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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
Weekend protestacular! 29.VI.2010 09:26
Each Friday, there is a demonstration in the Palestinian village of Bil'in, which is cut in half by the Israeli 'security fence.' They have been going on for so long that their course has become almost ritualised, a weekly tradition which recurs with only minor variations. The protesters - a mix of Palestinians, activists and what can only be described as tourists - advance on the gate in the wall that has cut the farmers off from their fields, while Israeli soldiers wait on the other side. Though the protest is essentially peaceful, the true objective is to provoke the inevitable Israeli reaction; tear gas, first as warning shots, and then directly at the protesters. You wait as long as you can, watch the harmless warning shots sail over your head, though the urge to panic is fierce because others are doing so, but then you run - though if you've left it too late, the tear gas canisters will hum by your head and land at your feet as you try to dodge them or, at least, not inhale. Inevitably, the exploding canisters spark fires; you grab olive branches and try to put them out as close as possible, so that the field lost behind the wall is not matched by one lost to the flames. The police charges in - if you can't run fast enough, you're arrested - though this week it seemed that their hearts weren't in it and they stopped charging right away.

Each Saturday, there is a march through the streets of Hebron protesting against the ultra-Orthodox Jews who have decided to settle in its centre - the most indefensible and most aggressive of the settlements that dot 'Judea and Samaria', Israel's claimed province in the West Bank. Israel has closed off the streets that lead to the settlers' houses, and while the settlers have no shortage of running water, Palestinian homes must for the most part do without. The march assembles first at the gate of the closed street, chanting slogans that more-or-less rhyme while the IDF soldiers stand by, clearly bored to have to watch all these random white people for yet another week - though they also have a man taking photographs so they have records of all us troublemakers. Then, the soldiers block one street down which the demonstration passes - the group of protesters tries to push through, the most hardcore of the activists - Anarchists Against the Wall, especially - pushing right against the protesters, others pushing against the whole group from behind. As someone who's never protested before, never really been in a fight, the physicality of the moment was incredible - three soldiers against fifteen people pushing as hard as they could, and yet we slid back no matter how hard we tried to dig in; this was, however, the only moment of the protests that felt like resistance, a genuine exertion of all one's strength against an opposing force and, somewhat poignantly, a futile one. As the march winds its way past the settlers' houses - perched high above the Palestinian market - they throw eggs and beer bottles at you, protected, of course, by the IDF - and they also throw water in what has to be a slap in the face to remind Palestinians of their lack of it. Eventually, the march dies down, the chants fade away, the activists prepare for next week's or tomorrow's demonstrations, and the protest tourists put away their cameras. The street remains closed.

Though I'm likely to participate in more protests in the coming months, I didn't come to Israel to be an activist, and I don't plan on making tear gas something my lungs have to deal with regularly - one unexpected thing about tear gas is that it hurts the throat more than the eyes; in fact, it was highlighted at the pre-protest briefing that the Israeli tear gas is 'more concentrated than what [we're] used to in the United States or Europe'. That sentence really drives home why I could never really be here as an activist - because it's not just about opposition, which I share very strongly, to Israel's policies here, but about being part of a movement, or even a subculture. Many people here are veterans of anti-globalisation protests like the ones in Toronto, and many have an anarchist or left-wing view of the world that I simply don't share. At the Hebron protest, the most common slogan was '1-2-3-4, occupation no more!', but its corollary was '5-6-7-8, Israel is a fascist state!', which are words I simply cannot say, because I don't believe them. Israel is an oppressive occupying power, yes, but for Israeli citizens - even Arab ones - it protects far more rights than the average government. But for many people I've met here, Israel is just the most shameless part of a larger, undifferentiated, evil Zionist-American-corporate juggernaut trampling on people wherever it can, the proverbial boot stamping on a human face. It's commonplace to hear that Zionism is racism, or that Israel should simply cease to exist; Helen Thomas' comment that the Jews should 'get the hell out of Palestine' is far from controversial here. I believe Israel does have a right to exist - though I probably wouldn't have in 1948 - though I oppose its policies in Palestine as vehemently as any activist. But the culture of activism here is one I feel I'd be unlikely to feel comfortable in.

