Saturday, January 03, 2004

Fire & a Demonstration in Deir Ballut

Spending more than just a few fleeting moments in Deir Ballut has allowed me to build friendships and connections with people in Palestine in a way that I hadn’t before. My dearest friend of all in the village is Reem, a warm and politically active mother of four whose house has become a real haven for me. On the first night of the New Year I was sitting with Reem and her husband drinking tea when I smelled smoke. I opened the window and found the night air uncommonly foggy. It was raining ash. We could hear people yelling outside, appealing to everyone in the village to come help. We ran outside to find the streets full of women and men carrying buckets of water from their homes. They were running towards a building with a great cloud of smoke growing behind it. I saw huge flames exploding from behind the building. I asked someone near me if anyone was inside and she shook her head.

Reem had already run home and was carrying out buckets of water. I ran to help her. I asked why nobody had called a fire truck and a woman nearby said people had, half an hour ago, when the fire was still small. It hadn’t arrived yet. I said to Reem it was crazy to try and stop the fire with small buckets of water. She nodded with agreement and said, “What other choice do we have? We don’t control our water supply, Israel does. We can’t access the amount of water needed to stop this fire quickly.”

The flames continued to grow. As women carried buckets back and forth, Hazem and others were working on connecting a series of irrigation tubes to form a hose from the nearest irrigation source to the building. Each time they turned on the source, the tubes fell apart. It was going to take the entire village holding the tubes together to reach the building.

Everyone dropped their buckets and ran to hold a section of the hose. With everyone in position, the source was turned on and water began to flow through the tubes. Water sprayed out from every crack until everyone was soaked, but most of the water reached the building. We stood holding the hose for ages—shivering in the cold and slipping in the mud—and eventually the fire was put out. Smoke hung in the air as people searched around for their buckets and family members to return home. The building’s facade was scorched black, and a gaping charcoal hole remained where the fire had burned for over an hour.

The next morning I returned to the scene to find a couple sifting through the remains of their furniture factory, where the fire had started. They were looking for things they could still use or sell. Everything was ruined. They said the upper floor where they lived with their family of 20 was not burned, but it had been structurally damaged. The building was no longer safe to live or work in, but the couple said they intended to stay there, seeing no other option. They estimated about US$45,000 worth of damage and losses from the factory. It was everything they had.

The couple kept repeating how small the fire had been, how easily it could have been stopped if only they could have reached the water sooner. I thought about all the water used in the West Bank to fill settlers’ swimming pools and hot tubs while Palestinians struggle to find enough water to drink, let alone put out fires. One telling statistic is that in the Occupied Territories, one settler consumes as much water as 17 Palestinians.[1]

I asked the couple if they knew why no fire trucks had come. They said that firefighters from nearby towns had not been allowed to pass the checkpoint. I cursed myself for not having realized this the night before, when I could have gone to the checkpoint to try to help. I thought about all the other people from the village who had suffered that week because of the checkpoint, including Hessa and her lost twins. And then I remembered the recent news since Gil was shot: a new checkpoint was being established on the Palestinian road between Mas’ha and Deir Ballut, presumably as punishment for the demonstration in Mas’ha. The injustices aren’t going to decrease—they are going to multiply.

The final event organized by Deir Ballut Peace Camp was a demonstration today against the village’s checkpoint and roadblocks. I slept last night at Reem’s and woke up early to help make signs and practice songs. The demonstration was scheduled to begin after the midday call to prayer, so we gathered around the mosque in anticipation. When we heard the voice of the imam (Muslim prayer leader) ring from the minaret above, we began to march through the village towards the checkpoint. An ambulance trailed behind the demonstration in case of any injury.

Reem’s brother-in-law had offered to stay and watch the kids while she attended the protest, but Reem insisted that the children march as well. Children were not allowed in the front of the march for safety reasons, and consequently many women ended up towards the back with their kids. I joined hands with friends and their children, and we chanted Palestinian songs and rhymes until our voices were sore. Before us marched hundreds of Palestinian men, Israelis, and internationals towards the soldiers waiting at the checkpoint. When the protesters in front arrived at the roadblocks, they sat down and began to make speeches.

I ran to take pictures in front and caught the first words of the mayor’s speech. He was updating protesters on the status of hundreds of Israeli activists who were supposed to attend the demonstration but hadn’t shown up. The mayor announced that 300 Israeli demonstrators on their way to Deir Ballut had been prevented from passing the new Az-Zawiya checkpoint. He added that 13 of them had been arrested when they attempted to pass in spite of the soldiers. The crowd let out a cheer when they heard how many Israelis had come to support their struggle. They were visibly moved by the gesture of solidarity and saddened by the news of their friends’ arrests. One protester asked if the mayor would send a message of thanks to the Israelis on behalf of the village.

A few Israelis and internationals from the Peace Camp also said a few words. The sitting protesters watched and listened, holding a huge banner written in Hebrew, “We come in peace. Please don’t shoot us.” Some young men climbed atop the roadblocks to wave their flags as high as possible. Reem’s husband Hazem tried to talk to the soldiers, explaining that he had many Israeli friends and he wished only to coexist in peace with them. One young boy ran away from the demonstration into a nearby field and stuck a Palestinian flag into the ground. His message was clear: this land is Palestine. The crowd was filled with enthusiasm, which quickly turned to frustration when a soldier marched onto the field, picked up the flag, dropped it onto the ground and stomped on it.

The young boy ran back into the field to retrieve his flag but at the last moment he stood it back up in the ground and left it waving in the wind again. The crowd cheered twice as loudly as before. When he returned, protesters began to head back towards the village, and the children in the back had their first chance to see the soldiers. They watched each other silently. Then, just before turning around to walk away, a group of young girls held their hands up with victory peace signs at the frowning soldiers. It was a spontaneous moment of creative nonviolence, a perfect ending to a successfully publicized and unifying demonstration.

[1] “Israeli Settlements on Occupied Palestinian Territories,” The Palestine Monitor (February 3, 2003).