As the evening of my first day in the West Bank, 27 August, drew to a close, news emerged that Palestinian Authority thugs shot dead Amjad Odeh, a carpenter, in Askar refugee camp in Nablus. The thugs were there to arrest a man but opened fire when the camp’s inhabitants stood in their way.
I had just returned to Ramallah when I finally became conscious of the news. Ziyaad and Ahmad, two friends of mine, exchanged furious comments about the incident, but, making a spectacle of myself and asking questions about everything I saw in Jericho and Bethlehem, I did not seem to assign any meaningful attention to what had shaken everyone I knew in the West Bank and beyond.
It took calls for demonstrations to circulate for me to realize that I was no longer confined to Gaza, merely cursing the Palestinian Authority and making detached comments, when my friends in Ramallah actually protested and were beaten and arrested.
In Nablus and on our way to the protest in Ramallah earlier that day, Banias and Muntaha — two years-long friends I first “met” on Twitter — admonished me at least twice for casually speaking about the planned demonstration in taxis and on the street. Banias often pulled the sleeve of my shirt, reminding me that the mukhabarat, PA intelligence, are “everywhere.”
It was decided that everyone would meet at 5:00pm at Ramallah’s Manara Square, a place that had always signified the dissident scene in my consciousness.
We picked Budour up from an outdoor café in Ramallah. I was introduced to Budour on the phone as a “surprise,” for she and I had known each other for years but, because freedom of movement is a right Israel denies us, we could not meet in person before then.
Each time someone introduced me as a “surprise” or made elaborate expressions at my being a Gazan in the West Bank, Jerusalem, or Nakba Palestine, I was reminded of the terrible fact that I was a rare “exception,” even feigning different identities, Belgian sometimes, to be able to move “freely” through the maze of Israeli-imposed restrictions and checkpoints.
We peeked at Manara Square from Stars and Bucks, a Ramallah-style copy of Starbucks located in the second floor of a tall building. Stars and Bucks, just like KFC and Pizza Hut, is a place my friends in the West Bank always mock for being a product of the PA’s tireless efforts to force Ramallah to look like the “capital” of a modern “state,” when everything outside the “bubble” testifies to abject poverty and an apartheid colonial reality.
At around 4:30, the Palestinian Authority police were already there. Banias and Muntaha pointed at peers as they gradually gathered in the square. Every time they mentioned a recognizable name, I hung my head outside the window, finally seeing faces of people whose names and work I had always read or heard about, and with whom I often communicated and informally chatted. Banias, a charismatic character herself, said it was time for us join.
I was engulfed in a big crowd of smaller clusters. Everyone at the Square knew exactly where they were and what was going to happen. Apprehensive conversations and quick utterances of names and locations were exchanged, a supposedly familiar scene to which I was a stranger.
This feeling of estrangement was confirmed when Budour, concerned for my precarious status — a Palestinian from Gaza in Ramallah to visit a consulate on an Israeli permit — asked me not to take to the frontlines of the protest. “Why shouldn’t I?” I inquired. Attracting too much attention, or expressing too much surprised excitement, could threaten my self-proclaimed status as being “at home.”
But Banias, always a source of compassionate wisdom, said that I had the “right” to stand anywhere I wanted.
The number of protesters grew to about 60 in half an hour. Curious humming signaled the arrival of Sheikh Khader Adnan, former administrative detainee who obtained his release from his Israeli captors with an epic 66-day hunger strike.
Banias and Sheikh Khader exchanged a few words and, as became custom, I was introduced to him as “from Gaza,” which was why I got a special, but very brief, welcome from him. I only looked at him, his composed character evident in his quick appearances and disappearances among various groups.
Two empty coffins: a symbolic funeral for Amjad Odeh and three other men killed the day before in Qalandiya by the ihtilal, occupation.
I marched next to Budour, a known genius for her eloquent chants. The “authority” was publicly — and accurately — accused of collaboration, corruption and protecting the welfare of the Israeli occupation. “Whoever negotiated, betrayed,” one placard read.
Trying to understand
I was split between my observant self and my Palestinian one, wanting to partake in the protest but also trying to understand why many friends said they are “frustrated” by such spectacles.
The PA police intercepted us as we marched to al-Muqataa, Mahmoud Abbas’ Ramallah headquarters, ordering us through loudspeakers to “turn back” and protest “elsewhere.” The chants grew louder immediately drowning out the police’s call. Passersby stopped to take pictures or marveled at the scene taking place before them.
I recognized Yara, another friend I had known and been impressed by for a long time, but could not confirm my guess since she appeared to be much younger than I thought her to be.
