We stood in the front of the non-violent demonstration against the continuing construction of the separation barrier known as The Wall. Various Israeli peace groups, internationals and Palestinians joined in the chants against the occupation and presence of Israeli soldiers on occupied land. And then the stones came.
At first it was just a few – they were poorly aimed and at some point, a journalist was hit by a stone. We thought the soldiers would begin with the tear gas immediately, so we began to move backward and got ready to run. However, the local Palestinians and Israelis began to yell at the youth who had begun throwing the stones, telling them to stop. After a few more minutes, the stone throwing began again, and this time, I thought the soldiers would now retaliate. But, again, the stone throwing stopped, and people were able to continue with the demonstration. Then, the third time, the stones were thrown. The last thing I saw before turning to run, and having 3 shock grenades blow up at my feet, was a large rock that was coming down just above the heads of the Israeli army – I knew the tear gas would begin then – it was a weird phenomenon to all of a sudden just know, “Okay, time to turn around and run – because I know something is going to happen now.” And it did. And we ran. And we all got tear gassed.
After the demonstration, and while there were still some minor clashes going on between the Palestinians and the Israeli army, people from the protest met with the locals who had organized the protest for a debriefing session, and there was a lot of time devoted to the idea of throwing stones.
I have come to believe, as do many here, that throwing stones is a legitimate way for Palestinian youth to fight back and resist the Occupation. However, for the few experiences when I’ve seen the youth throw stones, the question has always been about timing (and aim).
The demonstrations in Bil’in generally tend to end violently; however, they are always organized to be non-violent demonstrations. But if you think about it, put yourself in the shoes of a Palestinian youth. You are under occupation, you know your future does not look very good, you have seen what the Occupation has done to other youth and how it has limited the possibilities of your life…and now you have an Israeli soldier who is standing a few hundred feet away, and a lot of people (including many foreigners) who will be able to see you express your frustration, your hopelessness and your pain as you throw a rock…why not do it then?
However, as a foreigner in the demonstration, I found myself very upset at the stone-throwers because they were putting hundreds of locals and internationals in danger of being gassed or hurt, or possibly even arrested. The stone throwers were safe behind homes up on the hill, whereas we were all down in the very front.
We had another experience as we entered the Aida Camp right next to Bethlehem. As we entered, the Israeli government was working on completing the Wall and soldiers would not let us walk the way we were planning on going for our tour of the camp. As we camp up around a corner, there were around 20-30 Palestinian youth who were throwing rocks throw an open gap in the Wall. One of the kids, probably 8 years old, hit one of our group members in the back of a head with the stone – he was okay, and very kind to the Palestinian youth, but still – bad aim. The man who was giving us the tour, as well as some people in our group, told the youth to stop throwing the stones while we were there. But they insisted on throwing the stones right then – most likely because we were all there and could see – it seemed like it was a bit of a show to them. Less than a minute after we moved out of the street where the kids were, the soldiers jumped out from the gap in the Wall and began firing the tear gas down the street with all the kids, and they shot one that ricocheted off a wall and exploded near where we were standing (while the youth have pretty bad aim with their stones, the Israeli army does not ‘accidentally’ misfire a tear gas canister…). Again, I had to question the ‘timing’ (not the legitimacy) of the stone throwing.
One of the methods of reporting that often goes on involves using the terminology “retaliating” or “self-defense” whenever it talks about Israeli forces responding to stone throwing or violent activities from the Palestinians [you notice this even with terms to describe Israeli forces: Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli “security” forces; we met with a journalist here in Bethlehem who has been working here for the past 4-5 years, and she has now decided to, when referring to the Israeli forces to either write “Israeli Army” or “IOF” – Israeli Offense Forces] – but one has to remember that all of this stems from the fact that Israel is militarily occupying someone else’s land – which calls for resistance. The Palestinians aren’t “starting something” by throwing rocks – they are simply responding to government policy and military law enacted by the Israeli government and officials.
One other thing to note: many have read about the fact that Bethlehem was ‘supposedly’ handed over to the Palestinian Authority (PA) recently. Well, just an example of what that *really* means: while we were in the Aida Camp, the Israeli forces were “in” the camp, past the Wall, firing tear gas into the camp. On other occasions, the army has fired tear gas randomly into the camp in the night. Israeli forces have entered the camp in the night and made arrests – they are not supposed to be allowed into the camp. Someone asked if the PA could stop the Israeli forces from illegally entering the camp. The response was, “Well, they could – except for the PA is basically under the Israeli army’s control.” So, if that sounds to you like Bethlehem was “handed over” – okay, but on the ground, that announcement is worthless.