Being sprayed with tear gas is a humbling experience, though not at all uncommon here in Palestine, particularly in the village of Bilin in the occupied West Bank. A symbol of popular resistance against Israel’s apartheid policies, during the past several years Bilin has been a constant site for protesting the encroachment of Israel’s wall on village lands. Residents accompanied by international solidarity activists and a handful of sympathetic Israelis persistently turn out for demonstrations every Friday, risking arrest, injury, and as has been the case on more than one occasion, death. Confronting the Israeli army often with creative means, the village has won the attention of numerous international activists and human rights advocates.
Before the 14 August demonstration began, a friend and I had a chance to sit down with Ibrahim Bornat, one of the lead organizers. After showing us the artwork he and his family make using discharged Israeli bullet shells and tear gas canisters, we sat down for some tea and began to talk about the current state of the demonstrations. As we talked, he showed us his scars from being shot with rubble-coated bullets, tear gas canisters (once in the head), as well as his wounded leg, which was hit last year with live ammunition “dum dum” bullets designed expand on impact.
In recent weeks Israel has increased its use of tear gas against protesters and a new weapon that is the equivalent of spraying toxic sewage water on the protesters which some call “stink juice.” Hearing about these tactics immediately brought to mind the use of fire hoses in the Jim Crow American south during the civil rights movement. We had a lot of questions for our host.
“In some ways, these demonstrations help Israel,” the Ibrahim said. “With so many internationals focusing on Bilin, it can make it seem that this is the only place where things are happening, and that the wall is the only problem.” In reality the problem is Israel’s complex system of apartheid, of which the wall is only one tool. Of course, there are many other villages that face similar problems. Our host discussed how the perception that Israel “allows” these demonstrations, albeit with incredibly violent “control” tactics, can be misrepresented to suggest that Israel is indeed democratic, permitting spaces for dissent while continuing to actively appropriate Palestinian land. This point was a sharp one and spoke to a deep concern that the village’s courageous efforts face serious limitations. We didn’t have the time to explore the issue further, but it was clear that there is a need for international concern to manifest itself more broadly, beyond one “celebrity” village.
After the noon prayer, and with a mass of international activists waiting in the main street, the demonstration finally got underway. With about 200 others, maybe 60 percent of them internationals, we made our way down a village road lined with olive trees towards the site where Israel has erected a barrier well within the so-called “green line,” the internationally-recognized boundary between Israel and the West Bank. Some of the internationals were clearly veteran; the Israeli group Anarchists Against the Wall are a regular presence, and others seemed to know the drill. Others were more than a bit green, some awkwardly dressing themselves in the kuffiyeh, a Palestinian scarf and symbol of the resistance that has become heavily appropriated by the fashion world.
As we walked the dusty road, the first sounds of tear gas canisters could be heard, an early warning to protesters to turn back. These first shots were fired some distance away from where we were and while some stopped, most of us continued on. Some of the press wore gas masks and at least two sported flak jackets. It was clear that we were about to play out a ritual that did not preclude the possibility of violence from the Israelis.
My friend and I stayed in the middle of the crowd. However, as it became clear that the Palestinians up front needed support, we slowly walked forward. I focused on taking photographs of what I saw, perhaps as a way of keeping my own fear at bay.
About an hour into the demonstration, some young men began to attempt to open a gate that blocked our path. It had been shaken loose in earlier demonstrations, but remained ensnared in barbed wire. Eventually, and seeming against the odds, the young men managed to open the gate about five or 10 feet. I remained behind my camera, photographing the scene, and was somewhat unprepared for the showering of tear gas canisters that moments later began to rain down on us.
I was hit in the face with a cloud of gas and my eyes immediately began to tear up with an intense burning. Unable to see well, my feet began to move under me. I didn’t fear the gas so much as the canisters which were being fired right into the crowd. Having retreated some distance along with the rest of the demonstrators, I was humbled by my own very real fear. I was attended to by a medical student from the US I had met earlier who simply told me to cry the gas out of my eyes, which I did. People held onions to neutralize the chemicals and bushels of thyme to counteract the horrible smell of the gas. The smell of thyme made me smile and I soon relaxed and began to see clearly again.
The next tactic that the Israelis employed to break up the largely peaceful demonstration was the “stink juice” we had heard so much about. When the truck carrying the notorious liquid emerged, everyone ran. The power dynamics at play in this moment were disturbing, as if we were trapped in a dance in which we were destined to retreat, despite our moral imperative. One bright spot was that the wind was on our side and the “stink juice” was unable to reach us.
A few courageous Palestinian youth began to employ slingshots, a mostly symbolic act, but not without potentially fatal consequences for them. This was not lost on those of us who looked on with growing concern. If this were my land, I too would’ve no doubt have joined them, a feeling that will perhaps prove complicated for those who preach a vague doctrine of nonviolence without considering the specific circumstances in which Palestinians are resisting, and the complex and well-funded systems of repression that are in place here.
On the bus back to Ramallah, driving alongside Jewish-only “bypass” roads, it was easy to be filled with doubt as to the impact the demonstration had on the vast network of Israeli apartheid. But for Palestinians, these actions are not about a single day, as it is for so many international activists. Rather, it is about the sustained resistance of the Palestinian people to oppression and apartheid. This resistance will be sustainable if the internationals who were in Bilin last Friday all return home to take up the important work of calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel until it ceases its rights abuses. This of course is especially important in the US, as each year, an estimated $6 billion of our American dollars (direct and in-kind) go to support the Israeli state — much of it for the same military equipment used to repress the protests in Bilin and in many other places. In April, US President Barack Obama requested $2.775 billion in direct military aid to Israel for fiscal year 2010, despite Israel’s assault on Gaza that left nearly 1,500 persons dead.
Later in the evening, sitting in the al-Kasaba Theatre in Ramallah, watching a one-man show about growing up in Beirut during the 1982 Israeli invasion, I felt miles away from the scene I witnessed earlier in the day. We should all have the luxury of such distance from war and apartheid.
Brian Pickett is a New York-based educator and activist with the Palestine Education Project (www.thinkpep.net). PEP develops interactive popular education workshops for high school students and community groups to raise awareness about the Palestinian struggle and its connections to the experiences of oppressed communities in the US. PEP recently helped to organize the first ever Indigenous Youth Delegation to Palestine (http://indigenousdelegation.wordpress.com/).