The end and the beginning

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Text and photo: Bryan MacCormack, with Left in Focus

The 2016 Freedom Bus has come to an end. Throughout the ride participants were armed with stories of love and resistance, each departing with a new responsibility to spread these truths abroad. The power carried by our experiences is immense, as attested to by Abu Ashraf who said “You all are more frightening to the settlers than an army tank.”

As we learned from those at The Freedom Theatre, regimes of Occupation and Apartheid must also occupy the minds of the people: those under and outside of their rule. By bearing witness and standing in solidarity with those in struggle, we are now better equipped to change the hearts and minds of our friends, families and societies at home. Through articles, film screenings, photo exhibitions, participation in Palestine solidarity committees, and organising in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, we are now more committed than ever to furthering our solidarities with Palestinians.

Day 11 – Not these olive trees, not this land

Written by Tim, Karina and Christine
Photos by Bryan MacCormack w/Left in Focus

Sports

Today Freedom Riders had a chance to show solidarity through the universal language of sport. At the sound of the school bell, excited students from Afula primary burst out of their classrooms and onto the paved sports court.

Under a hot West Bank sun, a volleyball game started between teachers and older students, showing great skill and enthusiasm. For the younger boys, a competitive game of soccer was greatly enjoyed.

After a quick break, and some acrobatic instructing in somersaulting and handstands from Ibraheem, an obstacle course race was run. The two teams were both eager to win, with much laughter and yelling of encouraging words. It was a close tie!

We were very thankful to be welcomed so warmly by everyone at Afula primary school; high-fives and wide smiles were in abundance. Visiting the students was a beautiful reminder of what we share across cultures—most importantly, a love of sport!

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Playback Theatre

In one of the rooms of the school in Atuwani, Ben and Karin held a workshop on Playback Theatre. Eight participants from the Freedom Ride and four young men from the village took part. Warming up exercises and games found a lot of response!

Due to noisy construction work in the school, the second part took place outside in a shady part of the schoolyard. Two stories were told and enacted on the spot: A participant’s story about a surprising view of Mufaqqara’s livestock out of the bathroom window that morning. The second story was told by a young Palestinian from a nearby community, trying to escape from aggressive settlers and ending up fooling them. The 90 minutes of playing together brought joy and connection.

Olive Trees

At around ten in the morning, Freedom riders who’d chosen to stay back in Mufaqqara followed Abu Ashraf down a rock-strewn path into the valley, cutting through tobacco fields and as-yet unplanted furrows of orange soil until we came to a grove of young olive trees.

Armed with half a dozen pick-axes and our own bare hands, we spread out in pairs and small groups over the hillside grove to weed the little plot of soil that circled each tree. Before long, there was singing and laughing. Abu Ashraf demonstrated the technique, then reclined on a wide flat rock to watch us work, pausing to call out playful teasing judgments of those who worked too slowly, or forgot their work for long moments as the conversation with their work-partner became more engrossing than the rocks and nettles.

Later, we learned that this plot of land was cultivated specifically in response to a nearby settlements’ attempts to claim it. Under Israeli martial law, any piece of land that is left “untended” by Palestinians for three years or more is legal to confiscate. In practice, most Palestinians would be happy to work their land, but are pushed off of it by the aggressive intimidation tactics—killing livestock, physical assault—of Israeli settlers.

But not these olive trees, not this land. This land belongs to the people of Mufaqarra, just as the people of Mufaqarra belong to this land.

Day 10 – South Hebron Hills

Written by Mary and Christine
Photos by Bryan MacCormack w/Left in Focus

There are two communities that live side-by-side in the South Hebron Hills. One is Carmel, a gated Israeli settlement of 400 residents, with lush gardens and air conditioned homes.  Just beyond its barbed wire fencing is the small Bedouin town of Umm al Khair, populated by roughly 70 people living in tin huts and tents. They have no access to the electricity grid and no running water. All their attempts to build permanent dwellings have resulted in demolition by Israeli forces.

The Bedouins in Umm al Khair came here nearly 70 years ago when Israel expelled them from the Naqab desert. They bought the land bit by bit over 10 years from people who lived in the local town of Yatta. In the end, it cost them 100 camels—a high price for a small band of subsistence farmers.

They attracted little attention from the Israeli authorities until 1980 when the decision was made to build Carmel and the settlers began to look greedily on the Bedouin land. The means of grabbing it was to issue arbitrary military zone orders, under which the Bedouin structures suddenly became illegal—from their homes to their bread oven and, more recently, to the small toilets they built.

