The West Bank rises up against war in Gaza

July 30, 2014

With the world's eyes focused on Gaza's and Israel's barbaric offensive, the eruption of resistance in the West Bank has gone largely unnoticed--though the latest spasm of Israeli violence began in the West Bank with the Israel Defense Forces operation, called Operation Brother's Keeper, in response to the disappearance of three settler boys.

Kelly Lynn is an independent journalist and photographer from Vancouver, Wash., and a regular contributor to and other sites. For the last three years, she has traveled back and forth to Palestine to report on resistance to Israeli occupation and apartheid. Currently, she is based in the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem in the West Bank. Last week, she talked to Sarah Levy about Israel's escalating repression, and the rising tide of protest in the West Bank.

WHAT'S BEEN taking place in the West Bank?

PROTESTS IN the West Bank have significantly escalated, but this isn't coming out of nowhere. They've been building since Operation Brother's Keeper. There aren't enough journalists to cover all of the night raids and incursions by soldiers where they have destroyed homes. Something like 2,400 homes were searched, and many things were destroyed.

I have been working on stories about night raids in different refugee camps--in the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem and the Al-Arroub camp between Bethlehem and Hebron--which were bigger and unprecedented compared to the last raids. Soldiers were present in the camps from around 11 p.m. until sunrise, firing tear gas, sound grenades and even live ammunition.

Several people were wounded by live ammunition. One man was arrested after he was shot in the leg and pushed from a roof in the camp. Two boys were hit by jeeps during the clashes, and there was an old woman who had a heart attack in her home and died because soldiers did not allow her to leave to get medical attention. They also cut the power in Al-Arroub camp.

Palestinians in the West Bank run from an Israeli bombardment of tear gas
Palestinians in the West Bank run from an Israeli bombardment of tear gas (Kelly Lynn)

And this is all before the murder of Mohammad Abu Khdeir. So people were already trying to respond to the night raids, and since Mohammad Abu Khdeir's funeral, there have been clashes in more villages than I can keep track. It's the holy month of Ramadan, so people stop fasting at 8 p.m., and usually after that in many villages, the youth will go out to protest and demonstrate against the Israel military in solidarity with Gaza and against the occupation.

The "shebab"--the young people of Palestine--are very much of the mindset that Gaza and the West Bank are one. We are definitely at a high point in the violence as soldiers are pretty consistently opening fire with live ammunition on these demonstrations across the West Bank.

A few days ago, three people were killed in Beit Omar. Mind you, those men were all older, including one Children International employee who was shot in the back. They weren't even throwing stones--they were just present at the protests. When I went to the funeral of the three, soldiers tried to disperse it with live ammunition four different times after it turned into a clash.

HOW MANY people attended the funeral?

THERE WERE thousands, maybe 4,000. And Beit Omar is small--only 20,000 people live in that village. They had the funeral procession, and it turned into a clash in which lots of shebab threw stones at the main sniper tower near the entrance to the town.

There weren't any soldiers in the tower, so they were able to continue to throw rocks and started burning a little walled-off area in front of it that has a water tank for soldiers and stuff. They threw tires, and they threw a gas tank that exploded. I had never seen anything like it.

After about 20 minutes, soldiers fired some tear gas, and then a jeep came up, and those soldiers started firing live ammunition at us, so we ran. Then soldiers came to the main street of Beit Omar again, and fired on the crowd three more times. We ran, and no casualties were reported.

This kind of thing is becoming normal.

I've been out on Hebron Road, which is the main street in Bethlehem, almost every night since July 4, which is when the protests in solidarity with Gaza and after Abu Khdeir's funeral began. At least 25 young men and teenagers have been shot in the leg with live ammunition. Soldiers aim for the knee to cause the most damage, and because it requires the longest recovery time. They usually shoot during a lull, when there isn't any stone throwing, so they can take careful aim.

Clashes are taking place in all of the big cities, but also all the small villages. On July 24, the largest protests since the Second Intifada took place in Ramallah, with tens of thousands marching toward Jerusalem. One was killed by Israeli troops.

And so it's happening everywhere, and it's absolutely an uprising of some sort, but it's still a question of how long it's going to continue. Everyone that I talk to doesn't think it will calm down, they think it will continue to escalate, especially if the use of live ammunition is becoming a norm in these protests, and if Gaza continues to burn.

In the same way that Gazans don't want a cease-fire that doesn't address the living hell that they experience under the Israeli blockade, the people of the West Bank don't want the clashes and demos and actions to be quelled without addressing the occupation and apartheid policies that they face. People seem ready for some sort of unprecedented change. I mean, they're always ready for change--but I think they're ready to make the sacrifice in terms of an uprising.

WHY IS this happening now?

I THINK it was a perfect storm. The kidnapping of the settlers was definitely one factor. I really don't know what to think--if it was a botched kidnapping or something else. I met the family of one of the two main suspects. Their houses were bombed, basically--explosives were set off inside them.

