Tuesday 6th of August
A meeting at the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees center informed us of an invitation from the mayor of Huwara village to participate in a peaceful march. Huwara is a farming village that lies on the road from Nablus to Ramallah, a route well travelled by Palestinians even during these difficult times. Our presence was required to act as protection for Palestinian farmers and villagers and to document Israeli reaction to the peaceful protest that would be undertaken against the civilian Palestinian populace. Despite the exclusive media coverage of aggressive Palestinian actions, the majority of people I have met in the West Bank are crying out for a peaceful solution to the occupation.
Recently at an Israeli checkpoint a middle aged Palestinian woman approached our group. She explained her situation, typical for those living under Israeli occupation. For the fifth consecutive day she had been refused access to the village of Huwara, her home and family. Israel maintains she is a risk to its national security. This is not the first such case I have encountered and certainly not the worst. Six days earlier while at Calandia checkpoint, near Ramallah, I confronted an Israeli soldier who was refusing a pregnant woman and a mother with a severely handicapped infant passage from Jerusalem to Ramallah.
Many soldiers I have encountered have the shame of their actions etched on their faces. They go as far as to motion me to one side, away from superiors and admit they realise they are committing senseless acts of harassment and worse. There are many undocumented cases of women giving birth at checkpoints after having been refused access to medical facilities. Some cases have resulted in fatalities. Soldiers claim they have no choice. One whispered, “I just want to go home.” It is not the short prison sentence they seem to fear for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories but being ostracized from family and friends. At times I felt they demanded forgiveness from me to help them absolve themselves from the crimes they commit. I found it impossible to respond as they carry out their orders with deadly accuracy.
The morning of the seventh I made my way to the outskirts of Nablus where I met with 30 or so international volunteers. Peoples spirits were high at the first direct action undertaken by collective groups in that area since the beginning of the recent Israeli incursion. The fact that the people of Huwara had been subjected to curfews lasting as long as 48 days made us more determined to join them in their march on the checkpoint. The military installation that serves Huwara and Nablus was an hours trek. As we travelled I noted the complete destruction of the Ministry for Agriculture, decimated during the previous Israeli assault in April. The rubble is indicative of Israel’s attempt to completely dismantle all forms of Palestinian authority. Farming has been the main source of income for the Palestinian people for centuries, a fact exploited by Israel in its method of collective punishment. 50% of Palestinians now live under the UN poverty line, 2$ the average daily budget per person.
At the Huwara checkpoint four soldiers manned the fortification. As we approached they were completely surprised by our sudden presence and immediately denied us passage. Our numbers allowed us to dismiss their threats and we calmly passed through. The ten minute walk between our party and the village was met with imprisoned voices from the people of Huwara cheering us and welcoming us from roadside houses. My gut feeling was that very few Palestinians would risk coming out of their homes in defiance of Israeli curfew orders. For them that would be risking their lives. As Israeli shots rang out one hundred and fifty Palestinian villagers came into view and our parties began to merge. A group of internationals had made the journey north, coming from Ramallah, which brought the internationals number to forty.
There was only seconds in which to exchange greetings. A quick strangers warm handshake and a thousand thanks in peoples eyes. The Palestinians and ourselves realised that this was the point of make or break for the march on Huwara. Israeli forces were approaching from two directions firing live rounds and no doubt calling for reinforcements. I joined a group of six that was given the unenviable task of forming a human shield 30 meters ahead with the remaining internationals flanking and dispersing amoung the marchers. Israeli forces were regrouping ahead and experienced members of ISM urged us forward, the theory being that the closer we kept to the soldiers the harder for them to use their arsenal. The tactic was working. We got close and pushed on at all times composed, calm and peaceful. The frustration resulting from years of oppressive control was overwhelmingly evident from the emotional Palestinian voices behind us and the extreme violence and intimidation on behalf !
of the soldiers thrusting rifle butts into our chests and pointing barrels in our faces. At one particular instant a soldiers magazine released from his weapon and landed at my feet. There was an unexpected moment of humour as our eyes met. He bent down to retrieve it and I stepped calmly forward leaving him and a group of Palestinians behind. He quickly scurried back behind his lines, not one arm raised in violence towards him.
The final standoff occurred after soldiers retreated in jeeps, regrouped, and escalated the violence. Rubber bullets were fired into the crowd, numerous sound grenades, and tear gas managed to overwhelm us. The soldiers opposing number swelled with reinforcements. They successfully managed to pull a number of Palestinians and internationals away. The mayor stepped forward and just as we had accepted his invitation to join his people we retreated at his request. During the retreat, occupation forces vehicles thrust forward breaking up the crowd and dragging people away. Many internationals felt a responsibility to maintain our protection for Palestinians and nine of us now face deportation.
None of us express regret but see the people of Huwara’s courageous march a complete success worthy of the consequences.
Ramle Prison, Israel