The following is the first of two articles describing the events of april 21, 2005. it's one of many texts i've written available at www.annainthemiddleeast.com along with pictures.
my updates are intended for a largely american-jewish audience that i send them out to.
while hannah was preparing for the wonderful alternative passover seder that we just hosted, i went down to saffa alone, where the village council had invited internationals and israelis* to take part in an action against the wall. from saffa across the valley where the bulldozers are working is the village of bil'ain, where there have been a recent series of demonstrations against the wall, very big and very persistent. repeated demonstrations have been effective in several places where the wall's path was later changed (slightly) in the courts, but not before many people in the village were arrested or injured because of their determined resistance. last time i was here it was budrus. this time it's bil'ain.
the villagers of bil'ain were marching down to the bulldozers several times a week until the army decided to nip things in the bud with an almost constant military presence in the village itself. many people have been wounded with rubber bullets and by now many of the older demonstrators are too scared to protest the appropriation of their land, leaving only the shebab (young boys) with their stones and cheers. saffa is in a similar situation, and consequently the demonstration coordinator decided to cancel yesterday's eventâ??to avoid any young people being hurt or arrestedâ??and just take the israelis and international (me) activists on a tour of the recent destruction in the area.
the small group of us walked the short way from the village to the bulldozers, and then along the path, commenting on the irony of our privilege to get near the uprooting of trees whose owners would risk being shot or arrested if they got so close. we stopped to rest in an olive grove along our hike and three soldiers approached us to ask what we were doing. actually, they wanted to know what the two palestinians with us were doing, and demanded seeing their id's. they wrote down the id numbers. i asked if our friends would be punished for going to their land; the soldier ignored me.
our group walked solemnly back to the village where we found a standoff between the shebab throwing stones and the army shooting rubber bullets and tear gas into the village. we didn't know how it had started, but it was clear that neither side wanted to back down. the young boys wanted the soldiers out of their village, and the soldiers wanted the boys to stop throwing stones towards the army. it wasn't a zero-sum scenarioâ??i.e. both sides could have had their immediate wants satisfiedâ??nonetheless, it went on forever. i understood the shebab's dilemma: if they were the first to back down, the army could continue stunting nonviolent demonstrations by blocking roads and declaring closed military zonesâ??something that is very commonâ??without having to worry about their own safety. i found it harder to understand the soldiers who kept yelling at me and my israeli friends to get out of the way so they could shoot one of the boys. to me it felt like more of a macho thing: they weren't about to let a bunch of kids kick them out... they would show them who was boss. obviously, if they wanted to kids to stop throwing stones, they would just go back down to where the bulldozers were working. this wasn't a demonstration; these were kids who ran out of their houses when they saw the soldiers coming.
things started to get very heated and two israelis stepped out into the path of crossfire to deter the soldiers from shooting. the young soldiers were noticeably annoyed. the young boys stopped throwing stones so that the two israelis would not be hurt. after a brief conversation with the activists, the soldiers turned to leave and the village youth let out a great cheer. they felt they had won (there's quite a bit of macho in them too). several young boys began to throw stones as the soldiers left, until they were out of sight... but they never got out of sight. they got mad. the soldiers ran back towards the village and started shooting. i instinctively ran into the area of crossfire and began waving my hands in the air and screaming as loud as i could, "don't shoot!" a bullet flew over my head and hit a branch above me. several leaves fell on my head. my heart skipped a beat and i choked back a sob.
the shebab were all running away as the soldiers approached, except a brave few who continued to throw stones. one waited too long and a soldier jumped in from the side and grabbed him around his neck, pulling him away. his face turned bright red and i was afraid he would choke. the soldiers then left quickly with the boy, having gotten what they wanted; now they had won.
as soon as the shebab realized what had happened the started to scream, running after the soldiers en masse. a woman who had been watching from her house ran out onto the balcony and began to wail. it was her nephew. she, her sister, and all the young men ran after the boy until another group of soldiers stopped them from going any further. the group watched horrified as their friend stumbled to keep up with the soldier holding him around his neck, until he was behind the trees and out of sight.