The man's wife was eight months pregnant, and they left their cell phones at home--which actually makes sense in terms of tracking. But the details are so fishy, and I still haven't seen any autopsy of the three settlers, so most people in the West Bank are very skeptical of that. People have told me that there has been a fake kidnapping before in order to escalate things.

A lot of what happened in the wake of the kidnapping--what Israel called Operation Brother's Keeper--was planned in advance, and the violence that came out of the operation has merged with the violence in Gaza. So there has been a sort of symmetry in Gaza and the West Bank in terms of experiencing violence from Israel.

I think this symmetry is different when compared to Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Defense. During those operations, people in the West Bank acted in solidarity with Gaza, but this time the West Bank is defending itself too.

The murder of Mohammad Abu Khdeir murder was so gruesome, so that also contributed to the outrage people here feel. And I think that fascism and the fascist groups in Israel are getting organized. I don't know how that's directly linked, but I think that people feel the racism and how normalized it's getting.

Social media has also created unprecedented access to the situation in Gaza. I think it was pretty similar to Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense, but there's been reports of longtime activists in Gaza, whose heads are spinning because it's even worse than any previous operation. There isn't a single space that they haven't bombed. There is nothing sacred for the Israeli military--schools, hospitals, press offices, homes, cemeteries, churches, they have been shelled and bombed indiscriminately.

REPORTS FROM Gaza indicate that people want an end to the bombing, but crucially also an end to the siege. What is the main demand in the West Bank?

AN END to the occupation, dismantling of the separation wall, and opening up the borders. But refugees want it all--they want to be able to go home. The changes might come incrementally, but people are demanding a full spectrum of justice, and I think they're very much willing to have that incrementally--but it's very clear what people want. They want an end to Israeli occupation and apartheid.

WHAT ABOUT the Palestinian Authority (PA)? How have they been reacting to the escalation of Israeli violence, and what do ordinary Palestinians think of their leadership?

THEY'VE BEEN getting a lot of bad press in terms of how security forces are trying to stop a lot of these demonstrations, and people are not having that.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his family left the West Bank for Jordan. When Palestine needs its leadership the most, he left, and I think that for those who still support him, this might be the last straw. I think there will be a change in the PA leadership very soon. One thing that I'm really waiting to see is how Fatah and the PA manage this escalation and this uprising.

It's important to make a distinction between people who align with Fatah as a political party, and the PA leadership who run Fatah. Most of the camp that I live in is Fatah-aligned, but most aren't supportive of Mahmoud Abbas. I have friends who are in PA security and run the civil administration of the West Bank--the schools, the hospitals and so forth. A lot of people are employed by the PA, so this also ties people to the PA in various ways.

I would say that most Palestinians are not wild about the PA leadership, and they haven't been for a long time. What we're going through now may end up being a turning point. It's ludicrous that the PA is calling for an uprising while they send their soldiers to quell these demos. It's just silly.

To me, it feels like when Obama said during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, "We're with the Egyptian people." After there was a massacre and after it was starting to look really bad, he said that the U.S. supports the movement for democracy in Egypt--but the U.S. at the same time was sending tear gas and other military hardware to the Egyptian regime. And of course, for decades, the U.S. had been one of Mubarak's chief backers.

IS THERE much in the way of organization and leadership on the ground beyond Fatah and Hamas?

THERE ARE the popular struggle coordination committees, which are a network of various activists and leaders all over the West Bank in different villages. A lot of them organize protests every Friday in villages like Bilin, Nebi Saleh, Nilin, Al Masra, Bethlehem.

The PA has arrested youth in Bethlehem--teenagers and people in their 20s protesting in the last week--for throwing stones. And then they are "interrogated." The PA gets orders--they talk directly with the Israeli military. I think it's becoming common knowledge how they work together--that the PA takes orders from Israel.

In late July, when there was a very large demonstration in Bethlehem, the PA came out and literally marched in front of the sniper tower and the military gate that opens up onto the main road--the same area where the shebab have been going to protest every single day. It was sickening.

We marched from here a half mile to the barricade, and they were in full riot gear. We pushed through the first barricade pretty easily, and we made it to the gate. Immediately, the Israeli soldiers fired some tear gas and some sound bombs, and people dispersed. Then they regrouped.

For about 15 minutes, the crowd clashed with the Israeli military and border police, and then during kind of a quiet moment, we saw them line up down near the gate and the sniper tower, and they came in a line and started marching in a line toward everyone. Then pretty quickly, shebab started throwing stones at them. They threw at least two Molotov cocktails at them as well, and they had shields and they were marching towards us.

The shebab continued to throw stones, and then they confronted the PA. It was really chaotic--people were screaming. And you could tell that there was a visceral sort of anger at the fact that Gaza is burning; Bethlehem is trying to protest; and it's the PA that is keeping them from doing that.

