Normalizing violence– a report from Nabi Saleh

Israel/Palestine
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Mustafa Tamimi was killed last December; and still deadly munitions fly in Nabi Saleh

972’s cover story on Saturday featured pleasant photos of children playing in a spring under the triumphant headline: “For first time, weekly protest in Nabi Saleh reaches destination: its own spring.” The story is brief, just four short paragraphs that give some facts about past arrests during the three years of weekly protests in the town – though oddly no mention of Mustafa Tamimi, who was killed by a tear gas canister last December.

The spring – recently renamed “Mustafa’s Spring” after the late Tamimi – has been off-limits to Palestinians since the establishment of the Halamish settlement next door. The town has held weekly protests every Friday for the last two and a half years, and it’s become a kind of routine:

Residents march down a hill on one side of town, attempting to cross a settler road to reach their historic land, including this spring. Usually they are met with tear gas canisters, the skunk gun and rubber bullets on the hill before reaching the settlers’ road that divides Nabi Saleh from its historic lands, which are now part of a settlement, including the spring. People start running back up the hill, the shabab (young boys) throw stones to push back the IDF, and later in the evening the IDF comes into town.

None of this is interesting anymore. For Nabi Saleh and other villages in the West Bank, it’s as regular as Friday prayers. The newsworthy event this past week is that the protesters actually crossed the street and reached the spring without police or IDF confrontation.

Last Friday was my first time at the Nabi Saleh Friday protests, but even to me the scene at the spring felt newsworthy – an unusual few moments of joy at a routine marked more often by death, injury or fear. Kids chanted anti-Occupation songs while splashing in the spring; their playfulness was a face of Palestinian resistance that isn’t shown so often in the news.

That’s the optimistic version of last Friday’s Nabi Saleh protest – a brief victory for Palestinian nonviolent resistance. But 972’s article, written by the activist collective that organizes the weekly Friday protests, ends prematurely.

After about forty-five minutes at the spring, settlers from neighboring Halamish, built illegally according to a 1977 Israeli High Court ruling, came down to speak with the soldiers. I’m not sure what they discussed, but shortly afterward, the soldiers told us to leave. I assumed we would simply walk back to the village to continue the celebration.

I took off a bandana another American activist had lent me, to use in case of tear gas.

“I guess I won’t be needing this today,” I told her.

“You can hold onto it,” she said. “Let’s just wait and see what happens.”

Instead of walking back up the hill across the street, we marched for a few yards along the settler bypass road, which is also off-limits to Palestinians. The IDF got angry, repeatedly telling people to get off the road. Most did; a few didn’t.

I’m not exactly sure the order of what happened next. The skunk gun started spraying protestors at the bottom of the hill, but I was already further up.

Then came the tear gas canisters, just a few feet below us. We started running.

Most of us gathered in a safehouse between the hill and the village center while the shabab threw stones at the IDF to push them away from the village. After some time there, we thought we were safe to walk back into the village.

But the IDF followed, pushing back at the rock-throwing shabab and following us into the village. The tear gas canisters continued in all directions, as did the rubber bullets. We also saw a bullet shell on the ground, but it could have been from another time.

I found myself trapped on a street inside the village with two other protesters, one an experienced Israeli activist, the other a frightened and confused American activist getting tear gassed for the first time. The sounds of rubber bullets were getting louder, closer. A tear gas canister fell a few feet away from us. None of us was sure what was going on, what the IDF would do next, or how to get out of there safely.

We eventually made it out without injury, finding our way to a gas station at the edge of the village where we regrouped with other activists. The shabab and the IDF were still out there. I’m not sure if the IDF came into the town that night, as they often do.That’s not part of last Friday’s story.

Nor was the skunk gas, or the tear gas, or the bullets. Nor were Abdullah Yasin, 19, or Ahmed Burnat, 18, hit by a high-velocity gas canister in the head and a rubber bullet in the foot respectively. These components of the protest are taken for granted – of course there was some tear gas and rubber bullets. That’s life here.

The 972 magazine article is revealing of a larger trend in the media’s narrative of this conflict. The horrors of the Occupation – of which the severe IDF response to non-violent protest is only one small part – have become mundane, not just to international and Israeli audiences, but to 972mag’s leftist/activist readership as well.

This is a place where children playing at a spring make headlines, but children getting shot don’t. The problem is no longer that the Occupation is “complicated,” as the pro-Israel camp likes to say; the problem is that the Occupation and its daily manifestations of violence and abuse have become normal, not even worth a mention.

And as this violence becomes normalized, Israelis and the international community forget that it exists. Occasionally, we read NGO reports that turn personal tragedies and traumas into easily digestible statistics.  More often, we – the international community, that is – reserve our shock for the Occupation’s most terrifying moments, when it shows a face so ugly we cannot turn away – like Bassem Abu Rahme’s death in Bil’in in 2009, or, of course, the death of Nabi Saleh’s own Mustafa Tamimi in 2011.

But these instances are also fleeting; we express our outrage about the Occupation at appropriate moments, and then forget about it the rest of the time. The authors of 972’s article might not care to mention the normalized horrors of the occupation at last week’s Nabi Saleh protest, but they certainly haven’t forgotten about it.  

