Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Saffa Demonstration I

There is something special about Saffa. I first traveled to the village 2 months ago for a demonstration, and I arrived to find a group of farmers squatting on their threatened land refusing to be moved. Saffa has not received much attention for its nonviolent demonstrations because its activities are dwarfed by the now-legendary resistance in the nearby village of Bil’in. Nonetheless, the village council calls IWPS every few weeks and asks us to join them in their fight to save their land.

It was the mayor who called us the first time, and I traveled to the village with my colleague Amy. We were late and had to trek through endless olive groves to find the demonstration. It wasn’t difficult—we followed the sound of the bulldozers until we stumbled upon soldiers “guarding” the groves from their owners. The villagers were scattered around the land, some sitting in groups, others standing and strategizing. A large group of boys had been separated from the other villagers and were under the guard of soldiers. They were sitting quietly, watching the bulldozers uproot village trees in preparation for the Wall.

A woman in the front who was speaking with a soldier caught my eye. She saw me approaching and grabbed my arm, pulling me with her to meet the other women who had come out to demonstrate. The woman’s name was Inaam, and she introduced Amy and me to a small but very determined group of women. They wanted to go down into the valley to get closer to the bulldozers, but they didn’t want to go alone. Amy and I were happy to accompany the women, and we stood up slowly, trying to sneak away amidst the trees, out of view of the soldiers. The soldiers had not thought to closely monitor the women, and before long we were deep in the valley, halfway between the demonstration we had just left and another protest building on the opposite side coming from Bil’in. I recognized several Israeli friends in the second group.

I wondered how we could unite the two demonstrations and villages to increase our impact. One of the soldiers guarding the Bil’in side to prevent just that spotted our small group and pushed us up the hill into the second demonstration, away from Inaam’s village. Luckily, our distraction had allowed demonstrators to advance slightly down the hill. It’s a power game in which soldiers assert authority—in our view illegitimate—and protesters struggle to assert their power, often symbolic. Advancing a step at a time whenever the soldiers turned their heads was not likely to get us all the way down to the bulldozers, but it was a way of showing soldiers that they could not totally control us, in spite of their guns.

Realizing that we were advancing, the soldiers started yelling aggressively in Hebrew. They tried to push us up the hill, and when we would not move they began to throw sound bombs. The explosions broke my focus and filled me with fear. I walked up the hill slowly trying not to give the soldiers the satisfaction of knowing how scared I was. I told myself that this is what nonviolent resistance involves—responding bravely and peacefully in the face of violence.

Once the soldiers had re-established themselves in a line, we stood there for a long time, face to face, neither side willing to budge. I watched the soldier in front of me—he looked like he was uncomfortable but trying not to show it. He clutched a sound bomb in his hand just in case, and looked away when I caught his eye. I recognized him from a demonstration in Bil’in. I tried to engage with the soldier, with questions and simple eye contact. He seemed to be getting uncomfortable.

The soldier’s commander told him to ignore me. I recognized the commander from Bil’in as well: a stern-faced, determined man. I turned my attention to him, concentrating on his face for a long time until I was sure he knew I was watching him. He tried not to show it, but I knew he was uncomfortable, too. One brilliant thing about nonviolent resistance is its power to embarrass. Sometimes it’s enough to simply watch and not fight back.

Inaam was anxious to reach the bulldozers, so I took advantage of the commander’s nervousness and began walking past him with her. He yelled at us to stop and I told him that she was from the other side of the valley. We continued walking despite his commands.

I was inspired by Inaam’s bravery. Coming from a culture with a profound respect for the rule of law, I have difficulty directly disobeying soldiers, policemen, or anyone in official uniform. An old Christian Canadian woman living in Bethlehem was the first to clarify my handicap to me. She said,

We North Americans have learned from a young age that policemen are our friends. Our parents and schools told us that these men in uniform were the people to turn to if we were ever lost or in trouble, that they could be trusted and their rules should be followed. We are inclined to trust and obey them, because we assume their rules are fair. But here this respect imprisons us. The rules are not fair, and they are not legal—you don’t have to follow them.

She was right, and with time I am becoming more skilled at dismissing illegal Occupation forces just as I would the Mafia, a terrorist organization, or any other illegal institution attempting to subjugate a population. My new skill is empowering, and soldiers sense my confidence. I know my rights, and that affords me some control in my interactions with the army.

