Yesterday a small International Solidarity Movement (ISM) contingent and I made our way from Ramallah to Nabi Saleh to join in their weekly demonstration against Israeli apartheid and settler encroachment (for background, see my earlier post, “Fragments (1)”). I was already weary, having waited into the small hours of the night for three friends of mine to be released from an Israeli jail in Jerusalem, following their arrests during an Israeli-led demonstration against the current assault on Gaza (incidentally, as I write this, the death toll in Gaza has reached at least 44, and at least another 390 injured). I suspected Israeli repression of the demonstration to be particularly harsh, and it appears that I was not alone – the demonstration was abnormally small (with young children forming a disproportionately high number of the participants), and whereas the media had been prominent in previous demonstrations, this time they were conspicuously absent. Neither of these facts were particularly encouraging, as it meant that the Israeli military forces we encountered would be less accountable on two fronts.
Before our (innocuously nonviolent) march even reached the main road, the military opened up with an indiscriminate barrage of tear gas canisters – shot from jeep-mounted artillery, and at a low enough angle to make these “non-lethal” weapons entirely lethal if one happened to be unlucky (one young Palestinian boy we saw had in a certain sense been lucky, as he had managed to get by with only stitches after being hit in the face with a canister some time before) – and rubber-coated steel bullets (another young girl we saw had a cast on her arm from a bone broken by one of these bullets). The march scattered in different directions, and I took cover until I had recovered enough from the tear gas to see again. The volleys of tear gas continued as a military vehicle made its way up the hill spraying skunk water, drenching the residential road up and down. When I was able to see again, I ran up the hill and swallowed enough tear gas to make me feel as if I was going to vomit. Many had taken cover in the homes of local Palestinians. My friend Jeff and I joined a small group of Palestinians and tried to make our way into the olive groves, where I presumed the military would not follow. My presumption was wrong. The military proceeded to carry out what was essentially an invasion of the village, short only of employing formally lethal weaponry or bursting randomly into homes. They worked their way through every nook and cranny of the village, chasing us with tear gas through the olive groves for a good 45 minutes.
In the end, the costs of this military incursion were not as high as they could have been: a friend caught a couple of rubber-coated steel bullets in the back, and two Palestinians, two Israelis, and one Italian were arrested. However, the degree to which the intensity of the Israeli military response departed from previous demonstrations was notable. What accounts for this departure? Certainly, as I mentioned earlier, the smaller numbers of participants and absence of media were factors, but these facts themselves point to further questions – for why was it that I and others presumed this demonstration would be especially dangerous? After initiating its assault on Gaza (conveniently timed directly after the US and before the Israeli elections), Israel could reasonably expect to see greater anger and perhaps even rebelliousness at demonstrations in the West Bank, and one could assume that their response was merely a reflection of heightened resistance. But the character of our march belies this assumption. I believe that the response of the Israeli military can be more convincingly interpreted as actions aimed at reproducing the system of control that Israel has cultivated in Israel/Palestine. While many aspects of Israel’s apartheid system serve obvious strategic functions (generally revolving around the logic of territorial/resource acquisition and control, mediated by the racist demographic principle of more Jews and fewer Palestinians), at other times they can appear irrational, erratic, or inexplicable. Why do checkpoint closures, or house demolitions, or various forms of harassment take place on one day and not the next? What at first appears irrational upon closer examination is equally functional, for the result of many of these practices is the production of a feeling of hopelessness and disillusionment on the part of the subjugated; it is a means of exterminating agency, of trying to erase from minds even the possibility of resistance. From this perspective, the military response in Nabi Saleh serves the functional purpose of bolstering Israel’s system of control – to remind demonstrators that the violence currently being meted out on Gaza can be visited on them as well, and that facts such as the overwhelming presence of children or a blatantly nonviolent tactical or ethical orientation will not provide any shelter.
If Israeli settler-colonialism could be personified, it would likely have the arrogance to believe that these kinds of measures might eventually squash Palestinian resistance entirely. It would be wrong. Hope is stubborn, and I have witnessed a staggering degree of resilience amongst the people here. Certainly the obstacles faced are great and multifaceted, but the seeds of a mass liberatory movement are there, even if they appear shielded from sunlight at present. In my view, the principle task of those of us doing Palestinian solidarity work internationally is to push back against the instruments of Israeli repression (and those states and non-state actors which sustain them) in hopes that we might create some space for these seeds to take root, for a genuine emancipatory transformation of social relations in Israel/Palestine can only be brought about by Palestinians themselves.
Last minute additions: During today’s demonstration in Nabi Saleh – which, unlike the Friday demonstrations, lacked a large presence of internationals – a Palestinian was shot with live ammunition. Also, tonight in Hebron (al-Khalil), dozens of Israeli soldiers amassed by nearby Checkpoint 56, shortly after an apparently impromptu demonstration by the Suq (central marketplace) was repressed. According to my friend Jeff who was present, they ordered around 50 Palestinians out of the surrounding buildings (including mothers holding babies in their arms), lined them up against a brick wall, and interrogated a handful before releasing the larger group. When I arrived on the scene they were spreading throughout the Palestinian area in which we are located, seemingly to intimidate with a show of strength. As tensions grow around the assault on Gaza, these types of military muscle-flexing will probably become more and more common.