Saturday, September 24, 2011

Palestine - Friday, September 9th

Early this morning I left Bethlehem and traveled deep inside the West Bank to a tiny village called An Nabi Saleh.  One resident told me the population was around 500 and that this number included the dogs and the donkeys.  This village is one extended family.  I was told an outsider has to survive three Fridays in Nabi Saleh to become one of them.  I guess I'm now one third of the way.

I was dropped off at the house of Tamimi.  I don't know what else to call it.  It's the home of Bilal and Manal and it's opened up to one and all every Friday, most likely every other day of the week as well, but Fridays are special.  Every Friday after prayer, the villagers and dozens of International activists gather together for a demonstration.  It is a non-violent demonstration.  Their only goal is to walk from one end of their village to the other.  They do so carrying Palestinian flags while singing and laughing and celebrating.  There is no aggression, there are no weapons.  There is only strong will, solidarity and a refusal to be silent about what is happening to them.


We began near the mosque, walking through the village and down the hillside which ended in a road that marked the boundary.  Directly on the other side of this road is an illegal Israeli Settlement.  At the crest of the hill we could see the military vehicles parked along the road and maybe 20-30 soldiers standing like sentries among the rocks and trees waiting for us.

I must make it clear that at no time did anyone cross outside the village perimeter.  No one confronted the soldiers.  They simply spread out along THEIR hillside, holding flags, singing, chatting with new friends and even sitting in the shade of trees for a drink of water.


This went on without incident for maybe 30 minutes.  This is only my opinion, but I believe the soldiers were bored and grew tired of being there.  Nothing was happening that warranted their presence.  Without provocation, they began firing tear gas canisters at us.  I assumed at the time this was normal practice and that they just wanted us to disperse so they could leave.  I had no idea it was only the beginning of a day long attack that continued long after everyone was forced into their homes with windows and doors shut tight to escape from the gas.  When the first assault began, everyone began retreating back up the hill towards the center of the village.  The terrain is rough and it's hard enough to run uphill without battling tear gas at the same time.  Not only does it burn your eyes making them tear so much you cannot see, when it hits your lungs the feeling is one of suffocation which of course makes you panic.  One other nasty effect I was unaware of until then was that it also burns any exposed skin.


  Anyway, we retreated to the top of the hill, recovered a bit and began walking towards the other end of the village and we were assaulted again.  There were now soldiers on the hills all around the village and the canisters were flying at us from all directions.  It was impossible to know which way to run.  People were falling down, unable to see through tears and the scarves and t-shirts over their faces.  The panic you feel is unbelievable.  Everything burns and you cannot get away from it fast enough.  The gas itself isn't even the most dangerous part.  They're firing directly at you and at such close range that the canisters themselves can cause grievous injury if you take a direct hit which several people did.  Volunteers from the Red Crescent were in the village in case of injuries but it's chaos during such an event and it's difficult to know what's happening right in front of you.


Most everyone (excuse my choice of words) hauled ass for shelter inside a house.  Any house.  I really thought that must be the end of it because what else could their goal be but to interrupt the demonstration and send everyone running back into their homes.  Maybe 20 people took shelter in the same house as me.  Everyone was checked to make sure they were alright, eyes were rinsed out, the older women and youngest children went into an interior room where they were protected from the windows.  When the shots became fewer, we ventured onto the rooftops to see what the IDF was doing.  By this time they were on foot and walking through the village, periodically firing at anyone that was still out demonstrating.

It calmed down for awhile though they wouldn't leave.  Every so often they would fire tear gas close enough that we would have to retreat back inside the stairwells, close the doors and wait.  During these hours the "shabab" (young men) of the village began the rock throwing.  This I struggle to understand.  I know they are angry and they are provoked but I can't comprehend how it results in such blatant disregard for their own lives.  The odds of them actually inflicting any harm on a soldier in riot gear or an armored vehicle is so small that I cannot understand their willingness to risk injury, arrest or even death to accomplish this.  I want to understand but right now it makes my head hurt just trying to rationalize this behavior.  The adults do not even try to stop them.  When a rock hits a vehicle, everyone cheers.  Nevermind that as soon as it happens, the soldiers open the doors, jump out and start firing rubber bullets at them.


At some point, the IDF seemed to leave.  They vanished from the streets which only made me fear what was coming next.  Some vehicles were still down on the road and we could hear shots in the distance but no soldiers were visible.  The shabab seemed to have expected this and they immediately began constructing a road block at the main entrance to the village, right next to the house we were in.  I sat on the roof and watched them turn over dumpsters and push them into the center to block the road.  Then they began piling rocks and so I knew what was coming.  We didn't have to wait long.  A caravan of military vehicles (maybe 6 or 7 of them) came speeding in from the other direction.  They tried to run the roadblock, which eventually they were able to get over or around, but they were pelted by stones while doing so.  I don't even remember the soldiers firing at that point.  It seemed like this must happen every Friday.  Maybe it does.  They only raced away while everyone cheered.  I don't get it.  What was the purpose of almost 8 hours of occupying this village?


I have so much more to say about this but I'm still trying to get my thoughts in order.  It's actually Saturday as I'm writing this because no one was allowed in or out of the village until after nightfall and I didn't make it back to Bethlehem until very late and I was completely spent.  I slept right through the call to prayer this morning and it's quite loud where I am.

This story is not finished but I know some people wanted to hear something of it soon.

PS  Now that I’m home and have had time to watch the video footage and really think about what I experienced, I have a theory about Nabi Saleh. Neither side accomplished anything the day I was there and this has been happening every Friday for almost 18 months. So…..what is the point? When you watch the videos, it’s mostly of the soldiers throwing stun grenades and shooting tear gas. You rarely see any of the villagers or activists. It looks like a training video. It looks like they are simulating warfare in an abandoned town. I think maybe the IDF uses places like Nabi Saleh to train for combat. If you watch closely, you see several of the soldiers struggle with their weapons, like maybe they’re new at this. Are they practicing on the villagers of Nabi Saleh? I’m afraid so.

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