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Soul searching at a West Bank demonstration

‘I go to demonstrations as a private person protesting the injustice done to the inhabitants of the West Bank. For them, however, I’m an Israeli before anything else, and this dissonance stands at the basis of the soul searching you are now reading.’

By Noam Rotem (translated by Jordan Michaeli)

Israeli activists seek fresh air amid clouds of tear gas at the weekly demonstration in Nabi Saleh, January 6, 2012. (Photo: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

As a graduate of the Israeli education system’s indoctrination and the rotten and corrupt military system, it’s not natural for me to participate in a demonstration in the West Bank. And I speak only for myself. I’m not a member of any party or other political organization; additionally, I’m a complete atheist. My participation also isn’t natural for the residents of the villages that I reach with my friends: the demonstrations usually begin at the end of the midday Zuhr prayer in the mosque, in which many demonstrators partake, and some of the cries at the demonstrations are directed at Allah. Many times flags of Palestinian political organizations – toward which I have no sympathy –are raised, and there are times when I and other Israelis are treated with suspicion that borders on hostility.

And there’s the violence. Those demonstrations, although romanticized by some, are not nonviolent demonstrations. In almost all demonstrations stones are thrown at soldiers, many tires are set on fire and slingshots are used to hurl stones at a great distance. The violence from the soldiers’ side is completely unnecessary and disproportionate, and the only reason for violence at those demonstrations is the unnecessary presence of Israeli forces in uniforms. In Bil’in for example, the soldiers hide behind a concrete wall, a few meters long, and target the demonstrators who pose no danger to them or anyone else. The Israelis and foreigners who demonstrate don’t partake in the violence. I have never seen any of us lift a stone, even when the soldiers’ aggression puts our lives in danger.

Local youth throwing a stone at soldiers behind the wall (Haggai Matar)

Youth throwing a stone at soldiers behind the wall in Bil’in. (Photo: Haggai Matar)

As an Israeli who served in the military, standing at the other side of the barrel of the gun is a jarring and sobering experience. We were raised to fear the “Arabs,” and suddenly the real threat comes from the IDF’s soldiers. When the sky fills with bombs a getaway begins. The tear gas burns, chokes, paralyzes. The eyes burn until it’s hard to keep them open and the breathing stops. The bitter, powdery smell of the gas spreads in all directions. The brave ones approach it and kick the canister away in the direction the wind is blowing, the majority find a spot to collapse, spit and curse until the cloud fades and they are able to breath again. An ambulance that comes to evacuate the wounded is also showered again and again with gas fired directly at it. And the soldiers use bullets, often rubber bullets and sometimes live ammunition. Once, a Palestinian youth was hit by a live bullet while standing only a few feet away from us. Other weapons are stun grenades that create a terrible noise, and the skunk, that devilish invention that sprays smelly water at the demonstrators, adding insult to the pain. “Shit Water,” the Palestinians call it.

I arrive at the demonstrations as Noam, a private person protesting the injustice done to the inhabitants of the West Bank. For them I’m an Israeli before anything else, and this dissonance stands at the basis of the soul searching you are now reading. I’ll give an example: last Saturday, like almost every week, a group of Israelis arrived at one of the villages to learn more about what’s taking place there – in my eyes a welcome activity that exposes many in the Israeli public to the shocking injustice done under its nose.

But this Saturday there was there a group of youngsters from the village who verbally confronted a few settlers who approached the village. The Israeli group was perceived by the youngsters as an encouraging factor, one of them said. They started to burn tires and throw stones at the soldiers, who were approaching houses in the village while shooting tear gas and stun grenades. I don’t know if their actions would have been prevented if the Israeli group hadn’t been there, but its presence surely didn’t help soothe the situation.

One of the reasons for Israelis being present at Palestinian demonstrations is to soften the attitude of the soldiers, knowing they treat a mixed group of Israelis and Palestinians differently than they do a homogeneous group of Palestinians. It’s hard to say whether this logic is still valid today, considering the level of violence the soldiers started directing towards Israelis. In at least one case where I was present the soldiers specifically targeted me and my friends, while shouting curses and throwing grenades at us, although we hadn’t done anything that could have been interpreted as a threat.

When we stand in the field in front of the soldiers we joke that we carry our armor of privilege. This imaginary armor is made up of a wrong sense of superiority, leftovers of trust in the army’s spirit, which wouldn’t dare harm Israelis of its own flesh and blood, and defiance toward the country that insists on committing its crimes in our name. The armor starts to crack with the shooting of the first tear gas canister, drops when the bullets come through the air and completely breaks apart when the soldiers start chasing the demonstrators. But like a resistant virus of the mind, it returns at the next demonstration.

And yet

The encounter itself changes your perception. The ‘other,’ the stranger, changes from a story, a concept, into a real person. Those encounters are encounters between human beings. We talk, listen, smile, and lessen the common concern from the army before the demonstration. During the ‘battle’ we cry together, choke together, stand together and flee together. We drink tea and talk. Sometimes about the situation, sometimes about ourselves, listening to stories from a long time ago and thinking about the future. Those encounters serve also as an unmediated channel to receive information about the week’s events, information that doesn’t always match up with the versions coming through other channels of communication.

