Witness to a demonstration: A Friday in Nabi Salih
Lisa Goldman is a freelance journalist and blogger. Her articles have been published in Time Out Tel Aviv, Ynet, the Forward, Haaretz, the Jewish Quarterly, Corriere Della Sera, the Guardian and the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the author of City Guide: Tel Aviv and lives in the city. Cross-posted from her personal blog.
Editor’s note: Lisa’s full photo set from the May 7 2010 demonstration at An Nabi Salih can be viewed here. Another set, by Philip Touitou, the photographer pictured at the end of the post can be viewed here.
On Friday afternoons in Nabi Salih, it starts like this. A few Israeli and foreign activists arrive at the village around noon, gathering at the home of Bassam Tamimi. His door is open, so there is no need to knock. Inside, villagers and visitors socialize, use the washroom and help themselves from the huge spread of homemade food laid out on the kitchen table. Bassam’s children run between the guests’ legs; and Sameeh, a neighbour from Jaffa, picks one of them up and tickles him. The atmosphere is relaxed, jovial and friendly. Most of these people see one another every Friday, under the same circumstances.
Bassam’s mother (or perhaps mother-in-law) sits on one of the chairs, her legs pulled up in a near-squat, observing the visitors through half-blind eyes. She looks like a Palestinian grandmother out of central casting, with her long white veil, embroidered traditional dress, deeply wrinkled face and thin, arthritic hands. I greet her by clasping one of them and muttering something in mangled Arabic. She responds by telling me to eat — a word I understand because the Arabic and Hebrew roots are the same (AKL), and also because that’s what grandmothers tend to do, the world over — urge you to eat.
After we have eaten and drunk our tea, Bassam says, “So, shall we start?”
Village boys and some older men congregate at the top of the village’s main road. Some carry Palestinian flags. They start to walk down the path, clapping their hands and chanting rhythmically. There are a couple of Palestinian news cameramen, looking prepared for trouble with their gas masks, flack vests and helmets – and a sprinkling of non-Palestinian freelance photojournalists. Some of them have gas masks, too. The non-Palestinians – maybe 10 Israelis and a handful of Europeans – walk on the sides, observing but not participating. The photojournalists and cameramen walk backwards down the hill as they photograph and film the demonstrators. There are no reporters for the Israeli media.
The goal of the march is to reach the spring across the road, maybe 300 meters away, next to the religious settlement of Halamish, a settlement that was created in the late 1970s on expropriated Nabi Salih agricultural land. The cluster of stone village houses is divided by a smooth, new blacktop road from the rows of identical white settlement houses. The villagers continued, for years after Halamish’s cookie-cutter houses were erected, to cultivate the fields next to the settlement. Until one day, a few months ago, the settlers decided to expropriate the spring that is located on that land. Gideon Levy explains that the settlers say they want to use the spring for a spa. They planted an Israeli flag next to it, then used threats of violence to prevent the Nabi Salih villagers from cultivating the farmland upon which the spring was located.
For the army, the goal is not to mediate or to serve justice. The goal is to keep things quiet. So, rather than adjudicating between the residents of Halamish and Nabi Salih — e.g., by telling the settlers to take their flag away from the spring and stop preventing the villagers from farming their land – the army declared the area a closed military zone. They did not tell the settlers to take down the flag or to stop threatening the Palestinians who wanted to continue cultivating their fields. Instead, the army prevented the Nabi Salih farmers from reaching their land, because that would make the settlers angry, and when the settlers get angry they get violent, and if there was violence the peace would be disturbed. That is why, on Friday afternoons for the past five months, the villagers have been marching toward the spring. And that is why, each Friday afternoon, the army prevents them from doing so. This is the story of how the army stops the villagers from reaching the spring.
Two minutes into the demonstration, with a violent abruptness that never fails to shock, a caravan of noisy armoured vehicles roars into the village. The back doors slam open even before the vehicles screech to a halt. Border police, dressed in full riot gear, leap out of the back, race forward and shoot tear gas in loud volleys. They also lob sound grenades that explode upon impact with a fearsome bang that makes the village sound like a battlefield.
The demonstrators are still well inside their own village. They are not carrying any weapons – not even stones. The group include small children; one has Down’s Syndrome. Everyone scatters to get away from the tear gas. I am standing a few meters away, behind a stone wall that surrounds a private house, which has become a target for several tear gas canisters all at once. The familiar bitter taste and prickling sinuses remind of how disgusting tear gas is; and I back away to avoid getting a full dose from the next barrage. But too late. Pop! Pop! Pop! Ping! One of the canisters lands right near me and I’m groping in my bag for a scarf and a bottle of water.
A young man standing just inside the doorway of the house looks at me and says, in Arabic-accented English, “Get in!”
Inside, a middle-aged woman wearing a hijab and a long dress sits nervously on a couch. Her son and daughter, maybe 5 and 7 years old, sit next to her, in silence. The boy is playing a game on his mobile phone, while the girl just sits on her pink plastic chair, looking occasionally at her mother for reassurance. The mother smiles at me and indicates that I should sit down. She brings me a glass of orange juice on a tray, and half an onion to hold up to my nose as an antidote to the tear gas. Every few minutes she gets up and turns on the fan to disperse the gas, which seeps in through the cracks around the windows and doors, but that doesn’t always help.
At one point her son stands up abruptly, goes wordlessly into the kitchen and fetches another onion, slices it in half and returns to the couch, holding half for himself and the other half for his little sister. To distract them, I take their photos and show them their images. The boy smiles a little, but then another volley of tear gas lands outside their front door and he stops smiling.
