Today was the opening day of Freedom Summer 2004. We had planned at last night’s meeting to leave the hotel by 9:30 to go into central Ramallah to find an internet café, to buy phones, and to pick up a lunch of falafel and shwarma. We knew we had to be back by 12 to make our signs. We headed into town in two taxis with Faris and Mohammed.
Ramallah is a bustling town. The streets are crowded with Palestinians shopping or strolling. All around Ramallah, the architecture is beautiful. That is, what is left that has not been bombed or bulldozed. The hills and mountains are awesome. Ramallah is quite a little city and must have been a major center of Palestinian life.
Training completed, we strolled through downtown Ramallah to pick up cell phones, to email home, and, of course, to eat falafel and shwarma.
Everyone had trouble at the internet café because the connection kept getting turned off, something Palestinians must constantly put up with. Just as I was about to send my very long email, the connection broke. We found out later in the day that all computer internet connections in the West Bank were down, as a Caterpillar that was destroying olive trees broke some main cables. So, what better to do then go shopping? Stacey and I, however, waited around for the computers to begin working, to no avail.
We all met for lunch and walked around the town, escorted by Faris and Mohammed, They really took care of us. We were so grateful that we invited them to dinner later that evening. Mohammed had to refuse because he had to get home to Qalquilya and to his family. I asked him if his town had resisted the Wall. At first, he explained the Wall was to go up in the west which would have no impact on the town, so the residents did not object. But what they didn’t know was that, at the same time, a barbed fence was being built in the east, dividing their farm land. Now, he informed me, tunnels were being built. They will connect between Palestinian ghettos and they will be the only access for Palestinians. So when completed, Israelis will never have to see Palestinians. Israel will take credit for removing the checkpoints, as they will not be needed if the only roads available to the Palestinians will be underground. I listened in disgust.
We got into two cabs and arrived at the hotel two hours late. Huwaida was furious, but tried to hide it, I believe, because of my presence. Plans had changed and she had wanted to go over them with us before leaving for the demonstration. She dislikes a lack of preparedness and that is a good thing. Of course, we all felt terrible about our tardiness. We had no choice but to leave immediately for the demonstration. On the way, Huwaida informed us that the demonstration we were supposed to attend had been canceled. Instead, we would be going into the big demonstration at the a-Ram Wall. Upon hearing of the change, we pulled out our bandannas and began spritzing them with cider vinegar, our defense against potential tear gas.
We headed for A-ram, crossing together, for the first time, the Kalandia checkpoint.
Traffic was moving slowly and the demonstration was beginning, so we got out of the taxis and began walking into A-Ram. Walking into the town, we passed a wedding limo on one side of the road and a steam shovel on the other side of the road, the incongruity of the occupation. As we got closer to the Wall, we began to hear a marching band. As the Wall came into sight, so did beautiful children marching and playing their instruments. The first thing I noticed was the dichotomy of the cold grey immensity of the slabs of wall serving as background for the fluid and colorful smallness of the children. The musicians were dressed in crisp white uniforms and looked to be about seven years old. As we moved even closer, I got a better view of the lay of the land. To the very left, standing on dirt piles behind the wall slabs, was a large group of soldiers wearing helmets and holding guns. To the right of the Wall were Israeli peace activists banging their hatchets against the Wall in time with the drumbeats from the marching bands below.
The first demonstration of Freedom Summer 2004, in A-ram, began peacefully and festively, with numerous bands drumming and colorful flags flying, uniting the Palestinian, Israeli, and international demonstrators. As all proceeded in front of the concrete slabs of the soon-to-be-constructed wall, the hopefulness of the day was suddenly shattered.
We began walking in rhythm between two of the bands as the drumming and the music got louder. I watched behind me as the drum major threw up his baton and saw the smallest children turn the corner to walk parallel to the wall. Suddenly the soldiers shot tear gas canisters into the crowd below them. A metal barrier had been positioned along the roadside and we were all standing between the large trench in front of the Wall and the barrier in the road. Everyone began running away from the wall, but the wind carrying the tear gas was traveling in the same direction. Our only way out was to keep running into the tear gas.
We ran from the tear gas, but these shebab showed no fear and stood up to the IDF and police.
