A Brief Tour of the Holy Land – Page Four

A Brief Tour of the Holy Land – Page Four

By Roman Skaskiw

ramallahAugust 10:

Weather: 73.9 degrees F. 59% Humidity. Wind 4 m.p.h. northwest.

The bus ride to Ramallah made a very distinct crossing between Israel and the West Bank. On the Palestinian side of the wall, I saw largely anti-American and anti-Israeli graffiti, and the work of famous British graffiti artist Banksy – a silhouetted girl being lifted over the wall by a handful of balloons. I saw a guard tower splattered with paint, empty lots strewn with trash and broken bricks, and a long line of vehicles waiting in the sun to cross the border in the other direction.

Our bus stopped in the center of Ramallah and we began walking. Ramallah looked entirely prosperous – another perception dispelled. Houses were stand-alone, big and crowned with satellite dishes. Mercedes and BMW’s drove on wide, clean streets whose curbs were freshly painted red and white. The view of the landscape east of the city was spectacular.

We received “hello’s” and “welcomes” walking through town. People seemed friendlier than in Jerusalem. Perhaps Jerusalem’s proximity to the Dome of the Rock makes people more conservative, or maybe the perception in Jerusalem’s Arab community that they are being pushed out causes to seem less friendly.
I did notice one reminder of the conflict in Ramallah: the impression of tank treads in the streets.

Two soldiers chatted by Yassar Arafat’s tomb and straightened themselves as we approached. One stood with his AK-47 slung and hands clasped behind his back. The second stood straight, holding the strap of his weapon. They looked unsure of themselves and ready to take their cues from us. We stepped onto a small brick walkway and looked at the book-shaped tomb in front of a small billboard with Arafat’s picture.

“Were you expecting some sort of theme park?” Steffen said.

With the help of my Arabic dictionary, I asked one of the guard for directions to a nice, inexpensive hotel. He kept his hands behind his back and replied for a full minute in a precise, military tone. I didn’t understand a word. I think he was unaccustomed to tourists.

We met Ahmed at an Internet cafe. Steffen asked him for directions, looked up a word in my dictionary, and asked again.

Ahmed replied: “You guys are American, huh?” He was from Ohio.

That evening, we sat with him and a friend smoking shishas in the middle of a large 3rd story room filled with Arab men playing cards, sipping tea, and chatting. We spent a good two hours talking politics: Palestine. Israel. Arab. Jew. Hammas. Democracy. Zionist. Hezbollah. Terrorism. Iran. Syria. Sheba Farms. Lebanon. 1982. 1967. 1948. Iraq. Afghanistan. America. Congress. Christian-Zionism. Bush. Media. Settlement. Land. Water. I felt tempted, but Steffen and I decided not to divulge our military backgrounds.

I wish I didn’t have to travel halfway around the world to have such a vigorous political discussion. They seem tragically taboo in American public life.

As we paid for our tobacco and tea, the man behind the counter asked Ahmed in Arabic: “So, are they with us or against us?”

August 11: Our sense of accomplishment at successfully touring a Palestinian city was somewhat undermined when we met a 5’2” blonde British girl who’d been studying and living alone in Ramallah for months.

A small, hilly town named Bil’in lies a short bus ride from Ramallah, and six kilometers east of the 1967 armistice line. It makes a good destination for political tourists because they’ve held a protest every Friday since February 2005, when much of their land was confiscated for the construction of the wall.

We arrived before noon at their “international house,” and spent the next hour meeting a growing crowd of protesters and a smattering of reporters, professional and amateur.

A large, loud contingent from France spread themselves and their luggage over the floor. Belgians arrived. We met a pair of British reporters who’d just come down from Lebanon. I met a retirement-age American couple. Members of a group called “Israeli Anarchists Against the Wall” began to arrive. They wore lip rings, mowhawks, tattoos and sandals held together with wire. White people with dread locks. Women with shaved heads.

I admit, I was prejudiced against this crowd. Perhaps a resentment had grown in me during my years in uniform – a perception of hippie self righteousness – those who’ve never known the burden of responsibility condemning those who’ve sought it.

The protest in Bilin
The protest in Bilin

A protester approached one of the organizers.

“There’s a boy throwing rocks at the cats,” she said.

He didn’t hear her, or ignored her, and she touched his arm and repeated herself.