The Israeli commander in Saffa was too worried about other activists to come chasing after Inaam and the rest of us, so we made it into the valley where the bulldozers were working. We found a few farmers talking to TV cameramen, and there were a number of soldiers hanging around. Inaam sat down to think. Amy and I followed her lead. We watched a calm old farmer finally lose his composure as he watched his livelihood uprooted. Sobbing, he got down onto his knees in front of the soldiers and begged them to stop the bulldozers. When his tears were met with stone faces he began moaning and swaying until the keffiyeh[1] on his head began to fall off. His friend tried to calm him down, but he was past control. He lifted his arms up towards the sky and cried, “Allah Hu Akbar!”[2] Then he fell to the ground and started crawling around grabbing handfuls of dirt, letting it run through his fingers. He watched it fall, and then looked up at the soldiers, imploring them to stop his misery.

I cried as I filmed the desperate man and the seemingly unmoved soldiers. He sobbed until his throat was sore and his eyes dry. Finally he collapsed, silent—­­­­defeated. Others were moved to speak and distracted the media and soldiers, but I kept watching the man. He was gone, in another world, staring into space. His land, his love, everything was lost. His heart was broken.

Inaam was a woman of action, not tears. She and her friends decided to approach the bulldozers and stop them with their bodies. We began climbing a small hill above the valley towards where the machines were working. We were spotted, and three soldiers hurriedly ran ahead and forced themselves in front of us. Inaam kept climbing, so I did too. One soldier grabbed my arm and pushed me to the side. For Inaam, he had other plans. He shoved her harshly down the hill, and she fell about 5 feet off a small cliff onto her hip. I screamed at the soldier that we were peaceful demonstrators, and I rushed to Inaam’s side. She was badly bruised, but she managed to stand up and walk again. By then the other women had been forced to retreat, so we were back down in the valley.

But the soldiers wanted us off the land altogether. They rounded us into a group and began pushing us towards Saffa. This was it: these villagers might never reach their land again. We couldn’t let that happen. I braced myself to stay in place, and then a soldier grabbed my arm and shoved me towards the other demonstrators. I lost it. I spun around and began screaming at the soldiers, tears running down my face: “How can you force these people to abandon their land when it’s the only thing they have left? Are you even thinking about what you’re doing?”

The soldiers were shocked to see me crying. It was different from watching the Palestinians farmer break down—I was someone they could relate to more easily, from a culture and language more familiar to them. The soldiers eased their grip on me, but they continued to push. I hoped my outburst had affected at least one of them. I knew it had meant something to the Palestinians there.

We were rounded into a group and made to sit down. We were surrounded, but we were together. A few Palestinians were permitted to stand and talk to the soldiers, and with time more people were allowed up. We took every opportunity we could get. Slowly, as more of us stood, we began to prepare to approach the bulldozers again. We moved quickly and some of us made it out of the group that the soldiers were trying to contain. The army closed in violently on those who remained. I began to run with Inaam and the others, and when I looked back I saw the soldiers with raised batons, beating the villagers who hadn’t left. I froze. What could I do? Inaam yelled at me to continue running, and we hid among the trees.

I heard popping noises and suddenly my eyes began to sting. We were being tear-gassed. I heard Amy calling out that she was in pain, and I grabbed her arm to pull her away from the thick of the gas. Outside of the cloud the stinging began to subside, and we tried to tend to others still recovering. Some people had thrown up. Others were hit with tear gas canisters, which can cause serious burns and blisters. I asked if anyone had been seriously beaten, and some other protesters motioned to an ambulance that had recently filled up. They told me that one demonstrator had been badly hit in the head and another in the leg.

Inaam and her friends were ready to return to the village. Amy and I felt drained, and the only demonstrators left were young boys throwing stones. We decided to leave with Inaam, who led us on the long hike uphill to the village. She invited us in for bread with olive oil and spices and introduced us to the children she takes care of, children of her siblings who have been killed, arrested, or sent abroad. She took our phone numbers and promised to call the next time Saffa held a demonstration.

[1] Keffiyehs are the traditional cloth headdresses warn by Arab men, usually white, red, or black.

[2] Arabic for “God is great.”

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