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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bil'in, A Village In Palestine

I start this by belaboring the obvious: the demonstration we joined in Bil'in was not about us.  We were there in solidarity, but this is a struggle we cannot win for the people there--it's been their fight for 225 weeks and will go on much longer with or without us.  That said, all I can do is share my experience of it, hoping that people will get a little more insight into what the civilians there face when marching after midday prayers every Friday, and really on a daily basis.

So let me first offer the press release I received from Abdullah (alternately spelled Abedallah) of the Popular Committee Against the Wall and the Settlements:

Two protesters were injured and dozens suffered from gas inhalation when Israeli troops attack the weekly protest in Bil'in village near the central West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday midday.

Residents of Bil'in and their international and Israelis supporters marched from the village center after the Friday midday prayers. They were joined by 40 members of the American group "Code Pink Women for Peace".

The protesters demanded the halt of the Israeli illegal settlements and the construction of the wall. As the protesters arrived at the wall, Israeli troops at the gate nearby fired barrage of sound bombs, tear gas and rubber-coated bullets from the Israeli soldiers.

Two protesters were lightly injured, Mustafa Al Khateeb, 17, and a Britsh activist. Meanwhile scores were treated for the effects of tear gas inhalation.

My friend Anna Brown of Waging Nonviolence writes:

Just after the arrival of our CODEPINK delegation, the muezzin’s sonorous call beckoned Bil’in’s Muslim inhabitants to prayer. From Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, the coordinator of activities of Bil’in’s Popular Committee Against the Wall and the Settlements, we learned that the Friday protest walks, which have been held every Friday since February 2005, begin after the noontime prayers are completed. His statement reminded me of something that Daniel Berrigan, S.J. has often shared with members of Kairos, an interfaith New York City-based peace community. According to Berrigan, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described the churches of the American South as the places from which “we (the Civil Rights Movement) go forth.” I imagined Dr. King and folks from the Civil Rights Movement with us in Bil’in; what a wonderful sharing of stories, songs and experiences there could have been.

Abu Rahmeh led us to the Popular Committee’s meeting house where he and Iyad Burnat, the head of the Popular Committee, gave an orientation and nonviolence training. From the outside walls of the house hung large and brightly colored banners which read, “President Obama, Have a Look!” Had President Obama “looked” on April 17th, he would have seen the violent death of 31-year-old Basem Ibrahim Abu Rahmeh. Abu Rahmeh, a beloved member of the village and steadfast participant in the Friday marches, was blasted in the chest by “the rocket,” a high velocity tear gas projectile. It was shot by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) directly at him and at close range, no more than forty meters away. Though he was not killed immediately, Abu Rahmeh’s chest was ripped open and his lungs were soon flooded with blood. He died in a private car en route to a hospital in Ramallah. Just prior to being shot, he had come to the assistance of a French female journalist who had been slightly injured in the face by rebounding shrapnel. He pleaded with the IDF to stop shooting but was only able to get a few words out before being felled: “We are in a nonviolent protest, there are kids and internationals …”

I admit our briefing was disconcerting, and though I was ready to push the envelope to stand with these people, I kept questioning why I was there and whether I really could do it.  As Abdullah did his show-and-tell of various weapons the IDF uses against the demonstrators and reminded us that anything can happen, I wondered if I'd be able to undergo a baptism by fire or would accept the out all the leaders offered: there's no shame, no judgement, if you find your limit and feel you need to stay back.

In the end, a half dozen of us committed to marching all the way with the veterans of Bil'in.  Even then, it was not an absolute and we always had an out.

We picked buddies so we could do a check when we pulled back.  Mine was Zool, whom I've known since I first met him back at the DC activist house a couple years ago, and got to know much better on this delegation.  Another foreign national with some experience--not sure if he was with ISM or another group--gave us a bottle of liquid containing, if I understood correctly, sodium bicarbonate to saturate our face rags with to neutralize tear gas.

Since we'd had such an energy crisis at Adamama, my camera battery was toast.  In retrospect, that was a good thing because I bummed a little Cybershot from Jose, who was focusing on shooting video--running with my larger cam would've sucked, though I would've preferred the greater optical zoom for some shots later.

