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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Rally...Clash

I loved the years I taught at an all-boys high school, but there was one event each year that I dreaded more than any other: the pep rally.

As one of the few females in a crowd of 1300 or so screaming boys, I always felt extremely uncomfortable.  While I know that the event was meant to unleash school spirit, to it felt like an unleashing of undiluted testosterone, which, to me, felt a lot like aggression.  As I stood in the crowd, trying to pretend that I wanted to be there, my imagination took me to places where the power of collective masculine energy was not focused on winning a game, but on far more ominous pursuits.  Those places were not pretty. Over the last couple of days my reality has included scenes like those I had imagined.

On Monday morning, Israeli soldiers raided the Qalandia refugee camp to make an arrest.  As the soldiers moved through the camp, crowds gathered, and protests, which included stone-throwing, began. In response, the Israeli military killed three Palestinians and injured 15.  In a place of constant stress (to put it mildly), it doesn't take much for the tide to turn from calm (relatively speaking) to turbulent.  The events in Qalandia created waves throughout the West Bank, and particularly here in Hebron.

Monday afternoon as I was clicking "save" for my last blog post, a teammate told me we needed to go out, that clashes had begun in response to the Qalandia deaths.  How did I feel about going out?

I said I was ready.  So the three of us on team left the house, unsure of what we'd encounter or when we'd return home.  We walked through the Old City (which is in H2, the part of Hebron under full Israeli control), into H1 (the part of Hebron under full Palestinian control) and crowds of men and boys had gathered near a checkpoint.  Stone-throwing had already started.  Israeli soldiers were stationed on roofs.

A few blocks from the checkpoint, (and in H1,where Israeli soldiers are not allowed to be), soldiers had set off sound bombs.  As we approached and observed, they were retreating back towards the checkpoint; while most of the soldiers seemed relatively calm, one soldier was clearly agitated and momentarily focused his anger towards us.  Only for a moment; his companions urged him on and they continued their retreat back towards H2.

With this going on, businesses were open, women and children walked in the streets, cab drivers vied for our business, and "welcome" was shouted to us as we surveyed the goings-on.  However, as the scene got more contentious, taxis and collective taxis left the area, some businesses closed, vendors packed up their carts and rolled them away, and the number of women and young children in the streets dwindled.

The reaction of Palestinians to our presence was mixed.  Whereas we are well-known in H2, many don't know us in H1.  Some people were curious, others mistrustful.  Without the personal benefit of Arabic (though one of our teammate is Arabic-speaking), sometimes it was difficult to interpret their reactions.  Our team stuck together and our Arabic-speaking teammate moved us when she didn't get a good vibe from those near us. Intermittently, we also checked in or gathered with internationals from other NGOs.

Israeli soldiers on the roof and on the street in H1
Stone- and sometimes firecracker-throwing.  Sound bombs. Tear gas.  From time to time soldiers came into the streets, shot sound bombs or tear gas near the protesters, and retreated.  Protesters burned boxes in the streets, then tires. Taking advantage of the open streets, several men sped their cars through the area, tires squealing.   A few drove in tight circles before speeding off. Such displays of bravado looked a lot like those of my teenage students. Later, some of the protesters brought water tanks into the streets to form a barricade. We watched.

That morning, I had used the Mumford and Sons song "Timshel" to begin worship. As we observed the clashes, the song, particularly the line, "You are not alone in this," ran through my head. I found myself humming the song as we monitored the clashes.  It served both as a reminder for me and a prayer for those who were expressing their grief and anger over the Qalandia deaths.

Teargas
After a few hours of monitoring, we went home to eat dinner and take a break, knowing that the night ahead might be a long one.  When we went back out, the streets were emptier, but not completely empty, things were still burning in the streets, the water tanks had been moved into a pyramid formation.  Soldiers continued to shoot sound bombs and tear gas.  I went back to the house after about an hour.  My teammates came home within an hour of that.  The clashes had stopped for the night.


Palestinian police
On Tuesday afternoon, there were clashes again.  Stone-throwing began in H1 and within one minute of the first air-born stone, a sound bomb went off.   This time Palestinian police in riot gear and Palestinian Authority (PA) officials intervened. With their presence in the streets, the crowd moved into H2, where the PA is not allowed. There clashes were not as volatile as the previous day, nor as long.  However, they still involved rocks, fires, sound bombs and teargas.  During lulls in the action curious boys and young men approached us to talk.

At one point the crowd of protesters retreated for reasons we could not immediately discern.  We found out later that an Israeli settler had fired on the crowd from a rooftop.  Israeli soldiers had stood nearby, doing nothing.

During the retreat back, several young men stopped to talk to me, urgently pointing to my vest pocket and saying something about cigarettes.  I thought they were asking me for cigarettes and told them in my limited Arabic that I didn't have any.  They persisted, saying ,"No," "Cigarette," and pointed at my pocket.  One tried to put his hand in my pocket. With this I looked in my pocket and discovered a lit cigarette there.  It had burned two holes in the vest. The young men, including one with face covered and stone in hand, apologized profusely multiple times about the cigarette.  I have no idea how the cigarette got there, but appreciated the warning (and quite frankly, the comic relief) they gave me in the moment.  The incident served as a reminder of the complexity of people - at once fierce and gentle, angry and caring, abrasive and polite.

Slowly, the clashes moved back into H1, where eventually the PA dispersed the remnants of the crowd.

On Wednesday afternoon without provocation Israeli soldiers set off a sound bomb in H1.  PA authorities were again present there. Clashes again erupted, but only in H2, and still less volatile than the previous days. Israeli soldiers were stationed on rooftops.  When the stone-throwing began, some soldiers came out into the streets.  They closed some streets to foot and vehicle traffic for about 3 hours.  We observed the back and forth of stones and sound bombs for several hours.  No tear gas was used when we were there, but when we patrolled later in the evening, we noted that the street was littered with used sound bombs and tear gas. We felt a sting in our noses from the bit of gas lingering in the air.

Today the city has been blissfully quiet.

Watching the events of the last few days, particularly as they are juxtaposed against the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, has given me reason to consider the potential, for good or bad, of a collective mindset. My thoughts and feelings are complicated and conflicted.

As I write, I realize that I am still unable to put many words to them.  I have written and deleted sentence after sentence.  Perhaps after more time has passed the words will sort themselves out.  I won't force them now.  What I do know is that watching the (generally young) stone-throwers in action, often without the intervention of adults, elicited in me a similar reaction as I'd had to pep rallies.  I know that the actions happen within the context of the occupation, a context of limited rights and stifled freedom. Given my own frustration after three and a half weeks here, I cannot imagine the burden of living one's entire life in this context.  I know that the show of Israeli power is exponentially larger than that of the boys with stones.  What I don't know is how things will change here.

However, I hold onto hope.  I hold onto a thoroughly unexpected scene currently making world news, a scene of Israeli soldiers dancing with Palestinians, a scene that was filmed here in Hebron the same night the clashes began.  (The soldiers were disciplined for their actions.  However, abuses generally go undisciplined - a story for another day.) I hold onto hope that someday Israeli/Palestinian interactions will not involve undiluted testosterone, stones and teargas, but rather undiluted joy and music. 

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