Only when you see the incomprehensible amounts of tear gas showered on residents’ homes can you understand how an 85-year-old man suffocates, and only then do you realize that army commanders can’t argue that they weren’t aware of the amount of damage caused by their weapons. Only when looking at settlement houses built on territory that used to belong to the village, and by observing where the soldiers are, practically anywhere except for the space between the village and the settlement’s houses, only then do you understand that the name, Israel “Defense Forces” is a sad joke. Only when you see children aged four, six and ten, choke from tear gas the soldiers shoot and escape in terror from armed men shielded head to toe, do you truly understand the price and effect on the human experience of those people Israel chooses to oppress. The violence, the stupidity, the wickedness – all that for a false ideal. For me, that’s the main benefit of being there – a true and deep understanding of the crime, the pain and the price, an understanding which gives strength to continue fighting.

Palestinian youth clash with Israeli soldiers after the funeral of Said Jasir. Jasir died after inhaling tear gas shot into his home by Israeli soldiers. (photo: Activestills)

Solidarity is another reason. Simply standing side by side. The fact we all choke from the same tear gas shot by those soldiers. The fact that with our presence we show the small children and their parents who join the march that there are also other Israelis, who are willing to stand by them, that we’re not all scoundrels who steal their land and shoot at them. The silent smile of acknowledgment in the common struggle while running – that resonates. We’re not all the same.

Additionally, there’s our struggle as Israelis for the character of the country. More than once the Supreme Court ruled on a case and the army ignored its ruling. For example, in Kafr Qaddum the Supreme Court decided a few years ago that a road the army had closed must be reopened, but the army refuses to carry out the court’s decision. A putsch. Most Israelis choose to ignore this because it takes place beyond the mountains of darkness. I’m there for the villagers, but I’m also there for myself as an Israeli. Their struggle is theirs, but also mine. Their struggle is for the road, mine for the rule of law. Every Israeli who chooses to ignore this, it’s as if he or she gave up on the country, gave up on the law and on justice.

Not very many Israelis come to these demonstrations, a few dozen. That’s not criticism, it’s a fact. Beyond the difficulty of entering a battle zone where the chances of getting hurt are far from negligible, it’s difficult to stand up against your own country, to stand in front of soldiers who are wearing the same uniform you used to wear alongside those you were programmed to hate and fear. It’s hard to grasp that the IDF has become a violent gang that will use any means to oppress a spark of popular uprising. It’s hard to understand that you’re being lied to, and that if you don’t insist on the truth nobody will.

The number of those who see this reality and can defiantly stand against the army won’t increase significantly unless something very extreme happens, which will probably cost more lives and will lead to further escalation. These demonstrations that have become a weekly ritual, have succeeded more than other struggles to attract positive media coverage under the ‘non-violent’ motto, but failed to reach the heart of the Israeli mainstream. Even Israeli friends who define themselves as lefties raise an eyebrow when I tell them about my participation at those demonstrations, as if this means crossing some imaginary line, a Rubicon after which the Israeli identity itself is cast into doubt.

But it’s exactly the contrary: in the weekly demonstrations in Bil’in, in Ma’asara , in Nabi Saleh, in Kafr Qaddum and other places, that’s where those who aren’t afraid to stand shoulder to shoulder with the local residents, together, for freedom and justice can be found. Those who don’t accept that the things done by this stupid government will be done in their name. Those who see solidarity as an important ideal and understand that the ongoing crime, the occupation, kills us all. Those, who in 40 years, when asked, “What have you done?” will be able to stand tall and say “I stood with my body on the side of justice and didn’t look aside when fascism tried to pass.”

I’m proud to stand together with them.

Noam Rotem is an Israeli activist, high-tech executive and author of the blog o139.org, subtitled “Godwin doesn’t live here any more.” This piece was first published in Hebrew.

Related:
Searching for a genuine anti-apartheid struggle in Israel/Palestine
WATCH: Bil’in activists protest rising military oppression 

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Kolumn9

      Or those that 40 years from now will live in exile and mourn the passing of the state and the suffering of all their loved ones massacred and expelled as a result of their actions. Those that in their quest for ‘justice’ forget their own and stand on the side of those that see them at best as useful idiots to be tolerated until they are no longer useful. Those that in their desire for a ‘common struggle’ forget that they partake in a struggle for their own exile or massacre. Contempt is too good for them.

      Reply to Comment
      • Richard Lightbown

        Or your all consuming paranoia and bilious hatred will rot the Israeli state from within, probably in less than 40 years.

        Reply to Comment
    2. “The fact that with our presence we show the small children and their parents who join the march that there are also other Israelis, who are willing to stand by them, that we’re not all scoundrels who steal their land and shoot at them. The silent smile of acknowledgment in the common struggle while running – that resonates. We’re not all the same.”
      —-
      “More than once the Supreme Court ruled on a case and the army ignored its ruling. For example, in Kafr Qaddum the Supreme Court decided a few years ago that a road the army had closed must be reopened, but the army refuses to carry out the court’s decision. A putsch. Most Israelis choose to ignore this because it takes place beyond the mountains of darkness. I’m there for the villagers, but I’m also there for myself as an Israeli. Their struggle is theirs, but also mine. Their struggle is for the road, mine for the rule of law. Every Israeli who chooses to ignore this, it’s as if he or she gave up on the country, gave up on the law and on justice.”

      —-

      Nothing to add, really. Except maybe that this foreigner totally protected types here for the second quote direct.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Vacy Vlazna

      Noam, thank you for giving insights into the complex inner quandary of an Israeli dissident standing with Palestinians against the brutality of Israel’s occupation. It really is a brave and only stand to take and ultimately a universal one as justice transcends the personal and local. Respect to you.

      Reply to Comment

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