After a short bus ride from Jerusalem we arrived in Ramallah and met up with Paul, a mutual friend's brother who we'd only spoken to twice but was willing to take us to a protest where we'd likely be shot at with rubber-coated metal bullets, get a face full of tear gas and potentially be deported if nabbed by the IDF.
With a warm welcome we enjoyed a glass of chai tea, learned some Arabic and argued about the semantics of whether or not Israel is an apartheid (Paul volunteers for Stop The Wall so you can imagine how our views differed...especially after Brooke and I had just met with the brilliant thought leader and journalist Benjamin Pogrund and learned why, although the wall is awful, that it deserves a name other than apartheid). Then we re-packed our bags, jumped in a cab and the three of us were on our way to the small village of Ni'lin. Paul informed us that we had to spend the night there since the Israeli government had been closing down the roads every Friday in an effort to deter any foreigners or journalists from attending the demonstration. So to avoid their efforts, we'd get there a day early and spend the night; though, we were nervous as we heard that many local activists had been detained in illegal night raid arrests throughout the village earlier that week.
After almost a two hour drive through the rocky hillside of the West Bank (it was barely 20 km or so away), we found ourselves sitting in the Ni'lin Youth Center (NYC). Surrounded by Palestinian flags and books on revolution, we were put in front of a computer screen by the young resisters to watch a collection of the local 16-year-old filmmaker and teen-journalist, Arafat Kanaan's emotionally driven videos that he had created to inform people like us about their incredible struggle. The faces in the room lit up with each rock throwing segment that filled the screen, staring us down in search of our excitement for their cause. Since the beginning of the protests almost two years ago, residents and international activists have joined together every Friday to protest against the wall, and the expansion of the Israeli "West Bank Barrier."
We woke up the next morning scared. The floor mats hadn't provided much comfort and our nerves were bending. Twenty-four-year-old Ahmed Mesleh, the local photographer/media coordinator/youth center founder, was on his way to take us to the protest. He walked in smiling, gas mask in hand, reassuring us that we'd be fine. "It will just be another Friday in Ni'lin...you have nothing to worry about!"
Instead of concert posters, the streets were plastered with pictures of martyrs whom had lost their lives in Friday protests of the past, with every corner a reminder of what today could bring. The light poles were lined with Fatah flags and Muslim prayer was heard as we approached the meeting point. On our walk we were told about Tristan Anderson, a 38 year old U.S. citizen who was hit in the forehead by a high-flying tear gas canister during a demonstration last year... he sustained serious brain damage, and is now in a coma hospitalized in Tel Aviv. It was clear that everyone is a target.
In a town of a few thousand people, we stuck out like a sore thumb. As we cruised with our new posse through the streets, even the donkey peered through it's door to get a glimpse of the guests that would soon be running by in fear from the explosion of sound grenades.
Ahmad and Paul told us to stay close to the medics if we were afraid of getting hurt and wanted to stay on the periphery. They said that the soldiers would rarely shoot at the medical relief team and that they always seemed to stay out of trouble and be there if anything were to happen. So we made friends with them and familiarized ourselves with their uniform.
We walked down a dirt road towards the wall, which was at one time only a fence, but the protesters had not to long ago torn it down...so now the Israeli government built a more sturdy concrete barrier in front of it to stop them from damaging it, and flex their muscle of power. Surprisingly, when we got to the wall, things were very relaxed and mellow. "Business as usual," it seemed. Men carried flags, the boys shouted to the soldiers, and the Israeli uniforms waited patiently from behind their concrete barricades.
We got right up to the fence to get a good look at the scene. The crowd was soft spoken at times. "Yes," we said to ourselves with some relief, "It's going to be nonviolent." It seemed like any standard protest we'd been to, nothing like what we expected. Megaphones, colored headbands and a sense of family.
Then another army jeep arrived and a few Hebrew shouts were heard from a loud speaker across the fence..."Go home, enough!"
Within moments, everything changed. Almost on command, boys started collecting stones and without notice, about a dozen of them began throwing rocks over the wall and at the jeep. Immediately, chaos broke loose.
Tear gas and bullets filled the air. We began running, running for our lives. We looked back just in time to see a canister hit the ground less than 50 yards from where we were standing -- soaring overhead, it felt like bombs were dropping on us. We couldn't breathe or concentrate; the cameras were on and running when we thought they were off, and we're glad they captured the craziness that ensued.
The smoke filled our lungs and burned our eyes. We could feel the heaviness of it in our legs and fingertips. People were crying, people were shouting, people were scared and people were excited. We couldn't believe this happens every week. When we found one of the canisters on the ground, we were in shock by their it's size...these things are weapons, not demonstration crowd diffusers.
