Thursday, April 21, 2005

Young Men Targeted for Arrest

Well, I made it back from Yanoun and then through my toughest day yet in Palestine alive—just barely. Yesterday I went down to Saffa, where the village council had invited internationals and Israelis to document recent destruction in the area. Our small group walked the short way from the village to the bulldozers and then along the path, commenting on the irony of our privilege to approach the threatened trees, while their owners would risk being shot or arrested if they came half as close. We stopped to rest in an olive grove along our hike, and three soldiers approached us to ask what we were doing. Actually, they wanted to know what the two Palestinians with us were doing and demanded to see their IDs. They wrote down the ID numbers. I asked if our friends would be punished for going to their land; the soldier ignored me.

Our group walked solemnly back to the village where we found a standoff between the young boys throwing stones and the army shooting rubber bullets and tear gas into the village. We didn’t know how it had started, but it was clear that neither side wanted to back down. The young boys wanted the soldiers out of their village, and the soldiers wanted the boys to stop throwing stones towards the army.
[1] I understood the village boys’ dilemma: if they were the first to back down, the army would have succeeded in declaring their land a “closed military zone,” that is, off-limits to Palestinians.

I found it harder to understand the soldiers who kept yelling at me and my Israeli friends to move out of the way so they could shoot at the boys. Obviously, if the soldiers really wanted the kids to stop throwing stones, they would just leave the village. This wasn’t a demonstration; these were kids who ran out of their houses when they saw the soldiers coming. The soldiers were trying to show the boys who was in charge.

Things started to become very heated, and two Israeli activists stepped out into the path of crossfire to deter the soldiers from shooting. The young soldiers were noticeably annoyed. The village boys stopped throwing stones so that the two Israelis would not be hurt. After a brief conversation with the activists, the soldiers turned to leave, and the village youth let out a great cheer. They felt they had won (they’ve got some macho in them, too). Several young boys began to throw stones as the soldiers left, until they were out of sight. But they never got out of sight. They got mad. The soldiers ran back towards the village and started shooting wildly. I instinctively ran into the area of crossfire and began waving my hands in the air and screaming as loud as I could, “Don’t shoot!” A bullet flew over my head and hit a branch above me. Several leaves fell on my head. My heart skipped a beat and I choked back a sob.

Most of the young men ran away as the soldiers approached, except for a gutsy few who continued throwing stones. One waited too long, and a soldier jumped out from the side and grabbed him around his neck, pulling him away. His face turned bright red and I was afraid he would choke. The soldiers then left quickly with the young man, having gotten what they wanted; now they had won.

As soon as villagers realized what had happened, they started to scream, running after the soldiers en masse. A woman who had been watching from her house ran out onto the balcony and began to wail. It was her nephew who had been led away by the soldiers. The woman, her sister, and all the young men ran after the captured villager until another group of soldiers stopped them from going any further. The group watched, horrified, as their friend stumbled to keep up with the soldier dragging him by his neck, until he was behind the trees and out of sight.

The crying women would not be held back. They pushed their way past the soldiers—who are in general far more tolerant of aggressive women than confrontational men—and I followed. We ran down a steep path and slid off a steep drop onto the path of the Wall, where the young man was being held on the ground with his hands tied behind his back. His name was Mohammed. The women ran to him, and began prying the soldiers’ hands off him, trying to free him from their grip. The soldier in charge told the women to leave, and one woman responded by kissing his hand and begging him to let Mohammed go. Mohammed yelled at his aunt to leave. I didn’t know why until he turned his head and I saw that he could not bear to hear her cry. His strong face had broken into tears at the sight of her.

I asked the soldiers what they were doing, and they said Mohammed was being arrested. I asked why, and they said “for throwing stones.” I saw one sensitive-looking soldier and pulled him aside. “Look, I know this young man was throwing stones, and I know that’s scary for you, but you have to understand that you are invaders in his village, protecting the people stealing his land. How would you react if someone came into your house with a gun and started carrying out your TV, and then your stereo, and then your bed? Wouldn’t you throw a lamp at him or something?”

The soldier listened to me, and I appreciated that. But then another soldier told him to stop talking to me and to take Mohammed into the jeep. I stood in front of the jeep doors, holding on to them to physically prevent the soldier and captured villager from entering. I continued speaking: “Please think about what you’re doing. You have the power to let him go or to ruin his life. Do you really think imprisoning him is going to prevent the boys from throwing stones in the future? What are you trying to accomplish?” The more aggressive soldier came from the side and yanked me out of the way. The soldier and Mohammed got into the jeep.

I went around to the side to keep talking and I saw Mohammed’s face. He was covered in sweat, miserable, hopeless. I asked him what his full name was, and wrote it down for the arrest report. Then I asked him if he wanted me to deliver any message to his parents, and he just looked down. I felt like a jerk. Just for being there, for witnessing his humiliation and despair.

Several more Israeli activists began to approach, and I asked one of them to translate for me because two of the soldiers said they didn’t speak any English. The activist said it wasn’t any use, but I insisted, perhaps more for my sake than anyone else’s. I turned to the soldier in the passenger’s seat: “Do you think this young man is a threat to Israeli security?” He nodded.

“So you think that imprisoning this young man will secure Israel?” He nodded again.

I pointed towards his family sitting and crying nearby: “How do you think this will affect them? Do you think his brothers and cousins will grow up to be suicide bombers or peace-makers?”

