Excerpts from my journal as I examine and portray the troubles in the Levant
As I settled in to what I thought might be a quiet day at the PNN office, only partially staffed because it was Friday, Musa Al Shaer, a photojournalist with Agency France Press (AFP), phoned to invite me to a demonstration against land confiscation at the village of Al Masara around 1 pm, followed by lunch with his family at his home in the village of Tuqu. Musa is the father of N who is currently in her third year of high school in Juneau Alaska. I spoke once with her by phone when she asked if she could show my Eyewitness Gaza movie at the school. And my sister E has been imploring me to meet N’s father, also the family if possible. Mission accomplished.
First the demonstration: the most peaceful, civil, respectful, well-organized, powerful demonstration I’ve attended and photographed yet in the territories. Since 2006 the village, threatened by the separation wall, land cut off and confiscated, has resisted with weekly non-violent demonstrations every Friday after prayer. Much like the village of Bil’in but without the publicity and apparently with less violence–at least this day (I learned later Israeli military has violently reacted to peaceful demonstrations in Al Masara). The scariest part of the day was speeding there from Bethlehem with 2 young men who constantly smoked, played music loud, and careened around curves and up and down hills in a reckless manner, which in the context of Palestine seems acceptable. No police, no management of the roads that I noticed, a complete road rebellion. Perhaps this is one form of exercising individual freedom. Or perhaps it is a comment on the wish to live.
Before the demonstration began I met Mahmoud Zwahre, one of the main leaders of the local popular resistance. He noticed my lapel pin showing Martin Luther King with the message Don’t let the dream die. He told me how much he admires King, and how King’s message is relevant to Palestinians now. When I asked him, who or what do you think killed King? he answered, the enemies of justice. Which is to say, the powers. We agreed that in the United States this comprised—and comprises now–elements of the government, corporations, media, universities, and the military. One might wonder if there is any connection between those enemies of justice thriving in the USA and partners in other parts of the world, including Israel, who gain much by fostering systematic oppression.
After about 15 minutes of waiting, when I had a chance to survey the maps and booklets about the region and the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, we set off to the site of the demo—near the junction of the main road and the village road where people, almost entirely male, would soon attempt to enter their agricultural land which is now behind the first manifestations of the separation barrier/apartheid wall. Every week, the same struggle, partially symbolic, mainly a plea for justice. And every week massive power blocks entrance–M16 machine guns provided by the USA, communication coordination in part sponsored by Motorola, and most importantly massive funding a gift of the taxpayer in the USA.
What does this two-hour military action cost the Israeli government and in turn the USA government and tax payers? How else might that money be spent? Similar questions to those asked in the USA about funding its huge military mega death machine. Euphemistically named defense, when in truth it is offense—and offensive.
The two men I rode with, part of another media organization, readied their video equipment for the confrontation. While waiting they chatted in Hebrew amiably with the Israeli commander, an affable fellow that I might have liked to have as a friend and neighbor. He smiled graciously and seemed genuinely warm-hearted. How would he act during the demo and why were the 3 so cheerily chatting together?
The march began, led by a few young boys with flags and signs, the shabab, that at other sites of conflict might be lying in wait with stones. No stones, not one. When I asked Musa about this later, he told me, the strong village leadership prevents stone throwing. Soldiers and police, distinguished by the tan uniforms and brown helmets of the soldiers and the blue uniforms worn by the police without helmets. The usual division of labor is for soldiers to prevent movement, beat back demonstrators, fire weapons, exercise crowd control generally, while the police arrest and detain. Most everyone wore armored vests, all carried automatic rifles, many carried radio equipment, a few used cameras, most carried sound grenades and tear gas canisters, a few had tear gas rifles, most looked under the age of 30, except for the commander who might have been in his mid 30s.
During the confrontation I made a series of soldier and police portraits, also a panoramic of the soldier line, and I concentrated on showing interactions between individuals, especially the boys lightly armed with signs and flags against the heavily armed soldiers with their gigantic rifles.
Despite one incident of potential violence when the commander pushed one of the boys back across a line I was truly inspired by the maturity and humanity of both parties, activists and military. Musa thought one reason for the quiet response of the military was the commander, who’d been many times here and seemed to have developed a friendly relationship with Palestinian leaders and media. Musa wasn’t sure how the leaders controlled the rock throwing but it had something to do with adult pressure throughout the village generally, an attitude that dissuaded rock throwing.
At the demo’s end we all walked slowly back toward the village, soldiers, police, kids, leaders, internationals, media, everyone. I could imagine us hand in hand walking to Mahmoud ’s home to accept his gracious invitation to share tea. He called out, have some tea with us.