At first my upper cheeks and the area under my eyes burned. At once, remembering my training, I took a deep breath and held it as long as I could as I ran. I groped for my vinegar-soaked bandana and placed it over my face. People were running hectically and chaotically around me, which kept me moving forward. My eyes were tearing badly and I was unable to actually see where I was going. But I do remember holding tightly to my buddy’s (79 year old Hedy) hand. We were trained to stay with our buddies, and surprisingly, in spite of all the commotion, each of us did.
Up the block we were directed by voices repeatedly yelling, “Come in here!” Instinctively, I turned and ran into a doorway, Hedy in hand. We entered a small indoor shopping arcade, about four or five shops on each side of the center hallway, a stairway in the back of the hallway that led to a second floor. People were crowded in the hallway coughing and choking and shouting, “Don’t touch your eyes!” A shopkeeper opened his door and shouted for us to come inside. The ladies of WCA all made it into this area, which was comforting, and we all proceeded into an air-conditioned shop. The owner and his friend began to spray perfume in the air around each of us, to help us breathe. My throat was burning, but I am proud that I kept my head about me and didn’t panic when I felt as if I was unable to breathe. As the effects of the tear gas lessened, we looked around and were relieved to find that everyone seemed okay.
Huwaida went out every now and then to see what was happening in the streets. A bombardment of tear gas and rubber bullets continued to hurl up the street making it impossible for us to go out. When there was a slight lull in the barrage, we’d regroup and attempt to get up the street towards the Wall. But again and again, the tear gas and bullets filled the air. People from Tayush, an Israeli activist group, were also in our enclave. They kept making the attempt to return to the street with us.
The second floor of the building was set up as a triage area. Teenage Palestinian volunteer medics, mere boys, would run into the street to retrieve and care for people overcome by the tear gas. In the first few minutes, most carried upstairs were pregnant and old women. As the military attack went on, young men who were bleeding began passing us on stretchers in the hallway. The wounds got worse, more and more blood. Suddenly, Red Crescent ambulances pulled up to the area and doctors ran upstairs to carry out the badly wounded. Before the day was over, live bullets were being used.
We continued to regroup, but time and again, the army attacked. We watched in amazement as the shebab, the teenage boys, burned tires and rolled them down the street toward the soldiers, to keep a huge water truck with its powerful hoses from coming up the street toward us.
Huwaida asked us, at one lull, to walk in a line up to the end of the street toward the army, believing the soldiers would cease their attack seeing a line of older ladies. If we got that far, we were to turn right and leave the area. We began hesitantly. Faris walked behind us. Although Eileen was very unnerved at the prospect of heading toward soldiers, we all began walking. Suddenly we heard tear gas being hurled, only to see it land in the wrong place – on top of the military personnel standing to the right of the Wall, far in front of us. All of the demonstrators cheered and laughed. And then the surprise came thundering down. Undercover special forces, dressed as demonstrators, had been cheering and laughing with us, when, suddenly, they let loose sound grenades that shook the earth. The deafening sound stopped our hearts for a moment and then everyone fled in every direction possible. As we were running for shelter, the Special Forces pounced on several Israelis and Palestinian men and boys. One of the attacked was Mohammed, one of the ISM coordinators in Biddu. He was being brutally beaten when Shora, another Biddu ISM coordinator went to his aid, thinking some demonstrators were the attackers. It was when one of the attackers pulled out a handgun and rested it against Shora’s head that she realized the attackers were Israeli undercover Special Forces. She backed off as they dragged Mohammed off to arrest him.
We had, as had everybody else, run into a safe building. The bombs were exceptionally loud and frightening. An Israeli reporter was knocked unconscious when one of the sound bombs landed near his head. In our retreat, Hedy’s right arm began to shake uncontrollably. Joya tried to get her to relax and somewhat succeeded. Hedy confessed, the next morning, that scenes of the violent and aggressive attack by the army against a peaceful demonstration ran through her mind causing her a sleepless night. Ann and Jenny had run into a ribbon store during the final bombardment and spoke candidly with three teenage girls. Ann was able to catch it all on tape.
After the demonstration we went back to the hotel to freshen up. Faris and Raji met us there. They joined us for a wonderful dinner at Albordouni. We had a very informative and interesting conversation with Faris about the student political movement.
It was a long, exhausting day in which I ran the gamut of emotions: seeing the worst of the army and the Israeli government’s actions and enjoying the best of Palestinian friendship.