The town of Nabi Saleh, named after an obscure Prophet whose tomb lies within it, sits on a hill across from a settlement, which is now trying to expand and take control of a spring located close to the town. Every Friday since 2009, local residents, activists from other Palestinian cities, and foreigners have gathered in the shade of a tree in the center of town, and marched down the street into the main road leading away from Nabi Saleh. And every Friday, IDF soldiers have arrived armed with tear gas, a “skunk truck,” and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters.
We woke up at seven, and left Jalazone at 7:30, because even though the protest wouldn’t start until after the noon prayer, the IDF usually sets up a checkpoint around 8:30 in the morning to stop people from going to the protest. This morning, there was no checkpoint and we breezed through, as the IDF had carried out night raids all over the West Bank (including Jalazone) and presumably they were tired from staying up all night. We waited out the morning in the shade on the terrace of a local family’s home. The family made us breakfast and chatted with us while we waited.
After the noon prayer, we gathered under the tree, people tied keffiyas around their faces and handed out Palestinian flags, and we set out down the road, clapping and chanting. As we left the edges of the town and approached the stretch where the IDF trucks waited, people started making short roadblocks out of stone in the middle of the street. A friend who was a veteran of the Nabi Saleh protests told me to hang back here and observe, just in case, since I’d never done this before. I climbed up into the hill on the side of the road and watched as the “skunk truck” sprayed foul-smelling liquid on the approaching protesters (apparently the smell lasts for weeks) and saw tear gas canisters shot down the street and into the hills. I though I was far enough, but ran when I realized that my burning throat, stinging cheeks, and watery eyes meant the tear gas had reached me. Protesters scattered, reassembling further down the street. I found my friend dabbing an ice pack on a bright red, quarter-sized welt on her inner arm. “They don’t usually use rubber bullets this early,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
When I asked if it was over, she laughed. “That was nothing – this is just the beginning,” she said. The IDF was still blocking the exit, and the taxis that brought us here knew the drill; they wouldn’t be back until they thought the action was over. Protesters were scattered over the hills. Young men with keffiyas hiding their faces ran to the edge of the hill, throwing rocks at the trucks, before being pushed back with a blast of skunk water. Every so often, if a big group of protesters formed in the hills, another round of tear gas canisters would volley towards us and we would scatter.
The protest began with a diverse group – international travelers, young protesters that came from Ramallah and other nearby cities, and men and women of all ages from Nabi Saleh themselves who marched proudly, some with young children. As the hours went on, I was surprised to see the local people stay with us instead of going back to their homes, offering water and food and chatting easily with the international travelers who had shown up. Many of them, from England or Denmark or Sweden, were there as volunteers from the International Solidarity Movement, an organization that sends foreigners to house demolitions or demonstrations like this one. The underlying idea is that the IDF might use excessive force on Palestinians, but it can’t treat foreigners the same way because of public relations concerns, so sending foreigners to protests or other events where violence might be used against Palestinians is a way of protecting them.
We left the protest around four, when a taxi agreed to take us the back way on narrow, winding roads that the IDF hadn’t blocked. I got back to Jalazone no worse for wear, but a bit shaken out of my complacency about what it means to protest. I had been to harmless marches on the Capitol and rallies outside the Sudanese embassy or Coca Cola headquarters in New York (Genocide Olympics, anyone?) but I had never felt that the act of protesting had put me in physical danger. I was afraid to get too close, to risk the chance of being sprayed with sewage water or shot with a rubber bullet, especially for a cause that was not truly my own. My own fear made me realize what great courage it must have taken for people who have protested, in many countries including my own, who risked their safety far, far more than I did today, to take a stand.
* I attended this protest in an individual capacity. Inspire Dreams is a non-political organization and not affiliated with these protests in any way.