Palestinians look at Israeli soldiers (not seen) with the Israeli settlement of Halamish providing a backdrop during the weekly demo against the occupation and settlements in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, October 19, 2012. (Photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)
On a hot Friday afternoon, I am sitting on a lovely balcony high on a hill in the village of Nabi Saleh, whose population is descended from local villagers and refugees from Lyd, Ramle, and surrounding villages destroyed in 1948. We are looking out over a breathtaking landscape, creamy yellow Palestinian homes tucked between rocky terraces and olive trees on the left, boxy white homes of the Jewish settlement of Halamish in semicircles up the opposite hill on the right. In front of us are a military guard tower and a check point, followed by a curving road into the village which is blocked by three rows of stones, several hundreds of feet apart. Three military vehicles are parked at the checkpoint and a group of boisterous protesters is marching toward them, waving flags, carrying handwritten banners, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” “A man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.” MLK is alive and well in this West Bank town.
Protesters shout slogans during the weekly demo in the West Bank
village of Nabi Saleh, October 19, 2012. (Photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)
A little boy in a spider man tee shirt carries a Palestinian flag, a teenager’s face is wrapped in a kaffia, an older man wears a black tee shirt, “Boycott the occupation,” with the iconic cartoon character, Handala, kicking a wall. The chanting protestors march towards the Israeli soldiers who start firing tear gas and rubber bullets. I quickly learn that the boom followed by the swirling white tail and burst of white is tear gas, but the boom without the tail is a rubber bullet. That one can kill you more easily although a direct hit with a tear gas canister can be pretty disastrous as well. There is lots of time to worry about both. I am haunted by all the young people we met before the demonstration: Are they safe? Will this be the day that changes their lives? Will there be a young martyr? How do their mothers’ handle this fear and uncertainty?
We are viewing this action from a relatively safe place, bizarrely sipping Sprite and sweet tea and hiding in the shade on a roof top. Despite the gravity of the situation, I almost expect popcorn to appear, but this is Palestinian hospitality even during a protest. The demonstrators march forward, the Israelis respond with gas and bullets, people retreat, mostly the young men run up and down the surrounding hillside, the bullets and gas, and sometimes a group of soldiers follow, hunched forward, weapons ready. As the demonstration continues, it is mainly nimble young men hurling slingshot launched stones at heavily armed young men, a bizarre game of cat and mouse, David and Goliath mostly between 20 year olds loaded with testosterone.
We are joined by popular resistance coordinator, Manal Tamimi, a mother of four who is anxious for her children but proud of their bravery and resilience. Israeli soldiers killed her father when she was young and she has had more than her share of injuries, arrests, and detention in Israeli jails. Her son Osama was once arrested for hours; another, Hamid, at age twelve was shot with tear gas, with damage to his liver and kidney. He was taken to a hospital in Ramallah (they refused care in Israel) and after recovery he was troubled by the trauma. She talked about helping him get over his fear and rejoin the demonstrations; she does not want her children to be afraid of the army. She adds that the soldiers enter the village nightly to intimidate and awaken the sleeping townsfolk with sound grenades, lights, and dogs. A few days ago, they invaded her house at 2 am and searched the house. Surprised that her six year old son did not wake up, he later told her that he heard the commotion but thought, “Oh, just soldiers,” then turned around and went back to sleep. That is the resilience his mother is building.
I am sickened by the news that one boy was shot in the stomach today, but reassured that it was not serious. In a normal world and a normal child’s life, any shot in the stomach is serious, but this is not a normal world.
After the demonstration and a tasty feast of chicken, msakhan (flat dough flavored with olive oil, onions, sumac, and pine nuts), a lively group of villagers, children, and internationals gather on Naji and Boshra Tamimi’s patio to talk and share history, personal stories, and songs. We learn that the 500 people of Nabi Saleh have a long and arduous history, united through kinship and the violent experience of occupation. Since 1967 they have watched their lands and their water, their ability to travel, farm, attend university, raise their growing families, not to mention lead a normal predictable life, constricted by continued land grabs, military incursions, home invasions, arrests, and detention.
After Oslo the West Bank was divided into Area A (Palestinian civil and military control, major cities), Area B (joint control), Area C (total Israeli control and the location of the Jewish settlements, involving about 61% of the land). The villagers watched the settlements sweeping across the West Bank, now totaling approximately 253, inhabited by some 500,000 Israeli Jews. At one point the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the nearby settlements to stop, but the decision was reversed by a Likud government.
