If you are going to be tear gassed, I strongly suggest you rub Vicks Vapor Rub in your nostrils, bring an onion to smell, or alcohol swabs although fragrant baby wipes work fairly well, and don’t forget to bring a scarf and good running shoes. Needless to say, this was not on our delegation itinerary.
As you may be aware there have been weekly Friday demonstrations in the village of Bil’in seven miles west of Ramallah since 2005 to protest both the course of the separation wall and the stealing of village land by Israeli settlements. This protest has attracted international attention as a symbol of Palestinian resistance and Israeli brutality. Last week a woman named Jawaher Abu Rahmah died after a toxic exposure to tear gas at the demonstration. Her brother had been shot dead by Israeli soldiers a few years earlier, also at the Friday protest, and there was a call for people to come this week to express their outrage at her death and to support the continued struggle of the people of Bil’in.
Despite my strong aversion to physical danger, my aching back and less than optimal knees, this felt important to do. Our group reviewed the dynamics of previous protests, possible IDF responses to young Palestinian men throwing rocks, the consequences of tear gas and the real risk of physical injury. Everyone wanted to come. My plan was to stay at the end of the march. Way at the end.
Our bus started out on a main road, traveling though stunning countryside, white stone terraced olive orchards, small villages, and occasional villas, but came to a flying checkpoint ( a jeep parked across the road) early on. We backed up and turned onto a bumpy dirt road through an old olive orchard on the edge of a steep rocky hill, the gorgeous views marked by a large Jewish settlement, Modi’in Illit, on the next major hilltop with over 46,000 people. Again we were met with a road block and had to turn back. Our driver was constantly on his cell phone and talking with others on the road about strategies to penetrate the Israeli blockade. It dawned on me that a grassroots struggle means that the bus driver and every local Palestinian participates in some way, there is a tremendous sense of unity of purpose. Bil’in youth telephoned that they would lead us through the fields into the town. Once again we were winding up a rocky road, passed men praying at a mosque, more consults with a truck driver and then we could see another Israeli military vehicle ahead.
We backed away and then parked the bus out of sight and quietly got out, clambering into an old olive orchard, rows of twisted gnarly trees with silver-green leaves, rich red soil, tiny begonias and daffodils erupting in little crevices. We were breathless and climbing uphill over each terrace and on to the next rock wall, the next row of trees and then up again over the piles of stones. We are joined by local Palestinians leading us ultimately to a paved road beyond the checkpoint.
Ahead of us lay the small village of Bil’in, graced by the minaret, and the expansive Jewish settlement to the left. A taxi picked us up and drove us into the village. The march to the separation wall had already begun and we could hear boisterous political Arabic music from a loud speaker. I started meeting up with friends from the US, the Coalition of Women for Peace, Combatants for Peace, Arik Ascherman from Rabbis for Human Rights, Mustafa Barghouti from Palestinian Medical Relief Society, as well as hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis of all ages carrying banners and flags and wearing political T shirts. There was a significant press presence, including camera men and reporters in gas masks. Two ambulances awaited the injured. At least one person was taken out later.
The march went down the hill from the town to a valley and then up towards a wide loop of metal fencing. In the distance, Israeli soldiers were amassed on the right and left arms of the loop and the protesters were approaching the soldiers. I heard the pop of the tear gas firing and suddenly my eyes began tearing, my throat started to burn and there was a searing acrid smell wafting up the hill. I can only imagine how this felt to the protestors in the valley and up on the hill, directly challenging the soldiers, shouting, and throwing rocks. Tear gas canisters were sometimes shot into the air, spiraling down to hit the ground creating a huge white cloud of gas. Sometimes the soldiers shot directly at protesters, I could see them crouching and taking aim. There was also a large white truck that repeatedly sprayed a huge arc of white liquid that smelled like a cross between skunk and feces and is apparently difficult to get off one’s body once sprayed. (I suppose this is what the defense companies mean when they say weapons are “field tested.”) When the tear gas was too thick, everyone moved back up the hill and then down again for more defiance and more tear gas. The more active protesters were directly in the line of fire, running, ducking from canisters, coughing, eyes running and red. A reporter from FOX news was even on the edge of the action and when someone handed him an onion to smell, he started chewing on it and then rubbed his eyes with it, clearly he hadn’t gotten the directions right. At one point the soldiers came through the fence as a wedge and as the protesters then retreated, some of the press got up close and personal with the soldiers. Protesters coming back from the direct interactions brought back empty tear gas canisters labeled “ CST,” a weapon made in the US.
I was crying from the tear gas and from my sorrow and rage at the Israeli government (with US support, thank you Mr. Obama) for its continued endless land grab and brutality towards its Palestinian neighbors and for Palestinians resiliently and bravely fighting back despite endless losses. They are desperately in need of international recognition and more importantly international pressure against the behavior of the Israeli government. I was particularly pained by the many Palestinians wearing yellow stars with the word Palestinian inscribed on it, evocative of the Jews in the ghettos of Europe forced to wear yellow stars. So now in the modern western democracy of Israel, Jewish ghettos dot the West Bank landscape while Palestinians themselves are further ghettoized by the machinery of occupation and colonization.
What have we learned?