I’m currently in Israel itself (Haifa – my Dad’s hometown), and will be heading into the occupied Palestinian territories on Monday to meet with my organisation and hopefully find an apartment in Ramallah.
Whilst the territories are generally the areas that we hear about on the news (protests, clashes, violence, etc), I learned in a very direct way tonight that you don’t need to go there to see the deep rifts and tensions between the Israeli state and those who still identify themselves as Arab Palestinians.
Today was the international rally day against the Israeli government’s ‘Prawer Plan’. This plan seeks – and has physically begun already – to forcibly remove 70,000 Bedouins from their land in order to make way for Israeli ‘settlements’ (Israeli-Jewish residential areas) and industrial development. [The Bedouins are a particular group of largely rural-agricultural Palestinians in the Jordan Valley area, with very strong ties to their land]. Groups of Palestinian and other activists from all over Israel joined together to protest the Prawer Plan in Ramallah, Gaza, Hebron, Nablus, and Haifa, and in more than 14 other countries.
After hearing the army helicopters above us in the early evening, and by talking to people in the neighbourhood, dad and I learned that the protest was now happening in Haifa city. Naturally, we wanted to go and see what it was all about. When we arrived there were heavily armed soldiers EVERYWHERE. Excuse my language but HOLY SHIT. They each had rifles strapped to their backs, some had ammunition belts across their chests, and each was holding a pistol as they walked down the street towards the crowd. Never before have I seen anything like that.
Someone told us that before we arrived the soldiers were shooting into the air (and hit one guy in the eye, and one in the arm) and using high pressure water hoses on the crowd. When we got there, dad and I were just standing on the side of the road, about 50 meters away from the centre of the protest, just watching and observing rather than getting involved. After a while the army and police had had enough of the protesters and wanted to disperse them. But by that time, as is expected, the protesters were more fired up than every from their chanting etc, and did not want to move so easily.
From here it got interesting – not ‘bad’ or particularly dangerous in context, but interesting. Below are the lessons I learnt during the moments that followed, that I will take with me into the somewhat more intense environment that is the West bank:
1. When the crowd starts to run, you better run too. Fast.
Palestinian youth are a tough bunch, so when they hot leg it down the dark street beside you, something is clearly going down. Run like your arse is on fire or you’ll end up on the wrong end of a butch Russian-Israeli with a baton.
2. Just because a guy is wearing a Kaffeyah (Palestinian scarf), doesn’t mean he is your friend.
When we were observing the crowd, we noticed a guy in plain clothes (and some wearing Kaffeyah’s) standing amongst the palestinians. He had a go-pro strapped to his head, so we were thinking, “oh great, he’s filming the protest to make sure the truth is told afterwards if shit hits the fan” (there was a lot of media there documenting it). About fifteen minutes later, this same guy is standing having a chin-wag with the other Israeli soldier buddies who had been beating the protesters moments before (some of them were in uniform, but many in plain clothes who were posing in the crowd as Palestinians). BASTARDS!
3. Unlike in Australia, standing next the police or the army during a scuffle does NOT make you safe.
We ended up too close to some soldiers who were chasing some youth down the street towards us, when suddenly rocks started coming at us from across the street. They were obviously trying to hit the army, but we were in the wrong place to be sure. At this point, running into the nearest house/side street is ideal.
4. When a big man in a green uniform pulls a little pin out of a canister, cover your face with your shirt and revisit response protocol from Lesson 1.
Run Forest, run.
5. The Israeli solders might be fucking scary, but at the end of a busy day, they just want to put their feet up and do some snapchatting.
The majority of Israeli solders are in their early to mid twenties. And besides the differences in moral compass, they ain’t that different to you and I. They’re just young adults who want to have what they see as being a ‘good time’. After the crowd had dispersed a little, the solders just sat on the side wall of the street smoking, talking, laughing, and taking pictures of each other and arrogantly putting them on facebook to show everyone what they had been doing that night. Same same, but different, I guess. Weird.
6. Palestinians are a creative lot.
What do you do when the army comes at you with riot horses? You push the bajillion kilo horse over, of course.
No, like actually. They pushed a horse to the ground. WHUUHTT EVEN? HOW? I don’t know.
7. The educated protesters know when to leave. The radicals overstay and get hurt.
Halfway through the protest, it became clear that there were two options left for the remaining hardcore lot: leave/dispers, or stay and fight the army (and encourage them to hurt you to the point that you can no longer leave on your own two legs). The educated bunch know this reality and do not let the rage get the better of their calculated logic. The rest stay and, often, push it too far beyond any productive outcome for the original protest cause.
These are just amateur observations from a woman who has only read about these things really, and is now seeing them for herself for the first time. I’m glad I got to see this before I even go to Ramallah next week, as these sorts of things happen nearly every day there so its good for me to know how to behave before I need to deal with it all solo.
My final overarching lesson that I have been thinking about, but was certainly reinforced today is as follows:
8. I am qualified to be a development worker, not an activist or protester. Whilst I certainly know that there is potential for great power in protests, strikes, demonstrations and other kinds of mass-activism, it’s important to let the activists do those things rather than get involved. I have not come to the territories to fight, to protest, to stand in front of a tank. I respect those who put their bodies on the line in a constructive way to do those sorts of things, but that is not my role. I will be a humanitarian aid and development worker, and stick to what I have been trained to do. That’s the most constructive contribution I can make here, I think.
Besides all this, everything is actually fine in Israel. Sounds bad, but I swear it ain’t all that. Its just tense, but meh, it always is! I’m looking forward to getting to Ramallah on Monday, checking things out, finding a room, and starting work asap! ☺ All good in the hood!