Wild Weekend: Friday
This weekend is going to be the most stressful of the year. It kicked off today with the ‘Open Shuhad Street’ demonstration.
Shuhada Street is one of the main streets in Hebron. I was closed off to Palestinians in 1995, Following a massacre of Palestinians by an extremist settler. (Yest you read that right Palestinians were massacred, and then their street was taken from them to only be used by the settlers). In 2007 the Israeli courts actually ruled that the road must be reopened to Palestinians, but the Army refused to follow the ruling.
In response for the street remaining closed the ‘Open Shuhada St’ campaign was started. At its height there were non-violent demonstrations weekly, but that was not sustainable. The demonstrations became more and more chaotic until they stopped for a while. On Friday the campaign started back up.
Now CPT was conflicted about this restarting. While we strongly believe that Shuhada Street should be open, and we back any non-violent response to the Israeli occupation, there were some worries we had. The demonstrations had become poorly organized before they stopped, and while they started as non-violent demonstrations it was common for some of those in the crowed to start throwing stones. In order to be part of the demonstration, but not part of the demonstration we decided to observe and report on the demonstration without actually participating in it.
There was a large crowd from all over the West Bank, including many internationals and press, for the demonstration which started from a Mosque directly after prayers ended. The crowed marched through the streets of Hebron, towards Shuhada Street, chanting slogans and waving signs.
It did not take long for the Israeli Army to meet the demonstrators with teargas and sound grenades. This was something everyone knew would occur, but there was no plan for it. Everyone scattered in different directions. Almost immediately Palestinians started throwing stones in response. Within minutes Hebron became a war-zone. People were breaking concrete blocks on the ground into throw-able sizes and lighting fires. Soldiers came out with the skunkmobile, teargas, and rubber coated metal bullets (More info on IDF responses to demonstrations HERE). At one point the Israeli soldiers retreated a bit and left it to the Palestinian police to deal with the crowd. This was a particularly dark moment to see Palestinians throwing rocks at their own police, and (at least in one case) the police retaliating by throwing rocks back at them! Soon the Palestinian police were overrun, and the Israeli army was back with their tear gas and stun grenades.
At one point an announcement came out of nowhere saying in English, (not Arabic) “This is a test of the —— long range —– weapons. US Army”. Yes the USA gives Israel weapons to test on Palestinian demonstrators. In this case it was a very loud sound system that is apparently supposed to disperse crowds. Anyway, I think it failed the test, besides people running away from being experimented upon the system did not get rid of the crowd.
We tried to stay behind most of the action, but this was not possible. Everyone would be standing around then all of a sudden some people would start running back (probably away from the charging army), then a stampede would start. About half the time there was no reason for us in the back to be running, but when you see a crowd coming at you, you assume there is something scary behind it. The other half of the time a few seconds after the first sprinters we would hear guns going off (usually firing teargas, sometimes rubber bullets). In these cases people just ran straight down the road with rubber bullets and teargas whizzing by. I tended to try to duck into alleyways or open shops. This strategy worked out well with one terrible exception.
About three hours after the demonstration began things appeared to be calming down a bit, and we were thinking about leaving for the day with the worst parts over. All of a sudden another stampede started and we ducked into an alley. Soon the teargas wafted in from the main street and pushed us further into the alley where a Palestinian friend of ours (who was selling coffee to the demonstrates, genius idea on the chilly day) lead us to an open door where we could get out of the gas a bit. We passed around onion slices, and wet wipes to the small group that had gathered inside. Ironically, smelling an onion is one of the most effective ways of combating the effects of teargas, wet wipes help too. After a few minutes to recover we decided to see what was happening outside. We realized that there were clashes happening on both streets the alley went onto. We stood near one of the streets and debated making a run for it until a barrage of teargas was fired down that road sending us back to the room.
We barely made it back to the room the tear gas was so thick. I could hardly keep my eyes open, and my whole face burned. We got into the room and immediately hit the ground. I had snot running down my nose and I soon realized that I wasn’t breathing. The gas burned my lungs so much that I had to force myself to breath. I frantically looked for any remnants of the onion I had brought with me. I found two small pieces left in the bottom of my bag, and gave one to my fellow CPTer. She reacts even worse to teargas then I did, so I can’t imagine the torture she was in. We sat there blind, choking, and unable to move, praying that the gas would subside and trying to remember how to breathe. I found the last wet wipe and ripped it in three sections to share. We tried to communicate with each other in the few breaths we could find. One person said ambulance, another asked if they had called the ambulance, or wanted him to call it. I was so thankful our Palestinian friend was there because not only would I have had trouble finding the number for the ambulance on my phone, but I would have had no idea where to send it. He was a Godsend. Thankfully after a few minutes the gas lessened and we decided to make a run for it. At the same time the paramedics arrived, so I pointed them to my suffocating teammate and the two of us got into the ambulance.
The paramedics gave her some oxygen. By this time I was back to breathing semi-normally and my face burned, so I opted against the oxygen mask, and used the time to check in with the rest of the CPT team who was coordinating from the office. The ambulance took us far enough away to be out of danger, picking up another teargas victim on the way.
Now we were out of harms way, but not near our home. Actually between us and our house were hundreds of protesters, soldiers teargas, skunk water, barricades, and I don’t know what all. So we decided we would have to wait it out. We found a restaurant a little ways down the road to sit, eat, and decompress. It was amazing how less then a mile away from the riots it seemed like no one even knew what was going on.
A few hours later we returned to the apartment. The smell of skunk water was hardly bearable. There was still tear gas lingering in the air, and we decided to take the long way home to avoid any possible lingering clashes. Although the day was done it took its tole on us physically. I am still having trouble breathing deeply, and my teammate has not stopped coughing since we left the tear gas. It got so bad we had to take her to the hospital. There the doctor gave her a shot and sent her away with the simplest advice ever. “Just keep breathing oxygen.” I think this will be my motto for this week.
This week is the 19th anniversary of the massacre I mentioned at the start of this post, so there will be multiple demonstrations for that. And tomorrow the Israeli settlers will be celebrating Purim, which is bad news for the Palestinians. But I’ll tell you about that tomorrow.
Pray that my teammate recovers
Pray that all those injured today recover
Pray for our safety tomorrow
Pray that Palestinians will find creative ways to resist non-violently
Pray for peace