A protest in Bil’in, West Bank

This is part of an occasional series about my experiences with the American Jews for a Just Peace Health and Human Rights delegation to Palestine in June 2014.  My previous post in the series is here.

In the middle of the last decade, a network of villages started holding unarmed demonstrations against the Occupation and land grabs every Friday after morning prayers, hoping to demonstrate that such resistance could be more effective than armed fighting. One of those villages is Bil’in, a little place with around 1700 people nestled up against the Separation Wall, about 8 miles west of Ramallah, where they have been demonstrating against the construction of the Wall by marching along and then toward it every week since January 2005. The demonstrations usually have a few hundred people, mostly locals but also internationals from several different countries. Sometimes some participants choose to throw stones – considering it not violent to throw mere stones at people who are armored and armed with guns, and often operating from the top of a 25-foot concrete wall – and sometimes they do not. A member of the anti-prison-uprising “Masada” special unit of the Israel Prison Service has testified in court that he and other members of the unit have gone undercover and thrown rocks during the Bil’in demonstrations, essentially acting as agents provocateurs.

Bil’in has suffered for its resistance. Two villagers have been killed by IDF response to the protests, and many have been injured. The driver who brought our delegation to the village told us that he used to participate in the protests, but no longer does so since a rubber bullet to the head left him with amnesia for a week. Other villagers told us that there used to be frequent nighttime IDF raids on the village, but that those have decreased since more internationals started doing homestays there. The chairman of the village committee that organizes the protests, a proponent of Gandhian principles, served 15 months in prison after being arrested for possessing spent Israeli tear gas canisters and M-16 bullets that he was showing in an exhibition of the weaponry that the IDF has used against Bil’in.

Bil’in borders a large ultra-Orthodox settlement, Modi’in Illit, which has nearly 60,000 people (compared to Bil’in’s 1800 or so) and is located partially on Bil’in’s land. Modi’in Illit is mostly Ashkenazi, with many English-speaking immigrants, including Americans. The barrier shielding it from Bil’in it cuts Bil’in off from most of its agricultural land. Modi’in Illit is the home of CityBook Services, which helps US companies outsource work to “Israel” (i.e. West Bank settlements, which they describe as “Israel” on their website). Globalization at its finest? Modi’in Illit’s construction was funded largely by Israeli diamond/real estate/chemical/private prison tycoon Lev Leviev and New York City real estate developer Shaya Boymelgreen.

The driver taking our delegation into Bil’in is a local. He is delighted to hear that we’ll be joining the protests, but warns us to watch our heads because of flying canisters and rubber bullets. He used to go to the protests, but a few years ago he took a projectile in the forehead and was seriously injured, so he doesn’t protest anymore.

As we gather for the demonstration, Roy, a blond Israeli Jew who is clearly a veteran of Bil’in’s marches, gathers the internationals for a safety briefing. He briefly describes the most common weapons used by the IDF, including tear gas, cannons of disgusting-smelling “skunk” liquid, stun (flashbang) grenades, and rubber bullets (which are actually metal coated in rubber), and their possible effects. One of his key points is that no matter how much it sucks, if you are in an open area, not unusually old or young, and don’t have a cardiac or respiratory condition, tear gas isn’t going to kill you, and the pain (and nausea/vomiting, if you have that particular reaction) is only going to last a few minutes, so don’t panic. But his most important point was that the real danger from the tear gas wasn’t the gas at all, it was from the flying canisters, which can kill someone if fired straight at them, and can cause serious head injuries when flying in an arc. The tear gas devices used by the IDF at protests include 40MM aluminum canister “gas rockets” fired out of launchers, and a 40MM flying piece of metal fired from a launcher and hitting your head as it finishes its arc is pretty dangerous, so it’s important to remember to watch your head. He told us that if we only remembered one thing from the briefing, it should be watching our heads.

I default to an unmarked medic role for the protest, and my pockets are stuffed with medic supplies and an eye-flush bottle. I am about to learn that Palestinians won’t do water eye-flushes, believing that the water will activate the tear gas somehow. Given that I flushed my own eyes with water during this march, and it worked fine, I am not sure where this idea comes from, but when I did a Google search later, I discovered that there was some past history of Israelis not letting their own tear-gas-exposed servicemembers eye-flush with water either, and presumably they would have some idea of the dangers of their own materials, so it seems possible that there is a particular variety of tear gas where this would be a problem.

It’s a smaller march than usual – between people being elsewhere helping with the protests in support of the hunger strikers, people preparing for Ramadan, and fear over the West Bank crackdown, only about 150 people, of whom I estimate that 10-20% are internationals, are present. We start marching down the road, with people chanting in Arabic and English. As we get within sight of the Wall, we turn down a dirt path, that is probably still 50-100 meters from the Wall (I am not great at distance estimation) to march parallel to it. That path leads to a larger dirt road that is perpendicular to the Wall and leads up to it in one direction and back toward the center of the village in the other. As we turn down the small dirt path, I can see a vehicle behind the Wall that looks like some sort of jeep-tank hybrid, perhaps an MRAP.

