"Where are you going?" asked the soldier at the checkpoint in the West Bank entrance. "To Ariel" said Teddy Katz who sat behind the driver of the mini-bus, and we were waved through. Indeed, this highway was made mainly in order to serve the rapidly growing settlement of Ariel, twenty three kilometres deep into the West Bank. But a short distance before the settlement there was another road-block, where the captain was much more suspicious. "To Ariel? Who in Ariel?" "To the Judea and Samaria College. You know, the one which is to become a university. We have a meeting with the students there. They are waiting for us."
He didn't buy it. Either we didn't look the part, or somebody had connected us with certain email alerts. "Ariel is a closed military zone until 6pm, you can't pass." "What about the other cars, why are you letting them through?" "That is my discretion, none of your business." We had to keep our face straight when we saw several cars with our fellow activists blend into the settler traffic and pass on.
For us, the road to Marda Village was a bit more complicated - and interesting. We had to take a side track, off the smoothly paved settler road, and into another world. Driving over unpaved roads which follow the contours of the hills, rather than smashing through every obstacle; winding among picturesque olive groves and small houses with their outer walls totally covered with... the competing graffiti of various Palestinian factions.
A young man named Hisham was already waiting for us: "This mini-bus with the Israeli plates is too conspicuous. These cars are much better, they go back and forth among the villages all the time, the soldiers hardly notice them."
We took a roundabout route, with the intention of getting to Marda from a direction the army did not expect. But some commander had been quite throrough, and there was a road-block also on that side. We just went on past, as if bound for the next village. Then, as soon as we were out of sight, the car stopped and on foot we hurried through the olive groves and terraces, with Hisham pointing out barely perceptible paths.
We passed houses with smiling children and old people waving from every window and balcony. A few more turns and we could see the big crowd by the mosque, with a forest of flags and banners flying above.
The organizers, kept appraised of our progress by mobile phone, had put off the departure for our sakes. As soon as we took our places in the ranks and distributed the placards from the clumsy package which had been carried all along the tortuous route, the march started. Enormous banners and VIP's in the front, followed by Israelis (Ta'ayush, Gush Shalom and the Anarchists) and internationals intermingled among villagers carrying the banners of various Palestinian parties and groupings. Ambulances and medics brought up the rear.
Altogether, quite a familiar scene, a routine to which we have already become used to in towns and villages all over the West Bank. But hardly ever before had there been a week with so many demonstrations and struggles coming together all at once, and quite a few of the participants felt really exhausted. Some Israelis and internationals had been yesterday at the scene of the violent confrontation in Bil'in. And also some of the Bil'in villagers themselves took a day off from their own tenacious struggle for the sake of solidarity with their brethren of Marda.
On the ridge above, dominating Marda in all possible ways, were the houses of Ariel - row upon row of gleaming, identical new buildings with identical red tile roofs. And ahead, as always in these processions, was the line of helmeted soldiers barring the way.
At least, today there was no volley of tear gas, We were able to come face to face and engage in a futile short parley (all in Hebrew). "Why are you blocking us? We don't intend to disrupt any work. Today is Sabbath and there is no work going on. We just want to march from Marda to Kifl Hares, two Palestinian villages. How does that disturb you?" . "We have our orders. This is as far as you can go, no further".
A grey-haired man suddenly steps forward to confront the commanding officer and his men (and two helmeted women). "It is my land from which you are barring me, my land on which the bulldozers are going to work. It is my land, and it was my father's before me and his father's before that. Tell me, soldiers, does any of you claim to have had a grandfather in this piece of land?". One or two minutes of silence, then the officer repeats: "We have our orders".
The crowd surges forward, a great wave again and again breaking against the three-deep chain of soldiers and Border Police with their linked arms. Tel-Aviv activist Yuval Halperin starts the cry of "Chayalim Habayta" (Soldiers Go Home!) and is joined by the Israelis and many of the Palestinians. Then Fatah supporters raise their traditional call for "National Unity in the Struggle" and the Hamas people answer with the familiar "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great, in Arabic). But then some of them shift to "Elohim Gadol" which means the same in Hebrew...
Then the internationals present (EAPPI, ISM, IWPS, and CPT were all represented) start chanting "One, Two, Three, Four - Stop Oppression, Stop the War!" and "Free, free Palestine!". And a Palestinian boy from the side calls "Sharon and Barak - Hizbullah fucked you up!" - which gets a burst of laughter before many others take it up. "Take this magazine off your gun, you're going to shoot somebody at random and that will go bad on you!" shouts anarchist Yonathan Polak at the soldier directly in front of him.
The soldiers are rather quiet, the officers' terse orders hardly audible. Increasingly, they resort to clubs rifle butts. It was then that activist Leiser Palas got a blow to the head, fell down and was kicked in the ribs - an event lost in the melee and noticed only by those nearby, especially since the highly experienced medics of the Palestinian Medical Relief Committees instantly got him into an ambulance speeding off to hospital. Immediately following, three soldiers set upon historian and Gush Shalom activist Teddy Katz, intending to throw him face down into the nearby thorn bushes - when the voice of an army major barked:
"Leave him alone! NOW!". The officer then addressed Katz with "Hello, teacher!". Improbable as it may seem, the officer turned out to be not only a member of the same Kibbutz as Katz - but actually a former pupil.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of demonstrators found the simple and obvious weak spot in the army's cordon: just go off to the side, among the olive groves and down the hill where no soldiers were. Soon the entire demonstration was headed that way, bounding over the rocks in the direction of the Ariel Road (Route 505 on the maps) and reaching it before the soldiers could shift themselves into a serious chase.
Route 505 is a prime settler-only road. By the army's rules, Palestinians are not supposed even to drive along it in their cars, much less hold demonstrations and protests on its sacrosanct asphalt. Upon arriving in pursuit, the soldiers started again swinging their clubs, a red-faced officer crying over the megaphone: "Closed military zone! Closed military zone! Anybody not immediately vacating the road will be detained forthwith!"
Other officers, however, seemed now open to compromise. A parley with the Marda organizers and Palestinian Authority Minister Fares Kaddura produced an informal agreement: the march could after all proceed to Kifl Hares, its original destination - as long as it was done beside the road and not on it. A small victory perhaps, not really changing the fundamental situation. Still, there was a feeling of elation as we proceeded on a narrow track beside the highway, with the army's armoured jeeps shadowing us on the road. A young boy carrying a Palestinian flag nearly as big as himself waved gaily at the soldiers in the jeep, a smile of pure mirth on his face.
written specially for TOI by Adam Keller