Thursday, December 10 2009 Sheikh Jarrah (2)

As always in violence, it’s impossible to put together a coherent story. You lose track of what happened first, what came next, who got hurt when; the moments stretch out endlessly, run together, overlap, images are superimposed or interwoven; the physical pain gets buried somewhere safe, more or less, inside the surreal limbo of your memory, which seems oddly to correspond to the external limbo of the action as you saw it unfold. So this time I won’t try to tell the story. Instead, a few vignettes:

n      A grey, cold Friday afternoon. Winter. Fore-taste of rain. The weekly march to Sheikh Jarrah, to the Palestinian houses that have been invaded by Israeli settlers. As usual, we march to the drums, shouting our slogans. Lo tignov ve-lo tirzach ts’u miyad mi-sheikh jarrah, “Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not murder, Get out now from Sheikh Jarrah.” Some in English: “Five, six, seven, eight, Israel is a Fascist state.” I think the so-called Anarchists came up with this one. Do I agree with it? Not really. But this is hardly the moment to fuss over the niceties. How about a “proto-Fascist” state? Doesn’t fit the meter. Anyway, it’s not quite true. Inside the Green Line, but not counting East Jerusalem, Israel is a semi-functional democracy. On the other side of it, in Palestine, there’s another Jewish state, lawless, ruthless, yes, Fascist. The trouble is that the latter state has largely taken over the former.

n      We stand in the courtyard of the stolen house, with the Palestinian owners beside us. There are between a hundred and a hundred and fifty of us, perhaps double what we had last week. Many soldiers and border police, also more than last week. Protest is gaining ground. The atmosphere is volatile, riddled with rage. Drums beating louder and louder. Children from the dispossessed families are tying small plastic Palestinian flags on a cord stretched opposite the string of plastic Israeli flags the settlers have draped over the door and window. The courtyard is littered, still, with the detritus that was once a family’s life:  toys, kitchen appliances, an old couch, a wobbly table; all have been rained on this week, some have sunk into the mud. There’s probably something a little irritating to the soldiers and the settlers, I think and hope, in the chants we are hurling at them. “From Sheikh Jarrah to Bil’in/ Freedom now for Filastin.” I look around me: mostly young people, gentle but tough—many students, some I know from my classes, musicians, painters, poets, meditators, activists, young parents with babies folded in slings on their breasts—all of them totally non-violent, of course; and the demonstration is perfectly legal, no question about that, the police themselves issued the permit.

n      Somehow it begins. Someone gave the order. I don’t know who. Later someone says it may have been connected to the flags. It’s possible—I didn’t see it—that one of our demonstrators reached the window of the stolen house and tore down the plastic Israeli flag. Maybe that triggered it. But I think they were anyway just itching to tear into this crowd. So when the moment comes, it starts somewhere at the edge of the family’s tent set up in what’s left of their own front yard and then swirls rapidly in widening arcs and circles, a vortex drawing each of us in. I am washed by a human wave out of the courtyard and into the street. They have grabbed one of our people and they are pushing him up against the command car and we surround them, trying to release our captive from their grip.

n      Waves of green uniforms followed by waves of blue—police reinforcements have arrived. Many screams. The border police, as usual, are the most aggressive. Punching, fighting their way forward through the crowd, seizing victims at random, pushing them to the ground, pinning their arms behind them, carrying them off. Drumming goes on, builds toward a climax, ebbs, rises again. We stand our ground. We lock arms in a circle to keep them from forcing one of their chosen victims into a waiting police car. Much shouting. They break through, drag their prey brutally by the arms along the ground.

n      Wandering in a pocket of relative silence. Eddies of dizzying attacks all along the street. Another wave. Now they have drawn blood, and they seem to like the taste of it. They want more. More and more. They go after the drummers, arrest them. Many seemingly random victims, too. Sandy says to me: “They’re like storm troopers. No other image comes to mind.” Some of our people are crying. Another charge. Young girls carried off, screaming. Sarah thrown to the ground, pounded, dragged over the stones. Again we try to close ranks. More waves. Time expands, elastic, twisting and turning back on itself, remorseless; this misery will never stop. Some of the border police are spraying us with an aerosol mix of chilly pepper and tear-gas, at close quarters, straight into the face. It’s not like the usual tear-gas canisters I know well; this is concentrated, and it burns and scorches as if it had burrowed into the pores of your skin and, in particular, your eyes. Even now, two hours later, my face and lips feel singed by flames.

n      In the middle of it all—perhaps you won’t believe me—an elderly Palestinian gentleman from one of the evicted families materializes with a round bronze plate loaded with dozens of tiny white plastic cups of Turkish coffee. He moves, dreamlike, among us, an imperturbable, humane host worried about how his guests are faring. He calmly offers us coffee. Vicious bursts of staccato blows and intimate violent follies spin madly around him.

n      Pushed heavily from behind by a phalanx of policemen, we are driven unevenly away from the stolen homes, toward the upper end of the street. Our numbers have diminished: some 15 have been arrested so far; by a fluke, I am not yet among them. Some of them are herded, captive, into the courtyard and then, we learn later, into the house, with the settlers there to gloat at them. They are lost to us for now, out of contact. We make rough lists of those we know are under arrest. Meanwhile more and more are seized, for no apparent reason, and marched off into the waiting vehicles—by now a considerable fleet. About ten of our people have been wounded. Alon, an internationally known jurist, my colleague at the university, is arguing fruitlessly with the officers: what they are doing, he tells them, is totally illegal. He quotes the law. The soldiers rough him up, too.

n      Cries floating through the late-afternoon space, in rhymed Hebrew: “Soldiers, listen well, you have the right to refuse.” Another nicety: if you say to them, “You have the duty to refuse,” they can arrest you for incitement. “Criminals!  Cowards! Thieves! You’re protecting thieves!” A few courageous drummers are still beating out the time. The senior officer tries desperately to shout through the megaphone that we must disperse at once or we will all be arrested; his voice is drowned out by the drums. More attacks, yet another wave. On and on and on. The longer it goes on, the clearer it becomes that this is no random business, a police action that got out of hand; someone higher up has taken a decision to stamp out dissent in East Jerusalem.

n      Tonight is the first candle of Hanukah, another one of those alleged Jewish festivals of freedom. Early this morning, at Kafr Yasuf in the northern West Bank, settlers set fire to a mosque. They left some graffiti on the walls: “We will burn you all.” Copies of the Koran were torn and torched, prayer-rugs burnt. Jews did this. It’s important to understand what this sentence means. Burning means something to us. No doubt the occupation system will protect the perpetrators; and even if, by some miracle, they’re pursued and arrested and, by a still greater miracle, brought to trial, you can depend upon the Israeli courts to set them free without punishment. It’s been that way for decades now. Soldiers, border police, probably plain-clothes intelligence agents too—they’re the ones beating my students, spraying us with gas, prodding us like cattle along the street; all this to protect the settler hooligans who have taken over these homes. These same soldiers and policemen routinely protect the settlers all over the territories. So I guess Hanukah doesn’t really count any more when it comes to freedom; or maybe it merely celebrates our freedom to lie to ourselves and to others, as Bibi does when he pretends he wants peace as he hurts and humiliates the Palestinians ever further. There’s no end to it, either, only deepening darkness, early winter of the soul. Suddenly I realize that we Israelis have never truly been free, despite what we say; for nature has a law: you cannot diminish another’s freedom without impairing or destroying your own. I hope a day will come when the Jews, too, will have the courage to be free.