The town originally responded with armed resistance to this assault. They have mourned and celebrated 19 martyrs, and produced the first female Al Qassam fighter, (who was released from prison in the Shalit exchange.) As the Second Intifada slowed, with the constrictions tightening, they noticed that Israel began to link their armed resistance to terrorism in the world. They began to rethink armed resistance and came to believe that nonviolent popular resistance against the occupation, (defined as any resistance that does not result in killing), is a third alternative that they could embrace.
The popular resistance was born in 2009 when villagers planted olive trees on their own land and the Jewish settlers ripped them out; weekly demonstrations were born. Since that time 150 villagers have gone to jail for two to fourteen months, including 33 children, nine less than 15 years of age. 300 people have been wounded or injured, 40% children, and 13 houses are under demolition order.
Naji explains that his house is in area B but his land is in area C so he is not able to farm the land adjacent to his home. He has a nephew whose house is partly in area B and partly in area C. I am trying to figure out why everyone is not psychotic given the insanity all around them. Woman, who traditionally have protected the sanctity of the home, have been very important to the resistance and resilience. Israeli soldiers target them with the same brutality and arrests they reserve for the men and children. The women were unnerved when soldiers grabbed their head scarves, but they returned and are an enormous source of energy and samoud. Not only do they have to deal with the threat of home demolition (which may or may not happen at any time) but every house in the village has had windows broken and damage and fires from tear gas thrown into the home.
The call to prayer hovers over us and the lights from Halamish twinkle on the hill; another round of sweet tea appears. We talk about one of the other core issues which is water. There are five villages of 15,000 people that rely on a local well that is “shared” with the Jewish settlements. The Palestinians are allotted one day for seven to twelve hours, (depending on whom I talk to) to fill their water tanks which is utterly inadequate for their daily needs. The settlers have 24 hour access. During the demonstrations, soldiers have shot the roof top water tanks or sprayed them with “skunk water” to contaminate the supply. Villagers explain the soldiers also spray skunk water directly onto demonstrators and into people’s homes causing a terrible stink for days.
The pain of the evening is broken by a sharing of song; after such an emotional day, with great determination we sing from deep inside ourselves, Vincent’s resonant voice inspiring us: “We shall not be moved, just like a tree standing by the water, we shall not be moved….” The Palestinians, mostly the young people, begin a series of rousing melodies, laughing, taking photos, sharing our joyful voices, common humanity and determination.
We gather our things and walk up the sandy road to the expansive home of Bilal and Manal Tamini where we will be sleeping on mattresses on the floor. We watch Bilal’s documentary footage of the Israeli military’s outrageous interactions with the villagers, (a jeep that shoots 64 tear gas canisters in rapid succession, children sobbing from pepper spray, tear gas tossed into a safe house for children, IDF invading a home in the middle of the night and taking photos of and registering all the children, to create a map for future identification and arrests, an army jeep chasing children, and the macabre list goes on). I wonder about the young children sitting attentively in front of the TV until I remember, this is their personal experience, perhaps this even helps manage their fear. A brave six year old girl walks directly up to the soldiers, yelling and scolding them, reads them a poem and then notices they are laughing at her. She never loses her sense of outrage. And then we listen to the diminutive Manal’s arrest and detention experiences. There is no limit to human suffering. On the wall is a poster: “Free Bassem Tamimi!” We discuss the meaning of stone throwing in Palestinian culture; Bassem explains that a stone cannot cause a major injury (particularly when thrown at a tank or totally armed soldier), but the stone also represents the land which is claimed by the stone thrower, it is a symbolic act of defiance that is central to Palestinian resistance. I wonder if the slingshot is also a mark of Palestinian manhood, a reclaiming of dignity in the face of so much humiliation.
It occurs to me that today’s demonstration (by Nabi Saleh standards) was easy: no skunk water, no major injuries, no soldiers roared into the town and broke into people’s homes. Perhaps like frogs in a slowly boiling pot, surrounded by a strange malignant insanity, a new sense of normalcy is creeping into our consciousness. But then I look around at my colleagues and new Palestinian friends who are very clear that this life is neither normal nor acceptable, the occupation must end with respect for universal human rights, and doing that work is our greatest political and moral challenge.