Embarrassed to ask in the middle of a protest, I curbed my curiosity and marched along. Later, she would be the one to tell me that the mukhabarat are “surrounding” them. It was during this demonstration that I developed my first personal contact with so many people whose friendship and insights contributed a lot to the formation of my ideas and understanding of the “rest of Palestine.”
Some I saw for the first time while being beaten by the PA forces, trained under the command of the American general Keith Dayton.
Formidable rows of Palestinian Authority police blocked the road leading to al-Muqataa. The minute my eyes fell on them, pictures of Israeli police who often harass Muslim worshippers on Fridays in Jerusalem rushed to my mind.
Like them, the PA thugs were clad in bulletproof vests and helmets, and wielded shields and thick black batons. Like the worshippers, we were neither shielded nor armed, and we were harassed.
They stood before us in ruthless silence, chants getting franker and louder. Protesters took turns picking up chants where others left off, sometimes overlapping.
“Idfaa! Push!” someone behind us suddenly yelled. We started pushing against the shields, knocking on them fiercely, unable to force them a centimeter back.
Those behind us pushed in our direction and carried on with the chants. The frontline was dominated by women, the rationale being that PA thugs are “gentler” to women than men. I got a blow or two then retreated. Muntaha was beaten even more severely but never retreated. I was petrified by her courage and my cowardice.
“Beat me,” said a PA thug smilingly as he stood behind his shield. Of course, there was no way I could reach him. At one point, the helmet of one thug in the second row was slightly raised. I saw a magnificent opportunity in this, so I extended my hand and somehow managed a slap. He tried to get hold of me but, unlike Muntaha, I ran back as fast as I could. PA thugs in plainclothes ventured in during the protest pretending to be good-willed civilians, there to spare everyone “violence.”
Beating up protestors
No one was impressed. Everyone, except me and people like me, knew who they really were. I would later grasp the “full picture” when these “civilians” protected the police and beat up protesters. On the sidewalks, a crowd of onlookers, journalists and foreign “activists” watched or took pictures.
I saw young men assume their “gender role” of “protecting” women, pulling them to the back. Banias, too, was pulled but, like many other women, she would not allow it and exploded in her “protector’s” face.
Although I did not see the attack should it have actually occurred, many were saying that one protester was pepper sprayed. At the end of the protest, I was invited to visit the victim in the hospital, but I could not go that evening.
Someone from Gaza
The protest ended degradingly. Khader Adnan made a speech about PA thugs not being our enemies, that the Oslo agreement is our enemy, and that our efforts should be directed towards this. This is how every protest in Ramallah ends, friends told me: a respected figure delivers a speech at some point and the protest is dispersed. No one reaches the intimidating walls of al-Muqataa.
I expressed my dismay at Khader Adnan’s speech to Banias who told me that had he not done this, there would have been “serious” consequences for him. The scene gave me mixed feelings.
Later that evening, anyway, I would watch a younger friend’s dabke rehearsal at what looked like an upper-class Ramallah dancing club. I was a bit ashamed having accompanied her to so elegant a place with my scruffy and bruised look. Despite my unyielding exterior, my friend’s colleagues told me I do not “look like” someone from Gaza. When I asked them what they had in their minds for “someone from Gaza,” they gave me a laconic “like the ones we see on TV.”
Nablus, a reminder of Gaza
Earlier that day, Muntaha accompanied me to Nablus. It was there that I had met Banias for the first time, after three years of virtual friendship. I would prod her cheek from time to time jokingly telling her that I was just checking she was “real.”
We had our breakfast of ijjeh — a type of omlette with parsley, onion and spices added to it — at a 130-year old restaurant. Two young men in Palestinian police uniform were having their breakfast at the table next to ours. When we started discussing the situation in Ramallah and the upcoming protest, Banias told us to lower our voices, looking at the men from the corner of her eyes.
Nablus is the complete opposite of Ramallah. The ubiquitous posters of men killed during the second intifada reminded me of Gaza.
“This parking lot,” Beesan pointed out, “used to be a masbaneh [soap factory]. They [the Israelis] demolished it in the second intifada to park their tanks.”
“In that house,” she added, “an entire family was killed, and in this one a man was stabbed in his sleep.”
We went to Balata, the largest refugee camp in Nablus. Ammani, a young man from the camp, was sought after for a year by the army. So the Palestinian Authority brought him in, only to be acquitted by the Israeli army.
On our way back I saw Jalazone, a refugee camp just outside Ramallah. Jalazone sprawled in a valley, shanty structures and unpainted houses. Bet El, a settlement that houses the military court where so many Palestinians face the occupier’s “justice,” is just on the other side, on a hilltop, modern and surrounded by trees.