The following is my PERSONAL account of the March Against the War that took place today, so if it contains a lot of "I did, I said, me, me, me", that's why. You are free to pass on all or part of the following.
For those of you who expressed their concern, I can say that I got home in one piece, suffering only from tear gas inhalation and some exhaustion after the day's events. We had 3 people arrested, a few dozen beaten with clubs and batons and some unfortunately trampled (not too badly, thankfully), as people tried to escape from the tear gas and stun grenades.
At the meeting point in Tel-Aviv this morning, it was immediately obvious that this was not going to be just one more protest by the Israeli left (and by this I mean Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel). A full 15 minutes BEFORE the meeting time, two full busses had already left for Jerusalem, one was filling up and organizers were contacting bus companies to charter 2 more busses; ultimately, dozens of private cars also filled up and joined the procession. The organizers had initially chartered
20 busses nationwide and we ended up needing 35 busses, in addition to the cars.
What is most amazing is, that originally, the march was proposed as a protest by Physicians for Human Rights (Israel), against the human rights abuses; at that point, ten days ago, a few dozen participants were expected!
I have previous sent you notices with the names of the organizations participating, of which there were more than ten, effectively
covering the entire spectrum of the peace camp to the left of Peace Now.
On the busses, organizers read out instructions: no confrontation with the police in Jerusalem, who have been working overtime for months with no extra pay and whose tempers were at the boiling point already; the march was to be led by women only (cheers) and only women who were appointed in advance were to negotiate with the army concerning the transport of the trucks with the supplies (only food and medical supplies); we were to be absolutely nonviolent and were not to respond to any provocations.
We had a meeting point in Jerusalem to join up with the busses from other places and with Jerusalem residents, then continued to an empty parking lot in Beit Hanina to join the Palestinian participants (and a few internationals from the peace campaign). Only at that point did it become clear that we numbered about 3,000 people.
As we started walking out of the parking lot towards the checkpost at al-Ram, I think we looked like a strange group of refugees: the requirement to wear white had people digging out their summer clothes, while the weather was definately wintery, with almost constant rain and cold winds. A typical protester wore thick pants, shirt, sweater and jacket, with white summer clothes stretched over everything.
A lot of Women in Black, defiant and stubborn as always, wore black and held their famous hand-shaped black signs. The Gays and Lesbians Against the Occupation wore white, with pink armbands and destinctive pink and white triangular signs. Physicians for Human Rights marched in their white lab coats. There were even a few participants from the Islamic Movement, with their green flags.
It was a slow procession towards the checkpost, since we were waiting for the supply trucks, intending to accompany them to Qalandiya, where the supplies were to be handed over to the Ramallah Salvation Committee. We chanted and sang in Hebrew, Arabic and English, stopping every few yards. Naturally, some of the men could not stay out of the women's lead contingent, even when it meant that we were volunteering to be the first to be hit and gassed.
In any event, once we came into sight of the checkpost, it was obvious that none of us would reach Qalandiya: police, border police and soldiers (young conscripts, mostly Ethiopian and Russian immigrants) stood in lines 4 thick across the road, barring our way. We stood before them, about 2 meters away, still chanting and singing endless choruses of Give Peace a Chance, as our first truck approached. It was greeted with cheers, ululating and clapping and negotiations began as to what and who would be allowed to
cross the checkpost.
When the truck was stopped, protesters grabbed sacks of rice, flour and sugar and tried to approach the checkpost bearing the
supplies (I guess this is what the Israeli radio referred to, when they announced that "a violent protest took place at al-Ram, where demonstrators tried to storm the checkpost...").
Most of us were still singing, some of the organizers were being interviewed by the masses of reporters who accompanied us, when suddenly we heard the explosions of tear gas grenades. The gas was fired directly into the crowd and at demonstrators. As we were fleeing, the first line of soldiers and police advanced with clubs in the air and I heard the shout "Give it to them!". They started running towards us, clubbing people indiscriminately (some of the women in the lead were grandmothers, one was in a wheelchair).
Wet towels, onions and scarves were produced to provide some protection from the gas, although some people had to be carried away. It took us a few minutes to stop choking, regroup and head back. This time, people were more observant of the 'women first' rule and we advanced, holding our hands in the air to signal that we were unarmed, waving white cloths, chanting peace slogans.
It was harder going back after that first round of tear gas, since we knew what to expect, but I'm proud to say that everyone who was able to walk, proceeded once again towards the checkpost and the line of soldiers who were reloading their guns.
The second round was much more violent. For one thing, there was a large space between contingents, so the soldiers were everywhere, firing again and again, and this time, they also used stun grenades. Some young men were cornered and set on by groups of police, who beat them long after they were lying helpless on the ground. A lot of people slipped in the mud, fell and
were beaten. Sky News broadcast this part over and over: people fleeing and the soldiers firing at their backs.
