Friday, April 08, 2005

Prayer on Deir Ballut’s Blood-Stained Land

Wednesday morning I received the type of news I have been dreading: “Four people were shot in Deir Ballut.” Four people shot anywhere is a tragedy, but I have a special affection for Deir Ballut village and the people in it. My colleague and I rushed to the village, my heart pounding the whole way, wondering which of my dear friends I might never see again. Two friends directed us to the village land, where the shootings had occurred. One of my friends could hardly hold back her tears. We were stopped halfway there by a familiar sight: the soldiers had declared the area a “closed military zone” and nobody was allowed any further, except of course the Wall workers and bulldozers which continued their land-razing in the background. A group of women sat crying at the soldiers’ knees. One grabbed me and told me that her brother had been shot in the gut. She begged me to do something, to tell the world. I was paralyzed, not knowing how I could ease her pain.

Two men stepped forward and negotiated with the soldiers to be allowed down to the land, where some people had remained after the shootings. I walked behind them, explaining to the soldiers that I felt there should be an international observer as I passed by. They didn’t stop me. They did, however, stop a professional journalist and photographer working for the French press because he was Palestinian. Their reasoning: “First you are an Arab, then a journalist.” For a while, I was the only “reporter” at the scene.

We walked quickly down to the land near the Wall construction, where we found the mothers of two of the victims. They wailed when they saw me, holding up the bloody clothing for me to photograph. One jacket had a bullet hole in the shoulder and the back. I wondered whose son had been wearing it just a few hours before. I sat with the women as they cried, and I asked them to tell me the story when they were ready.

They recounted that the Abdillah family had come down to their land to work that morning, as they had been doing for several weeks. Each day they worked their land on one side of the valley while the bulldozers destroyed it on the other. They were tortured by the injustice but felt they could do nothing. I asked if they sometimes threw stones at the bulldozers out of anger, but they shook their heads. What would be the point? Plus, they knew the Israeli security guards at the Wall and had even drunk tea with them once.

“But today that changed,” said a man nearby who had heard me speaking to the women. His name was Marwan. He explained that he and four friends had walked a few meters towards the security guards that day to appeal to them to stop the destruction of their land. They then yelled at the people building the Wall to leave. According to Marwan, the security guards then opened fire on the group, hitting his four friends almost simultaneously. He moved his hands past his head to convey the feeling of bullets flying past his ears, and thanked God that he had been spared. The closest shooter, he explained, had been 30 ft away while the rest were much further. He confirmed the women’s claim that no stone had been thrown.

Marwan led me around the area of the shootings. He pointed out drops of blood on a few rocks, and then I began to notice the stains myself. They were everywhere. There were pools of blood thinning to trickles where the victims had struggled to walk away. I learned that one young man named Samir, who was my age (25), was shot in the leg and struggled the 2 miles back to the village with help from his friend and a donkey. His injury seemed less serious than those of the others, who had to wait for ambulances to arrive, ironically via the path of the Wall. Majid, Samir’s 30-year-old brother, was shot in the shoulder and the bullet exited his back. Hamada, his cousin of 24, was shot in the chest. The oldest victim Khalil, 58, was shot near his groin and the bullet exited his backside. His 75-year-old mother was by my side the whole time until she found the blood of her son on the leaves of a plant near where he’d been shot. She held up the bloody leaves helplessly. I didn’t know whether to take a photograph or cry. I did both.

As we mourned, a nearby soldier pointed me out to his partner and grinned. I wanted to throw up. How could he be so inhumane? He was not the only chipper soldier, and I was reminded of all the innocent young men and women of Israel who have been dehumanized by their military training. How far this is from the traditional compassion of Judaism! This Occupation is destroying us all.

But it wasn’t soldiers who shot Samir, Majid, Hamada, and Khalil. It was guards from a private security company hired to protect the bulldozers working on the Wall. If it were the army, I could almost guarantee there would be no investigation. Does that go for private guards too? I couldn’t understand it; what could those guards have been thinking? Were they so threatened by the five familiar unarmed men yelling at a distance from them? Surely they aimed to kill if they hit one in the chest and another in the shoulder. These guards are contracted by the Israeli government to ensure the safety of the Jewish people of Israel. What about the safety of the Palestinians?

At first I found Marwan’s story unbelievable; I couldn’t imagine why the guards would have done such a thing with so little provocation. But my skepticism vanished when I went to visit Samir and Hamada in the hospital yesterday, and they both told exactly the same story. Hamada greeted me with a big dazed smile and a weak handshake. He had been shot in the chest, but thankfully the bullet went through his left breast from side to side, not front to back. His heart remained untouched and it looks like he will be fine.

Samir, a few doors down, was in far worse shape. After his long struggle back to the village, he was turned back at Deir Ballut checkpoint.
[1] Samir was forced to take a long and bumpy detour to the town of Biddya, where he was told that they didn’t have the proper equipment to treat his serious injuries. Only then was he permitted to reach Ramallah, taking two different ambulances because he had to be manually carried over a roadblock in the middle of the trip.