“Call the police,” he replied, not bothering to face her, “maybe they will put him in jail.”

“Do you always allow him to throw rocks at the cats?”

“When people stop dying here, then we’ll look after the cats,” he said.

Palestinian children sold “Free Palestine” bracelets and buttons. They were slow to take no for an answer. One boy showed us a hip-pouch full of rubber bullets. One Shekel each. They were black cylinders the size of the last segment of my pinky-finger. They were hard. Way too hard. I’d imagined them to be more along the lines of the Nerf Ballzooka. I wanted nothing to do with these. There were also casing from live rounds in his pouch: 5.56 millimeter – the same ammunition I once carried and used, also one shekel each.

We stood on line to use the bathroom. A French girl asked us where we were from.

“I just came from Hebron,” she said. “In Hebron, they don’t like Americans. Hahahahahahaha.” She puffed her cigarette. “I’m sorry, but I am just saying what I see. Hahahahahahaha.”

“Hey,” Steffen told her, “don’t you people know I’m an American. I don’t have to wait in line. I can go to the bathroom anywhere I want.”

She looked perplexed for a moment, then turned her shoulder to us and finished her cigarette.
A skinny Palestinian man with a sharp goatee and cowboy hat called everyone together. He thanked us for our presence, told us the march would begin soon.

He emphasized the plan: walk to the wall, stay for ten to fifteen minutes, walk back. He asked everyone to remain on message: protesting the confiscation of land, the illegal occupation, and the wars in Lebanon and Gaza.

Steffen and I sat in the shade, tossing pebbles at a plastic bottle we’d put between us. I could just hear the sermon broadcasting from the nearby mosque. I heard the words “America,” “Hezbollah,” and “Lebanon.”

There were perhaps a hundred internationals, Israelis and media. We were joined by a similar number of Palestinians when they finished praying at the mosque, and the march began.

Two Israeli protesters unfurled a banner that read in Hebrew “Nationalism, Racism, Militarism.” People chanted in Arabic and waved Palestinian flags. One man carried a Lebanese flag. Toward the front, people carried dolls wrapped like cadavers. Reporters scurried along the procession, stopping to take photos, and darting forward again.

North of the village, the road through Bil’in dips through an Olive Grove, then rises again and forks around the last houses.

We were fleeing when a rubber bullet zipped past me and struck this man.
We were fleeing when a rubber bullet zipped past me and struck this man.

We made our way up the left road which crested and turned slightly. I saw the tops of two military vehicles, then the heads of men in riot gear, batons. One soldier held a megaphone to his face. 200 meters away. The idiocy of our maneuver, our choice of terrain flashed through my mind. I reminded myself that we were conducting a protest, not combat. I couldn’t tell how many soldiers we faced – some were still obscured by the terrain. I spotted more to the flank, among the olive trees.

Then I heard explosions. I ran. I didn’t think about the relative harmlessness of sound bombs, which other protestors had alerted me to before the march began. My soldiers carried them in Iraq – harmless if you keep your fingers in your ears and your eyes shut. I learned later that the experienced protesters pressed forward, that the conventional wisdom was soldiers wouldn’t shoot rubber bullets at close range, and that up front, one only had to brave their batons, but for me it was simple: I heard explosions and I ran.

Others ran with me and we smashed into the back of the procession, which was still coming forward. A rubber bullet zipped past me. I heard a thwack, and the man beside me leapt with pain. More rubber bullets zipped past us.

Everyone quickly became possessed with concern for their personal safety. We ran, hands raised, creating space, some moved awkwardly, their fingers pressed into their ears. People stopped along the way to look back. Each volley of sound bombs sent them running again. Each lull sent them hesitantly forward. No one knew where to stop or whether to go forward again. I retreated back through the fork and caught my breath in the olive grove. I hadn’t expected such violence.

Small groups still inched forward. One of the organizers tried to rally people back into the march. They were about to try the other road. I found myself crouching every time the explosions came. Only a handful of people went down the other road. I saw them running back in disarray after a succession of explosions. I heard the whiz and pop of tear gas canisters. I went forward, moved by my desire to bear witness, then ran back. Forward again, then back. I saw children by the fork in the road arming themselves with stones, and decided not to put myself between them and the soldiers. The soldiers never entered the village.

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