Originally published in 2007
In a small town just outside of Ramallah, international tourists, protesters and several local Palestinians gather for a weekly engagement with the IDF soldiers who guard the road leading into Israel. Following afternoon prayers, the Palestinians gather, along with the visitors and press and walk towards the checkpoint to engage in this dance, complete with tear gas, rubber bullets and rock throwing. International protesters place themselves between the soldiers and the Palestinians, with the belief that the IDF would not fire upon them due to the passports they possess.
Over the past several years, Israel has been consuming the rural landscape which is the livelihood of many of the Palestinians living in Bil’in. While the legitimacy of any protest can be questioned on many levels, the core reasons for engaging in this protest seem justifiable, if one faced the prospect of losing their livelihood due to occupation. (I apologize for the lack of research on this point, but here’s a link to more information about Bil’in: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bil%27in)
Curious to see this event and its role within the broader context of this conflict, my colleague and I decided to witness firsthand the protests and the interaction between the IDF, international demonstrators and Palestinian protesters.
What lies beneath the surface of this weekly event reflects the banality and absurdity that civil disobedience and peaceful protests can produce when the message is muddled by outside ‘revolutionaries,’ the media and some thrill seeking tourists. Sadly, this revelation is not surprising but to actually see the events unfold and the media’s role in the process is appalling and somewhat deplorable.
After our cab dropped us at the guest house which was the temporary home to these Friday protesters, I and my colleague walked to the protest site and waited quietly under a tree for the crowd to approach. A group of photographers arrived first, complete with helmets, vests and gas masks. Their helmets had the letters AP taped to them (Associated Press) and they had the word PRESS on the back of their vests. I couldn’t help but think that such an outfit might come in handy in about ten minutes.
As the protesters approached, I began to shoot from one side of this small group, trying to get a feel for the amount of people and identify the heart of the scene. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw several people dressed in pink clown suits complete with costume makeup. I paused for a moment to process the presence of clowns.
The press hovered about the group and once they reached the barbed wire, I crossed the line onto the Israeli side to shoot with the other photographers. I slowly began to distance myself from the group, knowing that at any minute canisters of tear gas would be shot towards the crowd. As I walked towards the filmmakers and the soldiers, I noticed that the main “director” of the film crew was sending his cameraman towards the soldiers when they were clearly yelling at them not to come any further. The “director” continued to yell at the soldiers and checked to make sure his crew was in position.
As I tried to digest this reality and still create distance, the sounds of canisters being shot into the air drowned the yelling protesters. I found a nice little rock wall blocked from the wind and the soldiers and watched this dance from a close vantage point. The clowns kept walking up the street and the soldiers kept shooting canisters at them. Laughter rang out from the IDF positions, and I can not say that I blame the soldiers. One clown received a canister to the rear end, which created quite a bit of laughter from the soldiers, some of whom documented the event with their camcorders and cell phones .
Several of the international protesters, with point and shoot cameras in hand, continued approaching the post where the soldiers were standing and shouted silly phrases of peace and cursed the soldiers, only to have a tear gassed response.
Beyond the ridiculous nature of clowns and “tourists” shouting at soldiers with teargas; what I found quite amazing during this time was the behavior of the press. I use the term press loosely; several AP photographers, some local shooters, some filmmakers, bloggers and the brother of a famous writer with a digital point and shoot.
Several of the Palestinians remained close to the barbed wire and the photographers would stand next to them and wait for the gas to be shot. Often times, some of the photographers provoked the soldiers to shoot the gas canisters and approached the point where clearly they would be fired upon and waved for the protesters to approach as well.
While waiting for a gas cloud to pass, I heard a cell phone ringing nearby; and the protester actually answered it. In a calm voice, amidst a cloud of tear gas, the protester told the caller that he was at a demonstration, now was not a good time to talk and that he would have to call them back soon.
Afterwards, several protesters gathered the canisters and more photo opportunities were available for the press. Off to the side of the protest, just below the heart of the village, several young kids began throwing stones at the soldiers and the IDF engaged with more tear canisters and rubber bullets. The international protesters ran to the hills to participate in this engagement while the remaining participants made their way back to the guest house.
At this point, the real tragedy of this dance presented itself. After witnessing the behavior of the adults, these young children with slingshots began to aim for the soldiers. In theory, international protesters are supposed to provide a physical barrier between the Palestinians and the IDF, yet as soon as the rubber bullets began to fly, the international protesters cowered behind a wall as the young children continued to throw stones and receive rubber bullets.
A Palestinian man yelled “welcome” to the international protesters and they ran over the hills to watch this part of the demonstration. Having seen enough, I walked back to find my colleague and digest the events I witnessed.
What are these young children learning from this event? Each week they watch the process unfold and they participate in ways that could cause them serious harm. There have to be better methods of protest, better means of conveying a message, better ways to conduct an effective act of civil disobedience that does not end in harmful fumes and rubber bullets.
Outside the falafel stand, people swapped stories of near misses, shared photos and laughed about their involvement while eating ice cream and having refreshments. The ‘documentary filmmaker’ bragged about their footage, gloated about starting the revolution in Kashmir and then asked who was heading back to Tel Aviv for drinks?
While driving back to Ramallah with several very kind and informed protesters, I raised the perspective that the presence of clowns (members of an NGO who uses clowns in demonstrations to show the soldiers that the violence is comical or unnecessary) degrades and demeans the movement of the Palestinian people. While this weekly protest, in my opinion, seems to have little positive effect and influence on the conflict, the fact that people are dressed as clowns gives the impression that the cause itself is something for amusement. The people in the car had never viewed their presence in that manner before.
Left behind was a town filled with Palestinians who have to live the side effects of occupation every day. Every Friday, their children have to breathe the gas fumes from these interactions and they watch tourists and demonstrators fulfill some personal need to feel engaged in the Palestinian movement. The press arrives and provokes an escalation- either through their presence alone, or deliberately as the filmmaker demonstrated- the mass media picks up a few photos of angry protesters and people watching the news gain incorrect perceptions of the reality that exists in the West Bank.
Most journalists wage a constant struggle with the ethical ramifications of their presence in the situations they document. At what point does my presence effect the situation and at what point does my presence introduce an element of falsity? Would this child be throwing stones and provoking soldiers to respond with bullets if my camera was not documenting the process?
Am I misleading the news consumer by selecting the ‘intense emotional’ moments of a weekly protest and placing them into the mass media for consumption; while leaving out the clown with the point and shoot camera and the Japanese teenager eating ice cream after he’s gathered the gas canisters for the Palestinians to place in front of the camera for a perfectly emotional photo opportunity?
At what point do the peace protests and demonstrations become completely futile? The ease of showing up every Friday, getting gassed, taking some snapshots, yelling slogans of peace and provoking IDF soldiers seems to be a simple escape from becoming engaged in a diplomatic peace process. Seeking an education and work experience in conflict resolution; working on diplomatic levels to enact a broader level of change for a country or for individual people; documenting the actual issues in a manner that has a purpose and is framed in the context of reality are all methods for those seeking solutions to truly be engaged with the peace process. Some people at these protests have genuine intentions and are engaged in the process on a level that will promote a viable outcome on some level; but I must question the motivations from most, not all, of the people I interacted with on that day.