The Theater of a Palestinian Apartheid Wall Demonstration

It’s a regular event for Israeli soldiers, Palestinian demonstrators, international activists, and foreign press alike. Every Friday at 12:00 noon 60–100 men and boys meet in the olive groves between their West Bank village of Ni’lin and the security fence—apartheid wall, West Bank barrier, whatever you want to call it—to protest the divide’s existence. A 700–kilometer long wall selectively incorporates and excludes populations and resources into and out of Israel. According to The Economist completion of the barrier will remove 1/3 of Ni’lin land.

I arrived in Tel Aviv at 3AM to continue to make a film about divided cities and territories around the world. I had just been to Nicosia, Cyprus, a city divided by the UN because of a war between Greece and Turkey over 30 years ago. An activist in Cyprus told me about this West Bank anti–wall protest.
The taxi driver at Ben Gurion Airport outside of Tel Aviv knew what I was going there to do, to video document the demonstration from the Palestinian side of the separation wall. He refused to take me, saying, “it is not even in Israel.” An hour later he had not found a rider and I had not found a driver that knew where Ni’lin was so I re–asked the driver and for an exaggerated fee and a compromise to take me only to the checkpoint he reluctantly agreed.

We rolled through the cypress forests, artichoke farms, and lemon orchards that ring Tel Aviv before easily getting through the minor checkpoint at 7AM. The driver pointed over a bluff and told me to walk over there. I hadn’t been in Israel but a few hours and was still rolling my beat–up red suitcase and shouldering a backpack. The air was cool and still, a lone, limping horse skipped down the pothole road through the town of 5,000 eating unripe figs from sick trees. Fatah posters and decrepit pictures of Arafat flapped from boarded–up shop fronts. I looked at best like a moron who lost the Holy Lands tour bus and at worst like the oppressor. With my few Arabic words I tried a conversation with a baker peppered with the English words: “demonstration,” “protest,” “wall.” From his perspective, I could have sounded like the enemies of his village or just the village idiot.

I was terrified and for good reason. Two people have been killed, and four shot and hospitalized within the year at these protests. Almost exactly a year ago, 27–year–old Ashraf Abu Rahma was handcuffed, blindfolded, and shot at close range in the foot by Israeli forces. Two weeks after that, a 10–year–old boy Ahmed Moussa was shot dead with a metal bullet (youtube). Moussa’s funeral turned into a demonstration where the 18–year–old Yousef Ahmed Younis Amera, was shot in the brain with a metal tipped rubber bullet and died. Four months ago, American activist Tristan Anderson was ghastly shot in the temple with a gas canister (youtube). A week ago, Israeli forces planted several turncoats within the demonstrator’s ranks who, at the wall, abruptly grabbed protestors and threw them into the waiting paddywagon (youtube). (Graphic evidence of each of these events exist as video on YouTube) [Problems fixed! Video links added back in. – Ed]. The consistency of fatal shootings not enough of a deterrent, the Israeli forces have developed a new weapon: “skunk” a mix of raw sewage, chemicals, and manure that they spray on the demonstrators at Ni’lin.

Eventually, a helpful man pitied me and motioned me to follow. I didn’t know where I was going. He took me to the flophouse for the international activists resident in Ni’iln. I was greeted warmly if sleepily by two Scandinavian women. Flies buzzed around an epileptic puppy who kept pissing himself, Joe Sacco’s graphic novel of his Palestinian survival lay below several books by Ed Said on a sticky table. They said the protest would start at noon in three hours and I could hang out until then. I climbed to the roof, swept off the broken glass and cigarette butts from a 3X6 foot area and napped until the heat became unbearable and a donkey shouted like a siren through the lone street. Noon arrived and we went to the olive trees accompanied by a half–dozen chatting youths.

The women and girls wait in the shade with the press and international activists under the olive trees. Bullet shells and grenade canisters are everywhere on the ground. The men and boys pray to Allah then are inspired by political statements on a bullhorn. Abruptly we begin to march to the fence, following single–track trails cut through the groves. The press runs ahead jumping over goat shit, sharp limestone fences, and small thorn bushes. Some wear heavy ceramic jackets designed to break and diffuse the sudden impact of explosives, others wear bulletproof vests and helmets to defend their heads and hearts from sound grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas canisters. I had two cameras and a handkerchief.

There is no leader and no sophisticated strategy. The goal is to get to the separation fence, cut the barbed wire, as an act of political defiance, and not get caught or killed. Marchers break–off into smaller groups at specific moments in order to get to unguarded areas of the fence. The direction of the wind is key. This day, the wind blew the length of the wall, so we were always working into the wind to stay ahead of the tear gas. It is important to stay upwind during this stage of the demonstration because the primary tools to scatter the protestors and thwart their separation wall destruction are tear gas grenades that can be effective from 300 meters but have to be shot upwind so the gas can trickle upon the demonstrators. I elect to run with a group of demonstrators attempting to be the first to get upwind and hit a section of the fence unguarded.