The first volley of tear gas, some half a dozen canisters at once, is fired shortly after we start down the dirt path, and lands on the other side of us. The second volley lands even closer. I am unlucky enough to briefly end up immediately behind a big cloud of gas with no way to go but through it, so I squint and hold my breath. My eyes burn, the skin between my upper lip and my nose burns, and once I get out of the cloud and start to breathe again, my throat burns. It is unpleasant, but the most pressing problem is that I’m having trouble opening my eyes and can’t see. I can’t see hazards on the ground, which are plentiful, but much worse, I can’t see where the flying canisters are going. So I get out my water bottle and flush my own eyes. This is something to be careful with – you don’t want to risk rinsing the gas into your nose and mouth – but since I am a protest medic in my spare time I’ve been taught how to do an eye flush correctly, and while it is awkward and doesn’t make the pain just go away I can at least see again. People around me are commenting that the tear gas is starting very early and the IDF must be trying to end the protest quickly today, perhaps because of the post-kidnappings crackdown (Operation Brother’s Keeper).

Tear gas at the Bil'in protest

Tear gas at the Bil’in protest

When we turn onto the larger road there’s a Palestinian Medical Relief Society ambulance waiting in the wings, and more gas. The canisters, occasionally individual ones but mostly several at a time, are being fired from a shorter distance now, and some of them are spiraling bizarrely in the air, making it harder to predict where they’re going to land. A vehicle swoops in at some point to evacuate anyone who’s panicking or in acute distress and wants to get out now. For a brief time, fellow delegate TR and I are in some brush slightly separated from the other people near the Wall, and cringe and hurry over to them as a spiraling canister strikes only a few feet away from us. I unthinkingly packed only my sturdy hiking sandals for this trip, and am cursing myself for it now as a piece of thorny vine from a brush plant gets stuck underneath one of my sandal straps, where it will stay until the end of the protest.

Since I am a protest medic after all, I am aware that tear gas canisters are very hot on the surface, often 350 degrees or more. Since I live in a humid climate, it had not really occurred to me what happens when a flying 350+ degree metal object hits dried-out brush in 100+ degree weather with no humidity and it has been weeks since the last rain. There were small brush fires forming around the area. One of our delegates who was near the back of the protest saw a fire and tried to put it out by putting rocks on top of it, but had to back off because the soldiers fired canisters toward her.

As things go on, I move back a little, standing and waiting, and offering help to anyone fleeing along the road. People don’t want water eye-flushes, but they do want alcohol swabs to provide a distracting smell and clean gas off skin, and I have a lot of alcohol swabs in my band-aid box, so I hand them out like candy. A cluster of youngish Europeans are complaining that the tear gas here is much harsher than what they’ve experienced at protests back in Europe. Many people have left, but some stubbornly stand their ground. They aren’t throwing rocks, they aren’t posing a threat, they’re just standing. I hear some bangs at the front that sound different and louder than the pops made by the canister guns, and there are some larger, brighter flashes than what a striking canister makes – presumably flashbangs. The flash effect is somewhat lessened by the fact that it’s mid-day on a bright sunny summer day and thus already extremely bright. There are also some sharper little pops, likely rubber bullets. Fortunately nobody is hit.

A spent tear gas canister

A spent tear gas canister

Oh, and remember how earlier in this post I talked about the neighboring settlement, Modi’in Illit? During the protest, there are some settlers on the roofs watching from Modi’in Illit, laughing and cheering the IDF on.

Eventually the stragglers leave and protest finishes. It has been quite a while, probably an hour. We look at little village gardens that incorporate tear gas canisters. The villagers used to plant plants in the empty ones, but the plants died, so now they use the canisters as decorations instead of pots. Our driver is pleased that we all made it out all right, and invites us to his home for lunch. We eat a wonderful meal there, still in our tear-gas-soaked clothes which nobody seems to mind (I guess in a village that has been gassed at least once a week for eight years, you get used to it), and buy various embroidered goods made by his wife and other women in the family.

Old tear gas canisters decorating the garden

Old tear gas canisters decorating the garden

For the rest of the day, my lungs feel like I’m missing about 10% of my lung capacity, and there is an uncomfortable squeezing feeling when I try to use it. Caffeine is a bronchodilator, so I drink caffeinated beverages at every possible opportunity, and the feeling is gone by the next day.

You can see some video at this protest at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7FddxA6Jyo – it’s only a few minutes of something that went on for an hour, and the clips that are compiled together seem out of order, but it’s definitely the right protest, I can see myself briefly a couple of times. You can see for yourself just how innocuous this crowd was.

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