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Hebron rally: “Like everyone else, we want to be free”

21 Wednesday 2011 | International Solidarity Movement, West Bank

A huge rally for Palestinian statehood surged through the streets of Hebron all day Wednesday, mobilizing thousands and culminating in prolonged and sustained Israeli military attacks on Palestinian civilians in the narrow and crowded markets of the Old City.

The demonstration began at 10:30 AM around the Hebron Municipality area, also called Baladiya Square. After an impassioned speech, a large crowd carried Palestinian flags, pictures of Mahmoud Abbas, and signs saying ‘UN 194’ and ‘No Veto’ through the streets of Hebron. As they neared the Israeli checkpoint at the entrance to Shuhada Street, which blocks off the tiny island of Israeli settlers at the center of town from the rest of Hebron, armed policemen and riot squads from the Palestinian Authority blocked the pathway of the protesters at Beer Al-Saba’ street, imploring them not to continue. The face-off between protesters and PA lasted a few minutes, after which protesters broke through the line of policemen and began to stream down the street towards the checkpoint.

Moments later, Israeli soldiers positioned in front of the checkpoint, fired volleys of tear gas into the crowded downtown Hebron street. Protesters, along with the throngs of civilian bystanders who were simply going about their Wednesday morning, ducked into the shops that lined Beer Al-Saba’ street, or jumped into service taxis to avoid the gas.

Said an international activist, “It was chaotic, nobody knew what to do. There were taxi drivers and businessmen and store employees running around, trying to get away from the tear gas.”

The crowd then dispersed, and made its way back to Baladiya Square and the Hebron municipality, away from the borders of the Israeli-controlled H2 district of Hebron. There, under enormous banners that read ‘UN 194’ and ‘Palestinian state’, thousands of people paraded and danced in the streets, circling the square in huge groups, chanting and cheering. Trucks unloaded free bottles of water throughout the massive crowd, and men and women, boys and girls, young and old rejoiced together sharing a common hope.

“People here are united,” said a senior resident of Hebron at the rally, “because of one common belief, which is shared by all people over the world at all periods of time- that occupation is bad. We are here under the sun because we love freedom, like everyone else in the world, and we want to be a free people. This is a part of the same thing that has happened in Egypt and Tunisia and elsewhere. We want to be ruled by nobody but ourselves.”

As waves of demonstrators began to spill out from Baladiya Square into the surrounding streets, however, the Israeli military was ready with tear gas, riot shields, gas masks and sound bombs, to make sure the crowds stayed far away from the Old City and its marketplace, which the Israeli military determined was too close to the Israeli settlement for comfort.

As the march began to trickle into the crowded Old City market, Israeli soldiers and PA policemen rushed in to block off sections of the market, determined to control and disperse the demonstrators.

From approximately noon to 3 pm, rounds of tear gas cascaded through the streets of the Old City, scattering crowds of frightened Palestinians in a stampede that swept up men, women and children in its frenzy. Shopkeepers scrambled to scoop their merchandise up out of the streets before the onslaught of protesters and policemen; they bolted their doors shut when tear gas threatened to creep into their shop, only to open their doors again and peak outside when the gas had dissipated. By 1 PM, nearly all shops in the Old City were closed, and the streets, which usually bustle with commerce until the evening, were deserted, save for the soldiers and demonstrators, who ran in waves after each other down the corridors of the market.

For nearly 3 hours in the middle of the afternoon, a game of cat-and-mouse ensued between young Palestinian males and Israeli0 soldiers- over and over again, the former threw stones at and ran from the tear gas of the latter, as the Israeli military swept through the Old City, enforcing a complete lockdown of the area and scattering crowds of demonstrators, who repeatedly gathered and marched to show the resilience of the Palestinian people.

“This is crazy,” said a Palestinian bystander after a brutal round of tear gas. “The people here in the market need to buy and sell their things. The Israelis have no right to do this. It is chaos here. This is mad.”

In between the Israeli military and the Palestinian people stood the policemen of the PA, mostly siding with the former as a second arm of oppression against the Palestinian people.

Said a bystander, “the Palestinian Authority should be helping us, not hurting us. I saw one of them hit a man with his stick, and I saw another one throw a stone at a boy. What state will we be if these are our guardians?”

One demonstrator insisted that “our protest is peaceful today. A few shebab [young men] are throwing stones, but we are gathering peacefully to show that we are strong, that we are a strong people and that we deserve a state. Many people do not agree with [Mahmoud Abbas’ proposal at] the UN, but regardless we all gather here to show that we are strong, and that we are together.”

The strength of the people of Hebron, who came out by the thousands in support of Palestinian self-determination, and the brute force of the Israeli military, who, in response to a peaceful demonstration, did not hesitate to bombard a civilian market with tear gas for three hours, clashed today in a volatile eruption that set the scene for what will surely be a tumultuous weekend in the West Bank.