Fridays in Bil'in
(This is a very scattered posting. I am a bit fragmented, between the heat, the 6 hours of Arabic class a day, the intensity of the daily situation here, and I swear, the bumpy rides in the minibuses shake the thoughts in my brain in a way I haven’t quite adjusted to yet.)
Every Friday in the town of Bil’in residents are joined by some Israelis and other international volunteers to stand off the army. It’s a routine. The crowd marches from the mosque towards the apartheid wall chanting “laa laa l’jidar” ("No to the wall!") and waving Palestinian flags. The crowd is followed by a red crescent ambulance whose medics are equipped with water and cotton balls with vinegar to give to people overcome by tear gas. The army is waiting there outside of the town, at a point between the wall and the town. Several town leaders yell to the soldiers in Arabic and Hebrew ("Soldiers, it’s Friday, go home!"), young men and little boys gather small stones to throw towards the huge armoured jeeps, and then the tear gas starts coming, first to the sides of the road, pushing the crowd up towards the village, and then the soldiers shoot more gas into the outskirts of the village, amongst the houses. This can’t be an accident, as it is obviously in order to convince the town members, who stand steadfast every Friday with their international guests, to stop opposition to the wall. Because, they must think, if the village is gassed, maybe the villagers will start feeling like it is the activists and internationals who brought the tear gas to the village. The soldiers in jeeps and helmets advance, the crowd pushes forward, and back again, forward and back. Occasionally there is an arrest or two, and those involved are usually released several hours later--probably this is the only place in Palestine where release happens this swiftly. Eventually, the crowd disperses and there is an unspoken “see you next week” between the crowd and the soldiers.
Walking (trying not to run) towards the town, choking on the tear gas, one can’t help but wonder, why are we doing this? The back and forth, the forward and back, the advance and retreat structures that hour or so, as well as the weekly ritual. How can we understand weekly rituals like this? Is there an accumulation, besides the tear gas in peoples’ lungs, and if so, what is accumulated? It is certainly not that people expect that if they keep showing up, the soldiers just will stop.
I guess there are some easy answers; all of which are true, I think. There is some reappropriation of action, when it is the town people who are in some ways “forcing” the soldiers out, creating a confrontation when they are ready armed with words, flags, and rocks, as opposed to army incursions which occur suddenly and literally catch people with their pants down. There is a practice of making public collective resistance routine in the face of attempts to normalize the occupation, even if this is through posturing confrontation. Also, there are the relationships that are strengthened and expanded through weekly action, and that type of networking is resistance in and of itself.
But there is something else which is irksome, which begs for deeper digging. It’s that nagging feeling that there is some complacency in this action, that being arrested and released 2 hours later every week shows some sort of performance that the soldiers are a part of too.
When I came back on Friday, I watched the film “Arna’s Children” about a theatre group in Jenin, from which almost all of the young actors were eventually martyred. One young actor said something quite profound about performance, or the relationship between stage performance and demonstrations. When the interviewer asked him about the role of theatre in the Intifada, at first he mistook the question and gave this answer more or less: when he is on stage he doesn’t think of the audience and that’s how he captures people’s attention, by being fully immersed. And then when the director repeated the question to him, the boy answered straight forwardly: “On stage I feel like I am throwing stones.”
In New York, we complain snarkily that protests that are “sanctioned,” end up being a handful of leftists walking around in a pen set up by the police. This protest in Bil’in, I must admit, feels, in some ways, the same. But, I think the difference is that this weekly protest is not an exceptional once a year event against the war in Iraq, but rather it punctuates another week of occupation, full of the millions of impossibilities of life under occupation. Restricted movement, violence, poverty. Stores flooded with Israeli goods. The Zionist images on the shekel, the Israeli currency, which is used in the West Bank too. The old books in the Birzeit library--since Israel doesn’t allow the book shipments into the university. There is no way to imagine all of the banal ways in which the occupation operates at every level.
It is easy for an international to get caught in the moment of the tear gas, and feel that the occupation and resistance is enacted primarily in these weekly encounters, and to get enthralled, and to lose oneself in the moment, and to imagine that these are the Sites of Resistance. One international complained to me in the servis (the shuttle, dolmuş) on the way home that the kids throw stones, and that this somehow means that Palestinian resistance is bankrupt. To begin with, the kids throw stones at armored jeeps. And second, this conversation ("Should the kids throw stones?") presumes that the moment is ground zero, that everything started today, 20 minutes ago when prayers let out, and that it is a conflict between the kids and the tanks, as if the kids didn’t throw stones, the occupation would end, as if the occupation started because kids began throwing stones. This weekly event is a point on a long history of occupation and resistance .
Why did I think of this interview in “Arna’s Children?” Throwing stones is a practice, and it does not think of its audience. Kids who throw stones are thinking of each other likely, and trying to impress and outdo each other, and they are not tailoring their project to get international support, or Israeli mercy. And they capture people that way, in ways that challenge the people for whom protest is about results. It was a great “mistaken” response because he was expected to say something about art and resistance, and he spoke instead about self-reflection, how he feels and what he thinks when he is on stage, what is performance and who is it for? And then he related it to the act of throwing stones.
This leads to the first question again. What is this practice, what is produced through it, and who is it for?
And all of this against the backdrop of cooperation between Abu Mazen, Olmert, and the other powers that be. The release of only Fatah prisoners from Israeli prisons, Palestinian money confiscated by Israel released in stages to feed Fatah. And then, today, an Israeli incursion in Gaza worse than people have seen in so long. It still amazes me that the news can speak of an “impending humanitarian crisis,” it’s like 12 life sentences, I guess.