The soldier understood my point, but he didn’t want to hear it or respond. As he shut the door in my face, I hurried, “You’ve got one guy, but you’re making 1,000 more enemies—.” The driver started the engine of the jeep, and my friend and I ran in front of it, refusing to move. I gave my card of digital photographs from that day to another friend in case I was arrested. We agreed we weren’t moving until Mohammed was released. The driver stopped the engine, annoyed, and got out. I could see Mohammed’s family watching. I could see the sensitive soldier reflecting. Several soldiers were discussing something.

After several minutes, my Israeli friend Kobi called me over away from the soldiers and we turned around to watch together. The soldiers were opening the back door and out came Mohammed. A soldier untied his hands and handed him back his ID. The women watching behind me stood up slowly with joy and amazement. Mohammed walked quickly and calmly back to his family who smothered him with kisses. On the way he looked over to me and mouthed the word, “Toda,” meaning “Thank you” in Hebrew—He thought I was Israeli. We both smiled.

Mohammed walked up to the village ahead of us, and before long I heard an incredible cheer erupt in the village. He was home. I allowed myself a moment of happiness at the drop of victory amidst an ocean of defeats, but I was sobered up soon enough.

After a cup of tea, we were on the way to a demonstration in nearby Bil’in, where eight people had already been shot with rubber bullets,[2] including one Israeli and one journalist. Nobody was seriously injured, but then the protest was still young.

The demonstration had started out as a children’s parade of young girls and boys marching with banners, but by the time we arrived only one young boy remained. He was building a roadblock by himself out of odds and ends in the village, hoping it would prevent the army from raiding his village that night. He was too young to realize it, but he was practicing creative nonviolent resistance.

As I watched the boy, my eyes began to sting. Tear gas. I squatted down, covering my face. A man nearby yelled at me not to touch my eyes with my fingers—he said I was only pushing it in further. He was more experienced than I at being gassed. And he was right. I recovered and decided I was ready to go home.

Then suddenly a jeep pulled up in front of us and out jumped two soldiers who ran into the forest where the young boys had regrouped. Within seconds, the soldiers re-emerged pulling another young man, this one bigger and more resistant than the boy in Saffa. I rushed towards them, and the man began to tell me that he didn’t know what was happening, that he hadn’t done anything wrong. He asked me to help him. I recognized the soldiers from Saffa and suspected that this was another attempt at “winning” the game—if the young man had been “wanted,” they wouldn’t be hunting him during a stone-throwing standoff.

I instinctively threw myself between the young man and the soldier who was holding him by his neck. I tried to position myself in such an awkward way that the soldier would have to stop walking or it would hurt me. It worked. Kobi came next to me and began to use his body to separate the young man from the standing soldiers, meanwhile talking to them in Hebrew. The soldiers held on tight, and the man’s face turned redder as the grip around his neck tightened. He yelled out, and in a burst of energy somehow ripped himself away, freed for a few seconds. This was his chance.

A soldier was about to lunge for him so I grabbed the soldier’s arm and screamed, “Run!” I don’t know what came over me. But the young man ran. The soldier shook me loose after a few moments and began to chase the young man, who was running like crazy, so scared that he didn’t look where he was going.

In his path lay a cliff several meters high, separating one terrace of olive trees from another. In his frenzy, he didn’t realize the depth of the cliff and ran off it, knocking his head against a sharp branch and falling—hard, on his back, onto a huge rock. Everyone froze.

The young man began to release an almost inhuman moan. I ran to the cliff’s edge and looked over to find him lying spread eagle with blood all over his face. I turned around and scaled down the cliff and knelt in front of him. I heard his friend say that everything was going to be okay. I repeated the encouragement, although I was not so optimistic. I asked the injured young man his name, and he responded, “Fadi.” I sat with him until a medical team arrived and took him away on a stretcher with the help of several villagers and Israeli activists. When he was gone I realized that the army was gone, too. One look at him over the cliff’s edge and they had left, as stunned as the rest of us.

I was sure Fadi would be paralyzed, if not worse. I looked down at my hand that he had grabbed in desperation to avoid being interrogated or imprisoned. Now would he spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair? I tried to remember the feeling of joy I had experienced just a few hours before, but it was gone. I needed to see Fadi, to make sure he was all right. I hitched a ride with Fadi’s cousin to the hospital in Ramallah, and 30 minutes later we were rushing into the emergency room. We found Fadi all bandaged up, but conscious and standing with help. He smiled when he saw me come in. I asked how he was and he closed his eyes, “Alhamdulillah,” implying that he was all right.

I asked his father standing near his bedside what the doctors had said, and he repeated, “Alhamdulillah.” Fadi was pretty banged up but he was going to be okay. I asked where it hurt and he pointed to his leg. I asked about his back and head, and he pointed to an open wound on the latter where he said a bullet had grazed the bridge between his eyebrows. Had I missed a gunshot in the chaos or was he embellishing the tale? My answer was the same regardless, “Alhamdulillah”: “Thank God.” He smiled again.

[1] I use the word “towards” instead of “at” because as I’ve mentioned before, stone throwers rarely get close enough to soldiers to actually hit them.

[2] Rubber bullets are normal bullets with a thin coat of rubber around them. They are easily capable of killing someone, despite their name.

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