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Teargassed in the Holy Land

2012 Travel Writing Competition Entry 

3rd Place - $25 prize
From the judge, Sarah Irving.Alice's powerful portrayal of the weekly protests against the Separation Wall at Bil'in gave a vivid sense of the violence to which Palestinian and international demonstrators are regularly subjected, but also the inspiring co-operation and solidarity which has made these protests famous around the world.
Teargassed in the Holy Land 
by Alice Rothchild, USA

The village of Bil’in, seven miles west of Ramallah, has held weekly demonstrations since 2005 to protest the course of the separation wall and the stealing of land by Israeli settlements. This protest has attracted international attention as a symbol of Palestinian resistance and Israeli brutality. I was traveling in the region the week after a woman named Jawaher Abu Rahmah died after a toxic exposure to teargas. 

Our bus starts out on a main road, traveling though stunning countryside, white stone terraced olive orchards, small villages, and occasional villas, but comes to a flying checkpoint, (an Israeli jeep parked across the road), early on. We back up and turn onto a bumpy dirt road through an old olive orchard on the edge of a steep rocky hill, the gorgeous views marked by a large Jewish settlement of over 46,000 people, Modi’in Illit, on the next major hilltop. Again we are met with a road block and have to turn back. Our driver is constantly on his cell phone and talking with others on the road about strategies to penetrate the Israeli blockade. It dawns on me that a grassroots struggle means that the bus driver and every local Palestinian participate in some way; there is a tremendous sense of unity of purpose. 

After another Israeli blockade, we park the bus out of sight, quietly get out, clambering into an old olive orchard, rows of twisted gnarly trees with silver-green leaves, rich red soil, tiny begonias and daffodils erupting in little crevices. We are breathless, climbing uphill over each terrace and on to the next rock wall, the next row of trees and then up again over the piles of stones. We are joined by local Palestinians leading us ultimately to a paved road beyond the checkpoint. 

Ahead of us lies the small village of Bil’in, graced by the minaret, and the expansive Jewish settlement to the left. The march to the separation wall has already begun and we can hear boisterous political Arabic music from a loudspeaker. I start meeting up with friends from the US, the Coalition of Women for Peace, Combatants for Peace, Rabbis for Human Rights, Palestinian Medical Relief Society, as well as hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis of all ages carrying banners and flags and wearing political T shirts. There is a significant press presence, including cameramen and reporters in gas masks. Two ambulances await the injured. 

The march goes down the hill from the town to a valley and then up towards a wide loop of metal fencing. In the distance, Israeli soldiers are amassed on the right and left arms of the loop and the protestors are approaching the soldiers. I hear the pop of the teargas firing and suddenly my eyes begin tearing, my throat starts to burn and there is a searing acrid smell wafting up the hill. I can only imagine how this feels to the protestors in the valley, directly challenging the soldiers, shouting, and throwing rocks. Teargas canisters are sometimes shot into the air, spiraling down to hit the ground creating a huge white cloud of gas. Sometimes the soldiers shoot directly at protestors. There is also a large truck that repeatedly sprays a huge arc of white liquid that smells like a cross between skunk and feces. When the teargas is too thick, everyone moves back up the hill and then down again for more defiance and more teargas. The more active protesters are directly i n the line of fire, running, ducking from canisters, coughing, eyes running and red. At one point the soldiers come through the fence as a wedge and the press and protesters retreat, returning from the direct interactions with empty teargas canisters labeled “CST," a weapon made in the US.

I am crying from the teargas and from my sorrow and rage at the Israeli government (with US support), for its continued unrelenting land grab and brutality towards its Palestinian neighbors and for Palestinians resiliently and bravely fighting back despite endless losses. They are desperately in need of international recognition and more importantly international pressure against the behavior of the Israeli government. I am particularly pained by the many Palestinians wearing yellow stars with the word “Palestinian” inscribed on it, evocative of the Jews in the ghettos of Europe forced to wear yellow stars. So now in the modern western democracy of Israel, Jewish ghettos dot the West Bank landscape while Palestinians themselves are further ghettoized by the machinery of occupation and colonization.