20 May 2006 (this on a Friday) 2.28 – Bi’Lin
There is a demonstration against the wall every Friday in Bi’Lin, which is actually just a metal fence with a road attached to it, like the one we saw in Yayyous. But it is also called wall because it separates communities and steals land all the same.
More Israeli – and international – activists arrive during the morning and the street is quite crowded, even before the Palestinians come out of the Mosque. J. and A. are some of those internationals and we update each other on what we have been up to since we last were together. A. has been in Ramallah and Jerusalem and J. has been in Hebron and Kawawis. I mention that it might be too late for me now to visit those two places, because I am leaving pretty soon now. They say it is worth trying and they encourage me to go. I answer that if I leave, then Bi’Lin is left without internationals, and it is when there are no internationals that the Army enters. His argument is that I should make the most of this trip and see as much as possible in order to tell the tale back at home. He has a point. But haven’t I seen enough? And today I am going to see a demonstration… “But you have not seen Hebron.”
They admit that Hebron could be a very disturbing experience. I have indeed heard horrible stories about Hebron…
B. strongly recommends us to get some perfume to counteract the smell of the tear gas. I go to the shop with her and I buy a bottle of water too because she also say that it is going to be a few hours of fight, so better to have something to drink at least. The shop man knows what this is for and gives us a very special price.
At about twelve, when the Palestinians come out of the mosque, it is a good few of us, between Palestinians, Israelis and the rest of us. Israelis and foreigners have different “privileges”. The Palestinians have none. The soldiers are less likely to arrest or harm internationals; they are more likely to arrest or listen to Israelis and most likely to shoot at Palestinians and/or arrest them. So, each with their privileges, off we go to the demonstration all together.
Almost all of the Israeli activists are wearing Palestinian shawls. Some foreigners wear them too, but I didn’t take mine here because I was told that if they saw it when searching my luggage at the airport it would have been a lot more difficult to be allowed in the country – if you are suspected of supporting the Palestinian cause you are accused of being a terrorist and you are not allowed to enter. And interrogatories and searches are said to be even worse upon departure, so I haven’t bothered to buy myself one.
When the demonstration gets near the wall, the soldiers simply block the way. For about half an hour all the Palestinians do is chant in Arabic and and dance in front of the soldiers.
Then the soldiers get their megaphones and tell us to leave, in Hebrew. Some of them look like “robocops”.
The “shebab”, the youngsters, look like they want to reach the fence and the soldiers’ job, in theory, is just to avoid that, to stop them.
Some of the shebab go down the hill in order to get to the fence across the field. The soldiers follow them and when the young Palestinians outnumber them, they throw tear gas at them. They can not use anything more than sound bombs and tear gas, while the Palestinians do not throw stones. When they do, the are legally allowed to use live ammunition. “Carte Blanche”. That’s why they provoke them, to get them to throw stones and then be able to shoot them, while for the moment they leave us internationals and Israelis alone, on the one hand because they know that we are not going to throw stones, and on the other because there is no “carte blanche” with internationals. Although this could change at any time.
According to what the Israelis tell us about the Army’s rules, they can only throw the tear gas in an ellipse, because the objective is not to harm people with the canister that contains the gas but just to disperse people.
But now I see a soldier kneel and point his machine gun directly to the head of one of the Palestinian boys, almost kids, who are already retreating towards the village, across the field, away from the wall. I then point my camera at him, and immediately another soldier pats on his shoulder and points at me with his head. I see him move his lips and I read “filming”. The one with the machine gun looks at me and stands up. My camera has just avoided one shot on a head. But it won’t avoid all of them.
Some one in the crowd tells the soldiers in English that what they are doing breaks international law and one of the soldiers responds: “International law does not apply here. Only Israeli law”.
Action goes on around me and I have to stop staring and pointing with my camera to avoid the baton of a soldier who is not looking where it’s hitting.
Suddenly we hear a shot and the sound of a tear gas canister being thrown to the air. The smoke trail is not elliptic, but in a straight line, right to where the kids are. They are not running any more, because they are picking up one of them, who has fallen down. Blood is coming out of his head. They have hit one in the head, that is what they wanted.
The soldiers also want to gas us but they can’t because we are too close to them, and if they do, it will affect them too. They need to make us go further away first. So it all consists of a continuous up and down the road up to the wall.
The soldiers push us, shout at us, some times in English but more often in Hebrew, they baton us, drag us, beat us with the back of their guns, pull our hair, until at some point we can’t take it any more and we run away from their violence, or they pin us down on the ground and they squash us and it is then who run away from us.
In the short moments when there is a few metres distance between the soldiers and the demonstrators, the soldiers increase that distance and throw tear gas canisters at us.
Then we run towards them again, cutting the distance again so that they don’t gas us. And it all starts again.
I ask if it will end today. “It can go on like this for about two or three hours”, says J., who has been here before. And I wonder if we will simply go back home tired of this “game” and hurt, or who on earth will decide when this will finish.
