Saturday, December 11, 2010

International Human Rights Day

Yesterday a group of us from Project Hope traveled by minibus to a village west of Ramallah, called 'Bil'in', to join a group of locals and internationals in protesting Israel's continuing division of Palestine into smaller and smaller segments.

I wasn't aware until we got there that it was a significant day, and I was very pleased to be partaking in this action on a day which should celebrate human rights everywhere, but which unfortunately more often goes to highlight the inequalities and injustices between different groups of people.

We joined a group of people from the International Solidarity Movement (I.S.M.), of which Rachel Corrie was a member, before she was killed in Gaza. My brother traveled with some members of this group on the convoy to Gaza from UK, and their ethos is non-violent direct action. Also there was another group called 'Anarchists against the Wall', and I'd say about 20 different nationalities were represented, including Israelis themselves, Germans, Dutch, Danish, Brits, French, and many more, plus, of course the locals, including young children.

After mid-day prayers the locals gathered their flags and were led out of the village by a truck with loud-speakers on. We all followed, including a sizeable number of International Media groups. A few of the crowd were interviewed, and asked where they were from and why they were here. It was, of course, a completely peaceful demonstration.

As we got nearer to the 'security fence', which in itself was way inside (i.e. on Palestinian land) the already-built wall, we were fired upon by the small group of Israeli soldiers who were themselves on 'our' side of the fence. This was crazy: not only had the Israeli Government built an 8m-high concrete wall cutting Palestine in half (see previous entry re The Wall), but they were also incrementally seizing additional hills, on or around which they were building Israel-only roads, all protected by 'security fences'.

One of the roads out of this particular village had been completely cut off (you can see from the photo I'll put up after this posting) and the soldiers were therefore able to claim that the land this side of the fence was a 'closed military zone' (their words). You can see the thin line of Israeli soldiers on the old road, and these were the ones firing tear-gas at us. We were not able to get within 500m of the 'fence', which protected a road for use only by Israelis.

We were all gassed, and it's terrible stuff: nerve gas which enters your nose, throat and eyes, and renders you immobilised due to the inability to breathe or see, for up to ten minutes, depending on the strength used. They were firing them at us as if they were party-poppers, obviously not in a restrained manner, and not only when they felt threatened. As a result, we were not able to get anywhere near the fence - which was obviously the intention.

Three of our group, however, instead of drawing back when fired upon, pushed forward, which with hindsight was a good move: the nearer they got to the Israeli soldiers, the less likely they were to shoot, as the gas would affect them as well as us. Good thinking boys, and Bravo! By the time the other three of us had recovered fully enough to see again, our friends were right up next to the soldiers, talking to them. What happened next we only found out about later: as our friends were asking to see written proof in English that this was a 'closed military zone', one soldier surged forward and grabbed one of our friends, dragging him off. He was bundled back to one of their vehicles, which you can see are the other side of the fence.

There are military tactics that are used in situations like this, and divide and rule is one of the more obvious. Our remaining friends were so shocked by what had happened that they didn't know what to do: none of us had anticipated this, and we hadn't got a 'Plan B'. So they withdrew, met up with us again, and told us the story.

We were not able to contact our arrested friend on his mobile, and no-one else knew what the military would do with him. There were experienced protesters there, and we spoke to a Lawyer, but they said the Army could do any number of things: let him go again, take him to Ramallah, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, or even deport him. We understood that the fact that he had been arrested meant that they could label him a 'security threat' and do what they wanted with him. We were very glum.

The end of the story is almost surreal: we waited in the small village for over an hour, watching everyone else leave as they had to get to various places before the buses stopped running, especially the Israeli activists, who were racing against the Friday clock. We finally decided that despite our guilt, it wouldn't help for us to get stranded in this tiny village, when we didn't know what our friend would do or where he would be. We finally jumped in a mini-bus, which started pulling out of town.......when out of the front windscreen we spotted our friend, coming around the corner.

He seemed dazed and a bit lost, so we yelled to the driver to stop, and he spotted us and jumped on. We were really, really relieved to see him. He told us the story: the soldiers were very young, had treated him very well, trying even to make friends with him and saying he should come to Haifa with them and go to a nightclub. One of them said he wanted to visit Germany (our friend is German), and they wanted to know his name, see his passport, and give him a health check.

Our friend said he got the impression that the young soldiers were brain-washed, saying that they had to build this wall because all of the Palestinians want to kill them. Personally I have seen and heard enough Islamophobia over the last decade to know that this is what people very easily believe. It seems sometimes even too much effort to think beyond the deliberately hyped-up news headlines, which of course can so easily be used to justify all sorts of atrocities. Dehumanise your 'enemy' and your public will accept anything, it seems to me.

Anyway he was held for a couple of hours, during which time he thought he was going to be deported, when suddenly they let him go, and he walked back towards the by-now deserted village. Re-united, we all got the bus to Ramallah and once there felt the overwhelming desire to seek out a Hotel which sold cold beers: only the second time alcohol has passed my lips in six weeks. We toasted the good health of our friend.

Finally back in Nablus, the twist to the story is one which should make us all sit up and think about what it means to accept, condone and support the constant wars, violence and militarisation that has unfortunately been escalating of late: our friend opened up his Facebook page and there was a message from one of the Israeli soldiers, wanting to be friends..

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