Here I sit in the dining area of my hotel with the Dome of the Rock hovering just above the screen of my laptop and BBC TV playing live coverage of the escalating crisis with Lebanon and of the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. I’m back in the Holy City after a day trip to the West Bank town of Bil’in west of Ramallah, where village leaders, supported by a faithful band of internationals, have demonstrated every Friday for over a year now. This particular dispute, as I understand it, concerns land expropriation and the hotly contested route of the “separation barrier.”
On the face of it, the cause seemed to me just and the demonstration justified but I had to confess reservations: Was this a random provocation? What purpose did it serve beyond claiming a few square meters of moral high ground? Could it make a difference? Would the demonstrators resort to violence?
We traveled by shared taxi up to Ramallah, walked across town and then rode vans in a convoy to the village where we met with Palestinians, Israelis (including one rabbi) and other internationals for briefing and organization. Finally, with drums and dancing, about 150 demonstrators of all ages proceeded down a packed road to the edge of town where the newly finished barrier slices between olive groves and their owners, where many of these newly orphaned trees have been uprooted, and where Palestinian farmland is now home to a new settlement which, by a logic that escapes me, must now be protected from the Palestinians by the separation barrier. If that last sentence seems circular to you, it means you understand.
Waiting for us at the gate were dozens of armed Israeli soldiers, some mounted on armored vehicles. The idea, we’d been told, was to mingle as much as possible with the Palestinians so that they – conducting a wedding ceremony if you please – would be less likely to be hurt. In this conflict, fair skin, age, female gender and international status work to great advantage.
The peaceful little celebration unfolded with cheers and firecrackers (no Palestinian fête is complete without them) and then gathered closely at the gate, inches from the soldiers, where it stayed for five, maybe ten minutes of tension. One man offered a soldier an olive branch. Not too many minutes later a kid lobbed a rock at the chief officer. One might say a Philistine David struck an Israelite Goliath.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. In previous demonstrations, kids threw their stones after the “grown-up” demonstration was over. The two modes of resistance were not to be combined. It’s a carefully sequenced choreography. This time, however, what began as a peaceful protest abruptly turned violent. Since I’m not persuaded that stone throwing is ever appropriate, and since hostility tends to breed more hostility, I was unable to give today’s action an unqualified endorsement.
The Israeli response followed swiftly, and was vastly disproportionate to the provocation. Like their assaults on Gaza and Lebanon in which everyone suffers for the sins of the few, waves of heavy-handed retaliation followed in rapid succession. First came the percussion bombs – canisters that when lobbed or fired from a gun create a loud boom that makes one feel rather unwelcome and hard of hearing. Following closely was the tear gas. Whistling containers left toxic vapor trails; the tight band of demonstrators quickly scattered. Even in the rear flank, I was well within range. Picking my way quickly across rocky terrain, my eyes began to sting, my skin became suddenly warm and my lungs complained. Happily, it passed quickly and I continued my retreat.
Many young Palestinians sprinted past us back to the village but a number of hardy souls – Jews, Palestinians, internationals – remained and returned to the barrier. I watched from a distance as several were pushed to the ground and beaten. Others intervened to protect them. For most of what happened next I was not an eyewitness; the road to the village made too many turns to offer a clear line of sight. Many more discharges sounded. A trickle of returning activists continued for about an hour. Several ambulances sped past and returned with limping, wounded warriors. I cleaned and bandaged someone hit on the back with a “rubber” bullet. (Israeli rubber bullets are metal bullets merely coated with rubber.) A web report by the
International Solidarity Movement has already been posted if you want to know more.
Whether today’s protest softened (or hardened) the hearts of any Israeli soldiers, whether village children learned from it the right (or wrong) lessons, whether it slowed (or hastened) the Settlement creep in the West Bank, I do not know. But it certainly offered grieving villagers a chance to say their piece, to kick against the darkness and to feel a small measure of support from privileged elites coming from exotic, inaccessible places like Spain, Italy, Sweden, Japan, England, the U.S.A. and Canada. That may not be much for us, but for Palestinians surrounded by checkpoints, barbed wire and concrete, it may be reason to hope.