Sunday, November 23, 2003

Roadblocks & a Demonstration in Budrus

Today, we attended a demonstration against the Wall in Budrus, a Palestinian village near the Green Line west of the city of Ramallah. Budrus is not far from where we live, but it took over 2 hours to travel there because we had to change taxis every 15 minutes or so at each roadblock along the way.

Roadblocks are concrete blocks or dirt piles installed by the Israeli military to inhibit vehicular movement on Palestinian roads. Roadblocks are not manned by soldiers and do not prevent people from crossing them on foot; their sole purpose is to complicate or prevent Palestinian movement. Instead of taking their cars on the main road to work, Palestinians must take either indirect unpaved roads or taxis that shuttle back and forth between roadblocks.

There is a roadblock at the entrance of Haris, where we live. In order to leave Haris, we have to hike out of the village and catch transportation on the main road. Imagine if to leave your town or city you had to walk to its outskirts. Our landlord owns a car, but to use it he must take an uncomfortable unpaved detour that has already caused serious damage to the vehicle.

Like most structures of the Occupation, roadblocks are ostensibly built for Israeli security. Yet I cannot imagine how it helps Israeli citizens to prevent Palestinians from using their own cars and their own roads. More than anything else, roadblocks add stress and struggle to any movement. For instance, a commuter will drive his car every day to a roadblock obstructing his road to work, park his car at the roadblock, walk across by foot, and then take a taxi the rest of the way. He may end up paying more for taxis than he earns at his job, rendering work a waste of time. Roadblocks maintain a type of control over Palestinians’ mobility and daily life at little cost to Israel.

Roadblocks also affect the Palestinian economy. To transport Palestinian products past them, trucks carrying goods have to back up against the roadblocks, another truck must back up from the other side, and then somebody has to manually transport those goods from one truck to the other, over the roadblocks. The added manpower, vehicles, and gas required to transport Palestinian products often renders them even more costly than their Israeli counterparts, which are quick and easy to transport on the Israeli-only roads. As a result, the Palestinian market is then flooded with Israeli products. Palestinians, many of whom struggle to make ends meet, end up buying the cheaper Israeli products rather than supporting their own economy, in effect financing the very country that is occupying them. So Israel actually profits financially from the road obstructions.

Because so many passengers and goods are forced to change vehicles at roadblocks, they have become popular gathering places and it’s common to find tea vendors and falafel stands in addition to taxi stations. Seeing business develop from the roadblocks is both inspiring and depressing. It’s inspiring to see that Palestinian enterprise and ingenuity continue to spark even in such dismal conditions, but it’s depressing that what would normally be intolerable burdens have become normal daily life. Removing roadblocks has been a common form of nonviolent resistance during this intifada (Arabic for “uprising”), but such direct action invariably results in the collective punishment of Palestinians living in the area. Common punishments include new military checkpoints, curfews, arrests, or house demolitions.

On the way to the demonstration today, we passed Kfar Tapuah, an Israeli settlement near the Palestinian village of Yasouf. It is easy to distinguish the settlements from Palestinian villages. The former are usually on hilltops, for geographical advantage. With large modern houses, often identical, they look like suburban gated communities. Settlements are built rapidly, whereas Palestinian villages have usually evolved organically over time, in keeping with the topography of the landscape. Built using materials from the land, they blend naturally into the countryside.

Tapuah and the area around the settlement are home to notoriously violent ideological settlers and the army that protects them. On weekends, settlers sometimes picnic at the natural springs and beautiful gardens of Yasouf with their children, guard dogs, and guns.

The next village along our way was Qarawat Bani Zeid, where a devastatingly beautiful boy knocked on the taxi window and lifted up his shirt, revealing a massive wound that was draining into a sack strapped to his stomach. I didn’t know what to do or say, but he smiled at me reassuringly as our taxi began to move. We sped off through the mountains until we arrived in Budrus and joined with locals to head towards the hills where the demonstration was taking place. As we walked, I practiced my rudimentary Arabic and the children laughed at my name. “Ana” means “me,” “I,” or “I am” in Arabic, so when I say “I’m Anna” it sounds like I’m saying “I’m me,” or just stuttering: “I’m... I’m...”

The goal of the demonstration was to walk to the Budrus land that Israel is leveling for the Wall, to document and protest the destruction. As we hiked over the first hill, I made out a mass of people in the valley below. It was a moving sight: hundreds of Palestinians waving flags of pride and peace, and children running with banners that glimmered in the sunlight. At the top of the next hill, between us and the threatened land, were the soldiers standing watch. I hurried to join the crowd below.

It scared me to see the soldiers watching over us, and I fumbled with the onion I had brought in my pocket in case we were tear gassed—the strong smell of an onion is supposed to remind you that you are still breathing, countering the gas’ tendency to make you believe that you are choking. I tried to be as conspicuous as possible, knowing that my purpose was not to blend in but rather to make my presence known to the soldiers in hopes that it would discourage violence. At the top of the hill, the soldiers looked ready to confront us. The crowd stopped in front of them and my colleague Jamie and the demonstration organizers stepped forward to talk to the soldiers. The soldiers had no right to be there, but I found them remarkably self-restrained given the noisy taunting from the crowd. It’s astonishing to see young boys yelling at men holding machine guns, but I suspect I would yell too if I were in their shoes.

After several fruitless attempts to explain to the soldiers what the protest was about and why we should pass, the soldiers began to look bored and a few Palestinian boys started to throw rocks from a nearby hill. The organizers tried to encourage the crowd to disperse, and as we began walking back to the car, my colleague Dunya was hit in the head with a rock. She was bleeding heavily when I reached her and she said she was hurt and needed to leave. Our group split up: five women left and three of us stayed to make sure the demonstration ended safely.

I was in charge of photographic documentation so I continued taking pictures while we discussed our next steps with some other international activists and photographers. All of a sudden—and I still don’t know why—the entire group of protesters turned and began to race into a field of trees. The soldiers raised their guns and fired several tear gas canisters and rubber bullets into the air. The shots were clearly over the heads of our group of internationals and landed somewhere in the trees where the Palestinians were crouched. We quickly decided to leave, since our presence was obviously not improving matters. When we left, the soldiers were still firing into the trees.

We were frustrated by the escalation of events and plan to discuss the incident at our next team meeting when Jamie and Dunya return from the hospital.[1] It is very hard to know what risks to take in such situations and how much good we can really do. It seems to vary from day to day, soldier to soldier. The demonstrators who drove us home today made it clear that they appreciated our presence immensely. One boy (with scars on his lower abdomen and lower back where a bullet went in and out 6 months ago) asked me where I was from and I told him I was Jewish-American. He looked surprised and I told him yes, I was Jewish, but that I supported Palestinians’ right to a homeland and self-determination. He gave me a big smile and put out his hand for me to shake, which I did. He said I was very welcome in Palestine.

[1] Dunya received stitches behind her left ear.