Onions and Tear Gas
Today, I participated in my first strategic nonviolent action. I’ve been to plenty of protests, rallies and marches in the US, but this was a whole new experience. After today, I have decided that I am going to start running when I get home – I got lots of running in today, and some climbing, falling and yelling.
Every Friday for the last year, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) stages nonviolent actions in the village of Bil’in which is about a half away outside of Ramallah. The Wall is being built directly next to the village, and has cut the residents off from their farmland and other resources. Once a week for the last year, the villagers have thought up different actions to implement at the protest. They have used different tactics like carrying mirrors so that the soldiers could see what they looked like . . . today the goal was to plant three olive trees in the area that has been destroyed by the Wall. The Palestinians are the one who think of the initiatives and carry them out; the internationals are there to provide a barrier between the Palestinians and the soldiers and to try and keep the level of violence down. Unfortunately, the life of an international is of higher value than a Palestinian life in the eyes of the Israeli government (or at the international media), so that is where we came in.
We (R, D, Dave and I) arrived in Bil’in a little after 11 and we met up with the ISMers. I had met some of them during the training or in other places around Ramallah, but there were a lot of people there that I didn’t know, including a big Israeli citizen presence, which impressed me a great deal. These are Israelis who oppose the Wall, and they were the ones who took the biggest risks during the protest, from what I could see. When the noon prayer ended, the internationals joined the locals and we all started marching towards the Wall. We were singing songs and chants in Arabic, clapping, and carrying signs, one of which said, “We are not your enemies”. As we marched down the road towards the Wall, we could see a group of soldiers standing and waiting for us.
We didn’t get very far down the road – we were still pretty far from the soldiers – when they started shooting tear gas canisters at us. Now, I’ve never experienced tear gas before, but the ISM training warned us about it so I was prepared. D and R and chopped about 4 onions into halves and put them in a plastic ziplock bag before we left Ramallah. The onions help cut the tear gas fumes. That said, the first round of canisters was close enough to me that I ended up with tears running down my face and I had difficulty breathing for a couple minutes, even with the onions. I guess some of the more experienced protesters said it was unusual for the soldiers to shoot the tear gas so early on in the afternoon . . . they were probably a little trigger happy because of the soldier that was stabbed and killed at the Kalandia checkpoint the day before – but that is another story . . .
We all sort of scattered when the soldiers started shooting the canisters (which can actually be really dangerous if you get hit by one, or if you are too close. Some people were vomiting from the fumes). But, after about 10 minutes we regrouped and continued with our march towards the soldiers. Now, I would be lying if I didn’t say that this is one of the scariest things that I have ever done. I was shaking from the adrenaline, the tear gas, and my fear of walking towards people carrying very big guns . . . the terrain was very rocky, and we had to climb onto an area that was basically a big pile of broken rocks – not the best time to be feeling shaky.
We climbed up onto the rocks, and some of the protesters started singing and chanting, and some of them were engaging the soldiers in conversation and debate. I hung back a little because I knew that if things got messy, a whole lot of internationals and Palestinians were going to come flying, falling, and slipping down the pile of sharp rocks. After a while, I noticed some of the young Palestinian boys, ranging between 7 and 12, were taunting one of the young soldiers. I started edging over towards the boys, climbing up onto the rocks, and pulled out my camera. I wanted to make sure that the soldiers saw me taking pictures of them and the boys. Eventually, one of the soldiers grabbed one of the boys (who was saying insulting things to him in Arabic, but hadn’t touched him or physically threatened him in any way) and before I could even move, one of the Israeli protesters was there, screaming at the soldier in Hebrew and dragging the boy away from him. It was a sight that I will never forget: an 18 year old boy in full soldier gear (helmet, camo uniform, guns) grabbing an 8 year old Palestinian boy and trying to push him down the sharp rocks. I especially won’t forget it because I got a picture of it.
The ISMers decided that it was time to try and plant the trees – and that is when things started to escalate. The soldiers wouldn’t let them plant the trees, so Palestinians were passing the trees between them, trying to get to a place where they could plant it; internationals were trying to keep between the soldiers and the Palestinians; and I was trying not to kill myself on the damn rocks.
Eventually, one of the soldiers grabbed one of the internationals and threw him down onto the the ground. The other internationals jumped in and grabbed him – they actually managed to pull him away from the soldiers. Then, another soldier grabbed another guy; he was hitting the man, and the man was trying to back up and get away – they both ended up falling down part of the rocks. Once the soldier landed on the ground he pulled out his gun and everyone started running. Fortunately (and I really mean that, I was lucky) I had moved slightly away from the place where the two guys fell down just minutes before this happened. R, D, and I found each other and started running together.
This is when the Palestinian boys started throwing rocks. It took R, D and I a minute to realize that we were running in the same direction as the rock throwers, and we were between them and the soldiers – not a good place to be. I figure when all the Palestinians are running for their lives, I should too, but I would prefer to not be between them and their soldier targets when they start lobbing rocks at them. The soldiers started shooting rubber bullets and tear gas canisters again. We crouched down behind a wall and an ambulance and kept our heads down for a couple of minutes. I guess the Palestinians started throwing rocks when the soldiers started following the running protesters to keep the soldiers out of the village.
Damages: one guy got hit in the foot with a rubber bullet, one protester got hit by a rock (friendly fire), and the Israeli guy who got between the soldier and the boy was arrested.
The internationals regrouped after a while and headed back towards the soldiers, but things were winding down by then. The Palestinians kept throwing stones, even though the soldiers were too far away to hit, and the soldiers kept throwing tear gas canisters at us. I think we managed to plant two of the trees, although I’m sure the soldiers ripped them up after we retreated.
The protest lasted about two hours, and R, D and I were back in Ramallah just after 3pm. I fully support what ISM is doing, and I knew that nonviolent resistance is hard, dangerous work, but I didn’t fully comprehend what it is like to voluntarily stand in front of someone with a gun – to stand between that gun and another person – until today. I’m not sure that I have the guts to do nonviolence resistance. I guess I’ll have to go back next week and find out.