Demonstrators clash with the Israeli army during a protest against the continued closure of Shuhada street to Palestinians, in the West Bank city of Hebron February 22, 2013.
(Photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)
“I hate going to demonstrations at Ofer,” said a Palestinian activist last Thursday alongside a few hundred protesters outside the Israeli West Bank military court and prison. The protest was in solidarity with hunger striker Samer Issawi who had fasted for over 210 days. An hour later the Israeli military lobbed the day’s largest round of gas into the crowd and, not able to outrun the toxic cloud, a handful of protesters were trapped inside 30 meters of opaque white gas. After it cleared paramedics rushed to demonstrators lying unconscious in the street. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society reported over 60 Palestinians were injured, marking the beginning of escalated demonstrations across the West Bank that have continued over the past week.
In recent weeks Ofer prison has become a hotbed for solidarity actions against the incarceration of Issawi and 11 other long-terms hunger striking prisoners. Due to the terrain these marches are particularly dangerous for Palestinian activists. The Israeli military is able to position themselves on high ground next to the entrance of the prison compound, but demonstrators are caught on below on a access road to the prison’s main gate. On the street leading up to Ofer, where most of the protesters congregate, gas becomes trapped between buildings.
Last week other West Bank cities organized protest tents in solidarity with the hunger strikers, but none faced-off with the Israeli army until Sunday when the autopsy of a Palestinian prisoner revealed to have been tortured to death by Israeli interrogators. Ma’an News Agency reported Arafat Jaradat, 30, died after Israeli authorities broke six bones “in his neck, spine, arms and legs,” when he was in custody under suspicion of stone throwing. The particularly brutal response for a relatively minor offense has sparked the mounting Palestinian anger over Israeli treatment of prisoners.
Israeli forces target members of the media with the “skunk truck,” a water canon loaded with a foul-smelling liquid, during a protest against the continuing closure of Shuhada Street to Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron, February 22, 2013.
(Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)
Clashes with Israeli forces began in Hebron last Friday with the annual Open Shuhada Street march. In the downtown area of the West Bank’s largest city protesters used a maze of alleyways and roads to flee chemicals fired by the Israeli military, including skunk water, flash bangs, tear gas, rubber coated steel bullets and live rounds. But like Ofer, Hebron’s streets are seamed with three-story buildings that trap the burning gas.
“It is more damaging to use chemical dispersants in an urban environment, but the bottom line is that it is a weapon of collective punishment,” said Irene Nasser, a Palestinian activist and in her professional capacity a media producer with Just Vision. Nasser described how days after the initial use of the skunk water in particular, Hebron’s residents have suffered from headaches, nausea and vomiting. In fact the entire downtown neighborhood Bab al-Zawyeh including the central fruit and vegetable market was closed due to health risks from prolonged exposure to the toxic liquid. “It was also used to spray the area when large demonstrations weren’t occurring,” said Nasser. “After the main commercial area, Shuhada Street, was completely shut down to Palestinians more than a decade ago, now residents of Hebron are unable to use the current market,” she continued.
While most West Bank urban centers have experienced a relative easing of the occupation since the Oslo Accords, Hebron remains an anomaly with soldiers regularly policing central areas of the city. When protests take place in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin, and other cities in Area A—the Oslo delineated regions under Palestinian Authority security control—it is the Palestinian police who respond. However, both Palestinian forces and the Israeli military police Hebron.
Oddly the Palestinian security forces in Hebron find themselves on both the receiving end of Israeli fire, and in a collaborative role. On Friday morning before the Open Shahuda Street march was underway, Palestinian police formed a chain between protesters and the army. Then a group of 20 officers retreated to the Israeli soldiers, prompting demonstrators to jeer, “look, they are collaborating, they are coordinating!” Indeed moments later the Palestinian police advanced on the march, beating protesters with batons. In response the Hebron marchers pelted the officers with rocks, ultimately shooing them away until the face off was reduced to Palestinians versus Israelis. But the Palestinian officers that lingered were not excused from Israeli fire, often running to escape chemical dispersants alongside the activists.
The Israeli response
Despite the Israeli military’s heavy ground response over the past seven days of protests, the army communications unit has taken a quiet approach. “Numerous riots summing to a few hundred participants, _#IDF was well prepared with dispersal means & crowd control. No story,” tweeted Peter Lerner last Friday in his only response to the clashes. The comment was made on Lerner’s first day at the helm of the IDF International Media program. Avital Leibovich, who developed a reputation for interacting with commenters on social media during times of Israeli military operations, formerly held the position. Leibovich has since been promoted to Head of the Interactive Media Branch for the IDF.
Warnings over the much anticipated “Third Intifada” has been conspicuously absent from the IDF’s current patois de guerre. Last month top-ranking members of the government were eager to decry a possible uprising. One IDF commander, Yaniv Alaluf, even outright stated it had started. “We’re no longer on the verge of a third intifada – it’s already here. We anticipate many more [clashes] from now on,” said Alaluf. At the time Annie Robbins noted the “month-long series of pronouncements from Israeli sources that Palestinians are launching a Third Intifada,” and questioned why Palestinian sources “who launched Intifadas in 1987 and 2000″ were not “the ones to declare their own uprising.” But since then Israeli officials have dropped the talking point. Instead Israel has taken to appeasing the Palestinian population by releasing the millions of dollars of tax funds it withheld last Fall after the Palestinian Authority achieved UN non-member observer status. On Tuesday 35o million NIS was transferred from the Israeli government to the Palestinian Authority, possibly in an attempt to quell the protests.
On the ground the effect of the Israeli strategy is visible, yet the demonstrations are not subsiding. Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank was bustling today and yesterday. “Everyone got paid their salaries,” noted a Palestinian photojournalist while walking through a traffic jam in the city center on Wednesday.
Indeed there is not end in sight for the now week-long clashes in the West Bank. And unlike the last spike in protests during Operation Pillar of Cloud, no ceasefire can instantaneously calm the storm twirling across the occupied Palestinian territories. Will there be a Third Intifada? It is still hard to predict, but perhaps for the first time in years the conditions are ripe for a popular uprising.