From Nablus buses go to all destinations within the West Bank. They do not go across the separation wall, which Israel built on Palestinian land, annexing territory within the West Bank’s borders of 1967. Public buses cannot go inside Israel, because almost no Palestinians have a permit to cross the wall. Jerusalem for them is inaccessible. Foreigners are able to cross the wall, entering Israel. I had an appointment in Jerusalem today, March 20th. I took the bus from Nablus, passing Ramallah, to Qalandia; one of the largest checkpoints between the West Bank and Israel. The previous days many boys from the refugee camp remarked that today protests would be held throughout the West Bank, especially at the Qalandia checkpoint, because it is a symbol of the Palestinian powerlessness to reach their foreseen capital of East Jerusalem. So I borrowed a camera, and headed for Jerusalem. This is what I saw today. I took these photos because they tell a story, a story larger than merely the event of that day, it is the story of Palestine’s young generation. Nevertheless, keep in mind that the events of today do not happen every day.
On the way from Nablus to Jerusalem you pass at least three checkpoints, that is if the Israeli army did not decide to increase the number of standard checkpoints by so called flying checkpoints. Note, this is all occupied Palestinian territory, and people need to pass these checkpoints also when only traveling between Palestinian cities. This is number one: Huwara.
Checkpoint three: Qalandia. Behind the soldiers is the checking terminal for all people that want to enter into Israel. Only a few Palestinians have permits to cross the wall. Three weeks ago it took me two hours to pass from one side of the wall to the other. Normally there are no soldiers standing here, in front of the terminal, maybe the boys from the camp were right and something is going on.
In front of the Qalandia terminal, I get out of the bus. And indeed, there must be tumult somewhere, because I hear shots. I walk on the road towards the city of Ramallah. On the dirt hill on which the separation wall is built about a dozen soldiers are standing, facing the road where about two-hundred young Palestinian men are gathered, chanting. One of the soldiers takes aim while lying on the ground. At this moment I can only guess, just as the protesters can only guess, whether he is aiming live rounds or rubber coated bullets. Probably, and hopefully, it is the latter.
The little barricade that was initially erected at the end of the street, between the protesters and the army, is slowly growing bigger and car tires are put on fire, reinforcing the Hollywood-like idea of a riot. To me it seems that there is a rather clear safe zone. The boys are not afraid to go towards the soldiers to hurl a stone, yet it is far enough from the soldiers not to be hit directly by a rubber teargas grenade. However, I know that the Israeli army also shoots with metal high velocity teargas grenades and that it uses rubber bullets to disperse crowds, and instances of live rounds killing Palestinians in similar protests are repeatedly reported.
Some of the boys are looking out for my safety. Sharing cigarettes and my broken Arabic easily breaks the initial hesitance towards me. They tell me that the Israeli army is trying to get into the neighborhood surrounding the street. Carefully they take me into a side street, where a group is trying to prevent the soldiers from coming into their neighbourhood. Stones are constantly being thrown, but I have the idea that the Palestinian guys know that they cannot confront the armed Israeli power, because with every sound of a shot the group retreats.
“The boys of the stones,” they were called in the first and the second intifada. They express their anger in every stone they throw. There is excitement with this moment of power. At this moment they are no victims, they claim authority over the army. While, at the same time they know the army can smash their protest at any time. Then, I think, power lies exactly there; in the fact that they continue protesting.
The teargas feels like a thousand bees stinging the lungs, the face feels like it is drenched in acid. A t-shirt tied around the head does not help much. The protest is like a game, with rather clear rules. About two-hundred boys and men gathered in front of the Qalandia checkpoint; teargas grenades and stun grenades are fired and drive them back; when the tear gas clears up, a small group runs forward towards the soldiers to throw some stones; again teargas grenades, stun grenades, and rubber bullets are returned; the gas clears up and the sequence repeats itself, slowly driving the protesting group backwards.
These soldiers just come back from action at the rooftops around the demonstration, they penetrated the neighbourhood. The masked soldier, the second from right, just shot high velocity teargas shells from the rooftop of a shed right in front of my feet, an unmistakeable reminder of the risk involved. Life goes on as usual on the other side of the street, cars are passing as quickly as possible, because they drive through the teargas clouds, and if the gas gets stuck into your car you are in trouble.
I decide to follow an army unit that entered the neighbourhood adjoining the demonstration. I want to know what happens when an army unit enters a neighbourhood, an intimate zone of safety. They tried to climb over a wall, to enter the house behind, probably in order to climb the rooftop and from there disperse the crowd. This exercise is not working out, so they try to kick in the backdoor of the house instead. The lady of the house comes out and screams at them to wait; stena shwai, and reluctantly she opens the door for them. Soldiers regularly enter houses. Imagine what it means when an army unit overrules you in your own house, you loose control over your most intimate space; that of the household.
This is what a sniper looks like when he just entered your shop to climb the roof. For the soldiers this must be like guerrilla warfare, their whole outfit, armament, and coordinated drills show they have been trained to fight a war, while in fact they are controlling a riot. There is a great gap between the war Israeli soldiers get trained for, and the civil control task they finally conduct. This dissonance leads to unnecessary use of armed violence by soldiers and works very provocatively towards Palestinian society, as I observed during my field work.
Ambulances are driving up and down the road, between the protesters and the army, to pick up the wounded. Yet, observing closely, I notice that some of the wounded are not as wounded as the screaming and the ambulance makes them look. It seems that being driven out by the ambulance is a moment of fame, which is cultivated by the bystanders. I am thinking of the analogy of a theatre. The protest is a theatre where victimisation and heroism are on display, carefully choreographed by the protesters and the Israeli army. Nevertheless, the consequences can be very real. I feel tired, it is too late to go to Jerusalem, and probably the Qalandia checkpoint is closed because of the protest anyway, so I go back home, to my ‘brothers’ of the refugee camp.
Gijs Verbossen is a Master’s student in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU University Amsterdam. He has completed a Bachelor’s in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, with a focus on Conflict Studies.
On the Israel-Palestine conflict, see also Erik van Ommering’s ‘Zo dichtbij, zo onbereikbaar: een blik over het beloofde land’ and the posts by Erella Grassiani.