A Nakba of Olives – an excerpt

[What follows is an excerpt from my Walls book-in-progress. This is from my chapter about the West Bank Wall called ‘A Nakba of Olives.’ Most of the chapter is about my time in the Palestinian village of Jayyous, and this excerpt is part of a longer account of an anti-Wall demonstration I observed there last February.]

It is a bad day for a protest. I am standing in Mohammed’s kitchen and looking out of the window at the rain. Mohammed’s second-floor apartment is half-finished and rarely cleaned. A week-old tub of yogurt sits on the countertop among spent Yellow Label tea bags and cigarette butts. Plastic soda bottles and falafel wrappers spill onto the floor beneath the hole in the countertop where a sink should be. Yesterday’s pita hardens into leather. One of Mohammed’s brothers brews tea with water from the bathroom sink – the only running water in the place – for the small gathering of activists from overseas waiting in the salon. Julia, a German activist with the International Solidarity Movement, is among them. She boasts about being blacklisted and strip-searched by the IDF, and advises me to take out my contacts. “The tear gas gets behind your lenses,” she warns as she traces on her eyeliner.

There is supposed to be a demonstration against the Wall today, but earlier this week, the IDF raided Jayyous. Soldiers entered the village at night, seized about a hundred young men and penned them in the school gymnasium. The troops also occupied several village houses and spray-painted a Star of David over a pro-freedom mural on a school wall. The IDF took about a dozen men with them when they left, and the men are still in custody somewhere in Israel. I wonder if the night action by the IDF will intimidate the young men out of their weekly protest and I ask Mohammed if anything is going to happen today. He says he doesn’t know. He says that the “street will decide.” I don’t believe him. His cell-phone has been ringing all morning. If anyone knows, it is Mohammed.

From the window we watch the road that leads from the centre of the village to the Wall’s south gate. At around noon, just as the group in the kitchen decides there will be no demonstration, we see a half-dozen young men walking up the road. Another group follows. They don’t have banners or flags or any other accoutrements of protest, but clearly something is happening. “It is the shabaab,” Mohammed says. The word is Arabic for ‘youth,’ but in the context of occupied Palestine, ‘shabaab’ refers to the bands of rebellious young Palestinian men – the stone-throwers and trouble-makers – who wage their own miniature intifadas on the IDF. Mohammed pulls on a black coat with a fur-lined collar, pockets his cell-phone and hands his camera to Aidan, a Canadian volunteer with ‘Stop the Wall’. Mohammed goes down the stairs and out the door. The rest of us follow him up the road.

We stop at the edge of an olive orchard. The shabaab are there. They calmly lift stones from the road and hurl them over the trees. Aidan tells me there are IDF soldiers on the other side of the grove. I cannot see past the grey trunks and silver-green leaves and the shabaab cannot see where their stones land. Eventually a clank of rock against metal signals that someone hit something. Probably an IDF jeep. The hurlers turn to each other and grin.

The response comes quickly. A pop from behind the trees and a tear gas canister fizzes overhead like a dud firework wheezing yellowish smoke. I think of Julia and my contact lenses but the wind whips away the fumes. Then an explosion so loud everyone cowers. Sound grenades. I am terrified and look to Mohammed. His hands are over his ears and he is ducking from the noise. But he is smiling. So are the shabaab. They laugh and reach for more stones to continue their assault on soldiers they cannot see.

Someone yells something in Arabic and the mood changes. The boys run from the groves. They are still grinning but frantic now. Aidan looks calm. I ask him what is happening. “The Israelis are coming,” he says and I hear the army engines rumble. The protestors run down the road and join the boys who again collect stones to throw. I don’t want to run. I feel it will implicate me somehow, but there is a blast from another grenade so I flee with the others, up the road and around a corner where someone has written ‘Stop the Wall.’ I stop running because everyone else stops. And then there is a new sound, a crack I don’t recognize. “Those are rubber bullets,” Aidan tells me and we are running again. I don’t turn back because I’m afraid to see how close the soldiers are….

We turn a corner, step over a row of boulders the shabaab have lined across the road, and continue to a ledge overlooking the valley. There are Israeli soldiers on the other side. I can see them ducking under the clotheslines on the rooftops and taking cover behind black water tanks. Here on the ledge, a half-dozen shabaab hurl stones at the IDF with homemade slings.

Mohammed told me that Palestinians are born knowing how to sling a stone. He joked that West Bank boys emerge from their mothers’ womb swinging their umbilical cords over their heads. I stand behind the shabaab, afraid of being hit by an errant stone, and watch as they co-opt King David’s weapon against his own heirs. Some wrap keffiyehs around their heads to hide their faces, but most don’t bother. The rain slickens cheeks too young for beards, and soaks through their blue jeans. Slings dangle from pockets like something cool.

I watch one of the stone-throwers, a boy in his late teens. He carries a sling made of denim and nylon cords. The boy threads a finger through a loop on the end of one cord, then grips both ends with his right hand. He lifts a stone from the road, places it in the cradle of denim, then holds his arm straight out from the side of his slim body. The stone swings back and forth in its cradle as if being lulled to sleep. The boy bends his legs and turns his body to eye the soldiers from over his shoulder. He pauses for a moment in this taut, proud pose.

After eyeing his target, he sweeps the sling over his head and his hand spins on its wrist. The cords blur and whistle as the stone strains against its cradle. The boy cocks his body back, twists his face into a sneer, and snaps the stone into the air as his entire body lurches forward. The released sling makes a sound like a bird and, relieved of its turning force, falls slack at the boy’s waist. The stone flies but the boy does not watch to see it land. His eyes are down as he lifts another stone from the ground. Cradles it. The sling swings and whirls and whistles again. It is a furious beauty.

I don’t want to leave the sling boys. I find it hard to resist their swagger. They hurl insults between their stones, and shout “Jayyous!” each time a tear gas canister fired at them falls harmlessly into the valley. Their stones fall short, too. Mohammed told me about an older man in Jayyous – a veteran of the first Intifada – who is a sniper with a sling. He is not in action today. I never see these boys hit anything at all. But this is not the point. For the shabaab, it is enough just to resist. To not cower. To fill a hard grey sky with hard grey stones.

The IDF insists it is the stone-throwers that trigger the army’s action. The moment a rock is thrown, the marchers become rioters and the protest an insurrection. Activists can hardly cling to claims of nonviolence, the Israelis say, if the shabaab pelt soldiers with rocks. After all, a slung stone can shatter a skull. Still, the battle on the streets is hardly even. Far more Palestinians than Israelis have been injured in these clashes. As I watch Israeli forces, clad in bulletproof vests and helmets, emerge from armoured jeeps to wage war on rock-throwing teenagers, the IDF claims of self-defense seem absurd….