Which is of course one of the strangest things, because my English friends and I were near the front of both protests, chanting loudly and advancing, while many of the activists (at Bil'in - at Hebron they were very passionate) hung back. If I'm perfectly honest it's probably because we're all easily bored and don't like to do things half-assed - if we're at a protest, we're gonna protest damn it - but this also means that when we took a cigarette break we spent most of it making fun of the protest itself. Our behaviour - and the fact that we hid our faces behind black-and-white keffiyes, making us look more than a little like militants - made most people assume we were a hardcore activist group (hell, one girl asked me if I'd organised the protest), but in point of fact, it's really hard to say where we are on the spectrum between protest tourists and actual activists. On the one hand, we were all invested in the issues, we all have clear ideas on the conflict, and none of us would protest for something we didn't believe in. On the other, though, we didn't really take it all that seriously, and I can't claim not to have done it out for the thrill, the adrenaline rush - excitement and adventure and really wild things - which puts us firmly in the protest tourist camp. We genuinely enjoyed ourselves - though if I had to it constantly, as the ISM does, I'd be likely to burn out - and in fact joked that we should form a freelance protest group (suggested name: 'Drunkards against x'.

Coming home, too, you can't help but feel the addiction of action, of being someone who does something and even risks his safety to do it. We never felt really endangered at the Bil'in protest, and our exposure to the tear gas was two volleys which we avoided for the most part (my eyes and throat stopped hurting within an hour or so). We weren't arrested, and the only physical violence we experienced was at our own instigation, pushing against the IDF soldiers. But talking afterwards with people, you couldn't help but embellish the excitement - people assumed we were proper activists, and we did little to dispel the impression (though one girl we were with, Hari, genuinely is one). The rush is undeniable, the fear as the canisters fly around you, surrendering to the 'flight' instinct as you run away from the soldiers and, ultimately, the satisfaction of telling others of the adventure they wouldn't dare to have. Protest tourism - and the larger phenomenon, conflict tourism - is hard to assess, because while on one level it just feels wrong, the fact is that international observers at the protest who come home and tell people what happened is one of the best things that could happen, especially average people and not those already involved in the movement. The tourists definitely outnumber the activists - at Bil'in, my friends and one anarchist guy who was clearly extremely committed were the only internationals helping put out the fire, even though the Palestinians were specifically calling to them - but the fact is that an international who does nothing is just as valuable simply because he's there, keeping Israel in the world spotlight which, for all its arrogance, it clearly doesn't want to act badly in. It's easy to be disdainful of someone who protests just to get some cool pictures - but I don't think that, deep down, our knowledge of the conflict makes us that much better.

On a final note, it's also fascinating to see some of the media coverage. On the left here, the presumption is that since the pro-Israeli media is so incredibly biased (and it is - the Jerusalem Post is beyond parody), the underground media must be the only one bringing real news. But the only two pieces I found about the Hebron demonstration - this and this, both from Palestinian sources - both claim Israeli aggression against the protesters, which as an eyewitness I can say is categorically untrue. The IDF did not shut down the protest, nor did it attack the protesters. It did prevent the demonstration from going down a Hebron street, but meeting that with resistance was precisely the point of the protest, and both sides understood this. Overall, I though the IDF soldiers very professionally, not using excessive force in any instance - in fact, their main screw up was failing to shoot over their own barrier and tear-gassing themselves, which was absolutely hilarious. My favourite soldier even had a clear sense of humour about the whole thing - on being screamed at as a 'fucking fascist', he simply casually said watch your language - though admittedly as this was happening his colleague was pointing his rifle at an 8-year-old Palestinian boy who was too close to the barrier, and whom the adults had to pull off. The protests have an established dynamic that, in a way, is sort of a balance between the two sides' objectives, and there's no need to accuse Israel of aggression where there isn't any, especially when it already commits so many aggressive acts as well; frankly from what I've heard the Toronto Metropolitan Police have acquitted themselves much worse in a much less dangerous situation.

I will be going to more protests because I believe in the cause, and that the settlements and the dividing wall are among the worst and most oppressive policies being practiced by any first-world nation. I'll do it because I hope for a two-station solution, even though i don't think it's possible anymore. And I do think that the protesters against these policies are doing more than anyone else to curtail the excesses of Israeli power in the West Bank, and that the current economic improvement in the West Bank is largely due to the international pressure they help bring to bear. But, like all encounters with an ostensibly idealist movement, one can't deny a certain disillusionment, a certain shallowness, a preponderance of slogans over analysis and of good vs. evil narratives over attempts to understand. I've also been on a visit to the settlements, which I've been meaning to write about for weeks but haven't done, and if there's any lesson from it all, it's that there's absolutely no substitute from seeing these things first hand, as it is really drives home how ill-formed your previous opinions (and boy, did I have them) have been.

Hebron, Palestine Ps

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