We found ourselves stuck, stuck in a game of cat and mouse. Boys with rocks as their only weapons feeling trapped inside a cage with little to do but protest on Fridays vs. men who have an obligation to serve their country when they turn 18 with almost no other choice. We witnessed what some would call nonviolent resistance, though it was clear to us that antagonizing the soldiers to get them to retaliate was part of the plan to begin with. But how can you blame them? On the other hand, the soliders went above and beyond their duty by chasing us a few hundred yards away from the wall and in fact, all the way into the village with tear gas filling a local school yard. Without a doubt, this was an abuse of power. It's absurd. But what would you do if you were a young boy with no money or future in sight, your older brother or cousin had just been captured and place in administrative detention, and your father's land had been illegally taken away after the war? Would you just stand by and let the government take advantage of you, enforce absurd curfews and take away any rights you thought you had? For the soldiers, what would you do if you were told that men with suicide bombs will come running at you through the wall and take your life if you don't take the upper-hand and act first? We watched boys and men alike return to the village in defeat, and the uniforms snuck back in shame through the field of trees to their side of the fence; we stood more confused than ever...crying.
I think this was the first time that we have ever used an onion to stop the tears. We joined the same boy who had been leading the chants only hours earlier now huddled in the corner inhaling the remedy. Together we cured the tear-gas asthmatic attack that had seeped through our lungs, burned our finger tips and parched the eyes.
As "members of the press" we could have just taken photos and blindly posted them to flickr or uploaded our video propaganda to YouTube stating that one side was worse and/or another at fault... or we could have just left the judgment and interpretation up to the viewer instead. That would have been more immediate and easy, but would it be doing justice for the cause? What will the other dozen photographers and filmmakers do with their footage? We met one wearing a bullet-proof vest who was working on a book that would probably hit the shelves in no less than a few years, and another whom was just out there taking pictures as a hobby. But it's not a matter of taking nice photos or trying to find out which side is at fault based on one days non-random sequence of events. That is impossible. And to be fair this is a current problem that needs attention NOW.
The question remains, would these young men be out chucking rocks at Israeli soldiers if the Israeli government hadn't built their wall straight through this Palestinian village cutting off the community from essential resources and precious olive trees. That is their livelihood, that is their land.
We came out of this protest more confused then when we entered. Is true nonviolence the answer or do these Palestinian resisters have any other option to get the support of the Democratic world? Is it the responsibility of the soldiers to lighten-up, or that of the government to regulate it's forces? Can rocks really cause that much harm, aren't they just kids trying to stand up in the face of their oppression, or are they being used by their community to raise media support and attention as some would argue? Though they have little choice; they couldn't just call their congressman and sign some petitions, that isn't an option! In the end, each side is just flexing the power they have, little or great, playing the media game they know, and doing what they think is best.
All judgments aside, the conflict in Israel/Palestine is bad and is only getting worse. Both parties, as split and disjointed as they are, need to take a step back, evaluate their longterm goals of peace and check their reality vs. the ideology they set forth. What we need is to put the destructive energy so apparent in Ni'lin towards more communication between the opposing groups, build bridges amongst those who truly want peace, and increase cooperation towards the future. These are the efforts that Rabbis for Human Rights, B'tselem and One Voice Movement are driving forward each day; to end all forms of terrorism, human rights violations and incitement on both sides.
Though, let it not be confused; we do not condone the Israeli government's actions in the West Bank and their strict policies toward the Palestinians in the slightest.
To conclude and further confuse, the video interview with the man above: This man's well spoken discourse on the struggle he faces, his land and the life his children live pulls at the heart and sways one to think he is everything of peace and nonviolence. He does want good and peace for all, right? We spent the day with him, feeling more and more empathy for his family and cause as each blast scared us out of our pants. But then we noticed his hat, as we mentioned to him in the end of the video. If he is for true peace and nonviolence, then why is he supporting a movement where guns, grenades and fire stand as the symbols of hope. When we asked him about this fact, he ignored the topic and moved along to join his friends. When we later asked him, off camera, why and how he can put his kids in danger at the protests if he knows they are made so sick and could potentially be killed, he answered in question, "Why and how could the soldiers shoot at them, that's the fault of them." His answers provide a perfectly twisted peak into the conflicted perspective of those enthralled in the conflict, and what they are willing to do in it's midst.
If you live in Israel or are visiting this holy land, we urge you attend one of the protests either in Bi'lin, Ni'lin or in Sheikh Jarrah. It will shake your reality and provide you with an insight into the lives of others and keep in mind that they would try to see the other side if they were allowed. We hope that this post inspires you to learn more about the conflict in Israel and Palestine, and see as many perspectives before "picking sides." In the fight for human rights, as MLK said, "One Life is One Life too many," and the wall, like all other barricades, must come down.
To learn more about human rights in Israel and within the Occupied Territories, and to find out how you can get involved, check out B'tselem. Interested in working to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and bring out the moderate voice in the conversation... visit One Voice and see if you agree with their two-state solution.
See the rest of our photos from Ni'lin on and to learn more about our time in Israel, Egypt and Thailand thus far, please visit ThisIsTheWorldWeLiveIn.com.