A plume of white tear gas drifted above the olive groves. Arriving late in Ni’lin it was difficult to locate the head of the demonstration against the wall. But there it must be.
Ni’lin has had a history of land dispossession beginning in 1948 with land being acquired for the building of several Jewish settlements. In 2002 Israel began building the separation barrier which will result in about 20 percent of the land that remains in the residents’ possession being seized.
The objective of these demonstrations, for some, is to temporarily stop the construction of the separation barrier by reaching the earth moving equipment. For others it is about freedom of speech, carrying out their right to protest and letting their voice be heard. Either way, the demonstrations don’t get very far with either before they are dispersed with good quantities of tear gas. Once dispersed, it is like small herds of sheep shepherded one way or another by rude placing of CS gas canisters and later, rubber (-coated steel) bullets.
The protest is disintegrated and the majority of protesters are eventually persuaded up the hill, back to the village. A group remains at the front line – males from the village throwing, quite professionally, stones. I hung around under the merciless sun for more than two hours with this group of about 40, half curious what would happen, half as a non-Palestinian to witness whatever might happen. With an international presence it is thought that ‘less’ might happen, that restraint might be shown, but stone throwers are fair game: just having a stone in your hand is enough grounds for arrest.
The theatre continues like this on an almost daily basis. The soldiers try to chemically push people backwards into the village away from the construction area, the peaceful part of the protest ends and the youth respond by throwing stones in their direction. Suddenly a shot is heard from an unexpected direction and a helmeted body clad in olive-green clothing is spotted amongst the olive-green olive trees. Everyone runs for cover and then relocates to new stone launching positions. And repeat. I felt sorry for the teenage Rukab ice-cream salesboy who had to run with his coolbox over his shoulder.
Many stones were launched with sling-shots and catapults. In return came rubber bullets by which several boys we hit. It looked painful – a bleeding sore on a back, on a shin and on the soft part of the arm where you measure body fat. In return, more stones were thrown and more rubber bullets came back and so on. And so on until the sound changed. Sharper cracking sounds indicated live ammunition was being used. As much as the fear of being hit by a rubber bullet is real, real bullets are simply something else.
I asked a soldier once what being hit by a rubber bullet was like. “Just like being hit by a stone” he informed me with a smile. It is possible but pointless to make a comparison between stones and rubber-coated steel. Either can be deadly and certainly injurious but the soldier has range and accuracy with which he can safely fire without risk of being hit by incoming stones. With live ammunition all need to compare evaporates.
At a certain point it becomes more serious and the army cross over from containment and dispersion, to what could be called an urban combat training exercise, or punishment, or even revenge.
Today soldiers came right the edge of the village. In a narrow street, bullets severed a water pipe who’s spray then pleasantly cooled the air, the hydraulic pipes of a digger, a window was shot through, the outer walls of a clinic had several fresh shot wounds, bullet casings were collected and displayed with anger. It is hard to know if anything in particular was in the sights the rifle owners or if the shooting was just random to create panic and put a nail in the coffin of the day’s protest. The bullets hit between 10 centimeters and 4 meters from the ground. It was quite surreal, this situation, the panicked run for cover, the call from the lunatic with the megaphone to move forward again, the sharp crack and immediate fizz as a bullet ricocheted, the woman screaming for us to move away as one of her window’s had already been expensively shot through, the kids watching from windows and roof-tops who would ask “what’s your name?” if you so much as looked at them as if oblivious to the seriousness of the situation, the ambulance co-driver patiently waiting having already stretched his rubber gloves over his fat hands and further sterilizing his fingers with cigarette smoke.
I couldn’t get hit of course as I was from elsewhere, I didn’t throw any stones, I was just observing and anyhow a coward. A bullet hit a wall and a small piece of the wall hit my trouser leg. Time to move away.
Today, according to Sayid, a pleasant young guy who repeatedly told me with a smile to “be careful”, 3 solders were ‘shot’ with stones: a military ambulance was seen taking one of them away apparently. One international volunteer expressed his ‘happiness’, for want of a better word, at this news. I felt otherwise. Violence is violence whatever the flavor: the tear gassing, firing rubber bullets at or beating of innocent civilians, throwing stones back at soldiers or firing live ammunition at stone throwers – even though you could perhaps call them (geologically or prehistorically) armed combatants.
This routine open-air theatre will stop once the separation barrier is completed or once the route is changed through the courts. Sadly it seems the former will be the case.