Outside, the local boys were throwing rocks at the border police, who continued to fire tear gas. Many had wrapped scarves around their faces, partly to ward off the tear gas and partly to disguise their identity so that Israeli security forces, which videotape the demonstrations, would not be able to target them for arrest during the night-time raids. The IDF raids the village several times a week, arresting teenage stone throwers and keeping them in detention for extended periods.
This is the image that frightens and angers Israelis: a muscular teenage Palestinian, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, a keffiyeh wrapped around his face and a rock or a slingshot in his hand. It’s a classic shot that has appeared on the front page of Israeli newspapers on many occasions.
And there, at the bottom of the road, is the image that frightens and angers Palestinians: armed soldiers inside their village, eager for action and not very disciplined, shooting tear gas, throwing sound grenades and sometimes adding some plastic or rubber bullets and skunk gas as well.
The Palestinians define these demonstrations as non-violent because they don’t throw stones unless the army shoots first. There are those who argue that demonstrators cannot call themselves non-violent if they are throwing stones – even if the targets are wearing helmets and carrying riot shields. And then there is the argument that if the villagers don’t throw stones in response to the tear gas, then there will be no media coverage at all.
Well, I don’t know. Perhaps if the villagers had all sat down on the road and just allowed themselves to be asphyxiated by tear gas or dragged away to jail, there would have been some media coverage. Or perhaps not. Then again, the stone throwers did not hurt anybody. But on the other hand, the images coming out of that demo – the classic ’scary Palestinian’ shots of boys with keffiyeh-covered faces throwing stones – are the ones that will make the biggest impact on Israelis. Once they see that image, which elicits such primordial responses of fear, they are highly unlikely to ask what the villagers were protesting, or why the army is breaking up a demonstration that is taking place inside the village and not harming anyone, and whether or not the Palestinians have the right to demonstrate – and if not, why not?
Anyway, things quieted down for a few minutes so I left the home in which I’d taken shelter and started walking toward the olive grove at the foot of the road. But then there was another round of tear gas. A voice from the roof above my head said in English, “Hello! Come up here. You can see better.”
So I entered the house and walked upstairs, where teenage Zeynab and her sisters, who seemed to range in age from 10-14, had an excellent view of the soldiers and the local rock throwers, three of whom were crouching behind a wall. Cat-and-mouse.
Zeynab said quietly, “Something so evil is happening here.” After a few minutes she gestured toward the local boys and called out to them in Arabic, pointing toward the soldiers who were waiting below, in the olive grove. I looked down and saw sunlight glinting on the barrel of a tear gas dispenser as it was aimed directly at us on the roof. “Ya banaat!” I shouted, but there was no way to beat the tear gas. It exploded on the roof. We rushed down the stairs, with the smaller girls retching loudly. One of them slammed the door to the bathroom and sounded as though she were throwing up, while another called out that their living room window had been shattered by the impact. The younger brothers raced into the kitchen, sliced onions and passed them out to all of us. A boy who looked about 8 years old warned me to stop rubbing my eyes, because I would just spread the tear gas deeper.
We sat on cushions in the living room, wiping the mucus and tears with tissues and laughing a little as we recovered. After awhile there was a lull outside, so I said goodbye and left, after photographing one of the girls in front of the shattered living room window. She giggled as she wrapped her brother’s scarf around her face and posed.
For the rest of the afternoon I crouched under trees or in the shade of low stone walls, watching from various locations, together with the Israeli and foreign observers, as the village boys and the Israeli boys in uniform played the tear gas versus stones game. Everyone had a role to play, and it did not look as though this demonstration was going to change anything. There were odd scenes, like the car decorated for a wedding that drove up a rock-strewn road, with soldiers at the bottom and rock-throwing teenagers at the top, as both sides held their fire so the bride and groom could pass.
The commanding officer was a lieutenant colonel in the Nahal Brigade. When I addressed him in Hebrew he responded in English. “I can speak any language you want,” he said, as he gave the border police permission to shoot more tear gas. “Do you speak Latin?” No, I answered, I’m afraid not. I stood there with Didi, Philip and a few others — photographers and Israeli observers, mostly. The officer expressed some interest in Philip’s camera at one point.
Didi had served as an officer in the army, and so had a couple of the other Israelis present, so there was this odd relationship of opposition based on politics, and camaraderie based on shared experiences.
From that position, near the soldiers standing at the bottom of the road, it was easy to forget that there were small children two minutes’ walk away, sitting quietly in their homes and breathing tear gas. I wondered how the polyglot officer of an elite combat unit would feel if his children were in those houses, but I didn’t ask him that cliched question. He’d probably tell me that he was sorry for them, but what about the children in Sderot, or something like that. As if Hamas’s launching Qassams at Israel justified the Israeli army’s repression of the villagers in Nabi Salih. But I did say something else to that officer. “Listen,” I said. “I know you’re not a bad person. But you’re doing something really bad right now. And one day you’ll give testimony to Breaking the Silence. Remember what I said.”
Then we piled into Didi’s car and drove away as he waved farewell to the officer and called out, with heavy irony, “Keep on making the Nahal proud!” As we approached Jerusalem and the much-photographed wall, I looked at the watchtowers and the checkpoints and the high concrete walls surrounding the jail for political prisoners, and said, “Well, at least we know we’re secure.”