Tear gas fills our eyes, as a barrage of stones bounces off the soldier’s shields. It’s the weekly protest at Bil’in, a village where the Israeli Wall has taken large sections of land from Palestinian locals, and the event has just turned violent.
When I am able to see again, I can spy Palestinian men with sling-shots spinning stones at the soldiers from amid olive groves. The Israeli soldiers, young and covered in guns and equipment, load up canisters of more gas onto their assault rifles and shoot them in the general direction of the sling-wielders. The wind carries the gas quite quickly, and more often than not it ends up where myself and a few other photographers are struggling to take images.
Just ten minutes before, the peaceful part of the protest was in full swing. The IDF conscripts, most of them below 21 years old, stood on the street blocking access to the Wall and illegal settlements that were taking up more than half of the the village’s arable land. Facing them, just inches away, Palestinian, Israeli and international protesters resisted the soldier’s presence in a variety of ways. One old man, local to the village, lay casually across the soldiers’ lines. Other protesters argued, teased, and pleaded with the soldiers, in Hebrew, Arabic and English, telling them to go home, reminding them the land was not theirs. The soldiers, who were young enough to be some of the protesters’ grandchildren, seemed embarrassed, listless, and totally at a loss what to do.
After a while, a stone hit the riot shield of one of the soldiers, seemingly from no-where. A moment of panic, and the solider loaded a tear-gas canister onto his rifle. His pose was now defiant and full of machismo. Within a few minutes, the peaceful protesters had backed off cautiously, expecting trouble. Their caution was not without good cause.
The ensuing ‘battle’ – between stone-throwing youth and gun-toting youth – lasted about 20 minutes. It culminated, tragically, in the soldiers using live ammunition. A soldier shoot one man in the leg and shattered his bone. The wounded man was close to me when he was hit, and tried to limp forward for a moment before being scooped up by those nearby. The whole group, protesters and journalists all, ran from the site as soldiers advanced to make arrests. A hundred meters further on the wounded man was bundled into a car that sped towards the hospital, while a barrage of tear-gas rained into the valley below as a kind of parting gift from the Israeli Defence Force.
This experience – which is not especially rare at the weekly protests at Bil’in – helped me to question whether violent protest offers any way forward for those wishing to resist Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
In the end, the violence of the protest gave the soldiers exactly what they needed; a justification for their unwanted presence and their violent actions. It offered no progression for the Palestinian movement for liberation. The soldier who fired the shot will go home the toast of his friends; the wounded man will possibly be crippled. Both will have become brutalised by their experience. Nobody but the settlers – whose illegal colonies continue to enjoy state protection – will benefit from the exchange.
While the Palestinian people have a right to use violence – they are living, after all, under a violent occupation – my posts over the coming weeks will explore some of the non-violent ways people are using to oppose the occupation. Without wishing to draw concrete conclusions of my own, I will describe the lives, opinions, and actions of different people working at a grassroots level in Palestine, with a particular focus on the under-reported issues that one doesn’t read about in the mainstream media.
As always, your comments, support, and criticism are welcome.