Saturday, February 25, 2012

Cat butt

I'm going to start with a light story.  Beware- things are not going to stay so light... I have a very sweet orange cat (two actually, but this story is only about one of them).  She used to have a stink problem,  poor thing.  She's very affectionate and she likes to stand or sit on people's lap to get petted.  When she is standing, her tail goes up.  It used to be that the smell that came from her little behind was quite foul and quite strong. I'm told it was a glandular problem. I am grateful that at some point the issue resolved itself.

Yesterday there was a stink in the air and when I'd get a whiff, I kept thinking, "This smell is familiar.  How do I know this nasty nasty smell?"  And then I figured it out.  It smelled like cat butt.  Now might be a good time to mention that I was in Hebron, a Palestinian city that is unique in that it has Jewish settlers living right in the middle of the city. What this means is some settlers have homes above Palestinian homes or market areas.  Palestinians living and working under the settlerments have put what amounts to horizontal fences above their businesses and homes, so that when settlers (notice I say "when," not "if") throw trash and other things down on them, the barrier catches what's coming down.  Other settler areas of Hebron are completely closed off- to Palestinians, to tourists, to everyone but the settlers.  The settlers in Hebron have a reputation of being particularly nasty- to Palestinians, to tourists, to everyone but the settlers.  CPT (Christian Peacemaker Team- and EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel- document cases daily (or more than daily) of harassment and abuse by settlers in Hebron.   There are about 400 settlers in Hebron and about 10 times that many Israeli soldiers to protect them.  Most of the settlers are American.  Others are French.  

There was a protest going on yesterday to re-open Shuhada Street, a street that used to be a main thoroughfare and commercial area in the Old City.  Palestinian access to the street was severely restricted after the Ibrahimi Mosque Massacre on February 25, 1994, exactly 18 years ago today. Since the street restrictions were made, it has essentially shut down completely.  Many Palestinians have been forced to close their businesses, thus losing their livelihood.  Doors to their businesses have been welded shut.  You can get more information about Hebron and Shuhada Street at

Yesterday's protest started at a mosque outside the Old City and was supposed to end at the Ibrahimi Mosque (actually half-mosque/half-synagogue- I'll get to that later) inside the Old City. However, it ended prematurely, thanks to tear gas, sound bombs, rubber bullets, and what I am now calling cat butt, a liquid that was sprayed on protesters that smells like my poor little cat's rear end. Normally things that remind me of my cat make me happy.  This does not.  You may think I am making light of something serious and maybe you're right. There's a reason for it. Hopefully, it'll become clear as I write. As with my posts about the Wall, pictures will follow in a future post.

The weekend picked for the protest was significant.  As I said above, today marks the 18th anniversary of the Ibrahimi Mosque Massacre.  In 1994 Baruch Goldstein, a member of the violent Jewish Defense League,  entered the mosque during morning prayers and opened fire, killing 29 Palestinians.  He was also killed.  (I'd strongly recommend you Google either Goldstein or the mosque and look at a few websites.  The interpretations of events vary widely).  After the massacre the mosque was closed and curfew was imposed in Hebron until tensions settled down a little (during this time there were others deaths beyond those in the mosque).  When the mosque re-opened, it was split in two: half-synagogue and half-mosque.  The mosque/synagogue is said to be built around the Cave of the Patriarchs- believed to hold the remains of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca, and Leah and therefore significant for Jews.  The 1000 year-old mosque is the fourth holiest site for Muslims, as it is believed that the prophet Mohammad visited it on his night flight to Jerusalem.  I find it ironic that after a Jewish man brutally killed so many Muslims in their place of worship, half the space was turned over to Jews...  To me it seems like bad behavior got a pretty sweet reward.   Maybe that's just me...   To get into either side, you now have to pass through security with members of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces), large guns in hand, at the door to "welcome" you. However, I digress...

Yesterday's protest was organized by Youth Against Settlements ( to re-open Shuhada Street. Several of us from Nablus planned to join the protest. However, we were staying in two different places and didn't get to meet up.  Three of our group made it to the protest, two of us didn't.

The three who made it walked with protesters (500 in number by their estimates) who were holding signs, playing drums, and shouting chants for about a half an hour before things heated up.  When I say "heated up," let me be clear that the protesters remained peaceful for the entirety of the action.  There were a few people who had brought Syrian flags to the demonstration and they were told by event organizers that the demonstration was only about Shuhada Street.  The Syrian flags went away.  All demonstrators  agreed not to use violence.  No rock-throwing, no nothing.  They were faithful to that commitment.  It was the IDF who decided to change the dynamic of things.  They had I-don't-even-know-how-many armored cars and soldiers, one cat butt spray truck, police cars, even a bulldozer hanging back ready for action.  I know this because my friend and I tried to reach the protest.

We had been running late and were advised by our friends to wait at the end point of the protest, but after waiting awhile we decided to start walking towards the demonstration. We walked past so many IDF vehicles and a point.  There was a definite line that we and all the other observers (Palestinians, international observers, journalists) could not pass.  And so we watched, took pictures, and took video.  Unbeknownst to us, we were only about a couple blocks from our friends; for the most part we couldn't see the protesters.  We did see the truck spraying cat butt spray at them.  We did see the tear gas being shot at them and saw as the gas released from the canisters.  We saw and heard the sound bombs.  We were very aware of the soldiers around us.

