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 cancelled. Instead, we would be going into the big demonstration at the A-Ram Wall. Upon hearing of the change, we pulled out our bandanas 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 teenaged 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 soliders 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 teenaged 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.
Anni’s Diary: June 26, 2004
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 moustache 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 teenaged 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.
Gail’s Diary June 26, 2004
I have arrived in the Occupied Palestinian city of Ramallah unfortunately minus one of our beloved group, WCA (Women of a Certain Age). Several of us were held and interrogated at the Ben Gurion airport on arrival and released after several hours. Ann was detained and ordered deported. With the support of the ISM legal team, she is appealing the decision and so she remains in a cell with the department of the interior. We have spoken with her and she sounds upbeat and determined to fight the order. We hope her date with a judge will be set for tomorrow and we will be in the courtroom to cheer her on.
Our remaining WCA group of 13 have finished our training. We will join what we hope will be a series of major national actions throughout Palestine against the Apartheid Wall and against the Occupation this afternoon. Our training was very intense and very wonderful. We are exhilarated and from time to time exhausted. I can say now that being in Ramallah today is a shocking change from when I was here in June 2002. At that time the city was under 24 hour curfew and seemed a ghost town. The only cars in the street had been flattened by tanks. The streets were empty, there was not a face at a window, not a shop open, not a mangy dog, not a child to be seen. I thought at first that the city had been abandoned. Today this place is bustling with crowded sidewalks, car horns blaring, shops open, children, dogs, wonderful smells of shwarma and fresh coriander, all of it. We have been told that Nablus has been under siege and people are being targeted and homes demolished. I stand in the street here and think that at any moment, the army can make a decision to close down this city and send all its people running for shelter.
I’m so glad to be here, tearful as we all are some of the time, but happy to be here with Palestinians who are so welcoming, so warm, so happy to welcome our presence in solidarity with their struggle.
Our group of 13 women of a certain age including our 80 year old Holocaust survivor, joined an action protesting Israel’s Apartheid wall along with thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis from Taayush and Gush Shalom and internationals. The action against the wall was part of a national day of action to mark the beginning of Freedom Summer.
The lively demonstration included signs and banners in Arabic, Hebrew and English and several exuberant children’s’ marching bands with powerful drummers and wide smiles. Many of us were moved to tears, thrilled with the spectacle of this vibrant show of solidarity under the eyes (and pointed weapons) of the soldiers on the hill above us.
The spirited march was interrupted minutes after it had begun when the Israeli soldiers, positioned in combat stance on the hill, together took aim and fired canisters of tear gas directly into the marchers. Three thousand people scattered but the wind blew the gas back into our faces. As we tried to retreat back up the street from which we had entered, concussion bombs were added to the gas that was continuing to hit the ground beside and ahead of us. Shopkeepers along the street opened their doors and urged us inside. We re-grouped inside a small children’s clothing and lingerie shop which was air-conditioned, to catch our breath and treat our burning skin and eyes tearing from the effect of the gas and our unspeakable anger. The little group of shops also served as a first aid triage station and a parade of wounded were brought in by young boy volunteers who continued to carry stretchers out into the smoky street and bring back those overcome by smoke and wounded by rubber bullets and canisters. From time to time we ventured out to see if we could advance towards the soldiers, displaying our privilege as internationals to try to prevent the use of live ammunition.
The Red Crescent bravely went into the streets to bring the wounded up to the Medical Center on the second floor of the small shopping center where we had taken refuge.
Meanwhile, the shebab, agile and unafraid, threw stones, barricaded the street with rubble to stop oncoming military vehicles, and lit tires and pushed them with long sticks towards the soldiers. Some of the Israelis sheltering along with us blamed the shebab for the continuing military response to our demonstration. Maybe from their point of view, those brave kids throwing stones against one of the world’s military superpowers would make it hard to convince their Israeli neighbors that the attack on us was not justified. As for me, my heart lifted seeing their refusal to allow the military to imagine that they had won this battle. Those kids, the next generation of Palestinian resisters, will not be cowed. Maybe some will become fighters, but hopefully they have seen that their parents will continue to march and that there are people coming from around the world to stand with them in non-violent direct action. Maybe they will begin to understand that the violent reaction of the military is to the threat of what such a movement brings and shows to the world.
Eventually it seemed a bit quieter outside and our whole group of 13 women wearing our terrific hats with our WCA logo marched slowly towards the soldiers. Suddenly, Special Forces units wearing plastic masks entered the street, targeting one Palestinian organizer and one reporter. While concussion grenades exploded around us, they beat these two with rifle butts, arresting the Palestinian and retreating. Almost immediately, cars began to move, shops opened, people filled the sidewalks, and you would never have known what had just taken place except for the detritus of the weapons on the street. We re-grouped from the second bunch of shops that had sheltered us and returned to Ramallah.