So for the next two hours the air fills with tear gas, shootings and screams. We cover our faces with shawls or scarves; these and our cameras are our only weapons. But we can’t cover our eyes, and they hurt. And the tear gas is suffocating.
And yet we are not in back streets or tunnels; we are in the open air and the gas disperses quicker than in an urban demonstration. Most of us, including J., A. and me, run so far away from the soldiers that we almost get back to the town, and some hide behind a house. I look back to check that J. is coming with us. I see him about five steps away from me and half a second later a gas canister passes between the two of us, leaving a smoke trace behind it, almost as swift as a bullet. (feeeeeuuuuuuuuuuu!!)
I scream at the thought that any of us could have been hurt. We all hide behind the house and after a short time it all gets calmer and we all get out, back to the demonstration. I want to stay, it’s too horrible and I’m scared. J. shouts at me in Arabic: “Ya-la!” (which is so similar to the Spanish “¡Hala!” that my grandma said so often). I shout back, “what do you mean, ya-la!” and the Arabs laugh.
Slowly, feeling no urge whatsoever to get anywhere near the soldiers again, I walk behind people who are already running towards them. And the show starts all over again.
During all these scuffles two Israelis are arrested but since they have similar rights to those that westerners would have in their countries, it is not considered that their lives are in danger or that their families are at risk.
But if a Palestinian is arrested, who knows what can happen to him. They can accuse him of whatsoever they want and, since he is not going to have the right to know what he is accused of, it is very likely that he will at least spend time in jail, and will be lucky to come out as healthy as he went in, if at all alive.
Suddenly women come out of every where, and start yelling at the soldiers. That is how I learn that a Palestinian has been arrested. A. explains, “there are never any Palestinian women in demonstrations” – and indeed I realise, that the only women until now were Israelis and foreigners – “but when they arrest a Palestinian, their women come out and yell at the soldiers”. It is the only thing they dare doing, but you can see all the rage and impotence in those yells, in how they look at the soldiers, and at us.
Specially one of them, shouts at the soldier wearing black glasses. A. tells me that she is the mother of the arrested man.
There is not much we can do, apart from giving way to the Israeli soldiers’ blackmail: “We release him once you have gone home”. That is to say, the hostage in exchange of the end of the demonstration.
All the conversations and negotiations go on in Hebrew so I find out what is going thanks to some Israelis who translate what is going on from time to time. The Palestinians are saying that the soldiers should release the hostage first and then we will go. The soldiers say we should go away first, away from the wall, and that then they will release the hostage. People begin to leave bit by bit but a few Palestinian women sit down on stones on the side of the Palestinian “road” that is cut short by the wall we are protesting against. A few Israeli girls stay with them as well. I ask one of these if it would be ok with the women to film them; she tells me to ask them. I ask and the hostage’s mother answers: “for many years we have been photographed, filmed, and it has changed nothing”.
I sit down next to them, with my camera off, waiting, with them. The soldiers are standing up, near us. Most of us are sitting down. They are not looking at us; they are looking at the men a bit further down, on the road; it seems that they are expecting something from them.
A Palestinian man comes to where the women are, looking like he is going to speak to the soldiers, but he speaks to the mother of the arrested man. She is a lot older than himself. The old lady gets up, looks at the rest of us, and they all get up too, so I follow. I ask an Israeli girl what is going on and she just tells me that the man is commanding us to join them, away from the soldiers. “But the women wanted to sit down here…”, I say. “Such is their culture. A man comes, tells them to go, and they go”.
I join J. and A. and we just continue to wait.
A van comes down the road from the wall under construction, full of young Palestinian men who have not been in the demonstration. They stop and talk to the Palestinians who are waiting. I ask A.: “Who are they?” He answers: “They are scum.” I make a face showing my disapproval and he explains that they are the workers actually building the wall. They work for the Government of Israel and then they are treated just like any other potential terrorist, not allowed to use the roads they build, having to use others, like this one, cut off. “OK, they are not scum”, tinges A. “They work for them. They are building their own jail. They shouldn’t…” “They probably have no other choice if they don’t want to starve…” “Well… yeah”.
After a good while the soldiers decide to release the hostage and there is a big joy among us. Honouring the “agreement” with the soldiers, most people head home and A. and J. confirm that this has been it for today.
Considering the demonstration finished, we sit down on some rocks to have a rest. More workmen come from the wall, these ones on foot, and two of them come to where we are to talk to us. They are indeed working on the construction of the wall that is enclosing them, but they are not from Bi’Lin. They are from Hebron. They come here every day but still they have to use Palestinian roads and go through the checkpoints.
Now there are a few soldiers on the top of a hill made out of rubble.
They are looking at us, or maybe looking at some boys who have covered their faces and heads with Palestinian scarves and are now practising with some slings, but without throwing stones. But after a few minutes they do start throwing stones at the soldiers.
