Monday, 3 June 2013

Palestine: Spit, singing soldiers and skunk

This Thursday was the last day of school for the kids of Hebron – meaning an end to homework, to lessons, to lunchtimes with friends…oh and to the daily ordeal of harassment by soldiers outside the school. Each day it goes something like this: the kids walk to school, many of them through the checkpoint at the end of the road, where there are soldiers permanently stationed. Hundreds of boys and girls arrive to school in the area, aged six to seventeen.

Soldiers outside the school 
Awaiting them some days, there are soldiers on the roofs, some days there are soldiers hiding down alleyways, some days the kids are stopped on their way, some days their bags are checked, some days there are jeeps full of soldiers outside the checkpoint, some days there are jeeps full of soldiers outside the school. Some days they shoot teagas at the kids, some days it’s just sound grenades.

Some days there are no soldiers (except those permanently stationed at the checkpoint, natch) – however, it is these days that are the rarity. Thursday saw merely four jeeps full of soldiers and three soldiers hiding down one alleyway - doing stretches and kneeling sniper-style - as children walked past them. After the children all go into the schools and the soldiers leave, we leave as well. On Thursday on our way home, a car full of settlers sped past, slowing down just enough for one of them to spit directly in my face. "Thank fuck for wetwipes" is all I will say in detail on the act, as it still makes me shudder.

Why did they spit at me? I can only assume that the settlers recognised us, as surely they wouldn’t dare spit at one of the “chosen people”. Human rights observers on the other hand are anti-semitic scum, making us fair-game. Plus, we’re probably neighbours - there’s an illegal settlement just down the road from us.

Which in turn explains the presence of a checkpoint just outside our window, where soldiers are stationed 24 hours a day…there’s not a lot to do out there except harass Palestinians as they go past, so they end up singing sometimes - especially when they’re stoned, which they are regularly (SUCH a professional army.)

A couple of days ago it was the birthday of one of my colleagues so we sang ‘happy birthday’ in our living room with the windows open (it’s 35degrees here AAAH), naturally prompting the soldiers to sing ‘happy birthday’ at the top of their voices for the rest of the night. Any reaction from us or our Palestinian neighbours just urges them to sing louder. So it becomes yet another disrespectful act by the Israeli military towards the Palestinians of the neighbourhood that has to be tolerated in order not to make the situation worse. The power dynamics here make me so angry.

When the soldiers aren’t singing outside our windows, one of their other favourite activities is invading our neighbour’s roof – when this happens, our neighbours call us up and we sit with them until the soldiers have gone away, as the roof is like their living room in the summer and they have young children (one of whom was recently arrested). This time, I gave one of the boys my camera and he spent a productive half hour taking pictures and documenting the soldiers (human rights defender in the making.) It was good to see him with a sense of empowerment in front of the soldiers, getting right up in their faces and generally making them pretty uncomfortable to be invading his home. 

Hebron boy's portraits of soldiers invading his home
So, onwards and onto another group of soldiers – those “protecting” the illegal settlement of Halamish near the village of Nabi Saleh. On Friday’s Nabi Saleh demonstration, the people of the village set out to tend to their land in front of the illegal settlement of Halamish. They have a small olive grove there and many of the trees have been damaged by fires set by teargas canisters fired by the military at previous demonstrations. The villagers (armed with farming materials) walked towards the military (armed with guns of several varieties) and set to work, only to be immediately shot at with multiple rounds of tear gas.

Next the military rolled out the ‘skunk truck’, a rotatable water cannon, loaded onto a van, which fires foul smelling liquid at demonstrators. On the way to the demonstration a friend tried to explain to me exactly how insulting this is for Muslim people as cleanliness is such an important part of Islam. In the last months, a new demonstration was ended in the south of Hebron after the home of a newly married couple was filled with skunk water, destroying everything. It is also collective punishment, a war crime under the fourth Geneva convention, punishing masses of people for “crimes” that they have not committed. (Of course in the real world, peaceful protest is not a "crime", but under Israeli law in Palestine, it is.)

So, skunk water. It is grim - even stepping in the dregs of it on the ground, as I had done before, leaves a stench that follows you around on your shoes for hours. This time I didn’t just step in it. Trying to get to a Palestinian journalist from Nabi Saleh who was being harassed and grabbed by the soldiers, I ran forward…noting the skunk truck looming on the road but (falsely, haha) thinking that I could probs avoid it.

The spray turned in my direction and I was immediately drenched with skunk, while my more sensible comrades were just slightly misted. Another journalist who was next to me and also drenched had his camera ruined. The initial stink isn’t too terrible and I was quite enjoying the cooling effect it had, but oh man it gets worse.

Me and the skunk truck
I stuck my head under the tap to try to wash it out a bit, but this just had the effect of reacting with the teargas on my face and creating a delightful burning sensation. And then the smell just does NOT leave. I washed my hair 6 times that day, with everything I could get my hands on (washing up liquid, laundry detergent, a variety of shampoo).

The smell of rotting meat/sewage isn't my absolute favourite, and I must say, having it lingering around is not my preferred option, even (or maybe especially) when it’s disguised with the smell of flowery shampoo. I can still smell it right now, four days later.

Once more, I’m writing about the small woes that happen to me, but it’s nothing compared to a Palestinian life. People here are sprayed with skunk every week, as are their villages, homes and gardens. They are spat at, spat on and infinitely worse by settlers. They have piss and shit thrown at them by settlers who live illegally above their market.

They live with this shit every day of their lives, and the patience and steadfastness continues to amaze me. One more night of smelling the remaining stench in my hair accompanied by the discordant singing of the soldier at the checkpoint below and I would (will) be ready to crack.

But this is not my home, nor my reality. The smell will wear off and I will eventually leave. But I will leave behind my solidarity, my love and my incredible respect to the Palestinian people and their continued resistance.

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