Friday: Reality Check on Land Day

This will be a longer post, as today brought not only the Daylight Savings time change here, but a reality check about political change as well.  In planning this brief, 10 day trip to Palestine I’d assumed that it would be instructive to stay in Jerusalem for Palm Sunday.  What I didn’t count on was the fact that today was “Land Day,” an annual commemoration that sees huge demonstrations for Palestinian self determination.   This year saw protests not only throughout the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, but also around the world under the banner “Global March to Jerusalem.”  The potential parallels with our studies of the Palm Sunday text in Luke 19 this week persuaded Omar and I to go check out the “action” in east Jerusalem.
Above: Sabeel staff member Omar Harami being kicked by an Israeli riot policeman in yesterday’s Land Day demonstration in Jerusalem; photo by Mahmoud Illean.  For the story, read on. 
But first we had to get through the Bethlehem checkpoint on our way back to Jerusalem.  This was no small thing, as the Israeli military machine was already mobilizing for the day’s demonstrations.  Our crew was inevitably “suspect”: four Palestinians, five internationals and a cargo of Sabeel conference stuff.  We were interrogated and the bus searched, but the cluey staff had packed wisely, with the most “innocent” material on top.  When the Israeli soldier insisted that the Palestinians must get out and walk through the checkpoint, Omar insisted that his guests would have to accompany him, since we were in his “charge.”  Since Israelis do not want internationals seeing the inner workings of that checkpoint, they waved us on.  We had a good laugh about it all with the calm and savvy bus driver afterwards; I am forever impressed about the incredible sense of humor that Palestinians maintain in the face of such daily indignities.  (See some of Ryan Beiler’s amazing photos of the huge pitched battle at that Bethlehem checkpoint there later in the day, with people climbing up the wall, tear gas, etc.; as of this writing the checkpoint remains closed.) 
After unpacking the conference materials at the Sabeel office, Omar, two Swedes and I headed down to the Damascus Gate of the Old City to see what was happening as mosque prayers let out.  What ensued was a dramatic clash between Palestinian protestors and Israeli police that went on for hours, complete with concussion grenades, charging horses, water cannons, and of course scores of Palestinians being arrested or carried away on stretchers.   (Watch a video overview of the West Bank wide protests here and of the Jerusalem demo I was at here).
The scene was a fascinating (and depressing) mix of the “routine” and the existential.  On one hand, protesters, police and local shopkeepers all seem to know the “script”: what starts out as a tense stand-off sooner or later turns to mayhem after soldiers decide to wade into the crowd to arrest someone, or a rock is thrown.   Street vendors quickly but calmly try to gather up their wares before they are trampled by horses and fleeing demonstrators, while local shop merchants keep right on selling shwarma amidst the chaos.  Alongside the wailing of women whose men have been dragged away there is casual chatting and knowing laughter; everyone’s been through this many times.  On the other hand, each clash is charged with the pent up rage that each side holds against the other.  Palestinian chants and defiant flag waving remind us that the fierce hope of self-determination will not be crushed; police violence reminds us who is in charge.  Frankly, the whole scene is overdosed with testosterone: soldiers and protestors alike consist disproportionately of young men seizing the opportunity to rumble.  But of course the odds are profoundly uneven: heavily armed urban riot squads vs. shouting and stone throwing.  It was a gripping reality check concerning what our friends are up against. 
And one friend in particular.   It was a challenge to negotiate the constantly migrating ebb and flow of the clashes (having recently been to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the analogical image that kept coming to my mind was a tightly packed school of fish darting en masse this way and that to avoid a predator).  After narrowly dodging one of the police surges on narrow Nablus Road, and then just ducking a flying rock, I decided to observe from a bit more distance.  That was the point at which I was separated from Omar, who (as I sorta figured he would) was caught up in the demonstration.  The last I saw him he was waving a Palestinian flag while standing between several old women with pictures of their slain sons and police about to charge.  When we couldn’t find him after more than an hour, we figured he’d been arrested, and set about trying to mobilize the Sabeel network on my friend Sven’s cell phone.  But word was already out: Omar’s mother up in Ramallah had seen him being arrested on a Palestinian television report (captured in the photo above by a local journalist). 
We met up with Naim and rendezvoused with Omar’s mother and brother down at the most likely jail he would have been taken to; therewe  kept vigil and placed calls to lawyers.  Our inquiries were predictably and gruffly rebuffed by the Israeli constables, but a young Palestinian lawyer offered to go in and inquire after Omar for us.  “What is his last name?” he asked me.  “Harami,” I responded, carefully spelling it out for him.  “You’re kidding, right?” he retorted with tired but bemused exasperation.  Turns out that harami means “thief” in Arabic (as Omar’s brother Khalid chuckled later, “Yeah, that’s why our family could never go into retail…”).  
Through the waning afternoon light we watched van after van pull up and empty out Palestinian demonstrators in handcuffs, all young men, some clearly children (particularly vexing after the presentation mentioned in yesterday’s post).  After two hours we were about to give up, concluding that Omar was in until Sunday, since Shabbat was about to start.  Suddenly he comes striding out of the compound, smiling, bruised but released without charges!  He has become very good at standing firm under interrogation, and he figures the Israelis would rather not deal with someone as assertive as him.  But his first concern was the dozens of others left behind, especially the pre-teen boys.  Before departing, we circled up and Naim said a prayer for all prisoners and for Palestinian aspirations for freedom. 
I was grateful to come “home” to the hospitality of Ryan and Ingrid Beiler up on the Mt. of Olives, including a lovely meal and several welcome glasses of single malt.  It was a long and sobering day that I’ll be processing for a while…