We had the high–ground advantage that enabled us to look down on the Israeli forces and also see the Israeli settlements that the separation wall borders and “protects.” Some of the reporters, knowing I live in Los Angeles, chided me after seeing the comfortable Israeli settlements saying, “you must feel at home seeing a southern California suburb in the middle of the Samarian desert” and another, “look at all the ticky–tacky houses, it is like a transplant Palm Springs retirement community in the West Bank.” The contrast was evident after my difficult stroll through sullen Ni’lin that morning. This vantage point also put us in range of the tear gas grenades. I was subject to a new invention that just came out this season. It was a type of tear gas battery that shot 10–20 grenades simultaneously riddling the sky with chemical trails and making 50–meter wide swaths of land uninhabitable. These tear gas batteries would emerge with the sound of a Saturn Missile Rocket battery, fly through the air like a roman candle mortar, and then would go skipping and spinning through the orchards like groundbloom flowers spitting gas and hissing sparks. Several fires were set by these bombs and left to burn trees and brush.

Once we get close enough to the Israeli troops and immune enough to the gas—and I hate to say it—it is actually fun. The Palestinians are laughing at the snide remarks shouted at the troops by their fellow villagers, the international activists and press take epic photos and are impressed by the athletic arms of the Palestinian youths, and I suspect the Israeli soldiers also enjoy the deployment of new technologies and the surmounting of the difficulty of raining poison on our heads. In these spaces, the demonstration takes on the look and feel of a performance or theater. A competition appears to start up between the top rock slingers and amongst the funniest insult hurlers. The demonstrators gesticulate and proudly display the gas cannisters that didn’t explode and were retrieved. Taunts abound.

The theater analogy is magnified by the scheduling and punctuality of the protest. High noon, every Friday, the Israelis and Palestinians have a date to play out this symbolic performance. There is no element of surprise in the battle. This is not a battle to win through cunning or skill. On the collective level, it is about empowerment and refusal to surrender. On the personal, it is also about bragging–rights, playfulness, and athleticism. For the rock–hurlers the joy appears to stem from two sources: the fluidity of athleticism and the creation of temporary autonomy. The protest has to be at a regularly scheduled time so the press can arrive, not too early (activists don’t get up at the crack of dawn) and not too late so the light remains good for photographs. Nothing is accomplished. If the separation wall is cut it is rebuilt before nightfall. If someone dies, another takes his place. Other than this temporary joy in the face of such morbidity, one of the only things that is produced is the miniDV tapes within the 15 video and still cameras held by Palestinians and international press agents: opaque, exciting, one–sided, cinema verite objects of resistance soon to be uploaded to YouTube and other nonfiction video sites. Within a week, the videos will be seen by hundreds, very few considering the scopophilia of the viewers of such sites and the video’s visual intensity. Next week another video from the regular Ni’lin village protests will appear.

In another divided city, Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2008, I met an anthropologist who upon watching a video of young pro–Irish Catholic protestors hurling stones over the 30–foot–high walls that separate the Protestant from the Catholic neighborhoods said, “these boys shouldn’t be throwing rocks, they should be using those strong arms to throw discus and javelin in preparation for the Olympics.” At the time it seemed like a good idea. Sports is controlled aggression, passion funneled into pacifist and relatively harmless arenas. But in Palestine, sports is not only not an option but considering the increasing marginalization of this population, such apolitical rechannelings of frustration would be patently ridiculous. An athletic culture of violent protest exists here where physicality and frustration meet. With the Fatah party in disarray, the Abbas government without consolidated power, the Netanyahu government evicting Palestinians from East Jerusalem, and in the Gaza Strip, elected Hamas officials bombed and assassinated, legitimate political engineering is not much of an option. This theater of olive trees, abandoned wells, and limestone fences, ringed by clouds of tear gas, and an audience of sweating camera–crazed journalists happens to be one of the remaining places for political engagement and athletic release for the Palestinian men of Ni’lin.

The mothers, wives, and children received us as we walked out of the olive orchard battlefield. After the protest I showed them some of the video I had shot of their labor. Now with their heads out of the menacing keffiyas, these kids shared a soda with me and watched their technique and bragged about their deft skills. The kids good with the rock–sling, earned the praise of their friends, and for a moment they re–gained the respect and autonomy had moments ago in confronting the Israelis. Though we didn’t cut the fence this Friday, there was an air of contentment, of accomplishment, of physical energy well–exerted. A feeling that will return next Friday, same time, same place.

