December 2, 2011 | Rana Hamadeh
Last time I was in Ni’lin it was covered in dust from a summer without a drop of rain. Now I see the green and lush hills of new grass, with daffodils sprouting up and it’s as if I’m in a different place altogether. It’s sunny and warm, unlike most of Palestine at this time of year and I assume that’s why their cacti haven’t withered yet and there are still people out harvesting olives.
We arrived in the village, none of us being too familiar with it, and just began to walk. Wearing our keffiyehs on a Friday morning, the day of the weekly protest, it was obvious where we were going. People pointed us in the right directions. The first open store we crossed, a barber shop, we asked to leave our bags inside. Theft is almost never a problem here (for example, I lost my ID and bank card and $200 in a taxi, only to get it back as it is a few days later from word-of-mouth between taxi drivers).
We could hear the Friday prayer on the loud speaker, so we knew the march hadn’t begun yet, but we walked slowly to the area anyways. The path we reached was regally surrounded from both sides by a hedge of stones and cacti. To our right and left were olive, almond, and fig trees growing out of rich red earth.
The procession eventually reached us, marching, carrying flags, and releasing their frustration through their chanting. Which frustration exactly? That of which every single Palestinian carries from being affected by the occupation. Arrests, checkpoints, night raids, harrassment, beatings, shootings, lootings, house demolitions, displacement, settlements, the wall, racism, curfews, land grabs, evictions, exiles… the frustration at having no effective means to fight these, the frustration of being forsaken by much of the outside world, and the frustration of being called the oppressor while being brutally oppressed.
It is a heavy burden to carry but somehow most Palestinians manage to continue on in life – to build friendships and relationships, have children, find joy, and end their day, no matter how dismal, with laughter. But when we chant, you see frustration releasing from every tongue. So we chant quite a lot.
To my dismay, the dirt path led us straight to the wall. The tall concrete twists through the village’s olive groves like a snake. Last time I was here, this wall wasn’t. Last time I was here, we still had hope for change – thinking if we kept our protests creative and peaceful that Israel would feel the pressure. Last time I was here, children were shot point-blank and I thought certainly the world wouldn’t turn a blind eye.
The path lead straight to a huge black gate in the wall. When the Israeli military raided the town, their jeeps came through this gate and tore through the beautiful path we just came along. All I could see of the soldiers was their helmets peeking out from the other side of the wall, standing on a watchpost.
It was only a few minutes before thrown stones were battling tear gas. People lit up a couple tires against the wall, explaining the blackened concrete patches all along it.
The soldier were firing from behind the wall without being able to see us. The tear gas they were firing was not the usual type I’ve grown accustomed to dodging – this type doesn’t fly in a straight line. It looks like a small black balloon, but is in fact rock hard and quite heavy. When fired, it buzzes around in loops, then shoots unpredictably in one direction. Watching them shot out over our heads and not knowing which way to run exhausted me.
As usual, I was amazed and saddened at the children that skipped straight through this mess without flinching, the youth voicing their resistance with a stone, the farmers standing calmly with a flag raised in the air. To the outside eye, this was war: fires, smoke, explosions, gun shots, tear gas, people ducking, running, shouting.
One boy climbed the wall, peeked over, and reported back where the soldiers were stationed. Others prepared a cardboard house, painted with the Israeli flag colours, and reading “No to the apartheid wall, no to the settlements” to be burned. It was hoisted onto a long pole, so that soldiers on the other side could read it clearly as it was burned to nothingness.
A tear gas canister flew right in the face of a woman Israeli activist who immediately collapsed. Boys ran into the thick air and picked her up just as she hit the ground. They tried to take her to clear air but more shots were fired. People fanned her as she vomited.
Even though the village kept up this resistance, I felt something was different. Was it just in my mind, or did no one really believe this would change anything? Every week, coming out to tell Israel that this wall is a crime, only to be gassed and forced to run like ants under a magnifying glass. The urge to equalize the playing field is powerful. Go there, experience what its like to lose your land, your freedom, your brother, to always be at the mercy of the Israeli army and all its weaponry….and you will understand why people pick up guns and resist. Of course they have the complete right to respond as such. But as most of us know, a few Palestinians with smuggled guns or home-made rockets cannot face one of the most powerful armies in the world, the IOF. For now, the people will continue the non-violent struggle, but the international community must stand with them.
An hour and a half later, the protest was called back just as tensions were rising. I heard people shout that if we kept going, the soldiers would just open the gate and chase us in jeeps back to the village. We walked back, and just as we were about to sit under an old olive tree to have a drink of juice with some of the residents, we heard shooting in the distance. Not the normal sounds – live bullets. “The soldiers entered!” shouted people running back to the site to stand with whoever was left behind. Soldiers had crossed the wall and were following a few youth that were left.
We ran after them.
A few men were at the top of a hill, with a loudspeaker, watching the movement of the soldiers and shouting down to the four or five boys left, throwing stones in the face of Israeli guns. Two young men, one a photographer and one a stone-thrower, just kept approaching the soldiers despite others shouting at him to go back. I stood with friends behind an old almond tree. I heard the familiar sound of rubber-coated steel bullets zooming by. As I looked out from behind the tree, the young man threw a rock, ,a bang and hiss sounded as a live bullet was fired, and the rock exploded in the air. Another bang, and the man throwing rocks zoomed past us away from the soldiers, running with a limp and his hand grabbing his leg. He didn’t respond to anyone’s yells and went off by himself. Later he told us he thought it was live, until he had run a couple hundred metres and realized it was a rubber-coated bullet. Thank God, he said.
Now the photographer stood alone, soldiers aimed and shouted at him to retreat. I’m just a camera man! he shouted at them and took a step forward. Myself and other women stood up on rocks behind him with our hands visible. The air was like ice for these few moments.
Then a shout from our comrades at the top of the hill: “the soldiers are retreating!”
That was my return to the Ni’lin. It was more beautiful than I could have remembered.
The next day I returned to look for something I had lost. Two Palestinian men came along to help. As we neared the protest area, soldiers jumped out from behind a rock, guns pointed at us and beckoned us over. A Druze Israeli soldier spoke to us in Arabic that they had been on orders to wait for us because we looked like reporters (my big camera over my soldier).
“No, this is my land right here.” said one of my companions, pointing to an area nearby. “And my camera doesn’t even have battery” I showed them. Nonetheless, we were held for over an hour as they radioed our ID numbers and awaited a reply.
“We wish the occupation could end too,” said one of the soldiers. Nothing more infuriating that someone stepping on you and saying I wish you could be free.