Dodging Water Cannons and Sound Bombs at Israel's Catastrophe Day
May 17 2013
I arrived in Jerusalem on Nakba Day expecting shit to get wild. But the speed with which the demonstration went from zero to fucked shocked even me, a relative veteran of the West Bank protest scene.
Nakba Day is the bleak mirror image of Israeli Independence Day. Where Israelis celebrate the founding of their state on Independence Day, Nakba (a word that translates as "catastrophe") Day commemorates the 750,000 Palestinians who were forced from their homes when Israel became a state in 1948. Roughly one-third of the refugees and their children (now numbering around 5 million) continue to live in refugee camps 65 years later.
The Israeli government, of course, is not all that happy about large groups of people banding together to shout about the creation of their state being a catastrophe, and Nakba Day demonstrations are often marked by violence. The largest Nakba Day gathering this year was in Jerusalem, although clashes also broke out in Hebron, Bethlehem, and several other points around the West Bank. Luckily, they weren't even comparable to scenes in 2011, when Israeli police shot dead 13 pro-Palestine demonstrators, but that's not to say there wasn't still a disturbing amount of violence.
This year kicked off quietly enough at the Damascus Gate, the main entrance to the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's old city. About 100 Palestinians were gathered, waving flags and chanting. I sat there for about an hour and was just getting bored enough to wander off in search of a falafel when everyone jumped up and started running out to the street.
A much larger Nakba Day march was headed toward the Damascus Gate and the Palestinian demonstrators were rushing to meet it. The police had been watching calmly until that point, but as soon as the two groups met it was like some high-pitched police whistle had been blown that awoke them from their ennui and immediately made them really angry and unnecessarily violent.
Cops on horseback, a favorite in Jerusalem, came out of nowhere and began trying to run down everyone in sight—Palestinian, Israeli, international, demonstrator, journalist, passer-by—literally anyone with feet. The fact that the groups had converged right in front of a police station didn't help the situation much, and riot cops were soon swarming the scene like heavily armed fire ants keen to bash up some Palestinian skulls. And that's exactly what they did: beat up and arrest a bunch of Palestinians at random.
Busloads of Palestinians came in from all over Israel and I chatted to a guy from Nazareth for a while. He told me that his bus had arrived early in the morning so people could pray at al-Aqsa mosque, but that they'd been turned away by Israeli police. "I had a Palestinian flag. They called me a terrorist," he said.
I hung around for a while taking pictures and trying to avoid being run down by the giant, demonic warhorses with weird ankle fringes, until I noticed people shouting at something down the street.
Industrious photographer that I am, I ran as fast as I could to see what was happening, dodging the other rubberneckers to get a better look. I ran out into the middle of the street and came face-to-face with a skunk truck. If you're not aware of what a "skunk truck" is, it's basically a truck that drives around at protests spraying something that smells worse than liquid shit at protesters. Imagine if you left a potato to rot for a year, mashed up that toxic musk with the contents of a curry-festival porta-potty and used the liquid to marinate a charred, decaying horse. You're now maybe halfway to understanding how bad this stuff reeks.
Watching the spray shoot out of the truck, I tried to skid to a stop. But since the ground was already wet with the muck, I skidded right onto my ass instead. Horrified, it took me a moment to realize that they had switched the skunk out of the skunk truck and replaced it with normal water. Apparently it's fine to spray it all over Palestine, but they can't foul up the beautiful streets of Jerusalem since the smell hangs around for weeks and is impossible to clean.
The water cannon was directing all its energy at a single middle-aged woman waving a Palestinian flag. I watched it spray her head-on at least ten times while she held her ground and continued waving the flag, apparently completely unfazed.
A few at a time, the demonstrators managed to make their way around the cops and headed back to Damascus Gate, where the violence intensified even more. People gathered in groups, waving flags and chanting until dozens of police stormed the square, beating and/or arresting everyone they could catch. The demonstrators would run away, forcing the cops to chase them, and then circle back for another round of chanting until the police came back and the cycle started all over again.
At one point, I saw a guy hit a cop with a flag—the flag itself, not the stick it was hanging from, meaning he basically brushed the cop with a cloth. Because of that reprehensible offense, the entire police force went completely ape-shit. Around a dozen cops with machine guns chased the guy down, cornered him, threw him to the ground, and dragged him off screaming.
At one point, a female Palestinian journalist in a hijab was taking pictures of a cop when, without any kind of warning, he grabbed her and hurled her roughly to the ground, looking incredibly proud of himself as he did it. The woman was less than five feet tall and couldn't have weighed a third of what the cop did.
Protesters started to throw stones and glass bottles at the police. The "Palestinian stone-thrower" is often trotted out in pro-Israel media as a terrorist archetype, used to justify all sorts of brutality against demonstrations in the West Bank. But the police were beating people up for at least an hour before I saw the first stone fly, making it appear less an act of terrorism and more an act of improvised (and let's face it, ineffectual) self-defense.
After a couple hours of beatings, arrests, sound bombs, and water cannons, it seemed like things had started to calm down a little. Back at the Damascus Gate, I ran into a friend of mine—a community organizer from Palestinian East Jerusalem.
"What do you think?" I asked her.
"I'm happy," she said.
"Even with all the violence?"
"I'm happy because of the violence. This never happens in Jerusalem."
I could see her point. The fact that the police resorted to such extreme measures meant that the demonstration had made an impact. If there hadn't been such a large turnout, there wouldn't have been clashes. The police could have tossed a sound bomb or two and called it a day. But the massive number of demonstrators provoked a heavy-handed police response, which can definitely be seen as a victory from a non-violent-resistance point of view.
I went off looking for some food when everybody went crazy again. The cops began firing a massive amount of sound bombs, injuring at least one person that I saw. They brought in a second water truck, and with a couple of colleagues, I ended up crouched behind a fruit stand while the truck blasted water at us, three foreign photographers clearly doing nothing dangerous. I got soaked but managed to keep my camera dry, which I'm calling a victory.
As we finally piled into the car and made our way home, I thought about the Jerusalem Day celebration that I'd covered the week before. For Jerusalem Day, the cops shut down the entire Muslim section of the old city, confining people to their homes to accommodate thousands of flag-waving Israelis marching to the Wailing Wall. But switch out the Israeli flags for Palestinian ones and the response is noticeably different.
Just normal life in Jerusalem. Sixty-five years on and every Palestinian demonstration is still a catastrophe.
Follow Andy on Twitter: @HanDetenido
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