Some of the older activists there are Fatah, and so they talked with the PA soldiers and tried to stop the stone-throwing from the shebab. They formed a human chain around them, and sent them home. The clashes continued for another few hours with the Israeli military. The PA has only come out a few times--two or three nights--to stop the protests here.

WHERE DO you see the protests going?

THERE HAS been some amazing creativity that I hope to see more of. In Beit El, which is a really large settlement near Ramallah, they have the Israeli civil administration, which is responsible for issuing Area C building permits. Activists cut the power lines to the settlement in order to disrupt the lives of the occupiers. I've heard other activists talking about resistance of this sort. The point is not to kill settlers but to disrupt their status quo.

I get the sense that there are a lot of activists on the ground that have lived through the second Intifada--and some through the first Intifada, too--and are looking to try some new strategies. In the last year and a half, for example, Palestinian activists have been reoccupying villages and setting up camp--in Ein Hijleh and Bab al-Shams.

There have also been smaller actions to destroy the infrastructure of occupation that haven't received any press. They have punched holes in the wall, and here in Aida refugee camp where I live, they've been doing that for over a year now.

It's incredible what teenagers can come up with when they have a wall around them. They figured out that if you burn tires up against concrete, and add water, and keep burning it, it will melt the concrete. They also used a sledgehammer and drilled a hole right down the street from me. They know how to destroy this stuff, and they're very interested in destroying it.

HOW DO the Israelis react to this? Does the destruction of infrastructure usually result in clashes?

IT USUALLY is part of a clash or results in one. Here in the camp, soldiers will conduct night raids and arrest Palestinians for that very thing.

After they burned part of the wall near the sniper tower, soldiers raided that camp every night following the most recent bout and arrested at least five or six people, if not more. And they also removed the piece of the wall that was damaged and replaced it with a new piece--in broad daylight. That night, the shebab were already burning it again.

At the reclaimed village of Ein Hijleh, I saw activists from places that I had reported on during the 10 months I've spent in Palestine since 2011. Now, these activists are rubbing elbows with each other--the Bedouins, the Tamimi family and the leader of the popular struggle committee that lives three doors down. These activists, who are really strong activists in their respective communities, are meeting each other, and now I see them beginning to come together.

WHAT DO Palestinians in the West Bank want the world to know about what's going on?

THEY WANT people to know that the West Bank and Gaza are one. They want people to know that though it may be getting more news coverage, these atrocities have been happening since 1948. Refugees want people to know where they come from and where they want to go home to, and that the occupation is like a slow death, and it can't continue.

THE DEPTH of psychological trauma--from losing loved ones as well as being indiscriminately targeted--is hard to fathom. How do people address this?

THERE ARE some programs in place, most of them for kids, like music programs or summer camps, so that kids can have fun and not be thinking about soldiers in their houses at night.

In Gaza, Israel kills entire families--or 12 or 20 members of a family. How would you not want to do something or to commit heinous acts of violence in return? I think it's just something that we need to focus on as we move closer toward the end of Israeli occupation and apartheid, ethnic cleansing and the siege. There is such a comprehensive sense of trauma here, and a comprehensive mental health program in Palestine will be necessary.

HOW DO people tend to view the international community in regard to their own liberation?

PEOPLE KNOW that the U.S. is tied to Israel and how much the U.S. supports it. And it's the height of hypocrisy for the U.S. to be a supposed bastion of human rights, and yet obstruct a UN investigation into what's unfolding in Gaza.

I think people understand these dynamics very clearly, and they have great capacity to separate a person from their government, which is what they do with me every single day. They want us to hold our government accountable for what's happening to them because they know it's our money that is buying the weapons that are being fired at them every night.

WHAT IF anything gives you hope?

PALESTINIANS' ABILITY to not only survive, but even thrive in certain ways under occupation and under apartheid is remarkable.

That might sound bleak, but it is amazing to see. Everyone who comes here just wants to come back and stay, and even though it is under occupation. It's like a glittering piece of magic in a sea of oppression, and so I think there's a strength in that--and that whole mood, that steadfastness, that will never leave Palestine.

There will never ever not be resistance to occupation and oppression. It reminds of Martin Luther King's words: The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.

I do think Palestinians believe that this can't possibly go on forever, and right now, the sense of people I've talked to is that they're ready for an uprising, ready to protest and risk their lives. People are ready, and that gives me hope.

Since this has been going on so long, I get a sense that people have absorbed the history of the Intifadas. A lot of people at first thought that the Oslo Accords would help, but now see it was a disaster. I get the sense that people have learned this time around.

Palestinians will always resist, they will always oppose occupation and apartheid. This is yet another chapter in the history that will one day end oppression and colonialism in Palestine.

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