Tear gas in the throat, again. We escaped through the terraced fields of olives, on the mount slopes. Stun grenades were blasting around me and two Palestinian teenagers. They were running near me for their safety, but also trying to help me. “Go, go, go!”, they yelled everytime I turned around to keep an eye on our persecutors. The soldiers were threatening me by aiming with their M-16’s.
Jewish settlers from the Bat Ayin colony built a wall two kilometres away of the Palestinian village of Safa (near Beit Ummar, south of Jerusalem), on Arab land. This is usually a first step before a forceful grab. The people demonstrated against it. They arrived peacefully, completely unarmed, and read a statement about the illegality of the construction and how the settlers have been stealing their property (a barbed-wire-protected settlérs’ plantation on Palestiniand soil has reached a point 15 meters away of Safa’s first houses).
Then the teenagers started destroying the stone wall. with their hands: they came without any tool that could anyhow be considered as a weapon. They were using rocks and a rubber tube they found on the site.
Ten soldiers were looking on and were soon reinforced by at least ten paramilitary policemen (probably more), on seven blinded cars. Carrying automatic guns, they attacked. All of us, journalists included. Time to run.
The youths responded throwing stones. They were dangerous, but not so much for the soldiers: I realised that, as in Iran, being nearby their enemy meant that I was more likely to be hit than the actual target.
The path we used to walk there was covered with tear gas, so I chose to run by the terraces. They started shooting tear-gas canisters there too, as many had the same idea. It took me 15 minutes to get to the village, where people stood on the rooftops looking, cheering the stone-throwers and booing the soldiers. The skirmish lasted for about and hour. When the retreating youths reached Safa, the soldiers started shooting tear-gas canisters into the built-up area, over rooftops and backyards. Eyes in tears, old ladies were rushing out their houses and running away by the road to Beit Ummar. Little girls were being taken on arms by their fathers, coughing and crying. The ambulances evacuated at least three wounded Palestinians.
Keren, a Jewish photographer I met in that moment, approached me to tell me that all the people I came with in a car had been arrested: Uri, Neria, Nadav and Cobi. All of them Jewish too. Also, between three and five adult Palestinians who stood on the way of the soldiers, trying to give time for the young ones to escape. Plus a journalist who was covering the incidents, like me.
Yusef, a Palestinian from Haifa, Keren and me went to the army-police combined station with food for the detainees. The Israeli ones were well treated and released after eight hours, having signed a commitment not to go back to the Beit Ummar area in the next two weeks. The Palestinian ones were to remain in prison for four days.
In the morning, I had been on top of a hill, south of Hebron, between the illegal Jewish colonies of Ma’on and Karmel, which are separated by about 1,500 metres. About 15 Jewish peace activists were trying to form a barrier, so that the soldiers could not touch the young Bedouin shepherds who graze their goats there. Seven soldiers and three policemen came. After long arguments, a guy and two brave girls, all Israeli, were arrested. “They won’t be too aggressive to us”, one of them told me. “But if they get the kids (the Bedouin shepherds), they will beat them up and jail them for long”.
What was all this about? The settlers don’t want the Bedouin shepherds, who have been grazing their goats there for millenia, to be around anymore. So they have been physically attacking them. The army didn’t like this and went to the settlers to propose a compromise: the settlers would leave the Bedouins alone in exchange for the soldiers keeping the Bedouins away. The army is doing the job for the settlers, that is. Regardless any sense of legality.
Besides me, Keren and an Englishman –all freelance journalists–, the five or six other reporters were Palestinian. The Israeli media ignored the incidents, though some of them might have got Safa’s skirmish’s story from two news agencies, the French AFP and the Chinese Xinhua, which published inaccurate notes. They give wrong numbers of detainees (14, says AFP; 6, says Xinhua), suggest that there were almost as many “foreigners” than locals (“dozens of Palestinians and tens of foreign activists”, according to Xinhua, but the only foreigners were the English journalist and me, plus seven or eight Israelis) and quote “witnesses” to affirm that the Palestinians “burned crops” (untrue) and that the soldiers responded with tear-gas and stun grenades to the stone-throwing, when in fact it was the other way round: the grenades and the gas came first.