Interview: Undercover Israeli soldiers arrest West Bank demonstrators

More than 250 were injured during a protest to mark Nakba day near Qalandiya checkpoint in the occupied West Bank.

Jon Elmer

Approximately 250 persons were injured today at the Qalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and East Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank. Israeli forces opened fire on approximately 600 marchers demanding the right of return of Palestinian refugees on the date that Palestinians mark the Nakba or “catastrophe” — the forced dispossession of their homeland in 1947-48 with the establishment of the State of Israel.

Palestinian medical crews reported that of the 250 who were treated for injuries and tear gas inhalation, “40 had been marked as seriously injured from bullet wounds,” Ma’an News Agency reported (“Clashes at Qalandiya see 40 seriously injured,” 15 May 2011).

“A report from the Palestinian Red Crescent said two were hit with live rounds, 15 were injured by rubber-coated bullets, and 120 suffered tear-gas inhalation,” Ma’an added.

The Electronic Intifada spoke with Jon Elmer (, a Canadian independent journalist based in Bethlehem who documented protests in the occupied West Bank today.

The Electronic Intifada: Describe where you were today. Set the scene.

Jon Elmer: Things got going at about 11:00am, with a couple of marches that left from different places. There was a [Palestinian] government-sanctioned march that left from Arafat’s tomb to al-Manara square [in Ramallah] … it was a brief demonstration.

The march that happened at Qalandiya began a little bit earlier. People had marched towards the checkpoint, where protests usually take place. The Israeli soldiers were on the other side of the wall — they had come inside to confront the demonstrations. And that set off to what amounted to about six or seven hours of back and forth street fighting between stone-throwing teenagers and Israeli security forces who fired mostly tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets. Palestinians set up makeshift defenses within the refugee camp itself and on the border of the camp.

It was hard to say how many people were in the street. It wasn’t a massive demonstration but it definitely had staying power. People were in the streets all day and demonstrations took place in a number of different spots throughout the West Bank.

EI: How would you describe the mood of the people on the streets, and the mood of the soldiers?

JE: With such an overwhelming power dynamic with massive amounts of weaponry, it’s always interesting to watch how the Israeli army operates. The soldiers move in packs, they’re constantly wide-eyed and seem to have their hands full despite the fact that they have the strength of an army behind them, whereas the [Palestinian] teenagers who are just out in the streets with their neighbors and friends and comrades are willing to stay out in the streets for seven hours, challenging that army at every step.

If people are determined not to leave, and the army is inside their community, and that’s the way that it carries out all day, the soldiers are left with very few options besides escalating the violence to try to quell the demonstrations.

We saw that late in the afternoon — the undercover units broke out of the demonstration where they had been hiding in disguise, acting as Palestinian demonstrators. They pulled out their handguns and made a series of arrests while the army backed them up by moving forward and basically trying to put an end to the demonstration. While they arrested people, the protesters began the demonstration again within moments once people re-emerged from the alleyways.

There is so much concern within the Israeli army about what they’re going to do and how they are going to quell demonstrations. If there were, let’s say, thirty demonstrations [across the West Bank], that is a worst-case scenario for the Israeli army. The army reported that there was more than ten today.

EI: What about the mood in Bethlehem, where you are based, and elsewhere around the West Bank on Nakba day?

JE: The demonstrations have been moving from community to community over the last four or five days. Bethlehem had a demonstration a few days ago.

It’s important to understand that while there are exciting political formations developing and re-emerging at this moment, there is a significant malaise that has dominated Palestinian political culture over the last few years, particularly with the aggressive crackdown on the second intifada, which really devastated the core elements of life here in the West Bank and in the Gaza strip as well.

[Israel] attacked people’s livelihoods and their ability to carry on the most basic necessities of life … So there is a period right now of regeneration which is natural after significant national trauma. And the Fatah-Hamas voided election, and the internal fighting, left Palestinians with not too many favorable options.

EI: Given that this is the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba, what are the conversations that are happening in the West Bank right now? What are people saying about the significance of this date in the context of the expansion of both Israel apartheid policies and Palestinian resistance?

JE: [The Nakba is] an important part of the national narrative, arguably the most important part of the national narrative. At the same time, day to day life in the West Bank tends to be dominated by the more direct concerns of the settlements and the checkpoints and the lack of ability to move and the lack of independence and the lack of decent-paying jobs. Basic life necessities are most in focus at the moment.

Although we read in The New York Times about these “success stories” about Ramallah and the transformation of the Palestinian economy in the West Bank over the last five years, the development aid has benefited really only a narrow sector of the population.

In general, people are still dealing with the same elementary needs of citizenship, identification cards, the ability to travel to one now-ghetto to the next. It keeps people focused on the here and now, and the long string of political let-downs and failures of the international community to affect a just resolution to the conflict keeps people modest about envisioning future successes. But the refugee issue is alive; it affects every Palestinian family.

EI: You’ve been documenting various upheavals and protests and demonstrations over the last decade in Palestine. What was most emblematic of what you witnessed today?

JE: I think what happened in south Lebanon was a very significant moment. The descriptions of people going back to their villages and hiking over those mountains today — both young children who have it ingrained in their psyches and the elderly who have never given up — today marching on the border is something that was a great moment. And it was something we can point to as something emblematic.

Although it ended in typically tragic circumstances, that type of spirit and continuity and steadfastness is what is the most threatening to Israel. People never forget, and people will never leave again. These sort of national narratives are crucial to understanding the Palestinian political situation.