Our training was put to the test! There was a demonstration in a-Ram, north of Jerusalem, where the Wall is being built. For the first time the town is coming together in peaceful protest. Our first real checkpoint experience: shadeless, ruble-strewn, rocky, merciless. Long lanes, like tollbooths for pedestrians. Hundreds of people, the elderly, babies, the disabled, all must get out of the servis, or shared taxi, and walk through the checkpoint to the other side and start over again, trying to find a taxi to the next checkpoint, while 17 year old Israeli boys and girls, bored, with M16s slung on their backs or pointed toward the Palestinians, figure out ways to humiliate and taunt an entire population. Sniper nests, covered with a peculiar khaki netting sit atop hillocks, overlooking the checkpoint.
Yet life continues: businesses have grown along the paths – tables and tents sell live poultry, housewares, clothing, food, shoes, and food, survival at all costs. We pass through, the awnings flap, a beefy older guard with handlebar mustache checks my passport. “American?” “Yes”. He smiles and looks me in the eye. “Welcome to Israel”. I want to spit at him but I don’t.
We take another van to a roadblock at a-Ram, and walk up steps trod by millions of tired feet, steps covered with cans, rocks, refuse. As we continue into the edge of town, we hear the sound of drums, and my heart beats to the sound that we follow into the town. An ambulance and a wedding party pass our way. Then we see a corps of boys, maybe 7-12, in khaki uniforms, like Boy Scouts, leading the protest. We join the throngs of Palestinians, internationals, and Israelis with Gush Shalom posters, down the main street, cross the boulevard where the 25 ft high Apartheid Wall lays, slabs of concrete awaiting erection of brute power.
I am shooting with Ann’s video camera, and I think I see the IOF near the Wall as we approach. Then I hear popping sounds. Through the lens are signs of confusion. Some are walking around; then as the acrid sharpness of teargas absorbs the air, people are moving away and yelling, beginning to run, all back towards the main street. I find my group. We have been trained to carry cider vinegar and we wear bandannas which we saturated with vinegar that Jan has brought. We look like bandits as we flee. Palestinians grab us yelling, “Come, come, get inside to safety.” They pull me inside – a wrought iron door opens onto a small shopping arcade with a barbershop, a dress shop…upstairs is a Red Crescent emergency clinic. Some of us have found a haven in a dress shop welcomed by the kind proprietor and his son.
This wonderful shopkeeper and his young son made sure we Women of a Certain Age were safe (and cool) in his air-conditioned shop.
We are offered ice for our burning eyes, and a vendor provides ice cream pops for our burning throats. Gail, Jenny and I leave the shop to try to go outside to see what is happening. Ambulances continually bring in the wounded, many shot in the back or buttocks with what I guess are rubber bullets. Elderly shoppers overcome by teargas are rushed upstairs where several medics, some European, treat them. Brave, brave.
We venture outside, retreat, go out again, advancing until shots echo in the din of a war zone. The only women are the Israelis, internationals, and photographers with telephoto lenses. Men and boys are defiant. Ahead, nearer the Wall, shabab are attacked by trucks with water cannons. Shabab pull flaming tires to slow army vehicles. It feels like all day, but later we estimate only 2 hours. Impossible! The intensity is overwhelming.
It is quiet outside, so we go out. Huwaida appears. We had met her during training. Huwaida is like an Amazon, stately and fearless, a cloud of black Renaissance hair, large expressive, bemused eyes, no bandanna, her only protection her pride and strength. She wears short sleeved t-shirts, but does not seem out of place–she transcends the place.
We walk toward the Wall. Our trainer has arrived, when a sound bomb explodes near our feet. Again we are shuttled indoors unthinking, up three flights of stairs. We hear “The soldiers may come in here.” We are taken to the safety of a large loft, a fabric and ribbon store, with beautiful satin ribbons hanging from the ceiling. The owner and his teenage daughter and her friends welcome us in Arabic. They speak excellent English. Tea is served. These beautiful girls tell us about life under Occupation; how their parents worry about them; how they tell them how it was to grow up in normal times, no fear, no rubble, no threats, no cruelty; how they go to a pool in summer in a shopping mall. At the checkpoint, soldiers their age, ask, “You are going to swim?” They laugh that the soldiers wish they were going to swim also. The girls are so lovely, so open, without bitterness. Before we leave, I remember I have the camera and record them for 5 minutes. One of the girls was talking about her daily difficulties, then paused and said, “You know what I would really like? I would love to have an Israeli friend, boy or girl, it doesn’t matter, and we would be best friends–why not”? Why not? Because of the Israeli arrogance, the land grab, the Chosen People shit, the use of the Holocaust to justify every hideous act (like 9/11). She also said, “You are so brave to come here.”
We answered, “How can you say that when we can come for a couple of weeks and leave, but you must be here struggling every day of your lives”? To which she replied, “Oh no, the struggle is our lot, we have no other course, but you don’t have to be here. You choose to come and be with us. So you are the brave ones”. Amazing!
We wait for the van to take us to a settlement police station. We have found out that a village leader, was beaten by undercover Israelis, had his ribs broken and was arrested. Men approach us and, amid the stench and filth of teargas, give us the Peace sign: “Thank you for coming.” We are in tears from these expressions of thanks.
As we stand at the checkpoint, cars whiz by on settler-only roads, unimpeded. On our way to the police station we are stopped by the Border patrol, who come onboard to check passports. Doreen and a few of the other women only had copies of their passports. The soldiers are like the brown shirts with their guns and boots Doreen and some of the other women are taken off the bus, and Doreen, first in line, is interrogated as we wait for over half an hour, while miles of traffic sits behind us, unable to move on. It is so disgusting. I was getting worried about Doreen, but in the end it was OK. Just the usual harassment, I guess, far more for the Palestinians than for us. And the settler cars whiz by. When we arrive at our destination, we are not permitted inside the station. The settlement is like a street on Long Island – green, with sidewalks and trees and settlers leering and jeering at us.
The last car gets through the checkpoint, as we wait on the bus while some of the women are interrogated and harassed.
At night we were still reeling from the events of the day. Our trainers took us to a restaurant, Al-Barouni, a huge open space with a mesh ceiling to the sky and torch-lined walls. They ordered a feast, which I think came to about $12 a person. It was a surreal juxtaposition — but actually, very much like the contradictions in the way we are living now. Teargas in the morning, filet mignon at night. We were alternately elated and exhausted. Back at the hotel, we got together in Doreen and Stacey’s room talking late into the night about how we each felt about the extraordinary day.