How I Got Gassed in the West Bank

While Barack Obama met with Benjamin Netanyahu, Max Blumenthal was dodging tear-gas canisters in the West Bank, where a two-state solution seems very, very far away. WATCH THE VIDEO.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Barack Obama at the White House on Monday, he warned the president that time was running out to stop a nuclear Iran. By impressing upon Obama the immediacy of the threat from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Netanyahu hoped to avoid committing to the two-state solution he and his right-wing governing partners have so far openly and forcefully opposed. While Netanyahu attempts to recalibrate the discussion toward Iran, his government continues a vast expansion of the occupation of the West Bank, creating “facts on the ground” to fulfill the vision of a Greater Israel.

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The recognition by the U.S. and the West of a viable Palestinian state in partnership with Israel has never seemed more like a pipe dream. After spending a week on the West Bank, I observed that settlement of the West Bank is being consolidated and expanded. Armed resistance by Palestinian groups lies dormant, while those Palestinians who employ nonviolent means to resist the Israeli government’s plan to divide and annex their land are being met with draconian and sometimes lethal force.

The small Palestinian village called Ni’lin is located just miles outside Israel’s 1967 Green Line, directly in the planned path of the separation wall. Israel’s winding concrete and fence barrier would permanently sever Ni’lin from much of its farmland, effectively annexing the land to several Jewish settlements that surround the village. In May 2008, Ni’lin’s local governing committee declared a popular struggle against the wall, organizing weekly marches and actions to block the path of its construction. While factional divisions between Fatah and Hamas rivet most of the Occupied Territories, the struggle in Ni’lin is one of factional unity against dispossession.

International activists and a small band of Israelis who, after serving jail sentences for refusing to serve in the army, also rushed to Ni’lin, hoping that their presence would mitigate the army’s violence against local Palestinians.

Confronting a fusillade of tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammo with protest signs and the occasional slingshot, the people of Ni’lin and their allies have so far managed to halt the wall. But their momentary success has come with a heavy price; since May, the Israeli army has killed four young villagers and critically wounded an American activist, Tristan Anderson, with a self-propelled tear-gas shell that hit him in the head.

I arrived in Ni’lin on the 61st anniversary of “Nakbah Day,” or what Palestinians call “the catastrophe.” Joining me was Jesse Rosenfeld, a 24-year-old Jewish-Canadian journalist who has lived on the West Bank and in Israel since 2007. Jesse is one of the few reporters to have covered Ni’lin’s struggle since its inception. He led me up a narrow street toward a crowd of demonstrators attempting to march to the wall. A phalanx of Israeli soldiers flanked on opposing hillsides by heavily armed troops blocked their path. The confrontation grew increasingly antagonistic when a man angrily displayed to the Israeli unit commander a photograph of Ahmed Mousa, a 10-year-old boy shot in the head and killed by Israeli forces when he attempted to remove barbed wire from the separation wall. “You killed him!” the man shouted. “You are responsible for his death!”

With that, the soldiers fired a salvo of tear-gas shells and percussion grenades at the crowd, sending everyone sprinting downhill. As I ran, tear-gas shells landed all around me. By the time I reached the town center, my eyes seared with pain and I struggled to breathe. “This is nothing,” Jesse remarked to me. “This is just soldiers having fun.”

Next, we hustled to join a crowd of demonstrators assembled in a parking lot that offered cover from an Israeli position a block away. Huddled behind a wall and a few cars, the demonstrators found themselves pinned down. A teenage boy tossed an old pair of sneakers a few feet in the troops’ direction, a few others chanted slogans, and I filmed. Within seconds tear gas blanketed the parking lot, driving the crowd into a backyard 20 yards away. Troops then fired self-propelled tear-gas shells, the potentially lethal crowd-dispersal weapon that had earlier landed Anderson in critical condition. Demonstrators rushed for cover, leaping over cinder-block walls and down a warren of streets, reassembling minutes later for another futile push to reach the wall.

As I ran, tear-gas shells landed all around me. By the time I reached the town center, my eyes seared with pain and I struggled to breathe.

At the bottom of the hill, a group of shabab, meaning “the guys” and commonly used to describe adolescent boys engaged in active resistance, began hurling stones at Israeli positions with slingshots. An older man approached me to ask that I not film any of the boys’ faces. The Israeli army would use my footage to identify them, he said, and place them under administrative detention—Israel’s term for imprisonment without charges. Tear gas now permeated the air throughout the town. Without the gasmasks the other journalists sported, Jesse and I withstood the fumes until we collapsed on the floor of a grocery store. By 3 p.m., most of the reporters and many international activists had left Ni’lin. “The army usually gets more violent as the day goes on,” Jesse informed me. “They’ll probably move into the town soon.”

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With my head searing with pain and my clothes soaked in tear-gas residue, I drove past a flying Israeli checkpoint blocking Ni’lin’s main entrance and out of town. That evening, I learned that Jesse’s warning had proven correct: With the media and most of the international presence gone, the Israeli army transitioned from tear gas to live .22 caliber bullets. In the process, they shot a 12-year-old girl, Summer Amira, in the arm, sending her to the hospital (she was released later that day). Next Friday, the residents of Ni’lin and their international supporters will try again to block the wall. Ni’lin comprises the opening segment of a video report I produced about my trip through the West Bank.

Besides my footage of Ni’lin, my video presents some of the “facts on the ground” Israel has created: the Netanyahu government plans demolition of 88 Palestinian homes sheltering 1,500 people in East Jerusalem in order to build an archaeological park for tourists; the narrow alleys of the Balata refugee camp, an overcrowded ghetto and center of armed struggle during the second intifada that is raided each night by Israeli forces; the Milken Lowell Family Sports Center, a luxurious sports complex inside the settlement of Ariel created with millions of dollars in donations from Pastor John Hagee and junk-bond baron Michael Milken; the army’s protection of and collaboration with fanatical settlers who routinely attack Palestinian farmers; the discrediting and brutality of the Palestinian Authority, and the incipient rise of Hamas’ influence on the West Bank.

None of the Palestinians I met on the West Bank, representing a range of opinion there, believe that President Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu will alter anything. They wonder when and how change can be achieved. “My grandfather lived in a refugee camp, I grew up in a refugee camp, and my next generation will grow up in a refugee camp. This is not a life,” Mahmoud Subuh, the coordinator for the Yafa Refugee center in Balata, told me. “As a Palestinian, when everything has been taken from you, the only thing to hold on to is hope.”

Max Blumenthal is a senior writer for The Daily Beast and writing fellow at The Nation Institute, whose book, Republican Gomorrah (Basic/Nation Books), is forthcoming in Spring 2009. Contact him at [email protected].