I am uncomfortable with my conclusion, reducing the demonstration to a theory of performance. I realize that theories of performativity are useful in our understanding of resistance. Performance and resistance seem to be two sides to some strange weapon of the weak. But such thinking always struck me as profoundly dilettantistic, the ideas of literary artists–cum–anthropologists too timid to engage with real politics. The perspective from such performance theorists looking at protests is inherently from the top–down, they’d prefer a blimp’s eye view to see the strophe and anti–strophe movements of this cat–and–mouse demonstration. Real issues are at work here, people die, and as my an ultra–orthodox American Jewish friend commented on a photo from this demonstration, “The rock sling: 1 rock (16 oz) x 204 mph (300 ft per sec) = Death upon impact. Would you shoot tear gas at someone firing a deadly weapon at you?” But in this situation, with the very scheduling of the event organized for maximum mediation, and so few mainstream vehicles for political reconciliation, such demonstrations become necessarily linked to alternative media and the hail–mary of what mobile video devices and social video sites can do. The Palestinians have recognized the dependency their cause has with video–enabled journalists. As such, as press or an anthropologist, it is safer dodging plumes of tear gas on this side of the Apartheid wall than gaining access to that English–speaking, Judeo–Christian, “democracy” my government gifts over 3 billion dollars.

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

6 thoughts on “The Theater of a Palestinian Apartheid Wall Demonstration

  1. First of all what apartheid are you referring to, Palistine is an Independant entity that wants to bank on the Israeli econemy for their financial well-being. The wall was put up because this independant state that is relying on the Israeli economy was sending suicide bombers into Israel. They wouldn’t have to protest the wall if they didn’t send people with bombs strapped to themselves into the Israeli civilian population….It only exists because the actions of the palistian people.

  2. Not to be too disparaging, given the seriousness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but from the little excerpt you’ve written I am wondering whether you are trying to rewrite Hemminway’s “The Sun Also Rises” (the running with the bulls) or Michael Herr’s “Dispatches”. Where in your dispatch is Herr’s famous story: “Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us whjat happened.” Instead you’ve reduced the conflict to a substitute for sports–the reference to Northern Ireland exploits this prejudiced view: the poor play soccer, it is their outlet for aggression (shades of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontent). How many movies of Northern Ireland depict errant youths playing soccer?
    Your final depiction of sharing video with the the boys (are you now “one of the boys”?) contrasts with your earlier representation as “the villiage idiot”–before you could not communicate, but having gone through a shared experience you now have a medium of communication. You also highlight how you take on a greater burden of danger, the other reporters (from where?) dressing appropriately (i.e. not to get killed). Their flak jackets and helmets essentially isolate them from the theatre of the Palestinians, and by implication from truly understanding what is going on. You are Ulysses tied to the mast, while the oarsmen have their ears sealed to the sounds of the sirens. Too romantic. Yeah, I agree.
    There is such an element of the romantic in what you describe–your writing has become entwined within the theatre that you describe, that I am surprised you didn’t include a Wordsworthian depiction of the twilight effects of the sun settling over the town, over the wall, and over the empty stage. Does the sun set in the same way in the Californian suburb? Do its denizens come out to share viedos, communicate with each other, do they discuss their physical prowess? I should think not. The Californian suburb referenced is safe, its home owners isolated from each other, driving airconditioned cars to and from work. There is no wall there, no fence to protest, at least nothing physical.
    In short, you have applied demonstration as performance (performance theory) as the frame through which you analyze a day in the life of young protesters. (Why Palestinian?) This reproduces Herr’s “life as movie, war as movie, war as life” syllogism. What such writing gives us is the visceral escape, the romantic plunge into the truth behind representation–the American need for adventure found in Melville, Hemminway, Hammett.
    This is likely a first draft to a larger piece. But what will it become? Will you end with a romantic meditation such as “Apocalypse Now”. You’ve already provided the initial stage, the point of entry for the narrator in a larger narrative that will unwind as he moves deeper into the heart (both the occupied territories and into his own heart as well as that of the people he encounters).

  3. Adam, I hope my post didn’t sound to critical of what you are trying to do. I just see it filled with so many pitfalls you have to steer clear of. I am wondering though, how did you find other divivded cities compared with your experience in Ni’lin? Anthropologists often look for the diversity in similarity. It is too easy to infer universal messages across varied situations, and searching out for the uniqueness in each context is a lot of hard work. So I wonder about why the activist in Cypus told you about the West Bank anti-wall protest? How did that relate to your experience with Cyprus? And what do you make of a wall protest, when from your description of getting to Ni”lin you say you walked across rolling your beat-up red suitcase and shouldering your backpack? What I am saying, is there is so much to explore in what you have given us. So, so much, it is expected we should ask.

  4. Israels actions need to measured aginst what would occur if the “players” switcehd their roles. This would be the outcome.

    The world press would express regret at the number of (violent and extremist) Israli protesers at the hands of the democratically appointed Palestinian Defense Force acting strictly in accodance with UN resolution XYZ. (All this in small type on page 53). (A footnote, inquisitive American visitor has disappeared.)

  5. Why can’t you blog anything even remotely critical of Israel (even such watered down ‘political protest as substitute for Olympics’ stuff as this) without Zionist PR idiots who have NEVER participated in this blog jumping in with the same old tired arguments they use everywhere: either blame the victim and/or whingeing “How come people only complain when Israel violates human rights? Other countries do it to!”? Oh, maybe it’s because the Israeli government is paying them to do it.

  6. W, there is always a first time., possibly even for you. Your failure to address the points raised clearly flags the weakness of your arguement. Try playing the ball rather than the man.

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