The razor-wire and concrete frontier between Israel and Gaza is intermittently interrupted by remote-controlled metal observation towers equipped with motion sensors. When the sensors detect something, the metal petals atop the towers peel back, blooming. A small bloom means the interior camera is peering around. A big bloom occurs when the people controlling the machine guns inside the turret are thinking about blasting someone.
On Tuesday, in a border area near Atatra, a neighborhood in Beit Lehiya in northern Gaza, the top only opened a little – just looking around. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) software operator saw us nearing the border, perhaps 200 Palestinians and seven internationals. The Palestinians marched, boisterously and peacefully, holding a banner reading “No for the security wall and we call on international society for urgent intervention to stop the Israeli violations of Palestinian rights.”
The bigger group of them stopped maybe 150 meters of the border, well within the Israel-decreed buffer zone. The bolder youth surged forward, to the first string of barbed wire, maybe 25 meters from the border, then around it, past the ring road, then nearly to the border fence. There they defiantly planted a Palestinian flag. They climbed on top of a metal structure, maybe formerly used for transmitting electricity, and planted several Palestinian flags. I mentioned to another international, Rada, that “someone was going to get shot,” we were so close to the border. I guessed wrong, luckily. And there we waited. We didn’t wait too long.
First one jeep, then two, then three, drove up in a tremendous hurry. IDF marksmen rushed from the jeeps and took up sniping positions on a sand-dune overlooking the enemy: in this case peaceful Palestinian demonstrators clustered on their own land, with a few international witnesses, and a lot of clearly visible press wearing blue flak jackets.
After a few quiet minutes, an order came in and bullets started rifling through the air. First, warning shots. Then shots that were really intended to warn us. Then more ambiguous shots. Bursts of sand started to seemingly explode in front of our shoes, and most of the youth, save a select, surreally brave few, retreated pell-mell. They know what happened on Land Day, when the IDF shot young Palestinian men. But some stayed, and we stayed with them. Bullets start flying close enough to my head that I could feel the passage of the air and the crackle of the passage throb in my ears. These, too, were “warning shots,” but the soldiers were perched on a sand dune. Sand isn’t great footing. If they had slipped, someone could have caught a bullet. I and International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteer Adie Mormech started to retreat to where the rest of the press corps was stationed.
ISM volunteer Eva Bartlett stayed at the forefront, waving her arms as bullets thudded into the sand around her. Eva is identifiably Western, blond and white. The ISM goes in an effort to ensure that Palestinians aren’t shot at these demonstrations, and if they are, to document the shootings. It hopes an international presence deters the defense forces.
Sometimes this may be true. Other times, it is not true.
The Israeli army is far more likely to shoot Palestinian protesters than Western ones. People in the West raise less of a fuss over a Palestinian corpse than a Western one. We all know the names of Western activists murdered by the IDF – Rachel Corrie, Tom Hurndall – and scarcely know the names of the many, many more Palestinians who were slaughtered as they nonviolently mobilized against the occupation.
As I backed up to around 100 meters, bullets kept flying. One of the protest’s organizers, Saber Zaaneen, from the Beit Hanoun-based Local Initative, started retreating too. He used to be a member of the muqawama, the armed resistance. He knows about violence and facing Israeli bullets. More recently, he has chosen another path: nonviolence. As he told the Palestine Telegraph, “I wanted to experiment with that strategy in Gaza,” he said. “The strength of these demonstrations is that they attract international activists and journalists to see what’s really happening.”
The spectacle of Israeli sniper bullets cutting the air around me as I stood on Palestinian land remained with me when I sat down at my computer that evening. Ethan Bronner, bureau chief in Jerusalem for The New York Times, had written an article about Palestinian nonviolence. Perhaps he was going to extol the efflorescing nonviolent mobilization in the West Bank? Or he had heard of the recently burgeoning Ghazzawy nonviolent marches for security in the buffer zone? Maybe not.
Bronner wrote that the “Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, joined by the business community, is trying to forge a third way: to rouse popular passions while avoiding violence … through acts of popular resistance.” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has apparently attempted to encourage this by planting trees, thereby, if slowly, helping to build a “virtual state.”
Others, although not Bronner, have noted a certain inconsistency between the Palestinian Authority’s rhetoric and its actions. Saleh al-Naami, a Gaza-based journalist, writes that the Palestinian Authority and Fatah are “are not shy about not tolerating a mood of popular action that could trigger a third Intifada. Adnan Al-Damiri, spokesman for Fayyad’s security apparatus, justified security intervention to prevent many demonstrations by various popular movements to protest against Israel’s actions.” They don’t want popular resistance to become popular. So Fayyad partakes in “controlled exclusive events,” which are meant to avoid inciting larger mobilizations. Such larger mobilizations are not welcome. As one anonymous military official told Bronner, “We respect Salam Fayyad … But we don’t want him to engage in incitement. Burning goods is incitement. Destroying the fence is incitement and is not nonviolent. They are walking a thin line.” The “fence,” incidentally, had been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Strange that an Israel Defense Forces officer would call destroying an illegal fence violent. It was almost hallucinogenic to read another bit of Bronner’s piece, that, “Nonviolence has never caught on here…. But the current set of campaigns is trying to incorporate peaceful pressure in limited ways.” The ongoing struggles in Bilin and Nilin, villages in the West Bank that struggle against the apartheid wall’s theft of their territory, and the campaign against the destruction of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, likewise did not penetrate into the piece.
Bronner’s elision of the first Intifada raises different questions. Overwhelmingly nonviolent, from 1987-1989 Palestinians took part in mass mobilization, including strikes, flag-raising, fasting and other varieties of civil disobedience. Bogglingly brave teenagers refused to disperse when tear-gassed or shot with live ammunition. Israel responded to this uprising with mass arrests, murders, curfews and assassinations. Yitzhak Rabin, former and future prime minister, said he would hammer the largely nonviolent mobilization with “force, might and beatings.” By December 1989, the IDF had killed over 600 Palestinians, injured perhaps 20,000 and jailed perhaps 50,000. Historians and the entire population of Palestine are well aware that it is not precisely in Palestine that “nonviolence has never caught on.” Surprisingly, since the IDF is pretty quick to pepper bullets in the general direction of utterly peaceful protesters. Not the sort of thing to encourage peaceful mobilization, but it keeps happening anyway – just not under the stewardship of Fayyad.
Perhaps Bronner could come check this out himself. I can reserve a spot for him next week in Beit Hanoun – three meters away from the sniper bullets. Cool?