Written By: Christian Stephen
(BETHLEHEM) It was about 3pm in Bethlehem when I smelled the gas. The sky was overcast and it was growing colder. My colleague and I had just finished a rather nice lunch at a local restaurant after finishing a fairly straightforward video project at a local school. We had left the restaurant with intentions of reaching the military checkpoint. The day had other plans. The strange thing about tear gas is that it cannot be described accurately, I know, I’ve tried. However, I will do my best.
The first thing that hits you is the smell.
Imagine a mixing bowl full of condiments that are engineered to assault your senses in every way conceivable, an odd mixture of pepper, mustard, horseradish and battery acid. The second thing that hits you is the feeling. The gas is tricky because it has a way of deceiving you. One minute you’ll be strolling along happily despite the exotic stench and the next minute you’ll be doubled over with your eyes burning like hades and your lungs full of fire. Of course, being of sound mind, we decided to investigate the source of the gas and shake hands with these lovely people who had taken a flamethrower to our respiratory systems. We followed the smell through a slew of quiet alleys and old back streets until we finally came upon the source, a guard tower that watched over the entire expanse of Bethlehem. The base of the tower was blackened and charred from previous riots consisting of fire bombs and home-made Molotov cocktails. The parts of the tower untouched by fire were covered in graffiti, Mostly in English, from foreign students, activists and Palestinian supporters. Popular phrases were “Free Palestine” “We are with you” “End the Occupation” etc.
Now would be a good time to give some background on the fighting spirit behind the previous statements. In 1948, Israel became a nation. The year 1948 is known by two names. The first is “The Year Of Independence”. Used by Israelis, reflecting the view that Israel is the rightful and legal home of the Jewish people. The second is “Nakba” or “The Catastrophe”. Used by Palestinians to exhibit their grief and frustration over the events of that year.
The Palestinian view is that when Israel was deemed a nation, their tribulations began, and historically this cannot be discounted. Millions of Arabs living in the area have been consistently removed from their homes in order to create space for Israeli settlements. The Israelis maintain that the land of Israel is rightfully theirs, Their reasons being that the Jews were there centuries before the Arabs and that their people are merely reclaiming their land after a long absence. But to truly get to the core of the maelstrom of anger and conflict here, the main issue is simple. Religion. The Jews believe their right to the land is founded in their identity as the people of God. Israel’s people are adamant that Gods place for them is exactly where they are. And here lies the issue. The Palestinians feel exactly the same.
Now, as for Bethlehem, Israeli soldiers patrol a wall 700 kilometers long and 8 meters high, This barrier was built after the 2nd Intifada (“Shaking Off”) that occurred from 2000-2005 when Palestinians rose up against Israel and attempted to retake the land of Israel as their own. In their case, this did not end well. The Israelis constructed the wall to defend the people of Israel from “Palestinian Terrorism” as a number of suicide bombings had occurred during the uprising. Unfortunately the wall also created a “cage” for the residents of Bethlehem and the surrounding areas. The Palestinian people maintain the barrier is an illegal infringement on their rights. Of course, opinions are sharply divided. As we stood at the tower I noticed a cemetery near to us, a funeral was taking place. Family members and friends were gathered around an ambulance masquerading as a hearse. Music was blaring out of two speakers fixed to the roof, a hybrid of strings and men’s vocals. The mourners followed a coffin into the cemetery and gathered around the deceased as they greeted each other and embraced. Even with the gas, political unrest and general danger of the surrounding area, these people were determined to continue with everyday life. Among the many things we as humans experience, saying goodbye to our loved ones is an inescapable right of passage, and the people I saw were right in the center of it. We continued past the cemetery towards loud sounds in the distance, similar to the cracking of whips. I would later discover this to be gunfire and the discharge from grenade launchers. Coming around the corner of an old supermarket we stumbled upon a group of young Palestinian men, eighteen or nineteen at the most, the were talking and laughing together, like any other young guys who were just bantering about their day. The only differences being that these boys were wrapping strips of leather around their wrists as they talked. Slings. Around their feet were piles of mid-size rocks taken from the surrounding area. Walls, buildings and construction sites are all good sources for ammunition. I introduced myself as a photographer and they were happy to shake my hand although they stressed that I could take pictures as long as I did not capture their faces. This became clear later when I discovered that Israeli intelligence would sometimes send photographers to identify those causing trouble. I agreed not to.
The crowd had grown to about 30-40 young men all armed with slings and stones. They pointed me towards a guard tower around the next corner and gestured to themselves, then the stones. I understood. They proceeded to march in an unruly formation towards the mouth of the street; a few began throwing stones towards the tower, falling short by about 40 feet. As they drew closer, a few hid behind a large, steel trash container. The rest began to sling stones towards the tower, all falling short. However, this did not go unnoticed. At first there was just one Israeli soldier peeking out from the gate at the base of the tower. Now there were five. All in full riot gear. The men behind the steel container pushed against it and heaved it onto its side creating a larger shield. They began to advance, pushing the container with their friends walking behind them slinging rocks consistently. They were getting closer. Soldiers began appearing on a roof to our left, casually observing the events transpiring below. One of the soldiers at the base of the tower in front of us emerged with a large grenade launcher. The men behind the container braced for the soldier to fire. This is what they had come for. The soldier aimed high and fired. We scattered quickly and found cover behind a stone wall back around the corner and waited. And waited. Nothing. No gas, No explosion. I look over at a young Palestinian man to my right, he laughs and gestures to his ears. “Sound” he says. The Israeli soldier had merely shot a blank to simulate the sound of a grenade being fired. A low hum grows to a deafening roar as the protesters begin to chant “صوت” meaning “sound” in English. They advance cautiously back towards the barrier and begin slinging rocks once again. The interesting thing about the situation wasn’t the chaos and danger, but the fact that this is basically an after school activity for the local Palestinian boys. Math, science, geography and uprising. Then home for dinner. Their anger is an inherited anguish. From their grandparents to their parents to them. A constant battle in the midst of normal life.
The crowd focuses their projectiles towards the group of soldiers in front of us. However what we didn’t count on was strategy. As we were all surging towards the tower and the crowd was chanting and throwing rocks, Israeli soldiers were taking positions quietly behind us and watching. About thirty minutes into the riot there is a distinct feeling of camaraderie among the young men, they feel as if they are achieving something. The momentum they give to each other is tangible and strong. Almost like observing a wave rise and break over and over. Faltering but pushing forward. These are men with passion but no distinct goal. As I watched them and took pictures there was a cry from behind us, one of the men signaled but was interrupted by the same sound we had encountered earlier, only this time it was followed by five gas canisters that barreled towards us faster than we could run. The first hit a nearby car and began spewing a white powder into the air. The rest landed all around us and one fell on a nearby roof. After this first flurry there was a burst of rubber bullets that followed. By this time we were all in full retreat, some ran into gardens, some into houses, others sprinted back the way we came towards the cemetery and down towards the main road. In the heat of the moment I didn’t realize I’d been hit but later discovered a bruise the size of a shoe on my ribcage. The entire experience was surreal. Half dream half gritty realism. It’s a strange feeling running from that kind of situation and finding yourself almost in an alternate universe. One minute your eyes are drenched in gas powder and tears and the next, you’re standing next to a Calvin Klein outlet in a matter of minutes. The conflict here is domestic in every sense of the word. And it will stay that way until each party finds a solution.