NABI SALEH, West Bank — Four months of photographing the weekly protests in this small Palestinian village located adjacent to the Israeli settlement of Halamish, and I realize I still don’t understand a thing.
Some days are relatively quiet. Some are chock full of violence. Other days are just weird.
Yesterday started quietly, turned violent and ended on a decidedly weird note.
The quiet Israeli officer was back yesterday. Two weeks ago, I watched “H,” a deputy infantry battalion commander, huddle against a white stone wall with several of his fellow soldiers and two Palestinian village leaders. As the small group – Israelis and Palestinians alike – was pelted with rocks hurled by local youths, the commander attempted to negotiate with the local leaders a peaceful solution to the brewing violence. As the discussion continued and the rocks continued to rain down, striking soldiers, press photographers and the homes of local villagers, the commander ordered his soldiers to refrain from responding. Eventually, however, the ad-hoc negotiations bore no fruit and the force began firing tear gas grenades at the stone-throwing youths.
Yesterday, “H” decided to refrain from interfering when hundreds of Palestinian residents, together with a smattering of Israeli and international supporters, marched from the center of the village through the main intersection to an area of outlying homes reported to have been slated for demolition by Israeli authorities. This was a move atypical for Israeli forces, which often open fire unprovoked with tear gas or stun grenades when peaceful Palestinian protesters approach the main intersection. Yesterday “H” and his men watched from a short distance as the protest march moved back and forth through the streets. While standing idle, he shook the hand of a Palestinian man and his daughter who happened to walk past his jeep.
The initial march over, some of the young men lingered along the main road waving Palestinian flags and flashing V-signs for photographers but most of the residents returned to their homes or sat outside in large family groups watching the soldiers, who in turn stood watching them. The force moved it jeeps slightly further down the road leading out of Nabi Saleh and lounged about, talking amongst themselves. I sat in the shade under a nearby roadside tree, and “H” came over to introduce himself and ask me some questions about journalism and what makes a good photograph. He told me he had no interest in taking any action in the village unless rocks were thrown.
I stood around with some other members of the press, watching a few small toddlers toss stones not much larger than pebbles in the direction of the soldiers. The stones flew maybe a couple meters before landing on the ground, far from the soldiers. At one point, a woman who I assume was the children’s mother got up from the family gathering and assisted the boy and girl in gathering rocks. The small pig-tailed girl, perhaps no older than three years old, wore a denim skirt with “2-cute” stitched on the butt.
After awhile, a large group of young men from the village sitting in a hillside grove several hundred meters away rose and began hurling rocks towards the soldiers using both slingshots and bare hands. The “2-cute” family quickly got up and moved out of the line of fire. As more of the young men began hurling rocks, the soldiers began responding with sporadic salvos of tear gas grenades. The exchange intensified, with more gas grenades being fired and more rocks smashing into the jeeps. Press photographers scrambled for cover.
“H” made a decision to advance on the young men and take the fight into the village itself. Soldiers began running up the hill, scattering the young men back in the direction of the village. As they reached the first line of houses, the force split and at this point a number of separate incidents occurred.
“H” and a small team of his soldiers reached the first house, where they began arguing with a girl and her father – the same two with whom “H” had earlier in the afternoon shaken hands – demanding to know why she had participated in the rock throwing. The girl refused to answer them and angrily stormed into the house, upon the outside wall of which was written in English: “I love you.” The incident eventually petered out and the soldiers moved deeper into the village.
A journalist already closer towards the center of the village reported to me that two activists – a European national and a young Palestinian man who was not from Nabi Saleh – told her “they would give me a show.” When I arrived on the scene, three soldiers, one of them an American Jew, were already escorting the European activist between houses as they advanced closer to the epicenter of the conflict. Two of the soldiers climbed a steep earth embankment but the European detainee, with his hands bound behind his back, was unable to make the climb. The American Jewish soldier attempted to help him up the embankment but to no avail and they remained stranded below.
“Where are you from?” the soldier asked in American-accented English, as they stood together below the embankment.
“Why are you asking me? Why do you want to know?” the detainee replied suspiciously.
“No reason,” the soldier replied with an embarrassed laugh and bowed his head. “I just wanted to talk.”
I took a few pictures and climbed up the embankment, hopping a fence and moving between houses towards the village center.
When I arrived moments later, I found the young Palestinian man lying on the ground surrounded by an angry crowd of soldiers, Palestinians and Israeli and foreign activists. A violent shouting and shoving match was taking place, with a Palestinian female medic and others attempting to administer first aid and the soldiers maintaining they were calling for a military doctor. Tempers flared as people pushed tightly together around the wounded individual.
A junior officer who had been hit in the face by a flying rock grabbed the hand of a girl roughly 15 or 16 years of age who had been kneeling by the wounded youth’s side, stroking his forehead, and pulled her roughly from the crowd.
An enraged enlisted man then grabbed the girl from the officer and dragged her several meters along the ground.
The soldiers eventually lifted the semi-conscious young man on their shoulders and carried him to a military jeep with an Israeli activist who had also been detained.
As the jeeps began to slowly move out of the center of the village, tempers began to calm, but the young girl who had been dragged along the ground by a soldier was furious and attempted to throw rocks at the departing vehicles. An older Palestinian man suddenly grabbed her around the neck in a chokehold in an effort to prevent her from throwing rocks. The girl struggled and the man responded brutally, roughly tossing her around and dragging her away from the jeeps.
Before leaving Nabi Saleh, I stopped by the army jeeps at the main intersection to see if any of the local access roads has been blocked and there I found the soldier from New York. He was visibly distraught by the day’s events.
“What the hell… This isn’t what I came here for. I don’t want to be a cop chasing kids and arresting people in a village.”
The soldier was particularly concerned that photographs of him attempting to help the detained European activist climb up the embankment would make him look like he was using the activist as a human shield.
The soldier wanted me to give him answers: “What is the solution?” he asked me repeatedly, almost desperately.
I had no answers for him.
The weird part: Before driving home, I spotted a Palestinian journalist (who shall remain nameless) holding an Israeli officer’s rifle and banging it against the front bumper of an army jeep. Assuming I was hallucinating due to sunstroke or dehydration, I walked over and saw that the tear gas grenade adapter mounted on the barrel was slightly bent and stuck – the Palestinian was trying to help the Israeli fix his rifle.
These are the details of what I saw yesterday in Nabi Saleh. Draw your own conclusions.