Qalandia Checkpoint - 26th of August 2011
Yesterday we attended a demonstration at Qalandia checkpoint, which was set to see around half a million Muslims try to pass through to Jerusalem to they could pray at Al Aqsa mosque for the holiest day of their year, The last Friday of Ramadan. The Israeli authority had already said they would only allow over 50 year olds to pass. They let one person through roughly every 25 minutes ‘to interview them’ diving through a loophole between denying access and letting people pass.
I felt tense , which was added to by standing around doing nothing in the boiling heat as we had arrived three hours too early. The only thing I was worried about was getting hit by one of the high velocity tear gas canisters, which are designed to break through walls and gas people inside. They are illegal to use on people, and always have been, and their usage has only died down in the last while after an American got hit on the head with one, turning him into a vegetable. As far as I was concerned, they could break, hit or arrest me as much as they liked, just don’t hit the fucking money maker with one of those.
Hundreds of people were queuing trying to get through the checkpoint, which was completely futile , so we stood and watched along with a lot of other internationals and a lot of press. Prayer time came and people started to pray on the street. Immediately after, Chants started, and Palestinian flags were distributed to be waved in the faces of the soldiers , a concrete block away, who laughed and took pictures on their mobile phones. I would have given anything to make their guns disappear .One Palestinian climbed up a wall to the side of the checkpoint and began waving his flag in the air , before getting dragged down and arrested by five or six soldiers keen for something to do. When I began taking pictures around a two meter wide gap in the side of the checkpoint , re-enforcements were sent to block it. It was here that about 6 young kids, ranging between roughly 9 and 13 started waving flags at them too, screaming at them. One of the flags fell to the floor in the middle of the two sides and the soldier warned against picking it up whilst stroking the trigger on his machine gun. They tip –toed towards it, and back again, moving half an inch closer each time. At this point I pulled the kids behind me to try and get it myself, but the soldier at the front grabbed it out of my hands and told me to get back. The kids tried to block the entrance with a police barrier that was lying about but it wouldn’t fit. I turned around to see a young boy of around 8 with a Palestinian flag in his hands screaming at the watch tower above me. I have never seen so much fury in a persons face before. I never knew what he was saying but he was pacing about screaming at the soldiers a hundred meters above behind their wire grills , and picking up stones only to be snatched out of his hands by discerning adults around him. He was amongst the children who had yet to be shot or arrested and who’s anger had a direction that didn’t seem in-penetrable. I wondered how long it would last, but I doubt it would be over 5 years. Speaking to a shebab (Palestinian street boys) later, who was around 16, he showed me his battle wounds. Something I have gotten used to here. His stomach was split in two by a gruesome scar caused by a live bullet, received at the age of 12. He had many more on his forehead and arms, probably from rubber bullets and tear gas canisters.
Anyway , the standoff between these pre-pubescent boys and the worlds best equipped army lasted for another fifteen minutes or so until the stones began flying in their direction. I learned later that one of the soldiers in the watchtower above had spat out of it onto the boys below, but I wouldn’t have had time to notice since as soon as the first stones flew , we ran to get as far away from the inevitable retaliation as our legs would take us.
I didn’t even have time to curse the people that had told me ‘you’l know it’s a high velocity straight away , you can hear it’ before i saw one bounce off of the bus infront of me and back into the air where it danced about the street full of vehicle roofs before landing not far away They were firing them directly at people. Rubber bullets pinged indiscriminately around the scene and sound bombs erupted everywhere, making it difficult to tell you how close they were. Everybody was split up in seconds, as we all jumped over walls and behind vehicles into different directions and shops for cover. My eyes began watering and I found it difficult to breathe, but knew I had to keep running anywhere I could. I figured there wasn’t really any point in trying to guess where the canisters were going as it was difficult to see anyway. What I did see was a Woman carrying a boy of about two and throwing him into an ambulance where it drove off for about 50 meters before waiting in the huge que of traffic to part, which it didn’t. Around fifty meters behind that a canister burst through a a bus window, making it rock on the spot and sending its alarm wailing. Thankfully it was empty. People were scattering about the place, clueless and breathless and bumping into lamp-posts. I thought briefly about Sauchiehall street in Glasgow on a Saturday night and would have laughed if I could have breathed. I decided to try and run for somewhere further away. I ran for about a hundred meters and hid behind an iron gate on all fours, where I was joined by some shebab, smashing concrete blocks into smaller pieces to hurl in the direction of the watchtower. There was a break in the chaos, and I met some internationals from different organisations who were all spluttering at me, presumably saying ‘Are you okay?’. Euphoria began to kick in as I contemplated how lucky I was. At this point a high velocity canister came flying out of nowhere and hit a red cross worker about 50 meters away in the ankle. We ran for our lives down an alleyway and into a refugee camp, and as I looked back I saw her being carried by three guys down the road as she wailed. We reached a safe spot where her wails became louder. Along with her ankle probably being broken, she would also have to deal with the infections due to the cyanide amongst other ugly chemicals probably now settling into her foot.
Further up on the main road we saw her into an ambulance and I got in touch with my team mates, who told me now that things had died down and they were going back to the checkpoint, to join the few who had returned to stand silently in front of the army with placards. Making it back to the checkpoint in around fifteen minutes, my eyes started watering immediately as the gas lingered in the air. Most of the press had pissed off by this point, after a gas canister had been shot directly at them intentionally. We hung around for another 15 minutes or so before leaving on the bus.
Driving pas the checkpoint around six hours later was bizarre; traffic jams as usual, with no sign of anything out of the ordinary. I wondered how many streets I had walked down in the past two weeks that have seen conflict just hours before. But again, that’s usual here.