Friday, April 15, 2005

Saffa Demonstration II & Reflections on Symbolism

Inaam kept her promise. She called me a few weeks later to request IWPS presence at another protest in Saffa. This time we were fewer but better prepared. We reached the bulldozers before the soldiers did and sat down in front of the machines, hoping their drivers would stop out of fear of hurting someone. When we refused to move, soldiers threw sound bombs and we sprang up out of fear. One bomb exploded in my face, ricocheting off my neck and blasting my eardrum. For a moment I was sure I’d lost hearing in my right ear.

My ear was still ringing when the explosions stopped. The protesters were scattered. An old man had fallen and slashed his hand and was being carried away. We regrouped and walked back together towards the machines, resolved not to stop until we were physically beaten down. The soldiers drew their batons and began beating demonstrators left and right. I fumbled with my camera to catch the violence on film. It was mostly an excuse not to move forward with the others—I was paralyzed with fear of being beaten.

Our numbers were too few to move past the soldiers’ batons, so we sat down again, as close to the bulldozers as possible to prevent them from working. The bulldozer operator saw us and decided to teach us a lesson. Using the claw of the bulldozer, he gathered hundreds of pounds of rocks and dirt and began moving towards us. The soldiers yelled at us to move, and we scurried away just before the claw covered our ground with rubble.

The bulldozer operator’s manifest indifference to us was disheartening, to say the least. Much of nonviolent resistance relies on the awakening of people’s consciences. We decided to sit down away from the bulldozers to observe and film; if we couldn’t stop the destruction, at least we would document it. Everyone remained seated except a few children who sprang up to place a Palestinian flag above the growing pile of rubble formed by the bulldozer. Each time the machine knocked it over with more rubble, they would dig it up and put it back.

One old farmer had somehow reached his land during the chaos of sound bombs and tear gas, perhaps because the soldiers were distracted. The soldiers spotted him a few minutes after I did and told him to leave. Sitting peacefully on a rock, he declared that they would have to kill him first. They left him alone—he wasn’t worth their trouble. He sat among his trees all afternoon. He had no M16 and no army, but like the children raising the flag, his peaceful determination was stronger than any gun.

The Israeli army has wreaked continuous havoc on Palestinian land and life, but it has never succeeded in destroying the Palestinian spirit. Nothing will stop humans from seeking freedom, least of all guns. Firearms don’t bring security or peace to anyone. I watch soldiers clutch the massive things and I see that they are so scared, so completely terrified. And next to them are the unarmed activists, so free because they have neither a heavy gun nor a heavy conscience weighing them down.

I have started using a new strategy for talking to soldiers. At first I ignore them because they don’t have any legitimate authority over me or anyone else in the area. But if they engage with me and begin to ask me questions, I politely tell them that I don’t feel comfortable talking to someone with a big gun in his hands. I invite them to put down their guns and talk, but they never do.

Israeli soldiers aren’t the only ones attached to their guns. One of the first things I noticed in Palestine was the prevalence of toy guns in the hands of children in the street. It didn’t surprise me that they would want to play with guns—after all, the people they see in power every day, the soldiers and settlers, all have guns—but it surprised me that their parents would allow it, since most families I meet are basically peaceful. For example, a friend of mine who advocates nonviolent resistance won’t let his sons throw stones at demonstrations but he lets them pose with guns in pictures. It seems crazy to me. Aren’t guns about killing?

I don’t like guns. I hate seeing them everywhere here, on posters of people killed by soldiers and in plastic replicas in corner stores. But I have struggled to understand their presence instead of just reacting to it. To me, guns symbolize violence and fear. But to many Palestinians, they symbolize strength. For a Palestinian to have a gun on his or her death poster means that he or she was brave instead of submissive, no matter what the cause of death. Guns aren’t a Palestinian tradition any more than they are a Jewish one. The Zapatistas in Mexico carved out wooden guns as symbols of their struggle too. It’s about honor, not killing. And honor is very important to people here. It’s what they have left, as their rights and land slip away.

It’s interesting how symbols begin to mean different things to me here. On my wrist I wear a wristband that says “Palestine” with a Palestinian flag in the background. It was a gift, and I like the way it looks. I like wearing it, because it shows clearly my solidarity with Palestinians when I’m in the West Bank, and it sparks interesting conversations with Israelis in Israel. But it has a flag on it, and I’ve always hated flags and other symbols of nationalism. Is this one any different?

I struggle to justify this contradiction. The Palestinian flag is different from most: it was illegal for many years, and to me represents more the struggle for freedom and nationhood than the nation itself. I don’t think I would wear the wristband if the state of Palestine already existed.

Being in Palestine is a lesson in maturity and flexibility for me. On the one hand, I am learning to make judgements and take sides on issues I used to dismiss as “complicated.” On the other hand, issues like stone-throwing, flag-waving, and gun-toting are not as black and white as they used to be. There have always been clear categories and rules in my life—suddenly there are none. For the first time in my life, I have to decide for myself what is right and what is wrong.

The other night a colleague and I snuck out to spray-paint over anti-Arab graffiti that settlers had sprayed in Hebrew on an old roadblock near Haris. I used to dislike vandalism, but I had no trouble spraying a big flower around the words, rendering them illegible—yet another lesson of wrong becoming right. Besides, we have to do something for fun around here.

No comments: