Monday, June 23, 2008

Football match ends in cloud of tear gas

About 12 kilometers west of Ramallah, the village of Bil’in has been home to a weekly protest against the Israeli separation barrier for over three years now. Like the large city of Hebron in the southern West Bank, Bil’in (boasting a scant 1% of Hebron’s population) has become both flashpoint and metaphor for the conflict between Israel and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Several differences between the two locations, however, come to mind.

First, whereas the protests in Hebron are led by former IDF soldiers who want the world to see the urban injustice of the apartheid system they once helped to enforce, the weekly protest in Bil’in is led by rural Palestinians who have been cut off from 50% of their farmland by the separation barrier whose route here snakes some 4 kilometers east of the Green Line.

Second, whereas the conflict in Hebron concerns access to an ancient site holy to both Jews and Muslims—the grave of Abraham, Sarah and four other patriarchs—the dispute in Bil’in concerns the location and impact of an Israeli settlement (Modi’in Illit) established on Palestinian farmland.

Third, while Hebron testifies to the power of the Zionist lunatic fringe to manipulate Israeli security forces (both IDF and police) and to prevent them from enforcing Israel’s own High Court rulings, tiny Bil’in shows that the IDF is entirely capable of moral and legal failure all by itself.

I returned to Bil’in a few weeks ago, almost two years after my first visit, to lend timid support to a group of brave local organizers whose recent legal victories in Israel’s Courts have made no practical difference on the ground for olive farmers. Ignoring the Court’s judgment, the IDF has not changed the route of the barrier due, they contend, to “security” concerns. This is what happened.

Around noon on Friday, June 6, about 200 locals and internationals (many of whom were concluding a 3-day conference on non-violent resistance) began our westward march through the village, and beyond, to the vicinity of the barrier. For each weekly demonstration the local committee plans a different theme; the theme for this day was football (i.e., American soccer). It would be Palestine against “the world” (which meant mostly Italian and French men in their early 30s). We halted our march a “safe” ½ kilometer (perhaps more) from the barrier, at the site of the football “field” which was no more than a cleared and furrowed patch of rocks and dirt. A formal beginning gave way to an intense, closely fought match under the non-partisan noonday sun. Local children and weathered grandparents looked on. Cameras clicked. Everyone cheered, specially for the home team. For a few moments all was well.

We were about midway through the second half—as I recall Palestine was up by a goal—when a lone Israeli jeep growled along the road that hugged the opposite side of the barrier and halted, inexplicably, 1/3 kilometer or so from the game. Perhaps they wanted a better vantage point. Perhaps sport had transcended conflict even here in the West Bank. Or perhaps not.

Without warning or provocation—God is my witness—soldiers emerged from the jeep to fire multiple rounds of tear gas, skillfully avoiding the spectators but landing their toxic canisters just upwind. In seconds the game was over. Crowds and athletes alike stumbled toward the village and away from the wind-borne poison. Faces burned. Eyes watered. Chests heaved.

What kind of malice is this wherein soldiers gas, without provocation and with utter impunity, a peaceful, legal public gathering? Which side in this bizarre, asymmetrical contest is terrorizing which?

Daunted(?), we gathered like shell-shocked, novice infantry under the shade of a large tree where one of the organizers, William Wallace-like, offered inspiration and provided (slightly ill-timed) instructions on how to handle the effects of tear gas. I bantered with a Jerusalem-based journalist from CNN who, alas, was not there on assignment. (If only Britney or Angelina had been in attendance.) After 40 minutes of mustering, we were joined by a parade of cheering, flag-waving locals coming directly from prayer at the mosque. Swelling their ranks we proceeded together to the wall. Several leaned on canes. One rode an electric wheelchair.

Bil’in choreography is largely predictable. The crowd gathers at the fence. Someone reads a declaration (in Arabic). Anti-wall chants rise up. Tension mounts as Israeli soldiers move from behind concrete barricades. An IDF commander broadcasts something in Hebrew, no doubt declaring the area a “closed military zone” and charging us to leave at once. We stay. Nonviolently, and well inside the barrier on indisputably Palestinian soil, we stay. Then, percussion grenades followed immediately by tear gas. (Or was it the other way around?) Dozens of canisters launch heavenward, gaseous tails smearing their profanely inhumane graffiti. Civilians, gasping and tearful, fall back. IDF troops, armed and emboldened, reinforce their demands. Off to the side kids start throwing stones. More weapons discharge. Gas forces another retreat. “Rubber” bullets chase the fleeing (not advancing) crowds. A dozen Red Crescent volunteers, until now huddled under a tree, move in to attend the wounded. A siren announces the ambulance’s arrival. As it turns out, among those feeling the effects of the gas were European Parliament Vice-President Luisa Morgantini, Irish Nobel laureate, Mairead Corrigan and an Italian judge, Julio Toscano.

This time differed in small ways from my visit two years ago. The barrier has a new, more permanent look. One cameraman ominously sported a gas mask. Grass fires broke out where several of the canisters landed. (Those who sought to extinguish fires near the barrier were gassed, by the way.) Thankfully, this time I saw no soldiers cross the barrier to seize and beat demonstrators. Oh, and this time I was proudly demonstrating alongside my 19 year-old daughter.

Otherwise the depressing choreography has changed little since 2006. March. Demonstrate. Run. Gasp. Run. Regroup. Watch for vapor trails. Stay upwind. Fall back. Eventually my daughter and I returned to the village and boarded a serveece taxi bound for Ramallah, home of the Stars and Bucks from which perch we could survey the city square, sip coffee and ponder the twisted normalcy of another day in Palestine.

1 comment:

Isaac said...

Dude, I have to go with you the next time. Please invite me. This is stuff I have to experience. What a wonderful father-daughter moment. That's one cool daughter if she'd rather suffer a summer of tear gas than hang out at malls all day.