the crying women would not be held back. they pushed their way past the soldiers (who are in general far more tolerant of aggressive women than confrontational men) and i followed. we ran down a steep path and slid off a steep drop until we landed on the path of the wall, where the boy was being held on the ground with his hands tied behind his back. his name was mohammed. the women ran to him, and began prying the soldiers hands off of him, trying to free him from their grip. the main soldier told the women to leave, and one woman responded by kissing his hand and begging him to let mohammed go. mohammed yelled at his aunt to leave. i didn't know why until he turned his head and i saw that he could not bear to hear her cry. his strong face had broken into tears at the sight of her.
i asked the soldiers what they were doing and they announced that mohammed was being arrested. i asked why, and they said "for throwing stones." i saw one more sensitive-looking soldier and pulled him away. "look, i know this boy was throwing stones, and i know that's difficult for you, but you have to understand that you are invaders in his village, protecting the people stealing his land. how would you react if someone came into your house with a gun and started carrying out your tv... and then your stereo... and then your bed... wouldn't you throw a lamp at him or something?"
the soldier listened to me and i appreciated that. but then another soldier told him to stop talking to me and to take mohammed into the jeep. i stood in front of the jeep doors, holding on to them to physically prevent the soldier and boy from entering. i continued speaking: "please think about what you're doing. you have the power to let him go or to ruin his life forever. do you really think imprisoning him is going to prevent the boys from throwing stones in the future? what are you trying to accomplish?" the more aggressive soldier came from the side and yanked me out of the way, and the soldier and mohammed got into the jeep.
i went around to the side to keep talking and i saw mohammed's face. he was covered in sweat, miserable, hopeless. i asked him what his name was, and wrote it down. then i asked him if he wanted me to deliver any message to his parents, and he just looked down. i felt like a jerk. just for being there, for witnessing his humiliation and despair.
several more israeli activists began to approach and i asked one of them to translate for me because now two of the soldiers claimed they didn't speak any english. the activist said it wasn't any use, but i insisted, perhaps more for my sake than anyone else's. i turned to the man in the passenger's seat: "do you think this young man is a threat to israeli security?" he nodded.
"so you think that imprisoning this young man will secure israel?" he said yes again.
i pointed towards his family sitting and crying: "how do you think this will affect them? do you think his brothers and cousins will grow up to be suicide bombers or peace-makers?" he got my point, but he didn't want to hear it or respond. as he shut the door in my face, i hurried, "you've got one guy, but you're making 1,000 more enemiesâ??." the driver started the engine of the jeep and my friend and i ran in front of it, refusing to move. i gave my card of digital photographs from that day to another friend in case i was arrested. we agreed we weren't moving until he was released. the driver stopped the engine, annoyed, and got out. i could see the mohammed's family watching. i could see the sensitive soldier thinking. several soldiers were discussing something.
then suddenly kobi called me over away from the army and we turned around to watch together. the soldiers were opening the back door and out came the mohammed. a soldier untied his hands and handed him back his i.d. the women watching behind me stood up with joy and dismay. mohammed walked quickly and calmly back to his family who smothered him with kisses. on the way he looked over to me and mouthed the word, "toda," meaning "thank you" in hebrewâ??he thought i was israeli. we both smiled.
mohammed walked up to the village ahead of us and before long i heard an incredible cheer erupt in the village. he was home. i allowed myself a moment of happiness at the drop of victory amidst the ocean of defeats; but i was sobered up soon enough. after a cup of tea courtesy of ahmed we were on the way to a demonstration in nearby bil'ain, where 8 people had already been shot by rubber bullets (real bullets with a thin coat of rubber around themâ??easily capable of killing someone, despite their name), including 1 israeli and 1 journalist. nobody was seriously injured, but the protest was still young.
