We attended a rally at the Ofer Checkpoint (in Ramallah) organised by students of Birzeit University. It evolved into teargas, burning tires, rubber bullets, and stone throwing.
Wearing a borrowed gas mask I was able to stay in the cloud of gas where the demonstrators, press and soldiers did not. That allowed me to be standing in the space between them when the gas cleared away and as the line of conflict stabilised. I was obviously not a soldier and not a demonstrator. I stood in plain sight at one spot between them (a little closer to the demonstrators because their aim was wilder), but out of the direct line of fire, holding a peaceful presence observing both sides more closely than I have been able to in smiliar demonstrations.
|Teargas rising over my position|
I do not know if my presence changed things, but it felt, to me, like it did. Just standing there a peacfull presence in the middle as others ran around, hiding, throwing stones and, shooting. It seemed clear that both sides were generally avoiding hitting me.
Most of the demonstrators' activity seemed to be boys seeing how far forward into the range of the soldiers they dared get, running from one more or less protected place to another. Burning tires sometimes created a smoke screene.
A percentage of the boys, would put a stone in their sling, start swinging it, run forward release it at the soldiers and, then run back. I could see that most of the rocks fell way wide of the mark. And from what I could see they all fell way short of the soldiers.
One of the boys danced back and forth, with a Palestinian flag flying proudly, about as close to the occupying soldiers as any of the young men got. He kept moving which reduced the chance of being a target for the rubber bullets. But he was not throwing stones and this group of soldiers did not seem inclined to try to shoot at him.
|Carrying the flag in range of the soldiers. They are behind the wall in back on left side of photo|
I watched as one young man manuevred himself forward with gasoline in a bottle. Then finally, to the cheers of the demonstrators, lit the rag, ran out and, threw the Molotov cocktail at the soldiers. It travelled about 30 feet, over 100 feet short of the soldiers. It went out when it hit the ground. (Buried in the mystique of Molotov Cocktails is the fact they are generally pretty ineffective.)
At another point some young men dragged a couch out into the road (probably just outside the range of the rubber bullets) and sat for a short time flaunting the soldiers.
It was clear that the boys were not able to put the soldiers in any form of bodily risk. Leaving me wondering why they would put themselves at personal risk, risk of hospitalisation, to throw stones and clash with the soldiers. I can only imagine how I would feel as a young man under years of a crushing occupation (certainly the whole life of the boys demonstrating) - my father can not tend his land (which he inherited from my great grand father), my cousin gets arrested and tortured in jail for no reason, I can not walk the street of my village free from fear, my neighbor's house is intentionally demolished by the occupying forces, I just plain have no future, and the noose around the life of Palestine, my home land, keeps getting tighter while the world stands by quietly. Under the occupation maybe this demonstration is just an outlet for their anger and frustration. Maybe it is the only seeable way of expressing their discontent with the occupation. Maybe it is a way of saying that despite all odds we will still resist, we want to be free. Or maybe it is just a way to still feel alive.
The soldiers, 6 of them, took up two positions. One position was in a straight line with the road on which the demonstration was; from there they could fire rubber bullets at the demonstrators and were the center of the boys attention since they were in view. The other position was closer to the demonstrators but well off the line of the road; from there they were out view of the demonstrators, out of the path of the stones and, could fire tear gas grenades to keep the demonstrators farther from the other soldiers than a stone would reach. But they could not see the demonstrators to fire rubber bullets at them unless a demonstrator got too far forward. From where I stood I could tell which group of soldiers fired rubber bullets by which side of me I heard them fly by.
|Soldiers with M203 gas grenade launcher it can rapid fire six grenades|
|Tear gas grenades arching over head|
Since the tear gas was keeping the demonstrators farther away from the soldiers than any of the stones could reach one might wonder why the soldiers even bothered firing rubber bullets. They must know that all the tear gas and rubber bullets will not stop the resisitance - probably increase it. Maybe it was entertainment, like an arcade game, shooting at moving boys. Maybe it was anger at being harassed by Palestinians whom they see as beneath them. Maybe it was some expression of hate. Maybe they have internalised some retoric about their god given land. Maybe it is just what young men do when holding a fire arm - shoot it.
|Black tire smoke mixes with white teargas|
|Tire smoke as a smoke screen|
It all seemed surreal.
Riding home in a "service" after the demonstration there were some college freshmen who had been in Ramallah for Arafat Day learning about the PA governement, how their government works. I asked what Arafat did that made him so important, so great, and they said that he brought all of Palestine together. I asked what they planned to do after college and they said they didn't know - in Plaestine there is no way to grow, no way to make a life and, no way to get out.
They got out at their "service" stop and I rode the rest of the way home silently looking out the window at a dark Palestinian land scape, thinking.