Friday was full of events for Israeli lefties: the usual afternoon demonstration took place in Sheikh Jerrah, the NIF held a gathering in south Tel Aviv which happened to take place on the same day another smearing article against them appeared on Maariv; and I joined activist/blogger Joseph Dana on the weekly protest in the Palestinian villages of Naalin and Nabi Salih.
Naalin, West Bank – The first thing that strikes you in Naalin is how small the protest is. Listening to the Israeli media describing the demonstration against the security barrier, one imagines thousands of Palestinians, accompanied by violent leftwing and international activists, marching on the nearby settlements and from there to Tel Aviv. In reality, there are several dozens of young Palestinians and a handful of activists who desperately try to keep the fight to get their village’s lands back alive.
The story in Naalin is very simple: the village was one of the victims of Israel’s decision to construct its security barrier well inside the West Bank, on Palestinian land and around most big settlements. A fence – and later on, a wall – was built a few hundreds meters from the houses of Naalin, separating the village’s poor farmers from about a quarter of their land.
The peak of the protest was during the work on the fence, around 2008. The army’s responds was brutal: 5 protesters, including an 11 years old kid, were killed, many more injured. Most Palestinian activists were arrested and are kept under Administrative Detention. Israelis who tries to help the villagers are constantly harassed and arrested as well, international activists are deported.
In the early afternoon, a few dozens Palestinians, men and boys, walk with flags walk to the wall at the edge of the village. They start shouting in Arab, Hebrew and English “this wall will fall”. Behind the wall is the security fence itself. The protesters try to plant a flag on the wall and some throw stones on the fence. The soldiers on the other side of the fence respond immediately with tear gas. The protesters move back, than some throw stones, the soldier respond with more gas, the protesters move back, and this goes on for a couple of hours.
The handful of Israelis and international activists are not throwing stones nor shouting. Most of them just stand quietly; some take pictures and videos of the events. The assumption is that their presence helps tame the soldiers and brings comfort and moral support to the village’s people. The soldiers keep shooting tear gas, four or five grenades at a time. From time to time the wind carries the gas in our direction. At one point, my eyes and mouth burn real bad, but the effect lasts just for for a few minutes.
All this time, on the hill in front of us, life goes on as usual in the huge Hashmonaim settlement. If you ignore what’s happening near us, it looks like your ordinary Israeli suburb. In a way it is: the drive to Tel Aviv takes less than half an hour.
After a couple of hours we head back. The Israelis exchange a few words with the Palestinians, and drive out of the village, taking special care to aviod army roadblocks.
The protest in Nabi Salih broke a few months ago, after the settlers from nearby Halamish took over a small spring that was a used by the villages’ farmers. The settlers planted flags and built a fence around the spring, and prevented the farmers from reaching it with their herds. The spring stands in the heart of private Palestinian land whose ownership is not disputed, though the spring itself is not on private land.
Fearing the protest might spread to other villages in the area, the army used tremendous force against the demonstrators. A 14 years old boy was hit by a bullet in his head; he is still in a coma. Many others, Palestinians and Israelis, were injured. Soldiers broke into the village itself and used anti-protest ammunition. The soldiers also sprayed protesters and houses using the notorious “Skunk” cannon, which spreads unidentified organic material with unbearable smell. According to Israelis who witnessed it in action, the use of the Skunk is perhaps the most dehumanizing and humiliating measure the army is taking. “It shows how they don’t see the Palestinians as people anymore,” told me one of the protesters, “they are literally spraying them with shit.”
When we got there, the village was quiet, with just some kids throwing stones in the general direction of some soldiers; and even this didn’t last long. As it turned, the IDF promised the farmers free access to the spring, and though the local Palestinians had their share of broken promises (Halamish settlement was built on their land in 1976), they decided to give the army a chance. My guess is that they needed a brake themselves. Nabi Salih is a tiny village, and the events clearly had their toll on the locals. I was impressed by there spirit and courage, as they promised not to give up on this fight. Once the soldiers moved away from the village, the local teens went back home singing.
One of the most striking things for me was to actually see how spontaneous and local the protests were. Throughout the day, nobody talked politics with me. The Palestinians were fighting against a very real wrongdoing that was done to them personally. It was also clear that the locals were leading the fight and calling the shots. The Israelis and international activists were very careful and quiet, mainly sticking to supporting the locals with their presence.
I’ve took part in demonstrations in the Past, but I’ve never watched stones throwing from the Palestinian side. Beside from being scary – you have to watch if the soldiers are about to shot, or make sure you are not hit by a tear gas can, as even those can kill – it was a strange and uncomfortable experience. I believe in non-violate resistance, and I’m not sure where I stand on stones throwing. Though I don’t know what other options the villagers have, I was relieved the Israelis didn’t take part in it.
The most surreal part in going to Naalin and Nabi Salih was the drive back. Within a few minutes, we crossed the roadblocks and after another quarter of an hour, we were back in Tel Aviv. Riding my bike on the way home, I met some good friends going out of a coffee shop, some of them continuing to an early evening drink at the excellent “Minzar” bar. Watching the city act like your average laid back Mediterranean town when you still have the taste of the tear gas in your mouth, can make you very frustrated or angry. It’s important not to give in to such feelings.
[The two top photos in this post are by Joseph Dana]