We followed the lead of the "veterans," those for whom this was clearly nothing new.  Many of the veterans were no older than eleven or twelve.  After awhile, the sound bombs were not only directed at protesters, but at us.  When the vets started running, we started running.  When they started walking back to see what was going on, we started walking back.  There were lulls when things were quiet.  We walked down a side street.  A man was selling something, another man passed by on a donkey.  People observing from roofs and windows yelled to us in true Palestinian style: "Welcome!" "What's your name?" "How are you?"  In the midst of what was quite jarring for us newbies, ordinary life kept right on going.  As we walked along the side street, we saw more IDF vehicles and soldiers on another nearby street.  We approached them and as we neared, there was a horrible high-pitched siren sound followed by a message that said something about how some technology was sponsored by the US government.  ( 2/27 Correction-  The message was as follows: “This is a test of the long-range acoustic device LRAD, from the American Technology Corporation.”) I was not feeling proud to be an American at that moment... I hoped to hear the announcement again, only because I wanted to document it on video.  Didn't happen.

After walking to that street, we headed back to see what was going on with the protesters.  A few courageous protesters with banners were coming up the street.  Wow.  The word "courageous" doesn't seem to do justice to their bravery.  They walked towards us, which is the same as saying towards the IDF, even with tear gas and sound bombs going off around them.  As I write, I will admit that I don't know exactly how close they ended up getting.  The intensity of IDF actions increased.  We saw someone get arrested.  We saw a journalist who got hit on the head by something and was bleeding. The sound bombs in our direction started being thrown down our "safe" side street and we ducked into, or rather were pulled into, a building.  We stood there with a group of women and girls, glad to be our of harm's way.

Then one of the women said, "Come have coffee with us. My father wants you to come to our house."  We hesitated, but eventually gave in as they repeated the invitation for us to join them.  We walked up the stairs into a beautiful and lively home.  We met Ahmad, his wife, his brother, his daughter, many grandchildren, and other relatives.   We drank tea while the sounds of an ambulance, sound bombs, tear gas, and gun fire (rubber bullets) continued outside.  Ahmad told us that we were now part of the family.  From time to time we or someone from the family looked out the window to see what was going on.  From what we saw, it seemed we'd gotten inside at a good time.  Despite our protests, we were served rice with cauliflower (and chicken for my non-veg friend), yogurt, and tomatoes.  When the heaping plate was first put in front of us, I couldn't imagine eating.  However, as I took one bite...and then another...and then a few more, I found that more than my body was nourished.  We were invited to stay the night or for a few nights, if we wanted.  We met a brother who has a shoe factory.  He asked for our shoe sizes so that he could make shoes for us for the next time we come.  We were given little plastic oyster shells with chocolates in them and then given more chocolates to stuff into them.  We ate oranges.  I smile as I think about this.  Eventually, despite their encouragement for us to stay, we insisted that we had to leave, since my friend was going to try to get back to Nablus that evening.  They told us to come back again.  Had the sounds not been intruding from outside, it would have felt like a perfectly normal visit with a family.  While perhaps not normal, I think it was quite perfect.

My friend and I went back into the street, now quiet (the one we were on anyway), but saw that the IDF was still around on the main street.  The tires were still burning (that had started earlier) and a dumpster and several other barriers had been put in the street.  We saw tear gas canisters and sound bomb canisters on the ground.  We walked back through the Old City to meet the friend we were staying with.  The Old City was quiet.  On Fridays things tend to be quiet in Palestinian towns, since most people are Muslim and it is their day of prayer.  However, it seemed to be quieter than would be normal, eerily quiet.  We saw IDF perched on a number of buildings keeping watch.  We tried to take a picture of one group, who used a loudspeaker system to tell us that if we took a picture, they'd arrest us.  We waited until we were pretty far from them, made sure they weren't looking at us, and snapped a shot.  Ha!

Our friend works at a hospital.  He said about 15 people had been admitted stinking of cat butt (my terminology, not his).  The spray causes respiratory problems, so they were likely treated with oxygen.  Apparently it takes many days and bathing in tomato juice for the smell to go away completely.  Other hospitals saw more patients for problems from cat butt spray and tear gas.  My friends who were in the protest said their skin, eyes, and lungs had burned from the tear gas (they were spared the cat butt), but thankfully their level of exposure didn't require medical attention.  After they'd run to safety, they passed around onions and were sprayed with perfume to help get them over the burning sensation.  Their refuge had been a butcher shop and then a bridal shop, it seems...

Today the protesters and observers of our group compared stories as we walked through where everything happened yesterday.  For the most part the evidence of yesterday's events is gone from the streets.  No IDF around.  No canisters.  The dumpster and other barriers aren't in the road.  There is a black spot where the tire was burned.  Cat butt still permeates the air.  But shops were open.  People were in the streets, conducting daily business.

I asked the friend we stayed with, "How can you live with all of this going on?"

"You just get used to it. This is normal life.  What you saw was not a big deal or particularly bad.  No one was killed," he said, though a protester was killed in Ramallah yesterday...

Today as we walked to the protest site, we spoke to a young man who said, "What is happening here is inhumane.  It must stop."  He said he'd written a letter to the government asking that classes be cancelled for three days in a nearby school, so that students wouldn't have to breath in the putrid air.  His computer shop was right about where the tire had been burning yesterday.  Cat butt was pretty strong in his store.

He's right.  It is inhumane.  It must stop.  In the meantime, what amazes me and gives me hope is the same thing that makes it OK to call the horrible spray cat butt.  Life goes on.  Even living under Occupation or maybe because of it, with tear gas and sound bombs going off around them, Palestinians reach out- to each other and to us.  They go about their daily life.  They smile and play and laugh.  They make jokes and laugh.  Surely I can find some humor in the insanity of it, too.  So, from now on, if I ever have occasion to refer to nasty stink spray again, "cat butt" it is. 

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