And as these everyday acts of violence disappear from even the most local media, the Occupation intensifies. The same type of high-velocity tear gas canister that killed Abu Rahme also killed Tamimi two years later. According to one Nabi Saleh resident, the Israeli police/IDF have become even more aggressive at their weekly protests since Tamimi’s death.

No one wants to read about this. Readers either know it’s happening – the case, I assume with 972’s audience – or they’d rather not know at all. There are very few blogs or other media outfits that diligently report all of the home raids, arrests, detentions, and instances of police and settler violence – things that are normal but shouldn’t be. I talked with the editor of one of them, intifadamedia.wordpress.com, last week. “The motto of the blog is, ‘every detainee has a voice,” she told me. “But it sounds better in Hebrew.”

I think it sounds fine in English, too. It may not always be a reasonable goal for journalists in the region, but we’d do well to keep its ethos in mind.

About Brandon Davis

Brandon Davis is a member of the New York chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.

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5 Responses

  1. Annie Robbins
    July 2, 2012, 12:03 pm

    the author(s) of that particular article on +972 was ‘The Popular Struggle Coordination Committee’. +972 is a culmination of many writers, i source the site quite a lot. that said i don’t think generalizing about the blog is particularly helpful in making the point you are trying to make brandon.

  2. Annie Robbins
    July 2, 2012, 12:27 pm

    i should have mentioned that you are right, violence against palestinians should never be normalized and this has been going on since as long as i can remember. thanks for your article.

  3. Clif Brown
    July 2, 2012, 1:45 pm

    I’d recommend Occupied Palestine (occupiedpalestine.wordpress.com) as another site where the nitty gritty of daily life and strife for Palestinians is given. There are so many news items that I usually scan the headlines or it would be overwhelming.

  4. Pamela Olson
    July 3, 2012, 1:23 pm

    This all raises an interesting and important question: How do we keep people from getting jaded and burned out? I mean, living in Palestine, you have to learn to tune things out and see the good sometimes, otherwise you go crazy. From the outside, even for people like me who have lived there for years, it gets exhausting and overwhelming reading about death, destruction, and savagery over and over and over, day in and day out.

    How do you keep readers engaged? How does a news reader effectively absorb so much information and get energy from it, and a will to act, instead of feeling burned out and powerless?

    The original version of my book was unworkable because parts of it were just one horror/tragedy after another, and basically no one in their right mind would want to read it. They may think they should read it (the same way we all should eat lots of greens and exercise every day), but few people would want to.

    The book is still full of horror and tragedy. One of the main comments I get is that people tell me they had to put it down sometimes because they just couldn’t absorb anymore. And that was after I cut down the horror and tragedy by about half.

    No one can doubt how absurdly horrible the situation is. But how do we get it across without inadvertently creating a sense of numbness that goes along with years and years of horrifying sameness?

    It’s an open question. I’m still learning to deal with it — both as a writer and as a reader. Any thoughts?

  5. KimB
    July 8, 2012, 9:43 pm

    Hi Brandon, thanks for your article. I absolutely agree with you that the “normalisation” of violence is a major issue.

    Just a couple of points regarding +972, the demonstrations in Nabi Saleh and Mustafa Tamimi’s death.

    As Annie notes the article you mention which was published on +972 was a reprint from the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee (PSCC). PSCC was founded by Palestinian activists from a number of the village popular struggle committees in the West Bank, such as Mohammed Khatib from Bil’in. Also involved in the committee are Palestinian activists who have Israeli citizenship such as Abir Kopty, (who regularly attends the Nabi Saleh demonstrations) and Israeli Jewish activists, such as Jonathan Pollak, who are opposed to Israel’s occupation and apartheid practices.

    PSCC each week attempts to provide updates on the demonstrations, as quickly as possible and as such their reports are not comprehensive analytical reports, which seek to encompass every aspect of what has happened in relation to each village. Instead, they do assume some knowledge from the readers as they are simply a short report on what happened that particular week.

    If you read the PSCC website you will see that they also provided other regular updates on the IOF’s invasions and night raids into the villages (as has +972), they also did not ignore Mustafa Tamimi’s murder and ran a number of reports, many by people who knew Mustafa personally (as I would point out so did +972).

    So, in my opinion, you are wrong to assert -as you have done – that either of these sites are ignoring and not reporting the night raids, the death of Palestinians in the villages, settler violence because this is simply not true.

    Having said that I do have some criticism of +972. While I do find it to be a valuable resource for information, I do think it has become much poorer in content and analysis since Joseph Dana left. Of all the writers on the collective site, Dana was by far by my favourite and he provided, in my opinion, the most sharpest and most consistent political and anti-colonial analysis.

    Unfortunately, at this present time, the site does contain far more liberal writers (including left Zionists, albeit ones that are firmly and actively opposed to Israel’s occupation) and without someone like Dana also involved in the project these voices become the more dominant ones and it does result in particular narratives dominating. And this has resulted in some decrease in active reporting of some of the issues you have mentioned. Instead, they tend to rely on reprints from groups like PSCC, where as when Dana was involved, he was main contributors to +972 who regularly reported on Nabi Saleh as he regularly was was involved in the demonstrations and was also actively involved in the work of the PSCC.

    Finally, in relation to the demonstrations which take place in Nabi Saleh each week, they are NOT organised by the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee. They are organised by the Nabi Saleh Popular Struggle Committee from the village. PSCC supports the demonstrations.

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