Samir lost critical time and a lot of blood during the ordeal and remains in a great deal of pain. When I entered he recognized me but could hardly speak. He just kept biting his lower lip, looking up at the ceiling with tears in his eyes. The bullet had severed the source of blood to his feet, and at this stage even the doctors in Ramallah feel helpless. He is hoping to receive permission from Israel to travel to a better-equipped hospital in Jordan. Nobody knows how his family will pay for his care there.

I didn’t have the opportunity to see Majid or Khalil because they are being treated in a different hospital, but I did go to visit their families in Deir Ballut. Majid’s wife welcomed me warmly and explained how attached her husband was to the land they were losing. For him and many other Palestinians, land is like a child, connected to you in that deep inexplicable way through interdependence and dedication. Majid had taken the kids to work the fields with him that day, saying, “If they take our land, they might as well take us too.” The kids apparently watched the bullet fly through their father and they gathered around him screaming “Baba! Baba! (Daddy! Daddy!)”

Khalil’s children are my age and have children of their own. They appreciated my visit and told me what a serious condition their father was in because of his age and the proximity of the bullet to his groin. We sat in silence until the children started to goof around and break the somber mood, as children do so skillfully. They asked me about my family and invited me to marry someone in Deir Ballut and settle down there. I smiled and tried to change the subject.

Today, the village of Deir Ballut held a demonstration in protest of the Wall construction and the shootings. Their plan was to pray on the rocks stained with the blood of their loved ones. Hundreds of villagers and many internationals and Israelis gathered and marched towards the symbolic land. The soldiers were waiting for us along the way and formed a line across our path with their bodies to prevent protestors from advancing.

Demonstrators responded to the obstacle in different ways. One group of men started talking to the soldiers in Hebrew, explaining why it was important for them to pass. A group of women from Women for Life began singing a traditional Palestinian folk song to invigorate the demonstrators. A few children climbed the rocks above the path, holding flags in silence as photographers documented the scene. But the soldiers were unmoved; nobody could pass. And so the resistance stepped up a notch.

An old woman stopped yelling and started pushing. She pushed her way through the crowd and then through the line of soldiers, who hardly knew what had hit them. Then came another woman, whom they tried to stop, but by the time she’d passed a certain point they could no longer attend to her because that would weaken their barrier. And so, one by one, several brave individuals broke through the line of soldiers. After each successful passage, the group cheered with renewed energy and determination. The group of people who had made it through encouraged others to join them.

I saw my friend Reem trying to get around the side of a soldier, and I rushed to help pull her through. I put out my hand, and a soldier scooted between us. Still I pulled, and the soldier pushed her back, and before I knew it Reem’s husband had jumped in the middle to help his wife. He was angry with the soldier for touching her forcefully. Then his brother joined in to help separate the soldier and Reem. Within seconds, things had escalated and everyone was pushing and shoving. I saw Reem’s brother-in-law being dragged along the ground by his neck. Then the soldiers began to throw sound bombs one after another to scatter the crowd. Reem and I watched from the side, paralyzed and clutching one another, the sound bombs exploding in our ears and faces. We closed our eyes and waited for it to be over. When we opened our eyes, we were relieved to see that Reem’s husband had emerged from the conflict unscathed. His brother’s arm, however, had been sprained. I was thankful that the soldiers could not use tear gas because they were so close that they would be gassed themselves.

The demonstrators were not deterred. It seemed those most affected by the confrontation had been the soldiers, who were visibly shaken. They agreed to let the protesters through, but only in groups of five. They seemed very pleased with themselves for their generosity. An Israeli activist friend and I watched them work, wondering how it was that they saw it as their authority to give Palestinians the red or green light to go to their own land. We couldn’t understand the five-person rule, except that perhaps it served to reaffirm that things were being done on the soldiers’ terms, even though most would say that the soldiers had been defeated this time.

The demonstration proceeded quickly to the land where the shootings had taken place. It was almost time to pray. Parents, siblings, children, and friends of the victims lined up to worship together. There were drops of blood visible everywhere, and a young girl wore her uncle’s jacket with the blood and bullet holes. On a loudspeaker, the imam called a prayer that echoed across the valley to where the bulldozers continued their razing. The villagers prayed in unison, in solidarity, each connecting to the land individually for a moment. When they finished, they began their long walk home. It was a small victory in a long fight, but there was a feeling of empowerment and hope within us as we walked, an encouragement to those still nursing wounds from a few days before.

[1] This is the same checkpoint where a pregnant woman lost her twin babies last year (See 2003 entry entitled “Birth & Death at Deir Ballut Checkpoint***). Clearly things haven’t gotten better. My good friend Sofia waited 3 painful hours at the checkpoint in the middle of the night 6 months ago, before she was permitted to pass to have her baby in Ramallah.

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