This was also when they started to arrest people and we were unable to release them. I tried to appeal to 2 soldiers who were dragging away a young man and was pushed away, into a cloud of gas. When I recovered, he was already in the van. People
spontaneously chanted "shame, shame, shame".
About 100 demonstrators who fled to side streets were trapped: they could not go into Palestinian neighborhoods and endanger the residents, and the police and soldiers stood along the main road, clubs in hand, waiting for them. Some youths tried to come back to the main road and started shouting at the soldiers: fascists, nazis. It was obvious that a lot of people would be seriously hurt if more people came down to join the main body of the march.
I was standing behind the soldiers and a bit to the side, with a few other women, and decided to act. I took a loudspeaker from someone and started to speak to the soldiers: "Soldiers, policemen, we are nonviolent peace activists, we are unarmed. You are our sons, our spouses, our fathers; we are your mothers, your wives, your neighbors, your daughters. We came here to save lives - the lives of the children in Ramallah and your lives. The government is willing to sacrifice you for the sake of the settlements, but we want to keep you alive. We are unarmed, nonviolent demonstrators, We are not endangering you. The orders you received are war
crimes. Don't let Sharon and Peres take you with them to the Hague."
I went on like this for about ten minutes. The other women stood around me, saying "Yes, go ahead, talk to them" and not letting anyone come near. When I got hoarse, they gave me water and onion to sniff. I don't know if I managed to touch them, if they got an order or if it was the sheer psychological torture of having to listen to me for so long, but like a not very graceful line of ballet dancers, the line of soldiers suddenly retreated to the checkpost, enabling the demonstrators to come down from the side street and join up with the others.
As they did, I tried again to speak to the soldiers: "Come home with us, your mothers are waiting at home. Come out of the Occupied Territories and come home." No one responded, but I was glad to see some of them hanging their heads and staring at their boots.
At this point, we regrouped again, tended to the people who were hurt and decided to go back to the parking lot and the busses, since the physicians seemed to be successfully negotiating the entrance of the trucks, which was our major concern. But even as we were retreating, the soldiers and border guards fired at us yet again, tear gas and stun grenades.
A lot of people fled into a field, where they fell in mud, but still the border guards kept firing. This is when we had most of our injuries. Palestinians from the neighborhood threw onions into the crowd to help or placed onions on cars that were parked in the street. At some point I was blinded and choking and just reached out and gasped "onion" and someone gave me some. I was them
able to help a young woman who was sobbing and gasping "I can't breathe!".
Two grenades had exploded right next to her and her face was burning. A man helped me bring her out of the gas (luckily, a strong wind helped disperse the gas) and we took care of her. She had enhaled so much gas, that when she exhaled, smoke was coming out of her lungs. After ten minutes she was breathing normally and she immediately started cursing at the soldiers. I
assumed that she was okay and continued towards the busses. Later, I learned that she was an aide to a Knesset Member, who probably thought that she would accompany him as he was interviewed on CNN and would then go home.
In the parking lot, we had some down time. Palestinians brought us pita breads and we shared what we had. I introduced a Palestinian student to my slightly burned matza brie and I'm afraid that he will never be sympathetic to Jewish people, although he said that it was "interesting, not too bad".
My tendency to pack too much finally paid off: I had an extra sweatshirt for a friend who was covered in mud and freezing, painkillers for some of the injured, coffee to share with those in shock, food and cigarettes to share with those who didn't have any and amateur medical advice from my work at the free clinic.
I know that this is a very lengthy report about just a few hours in one day and I apologize. This was the first civil disobedience that I was able to do in years, since I couldn't risk arrest while I was caring for my father-in-law. It was also the first time that so many Israelis participated in this kind of action.
Us older folks reminisced about the first protest we held in the Territories, against the closure of Bir Zeit University in 1981. Now, many of us had grown children with us. One middle-aged woman that I helped after she collapsed begged me to help her find her mother: "She has white hair and she's short" was the only description she gave, and there were several dozen women who fit.
When I called home from the bus, my partner told me that he'd seen us on the news (only foreign stations). I asked if our son Tom was worried about me. "Not at all, he's happy and proud."
I might have felt the same, if I hadn't seen the evening news: Christian clerics barred from entering Bethlehem, fighting in Manger Square, firing at churches, a Palestinian doctor shot dead as she attended the wounded, children alone in homes with the bodies of their parents, unable to leave or get help.
And the "good news": Dubya (*) has a vision!
All the best,
(*) "Dubya" is the American nickname for president George W. Bush.