It was a rather festive atmosphere for a while.  I was carrying a poster memorializing Basem until a small boy came up to me saying, "give me!"  I told him it was a deal if I could take his picture.  Other boys carried the same poster mounted on steel shields.

The usual thing you'd expect: chants, mostly in Arabic, but in deference to us ignorant Westerners some of the leaders got English chants going so we might join in.  Many people, mostly kids, turned out along the street, to cheer us on--a cultural divide as almost all the women in our procession were from other countries as the mothers, daughters and sisters of Bil'in stayed out of sight.

I was up front with the flag bearers, and realized I was at the fence.  I was able to take 3 shots (2 of which I posted online) before the firing started.  I didn't quite comprehend the loaded weapons across the no-man's land until the first volley had already landed behind me. We held our ground--myself mostly because my brain hadn't caught up with the fact that we were being fired upon. 

Another volley and it appeared--though in my confusion it might not be the case--that they were walking their fire into us.  Pop, pop, pop...hiss.  The IDF lobbed rounds at us like guests at a Bar Mitzvah throwing candy at a boy that he might have a sweet life.

3rd volley a cannister bounced 3 feet from me--a missed opportunity for a nice close-up picture--I realized I was hemmed in by gas all around, and decided to bolt, fearing a cannister to my unprotected head or chest, or "rubber" bullets (they used those later).  I became rather scared for a moment because there really was no apparent way to avoid the gas, so I stupidly tore right through it.

Unfortunately in my zeal I'd gone ahead and gotten separated from Zool, so I hadn't kept soaking my neck rag, which was totally was dry and fundamentally useless.  Regardless, I ran through, immediately felt the sting in my eyes and on my neck (gas contact with sweat), lungs started to become heavy, throat burned, tasted acrid smoke similar to fresh skunk mixed with burnt onion and Dog knows what else.

Making matters worse: to get to safety, we had to retreat through a little valley where the gas accumulated.  I honestly panicked, thinking I might never be able to catch my breath--longer and worse than the few times I've had the wind knocked out of me.  I ran into Kayla the Younger, both of us with tears uncontrollably streaming down our faces, coughing, you okay, you okay?  We stopped just above the gas line to take a picture for posterity.

Onions, alcohol swabs, oranges.  Application of various remedies helped the external burning, though I still felt like I was breathing through mud and couldn't get enough oxygen.

After about 10 minutes I was mostly okay, even if I couldn't really breathe properly for about an hour.  I remained at a "safe" distance--so-called, since Fungus' clown nose got so saturated he has to get a new one despite his staying back.  Yes, they gassed children and clowns.  And 75 year old Betty and Ken, who really showed there is no age limit for activism.

When I was feeling better, I got closer to the rock slingers on our flank near 200 year old olive trees.  Some tear gas fire, some rubber bullets, but I felt relatively safe as I approached an old stone wall.  Then I pulled back again as Bouncing Betties (as I call them) landed closer.  Zool and Ashley had come out after me and admonished me to retreat: no, no, no, the wind's blowing it away...uh, toward us.

I have to admit to a certain exhileration, even as the adrenaline subsided.  I don't want to trivialize what our friends in Bil'in face, but it made me feel good to be showing solidarity with them in the real shit, not just back home where it's safe.  If I want to speak of this, to get the message out, I need to have at least a modicum of appreciation for their environment.

I saw Iyad under a tree, and sat with him in the shade.  He was a mess too.  I just asked, "every Friday?"  

"Every Friday." 

I put my hand on his shoulder and said I was sorry, and we sat in silence.  What else to say?


June 17, 2009 in Pax Americana, Viva Palestina | Permalink


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A very moving piece. Glad to see that nothing too terrible happened to anyone.

Posted by: P. Drano | Jun 17, 2009 7:54:01 PM

What an incredible journey. Thanks for sharing your experience with us, you are an inspiration.

Posted by: TJ | Jun 18, 2009 4:15:51 PM

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