I look at them disapprovingly and I look at A. “They should improve their aim”, he says. I make a face like I can’t believe what I am hearing and he says: “Legitimately, they could defend their territory with guns. This army has invaded their country, it is an illegal occupation of a land that legitimately theirs (again even according to the United Nations), and the only weapons they have are their stones”. “But throwing stones doesn’t improve the situation.” “It’s not for us to judge them. It is not our land, nor our country. It is their war, not ours.”
He has a point. If we don’t like this situation, we can leave. In a few weeks time I will go back to my reality, but these boys stay here, with the army’s presence and not being able to lead a “normal” life, because this is their life, weekly demonstrations and night raids, depending on the international presence to avoid being killed – and some times it does not even work.
The boys throw stones but none of them falls anywhere near the soldiers on the top of the hill. The rest of the Israeli soldiers have disappeared into the armoured vehicles parked next to the wall. Most demonstrators have also left. It is only the three of us left with the Palestinian boys from Hebron, who are very keen to see the pictures taken by our cameras.
The boys with the slings are about forty or fifty metres away from us, to our right. The soldiers, who are looking at them throw stones with very bad aim, are in front of both groups, on a strange lonely hill; maybe one or two hundred metres away on a straight line, but to reach it we would have to go down a valley that we can’t see from where we are and then up their hill. There is a mellow breeze coming from our right. The boys go on throwing stones to the soldiers. The soldiers look on but they don’t do anything. It is somewhat tense; we know that anything can happen once the “shebab” throw stones, that the soldiers have “carte blanche” to use whatever weapons they want, so it’s just as well if they want to shoot live ammunition.
They guy from Hebron sitting next to me asks me to show him my pictures and I show him one by one, discreetly looking at the soldiers at the same time.
Then one of the soldiers throws a tear gas canister, which doesn’t quite reach anyone and falls down the hill, between the guys with the slings and us. We can’t see the canister but we can see the smoke, already familiar, coming in our direction from the canister that has fallen between us and the boys throwing stones, vanishing in front of us without enveloping us. We cover our noses out of routine but the smoke has cleared away from us.
The guys with the slings go away and leave us there in front of the soldiers. Since the demonstration has finished a while back and there is no one throwing stones or gas canisters any more, we feel we can relax and stay there having a rest from the hours we have been running up and down. It is quiet all around us, A., J., the workmen and me, so I concentrate in the pictures I am showing this guy who tells me he comes here from Hebron every day to work for Israel building the wall, that he hates doing it but he needs a job to support his family, there are no other jobs available and he is not allowed to emigrate elsewhere to find work.
And then suddenly my throat begins to itch violently. I cough and my nose gets blocked and my eyes cry when I blow my nose, and my whole face is in pain. And it is strange and terrifying because I can not see what can be causing this, it is just happening out of the blue.
During the demonstration, we were witnessing every single canister that was thrown at us, we could hear the blast first, then we’d see the smoke, and then the smoke would dissipate leaving a strange smell behind.
But now we have not heard anything; we have not seen any change in the air. We have all just been violent stricken by these horrifying symptoms.
I have not felt this bad during the whole day, which is remarkable because we have indeed received gas today. But before we could just get away from the smoke and that was it, I stopped smelling it, and I run, and I came back, and they would throw another canister, and begin the begin. Now the air looks completely clean, and these strange and painful things are happening in my nose, my eyes and my mouth, and it looks like it is happening to the others too.
They had already told us, and it is now that I remember. It is not the smoke that is the gas; the gas itself is invisible, you can not see it. The smoke tells you that the gas is coming but the invisible gas spreads much farther away than the visible smoke. And although you can breath normally, it makes you who-knows-what chemical reaction in your brain that makes you feel that you can not breath, so you breath more deeply, which makes you enter even more gas into your lungs and more paranoia into your brain.
But this is even more brutal than that. We were not told about the throat going dry and not being able to stop coughing. We were not told about the panic either. This thing, which is now attacking our bodies, which is making every part of them and specially our faces ache, and which we can not see, was not mentioned to us.
My eyes cry and ache, my nose is loaded as if I had a tremendous cold. And this dizziness… This is different from the tear gas we received before.
When we can react we run away from there and we come back home. The symptoms ease little by little. I need to talk about what is happening, put it in words, verbalise it, put it into perspective, or my brain may break. “So these are the biological weapons”, I say. “You can not see them, or feel them, they simply destroy your insides, and you still are unable to see anything not normal, out of yourself or on your skin, but your throat burns, and your eyes ache.” J. answers: “this is it, they are using biological weapons against unarmed, peaceful demonstrators”.
“But, why this last act? The demonstration had finished, we were having a rest, all had finished. Even the boys throwing the stones had left.” “The soldiers needed to get rid of us and our cameras before using live ammunition”. “With the direction of the wind, they knew that, throwing the gas where they did, it would come directly to us – that gas was directed to us from the moment they threw it, not to the stone throwers”, says J. “The boys with the slings must have known this. So that is why they left the moment they saw the smoke – they knew after the gas not directed to them, the live ammunition would come, and this one directed to them.”