the demonstration had started out as a children's parade, with young girls and boys marching with banners conveying the damage being inflicted upon their families and futures by the wall. by the time we arrived the young children had gone, and several shebab were throwing stones. we were informed that the army had run out of the tear gas (i thought this was good news until i remembered that rubber bullets were the next step up), but within a half hour the tear gas was flying again. my eyes began to sting and i had to squat down covering my eyes to recover. a palestinian man yelled at me not to touch my eyes with my fingers, that i was only pushing it in further. he was more experienced than i in being gassed. i guess most palestinians are. he was right, and i soon felt better. i was beat. i was ready to go home.
then suddenly a jeep raced by, halted to a stop, and let out two soldiers who ran into the forest where the shebab had regrouped. within seconds, the soldiers re-emerged from the forest pulling another young man, this one bigger and more resistant than the first. i rushed towards them and he began to tell me that he didn't know what was happening. he asked me to help him. i recognized the soldiers from saffa and suspected this was another attempt at "winning" the game (if it had been a "wanted" man, they wouldn't be hunting him during a stone-throwing standoff.
filled with a sense of purpose and perhaps invincibility from the earlier near-arrest, i threw my body between the man and the soldier who was holding him by his neck. i tried to position myself in such an awkward way that the soldier would have to stop walking or it would hurt me. it worked. kobi came next to me and began to use his body to separate the man from the standing soldiers, meanwhile talking to them in hebrew. the soldiers tugged to hold on, and the man's face turned redder as the grip around his neck tightened. he yelled out and in a burst of energy somehow ripped himself away, freed for a few seconds. this was his chance.
a soldier was about to lunge for him so i grabbed the soldier's arm and screamed, "run!!" i don't know what came over me. but he ran. the soldier shook me loose after a few moments and began to run after the man, who had small head-start. he ran like crazy... so crazy that he didn't see where he was going.
in his path lay a cliff several meters high, separating one terrace of olive trees from another. in his frenzy, the man didn't realize the depth of the cliff and ran off it, knocking his head against a sharp branch that pushed him to land back-first on a huge rock. everyone froze.
the man began to release an almost inhuman moan. i ran to the cliff's edge and looked over to find him lying spread eagle with blood all over his face. i turned around and scaled down the cliff, something i would normally be scared to do but somehow now it didn't matter. i kneeled in front of the man and heard his friend say everything was going to be ok. i repeated the encouragement, although i was not so optimistic. i asked the injured man his name, and he responded, "****" i sat with him until a medical team arrived shortly after and took him away on a stretcher with the help of several villagers and israeli activists. when he was gone i realized that the army was gone too. one look at him over the cliff's edge and they were gone in an instant, as stunned as the rest of us.
i was sure **** would be paralyzed, if not worse. i looked down at my hand that he had grabbed in desperation to avoid spending his life (or part of it) in interrogation or prison. now would he spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair? i tried to remember the feeling of joy i had experienced just a few hours before, but it was gone. i needed to see ****, to make sure he was alright. i hitched a ride with ****'s cousin, the first car i saw driving to the hospital in ramallah. 30 minutes later we were rushing into the emergency room, where we found **** all bandaged up, but conscious and standing with help. he smiled when he saw me come in. i asked how he was and he closed his eyes, "alhamdullah."
i asked his father standing near his bedside what the doctors had said, and he repeated, "alhamdullah." **** was pretty banged up but he was going to be ok. i asked where it hurt and he pointed to his leg, probably broken. i asked about his back and head, and he pointed to a scar on the latter where he said a bullet had grazed the bridge between his eyebrows. in the chaos had i missed a gun shot? imagine the chances of a bullet missing his head by that close! my answer was the same either way, "alhamdullah": "thank god." he smiled again and i knew it was time to finally go home.
* [Ed. notes: The Israelis are the people of the Anarchists Against The Wall initiative.
(en) Palestine-Israel, Bil'in 21.4.05 a war zone update by Adar