Live from the Ni'lin Demonstration in the West Bank
Recently I went with my friend Pierre, who came to visit me for 5 days, to the weekly demonstration in Ni’lin, one of the regular non-violent Friday demonstrations that take place in a number of locations throughout the West Bank. As it was his first time in Israel I thought I had to show him around, and Ni’lin was part of the tour as it is an important place where people can see what the occupation is like. According to estimates by local residents, some 5,000 olive trees sit on 270 hectares between the Wall and the border of the West Bank with Israel, known as the Green Line. This is the reason for this weekly demonstration, which takes place opposite the Israeli town of Modi’in.
The demonstration only started after the Friday prayers which were held among the cactus and olive trees, and not in the village mosque. This is because the villagers insist on the holiness of their land.
The Israeli road used by the army was empty when the demonstrators reached it. A couple of kids even managed to cut through the fence and walk on the empty road. It’s only five minutes later that the first army vehicles arrived. The rocks thrown at the soldiers were answered by tear gas cans and more infrequently by rubber bullets. The thing with tear gas is that it always strikes you when you can not see its smoke anymore. Running away from the tear gas and the rubber bullets on an empty stomach made us feel very bad. Last year two 11 and 17 year old boys were shot in Ni’lin, the first by live ammunition, and the second by rubber bullets, and they died later.
Most of the demonstrators gathered about 300 meters away from the jeeps, but when the jeeps approached them, they hurled dozens of rocks. They were never big rocks, but when the jeeps came close to the hump where the demonstrators stood, it would have been easy to damage them with a big heavy rock. But as one of the demonstration leaders told me, ‘We are here to protest against occupation, not to kill soldiers’. Among Palestinian protestors we could find Israeli activists, foreigners, journalists and the Red Crescent. There is real support from the outside to what is seen as a great injustice or the ongoing Nakba for the Palestinians. I even saw an Israeli activist standing right in front of the soldiers while the Palestinians kept throwing rocks at them, since soldiers cannot shoot at an Israeli citizen. The Israeli activist became a human shield.
It was a quiet day in Ni’lin, and a few loads of tear gas shot in a row were enough to disperse the crowd. We walked back to the village to catch a bus to Ramallah.
The sherut taxi dropped us off a few hundreds meters before the Kalandia checkpoint. It seemed like all the teenagers and the young men were gathered in the street to attack the watch tower of the checkpoint. Rocks scattered in the sky like a bird migration, the tires were lit up to provide a smoke screen in front of the watch tower. A few soldiers stood one hundred meters away, but soon there were more to come.
The teens who had been throwing rocks for awhile at the watch tower had to back off as the soldiers were taking positions. Some were lying on the ground behind some big rocks while others were either behind the rubbish container, which was placed in the middle of the street earlier by the Palestinians, or inside the checkpoint infrastructure. Tear gas cans and rubber bullets were flying more and more in the air. I and my friend, with the help of some Palestinians, got around the street through the refugee camp to reach the other side of the checkpoint which was not under attack. Showing our Belgian passports to the soldiers we managed to get through.
On the other side of the confrontation it was a completely different story. Foreigners and Palestinians who had just crossed the checkpoint were watching the show comfortably, sitting on a small wall and teasing the soldiers from time to time. Whereas tear gas and rubber bullets were shot at the other side, no rocks could reach us here.
The Palestinians eventually stood fifty meters back, besides one courageous one with a black shirt who had kept throwing rocks at the soldiers with his sling. Fortunately he didn’t get shot. So far I have been to four demonstrations and I have never seen anyone who was badly injured. It appears clear to me that as long as the soldiers don’t feel in danger they wouldn’t shot to wound, generally speaking of course. The biggest problem was the tear gas which was brought back by the wind.
If the Israeli army seemed more organized, the Palestinians managed to surprise them when three young men standing on a roof close to the soldiers hit the latter with several rocks thrown with their slings. In the aftermath, from the checkpoint we could see a group of soldiers entering the house in search for the ‘trouble makers’. If the latter ones had left already, the position from the roof was ideal for the IDF.
The demonstration then seemed to lose some of its strength. A jeep with loads of tear gas cans strapped to the roof got closer to the crowd before launching them towards the Palestinians. The street was filled with a grey cloud of tear gas smoke and the crowd spread out. When we tried to get through the checkpoint, which appeared to be closed, we could only hear a few shots of rubber bullets. On the way to an open checkpoint, we could see that another part of the Kalandia refugee camp had protested against the Israeli occupation and against what they saw as the blasphemy of their holy sites during the Jewish holidays.