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An English politician watches Israeli soldiers lose control at a peaceful demonstration and vows to bear witness

Israel/Palestine
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Last Friday I went to three demonstrations against the occupation with Israeli activist friends. I reported on the first already. Chapter two was slightly frightening.

We drove south past the walled city of Bethlehem toward Hebron and passed the long settlement of Efrat that winds its way along a ridge, collecting as much territory as it can for Jewish colonization of biblical lands. Efrat’s enterprising Jews have claimed strategic hills up and down the ridge line. The army has pretty much let them do so, for several miles.

At the southeast edge of Efrat is a Palestinian village that winds down a gentle slope: Al Masara. Because the Israeli wall is being constructed east of the Green Line to enclose large portions of Efrat—“deep in Palestine,” as Assaf Sharon, my companion in the back seat, put it—the people of Al Masara are losing access to many of their ancestral lands. The same old story. So every Friday they have a demonstration.

The occupying army was waiting for us. As we drove into the little town, we could see them on the western end of the main road. The had several jeeps and had laid out loops of concertina wire to prevent our getting anywhere near the settlement.

Our demonstration began in the village, of grayish cinderblock houses, and proceeded west towards the barrier. The drummers were there, a group of young Israelis with piercings and odd getups, who play a wicked drumming to inspire you forward. One of them is at the front, with a whistle, coordinating.

There were probably 200 of us, including several well known activists, Yonatan Shapiro and Ezra Nawi and actor Samieh Jabbarin. When we came to the concertina wire, we had a demonstration. The Palestinian way is to chant in a kind of song, their list of grievances and declarations. First the chanting was done in Arabic, and then Yonatan called out to the soldiers in Hebrew. Finally Sami Awad spoke in English. "These villagers seek to live in peace. But living in peace means living in dignity and respect…." That means visiting their grape vines and olive trees that are waiting for them on their lands.

The villagers seek to make their voices heard, that is all, Awad said to the internationals. We are grateful to you but we ask you not to be confrontational.

There were many camera crews there. From Reuters and Al Jazeera and Al Quds satellite TV. I do not think there was any American press. Most of the demonstrators were international. The reporter for Al Quds told me that though the demonstrations are led by Palestinians, and have been for six years, the Palestinians are weary of them. They seem to achieve nothing. 

As the demonstrators chanted, including chants saying that the soldiers were enforcing an immoral occupation, I looked into the Israeli soldiers’ faces. They seemed bored or upset. Yonatan had talked to them about their orders, and they were being hectored, and some of them had big eyes. You can see their lack of composure in Nathan Stokes’s photo of the demonstration here and at Flickr. Their guns are too ready, and they seem agitated.

soldier

Awad declared the demonstration over and said the village insisted on nonviolence, and then something curious happened. Maybe one of the internationals said something angry. Or the soldiers said that a rock had been thrown. I didn’t see it. But abruptly the Israeli soldiers cried out and a couple of them jumped over the concertina wire with their hands on their guns and pushed forward into the crowd. We stepped back.

The whole line of soldiers now reformed closer to us, and began urging us backward. After that there was pandemonium.

Some of the internationals, angered at the provocative soldiers, wanted to sit down in the road. The Palestinians and Israelis began yelling at us to come back, we are not confronting them. We staggered back, and now the soldiers were angry. They pushed against us. Assaf Sharon was upset. I could see that his face was red, he’d been pushed around. He held his camera up, documenting the soldiers’ behavior, still they crowded us. Yonatan Shapira is big, he wore a wide hat and a tight black shirt saying We Will Not Be Silent and stood his ground, even as he challenged the soldiers about their orders. Look at him here– brave guy. 

yonatan
A Palestinian woman confronted the soldiers. She stood out in the road by herself. She was about 50. The soldiers said they were going to arrest her and she cried out, Please arrest me, that way I will see my son. Her son is in an Israeli jail. She held up a photograph of hinm. Her husband was killed by the occupation forces, I was informed. Here she is, again picture by Nathan Stokes.

lady
 

The soldiers did not think we were moving fast enough. Assaf came up to me and said, “Don’t be afraid of what they are going to do, it is just a stun grenade.”

Suddenly an Israeli soldier threw a black can the size of a shaving cream can into our midst and it went off with a puff of smoke and a loud crack. People ran. Over the next five minutes they threw four or five more of them. I found the sound pretty terrifying and got out of the way. Adam Horowitz says the sound of a stun grenade operates inside your brain.

It did not make any sense that they would throw the grenade, and I wondered what else they would do. Behind them crawled the jeeps. In this way they forced the crowd back down into the village.

I stood at a turn in the road, talking to a woman of about 40 wearing a red scarf. Catharine Arakelian of England is running for the Labor party for Parliament from a London district. She was as upset as I was.

"It was a very peaceful protest. Suddenly out of nowhere the whole thing became very frightening. I could only see violence coming from the Israeli side. The stereotpye is that the Israelis actually dispense violence. And I see it.

"I’ve learned that the Israelis see themselves still as at war. There is no peacekeeping function, there’s only a protective function for themselves. They do not want peace, because they don’t know anything about peacekeeping. I’m shocked and horrified.

"I said to a soldier, ‘Why do you do this, wouldnt you rather be at university, then go out to work and become a man?’ ‘It’s to protect my country,’ he said. And another said, ‘This makes us a man.’ You’re not a man unless you have done this. You cannot be a man in Israeli society unless you do that. It’s not right for young people.

"It’s makes them tough. It’s a really horrible way.

"I can now bear witness. I can talk about it back home. I can got to meetings."

What about the two-state solution? I asked her.

"I do not see any possibility of a viable Palestinian state here. The Palestinians have been sold that idea by their leadership, and they feel let down. They are being de-developed."

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About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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