.
Many people I talk with assume that being against the wall is somehow taking a position for suicide bombing, an assumption that has been reinforced by the constant framing of the Wall in a security/suicide bombing context, much like the Iraq war was sold by the constant refrain of 9/11 and WMDS. In both cases, the thing being sold has little or nothing to do with such things, and everything to do with demonizing the opposition and taking attention from the real reasons. All one needs to do to understand the Wall is to take a look at the map; look at its route in regards to settlements and Palestinian villages, come here and see for yourself the destruction of land, the destruction of homes, and the increased infrastructure of control over Palestinian lives and resources. Checkpoints at Qalandia, Bethlehem and Jbarra(among many others) have been joined to the wall and metamorphosed into nightmarish prison-like structures which can cut off access of people to whole sections of the West Bank at a moments notice. The kind of control and oppression that has long been associated with Gaza has been begun in the West Bank, and I can only wonder when, if ever, it will be finished and how much of Palestine is left when that happens.
The protest at Bil’in was one of many that have been going on for months now in reaction to the wall which has cut into the village. The resistance has been largely non-violent, with the occasional stone-throwing young boys (shabab), and the predictable Israeli response and/or provocation of tear gas, sound bombs, rubber-coated metal bullets, and of course, lots of physical violence. My first experience at Bil’in was actually rather calm; the Palestinians did not throw any stones, and the soldiers did not do anything more than some shoving and grabbing. They have been invading the village at night however, and arresting boys that take part in protests, some as young as 14; there are now about 13 people from the village still in Israeli jails.
The last friday (Nov, 11) however, was not so calm. The Palestinian, Israeli and International activists were able to outwit the soldiers and reach the wall work site, and even stop work on the wall for some time. After the initial scuffle and violence from the soldiers, we were able to chant and talk and stage a great protest for the next hour while the work on the wall stopped, but alas, good things just cant last. With no provocation from the protesters, the IOF threw tear gas into the crowd, which included old and young Israeli, Palestinian, and Internationals. During this demo, I was able to dodge the gas grenades, as well as the rocky landscape, but was soon to find myself with about 20 other activists stuck in no-man’s land between rock throwing shabab and soldiers firing rubber-coated metal bullets, as well as what appeared to be live rounds of ammunition. Once we were able to get out of that situation, we were able to continue the demo and get close to the soldiers (much safer that way, really!), but a 14 year old boy did suffer injury from the “rubber” bullets. I found the behavior of soldiers disturbing, many of them seemed to really get into it, really enjoy the violence. One minute they would be standing there, but when they felt like it/were given the order, that was it, the switch was turned and they would do it all; kick grab, scratch, hit, throw, no matter what you were doing.
Abud held its first wall demo yesterday the 18th, and it was just amazing. This is a small village which is half Muslim and half Christian, so they began the demo with a prayer service by the Imam of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as an appearance by the head priest of the Orthodox Church. After that, I wasn’t sure just what was going to happen, as we were separated from the soldiers by an earth mound roadblock. Then the Palestinians just went for broke, and before you knew it, we were pushing past the soldiers and advancing down the road, right past them. I have never seen Israeli soldiers at a demo look so visibly confused, frightened and disorganized, but that they were. It is actually quite interesting to try and guess what is going through their heads in such situations, and at checkpoints, etc. Sometimes they seem to get into the power trip, and look at people and talk to them like they were dirt; sometimes, they keep a cool facade, and sometimes they look scared as hell! With Arabs so thoroughly identified as terrorists, as suicide bombers, it takes a lot to get past such ideas, and that rarely happens when you are in uniform and hold the power of life and death over other people. That said, I’m sure Palestinians have such stereotyped views of Israelis, but Palestinians still seek work in Israel, whereas Israelis tend to have their first experience of Palestine while in the army. You talk to Palestinians over the age of 16-17 and many know some to quite good hebrew, having worked there and with Israelis before; the younger ones however have been shut out of such opportunity by Oslo and the intifada, replaced by imported and desperate Thai, Romanian, and Philipino workers. Now the only Israelis they know are soldiers that kill their friends and/or family and arrest them in the middle of the night, and the only Palestinians that Israelis know are people they label as “potential suicide bombers.”
But back to Abud, which as I said was just amazing. The Palestinians, accompanied by Israelis and Internationals (including Jonathan Pollack, back just the day before from a US speaking tour along with Ayed Morrar, Palestinian activist from the West Bank village of Budrus) pushed the army back about a kilometer, during which time all they could do was hit, push and shove us to no avail. They also made frequent use of sound bombs, which are kind of like small explosive charges that make a lot of noise, some smoke, and depending on how close you are, can be a bit disorienting. They must have thrown 20 of them, but they didn’t stop anyone; that is, until they let out the tear gas! Once all the soldiers had caught up and got in front of us, then they threw it and shot it from rifles as well, and I caught a whiff of it. This was my first time being tear gassed, and I must say it was quite unpleasant; not only do you tear up and shut your eyes, but you literally feel like you can’t breathe. Of course you can, but your brain and autonomic systems get confused, so you think you cant, so it is important to keep calm, and try and let yourself breathe. It is also great to have an onion with you, as the smell of it tends to kick your system into action and remind you that you can breathe. My face was also quite stung, as I had made the mistake of putting on sunscreen, to which the gas can adhere.
So, I ran, and that was quite hard; I couldn’t breathe, I could barely see, I ripped my pants in the process, but when I finally collapsed a Palestinian medic from the UPMRC had an onion under my nose and I was able to slowly regain my non-gassed state. Then, after regrouping with a few other internationals that were in the same shape, we went back to the protest, which then had turned into a stand off with the soldiers. After some more chanting, and no stone throwing, thankfully, we left, with the Internationals and Israelis forming a barrier between the two groups and preventing the use of rubber bullets, or some other form of escalation.
Two years ago, I attended one of the first protests held by the village of Budrus, not far from Abud and next to Qibiya, the site of Ariel Sharon’s first recorded massacre of about 60 Palestinians in 1953. They have held probably close to 100 protests of the wall and despite some loss of land and trees, have saved much of their land and changed the route of the wall. Many other villages, like Abud, have taken up this struggle, and many more will. The price is high, in the form of arrests, beatings, injury, and even deaths (5 people in Biddu were murdered by the military during demonstrations One young man was murdered in a demonstration in Betunya and three children were murdered in Beit Likya). But when you stand among the Palestinians, and you see their strength, which is not the strength of having weapons, an army, rifles and tear gas, but strength in truth, plain and simple. Who could just sit and watch their land, their homes, their lives, their families and their futures be torn apart and ‘confiscated’ simply because some people in the Israeli Knesset say so?
Just before I was gassed, I saw a Palestinian man do something quite ordinary, but still incredible. I had just noticed that the tear gas grenade had been thrown and there was already a huge cloud billowing right next to me. But out of nowhere, this man shows up and just throws the canister back at the soldiers. I can still see it in slow motion, and when he ran up to it, he was thoroughly engulfed in the gas; his eyes were already tearing up, and it must have taken a huge effort to keep them open long enough to see where to throw it. Then he did this amazing spinning move, like he was an olympic discus thrower or something, and that thing went flying! I seriously could not have done that, even if I wasn’t already affected by gas! I’m sure he suffered from that, and probably took longer to recover than I did, but for him the suffering was worth it. Right now, the army is most likely making plans to break the resistance of Abud village, and I’m sure the Palestinians of that village are planning on yet another demo to show their strength and resolve.