It is not real. It can’t be real. I keep telling myself this, reciting the phrase over and over in my mind like a sinner frantically whispering a stream of Hail Marys. But the caustic bite of tear gas is tearing away at the seams of my lie. This is real. It’s real every Friday for the people of Nabi Salih.
As another canister of tear gas is fired, I fight the urge to flee and instead quickly step back and try to locate where the canisters are falling. I was advised to do this when I first arrived in Nabi Salih.
“This is a tear gas canister,” a young woman with an Italian accent said to me, pointing at what looked like a Red Bull can without its label. “When they shoot them off, you have to realize where they are coming from, because if one of them hits you on the head, it could kill you. The instinct is to run, but you have to keep looking up at the sky to guard your head. This is a sound grenade. If one lands near you, take a quick step back and cover your ears. Don’t put your fingers in your ears; cover them with the palms of your hand, like this. If they bring in a large car, with a big white top, this is what we call a ‘stink car.’ It shoots something like raw sewage out of a hose. If it hits you, find me after the protest and I’ll tell you how to wash yourself….”
And so on the list went as this young thin woman in a frayed blue T-shirt rapidly listed the various correct responses to the array of weapons the Israeli military uses against civilians.
Now I’m standing in the middle of the noise—the screaming, the sound grenades, the wail of a tear-gas canister as it sails through the air, and the soft calls of children. They’re running around me, flocking to one place and then another, arms fluttering about like tiny bird wings. I notice these children at the same time that I notice a rubber-coated metal bullet whizzing past my ear. I try to think back to what I was instructed to do if confronted with these particular projectiles—“Run.”
But I don’t run. I can’t, because here are all of these children, running away and then back toward the military with their mothers calling after them. And I’m trying to rationalize it. Really, I am. I’m trying to find a circumstance that would somehow justify shooting rubber bullets at children. If they are hit by one of these, they’ll almost certainly be killed, and they are posing absolutely no threat to soldiers that walk heavily, from the weight of their guns, ammunition, and their constricting bulletproof vests. It’s true that some of the young men are hurling rocks in their general direction, but most of the rocks bounce off of the armored vehicles. Only very occasionally does one of them bounce off an armored human being. I’m sure the rocks don’t feel nice if they do hit a soldier on the helmet or the leg.
But I’m asking myself how a thrown rock at soldiers wearing protective vests and helmets justifies firing rubber-coated metal bullets at an entire village of people including women and children.
Answer: It doesn’t.
Yet this happens every Friday in Nabi Salih. Every single Friday the people of this small Palestinian town risk their lives to protest the unlawful seizure of their lands. They border a settlement called Halamish that constantly continues to expand and expropriate even more of the land that these people used for agriculture and for their livestock for hundreds of years. The settlement has not only embarked on a creeping expansion over the last thirty years but has also expropriated the area’s only water source. This leaves the people of Nabi Salih to pay for expensive imported water while they watch the settlers splash around and play in the spring they are now prohibited from even visiting.
The people of Nabi Salih fear that if they don’t protest and the world forgets them, one day they will wake up to the soldiers and the bulldozers of Israel and, like so many of their relatives have already experienced in other areas of the West Bank, their houses will be gone literally overnight. So these people risk their lives, and a few have died, for their livelihood, for their history, and for their right to live normally without the constant fear of expropriation.
Recently Benjamin Netanyahu announced the forceful seizure of nearly 990 acres of land in the West Bank. This will mark the largest land grab in 30 years. How many more families will watch the land that they and their ancestors have lived on for hundreds of years be stolen from them in broad daylight? How many more Palestinians will suffer because of the compounding impacts of a loss of livelihood and a higher cost of living? How many more Palestinians will be subject to night incursions to supposedly “monitor” the population? How can there ever be peace when such a large portion of the population doesn’t even have the right to live their own lives?