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The legend of the Silwad sniper

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Last week a group of Palestinian fitness junkies no different from any group of hikers or bikers or joggers in the U.S. went for a hike in the hills of the occupied West Bank. I went along, and when we came to this ridge, an older man said we were looking down at the scene of a legend in Palestinian history: the Silwad sniper.

Down in the notch in the middle ground, you can see the Nablus road, going from north to south (left to right), and making a junction with a road from the east. A flagship Israeli settlement called Ofra is straight ahead. There used to be an Israeli checkpoint at the junction, protecting the settlers.

Then early one morning in March 2002, during the second intifadah, a young man from the village on the hill at the right, Silwad, crept down into the rocks and trees above the checkpoint with his grandfather’s archaic WW2 rifle and 30 rounds, and as the sun rose he picked off Israeli soldiers. He killed 10 of them, and one settler. The echoes in the ravine kept the Israelis from knowing where the sniper was. When he had fired all his rounds, he crept back to the village.

Weeks went by, and then the sniper made a mistake. He told one man what he’d done. That person told someone else, and before long the Israelis arrested him. Today he is serving many life sentences.

As we walked away, I asked a Palestinian friend how many Palestinians regard the sniper as heroic. “Oh– everyone. Except maybe Abu Mazen.”

After the hike I learned more about the sniper’s legend. His name is Thaer Hamad. His father is interviewed by Europeans here, who give him the hero treatment. The Boston Globe covered the case; his feat is debated among war fans; and Debka file argues that he can’t have acted alone. You’ll see that the facts are different in each version.

The terrain in the story reminds me of western legend, the mountains of the Spanish civil war. The Spanish Republicans’ resistance to Franco’s nationalists in the ’30s is heroic. Think of the movie Pan’s Labyrinth or the Hemingway novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. In Hemingway’s novel, the brave peasant guerrillas make raids on soldiers on the road. There is no question whose side we’re on; though yes, Hemingway lets us know how questionable violence is in Pilar’s beautiful monologue about the civilian massacre in her village. All the fascists the republicans could get their hands on were mercilessly slaughtered, pushed off a cliff.

A modern Hemingway could never write For Whom the Bell Tolls about the Silwad sniper who made the mistake of opening his mouth. And Guillermo del Toro could never direct a Pan’s Labyrinth about Palestinian resistance. Because mainstream western culture has so far only humanized one side in this struggle: the Israeli victims of the second intifadah–most of them civilians– whose government is colonizing Palestinian land. 

If you wrote an article or novel about the Silwad sniper who made the mistake of opening his mouth, a mainstream editor would demand that you humanize his victims, and tell their story too.

Obama’s speech the other day to the U.N. General Assembly shows how limited the American view is of this struggle. He assailed Palestinians who resort to violence, but he did not address real Palestinian conditions. He did not acknowledge the chief cause of violence: occupation. 

He spoke several times about Palestinian “dignity” but did not criticize the Israeli assaults on their dignity. And while he attacked Palestinian “rejectionists” and others who would “tear down” Israel, he did not mention the main reason people want to tear down Israel– the occupation, its endless humiliation and dispossession of Palestinians. 

I’m in Jordan, and I can tell you that people here scoff at Obama’s demand that the Arab states normalize relations with Israel. They won’t do so until it ceases its occupation, the militarized seizure of land and water. Arabs know all the latest news from the occupation, in which Palestinian babies die and armed settlers rampage through Palestinian villages. That killing in occupied East Jerusalem the other day was on the front page of the Jordan Times.

I’m against violence as much as anyone on this site. But the Silwad sniper and Pan’s Labyrinth and For Whom the Bell Tolls remind us that human beings resort to violence when they don’t have freedom. 

Under occupation, Palestinians live in a kind of prison; and our elected leaders have failed to acknowledge these conditions, and the New York Times and the nightly news do a lousy job of giving Americans half the info that the Arab world gets.

That is why the nonviolent BDS movement seems so urgent to me. The only way to honor Palestinian dignity is to take real action to lift the occupation. Without such action, we know what people are likely to do.

About Philip Weiss

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