Some structures have been demolished two or three times and then rebuilt. Soldiers attack the goats and sheep and the shepherds who tend them. The Bedouins have papers to prove ownership but are forbidden permits to enable them to build new houses or maintain the old ones.

The Bedouins refuse to leave. Meliha Al’hathaleen, a 56 year old woman (pictured with one of her 17 grandchildren), says the Palestine Authority have been no help.

“They came once, took a picture and then left,” she said. “We have to be steadfast. The Palestine Authority build mansions in Ramallah, but we stay here to fight to keep our land.”

South Hebron Hills

A five minute drive from Umm al Khair, tucked in the rolling hills around Yatta, is Mufaqqara. It’s a small farming community—olive trees and tobacco, sheep and goats, donkeys, a few horses. Situated at the crest of hill, the village affords stunning views across the fertile valley farmland to the east, and, on a wooded bluff on the western horizon: another gated Israeli settlement, it’s white boxy buildings sitting in stark contrast to the smooth curves of the land.

Over the years, the people of Mufaqqara have endured a lot of abuse from these settlers.

“In 2007,” said Abu Ashraf, the eldest patriarch of the community, as he reclined on a rock with us looking out across his pastures. “Settlers poisoned the feed of my sheep.”

Abu Ashraf owned around 300 head of sheep at that time. He took a sample of the poisoned feed to be tested at Birzeit University. The result?

“They said the baby sheep can’t drink from their mother for four months,” Ashraf said. Because of the timing of the attack—early spring—many newborn sheep were lost, despite the village’s attempts to keep them alive by bottle-feeding them costly powdered milk.

Despite this, Abu Ashraf maintains a remarkable humor and sense of resolve about the situation. Before long, he has everyone laughing as he relates a story of an arrest that took place on the hillside right before us. According to Ashraf, the Israeli police arrested and detained a shepherd from Mufaqqara, ostensibly because he was grazing his sheep in a “closed military zone.” They told him, in custody, that he owed a 8000-shekel fee for this offense, and that he could either pay the fee or stay with them at the army base indefinitely.

“He began to argue with the police—asking for a lower and lower fee.” At last, when the police had agreed to lower it to 2000 shekels, the shepard looked stunned, hurt. Only two thousand shekels? he said. Surely Im worth more than that!

“They kept him over night,” Ashraf said. The next morning, when Israeli police arrived for their morning briefing and assignment of daily tasks, the arrested shepherd piped up.

Hey, what about me? He began to banter with the police, asking for an assignment. I can drive, why dont you let me be in charge of this or that raid?

In the end, the shepherd was released with no fine.

On its surface, the story’s pure fun, a tale of triumph through wit. What you can’t see, however, is that at the margins of this tale—underpinning and likely facilitating the Israeli army’s decision to release the shepherd—is a vast network of support that Abu Ashraf has intentionally built for himself and the others of Mufaqqara. He partners with a variety of human rights organizations—The Freedom Theatre among them—and is not afraid to call on their support and solidarity when the dignity and rights of his community are infringed upon by Israel.

While we sat on the hill, a silver pickup truck drove past us down a distant road, slowing down to gawk out their open window at the forty or so of us gathered on the hillside. A settler. Immediately, half the group stood, pointed their cameras at the vehicle, walked closer to the road. After a few moments, the truck drove away.

“You all are more frightening to the settlers than an army tank,” Abu Ashraf told us. “Your cameras, your writing. There is a dramatic change in their behavior towards us when you are here.”

I’ve never felt “watching” to be a particularly strong activity. However, in Playback Theatre performances—after a community member has shared a story—the person conducting the show will turn to the audience and say, khaleena enshuf. It means “let’s watch.” In both those moments of performance onstage and moments of witness like the one all the Riders collectively shared on the hillside in Mufaqqara, it has become clear to me that, in certain circumstances, watching is a powerful act.

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Day 9 – Checkpoints and child arrests

Written by Janey
Photos by Bryan MacCormack w/Left in Focus

The Freedom Bus arrived in Hebron today. Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank and as the only Palestinian city left out of the Oslo accords, it faces a uniquely brutal struggle for survival.

The beauty of this ancient city, with its old buildings and winding streets, is totally overshadowed by the lethal military presence. Menacing soldiers with guns patrol the city and cage-like checkpoints with turnstiles and body scanners are always just around the corner. The city is shrouded in tension.

Since 1997, Hebron has been divided into two areas: H1 (under Palestinian Authority control) and H2 (under Israeli control), with the Israeli army maintaining checkpoints to and from H1. The Israeli army strategically blocked off several passages around the city, making journeys that could be direct much longer, and there are large areas of the city that are inaccessible to Palestinians. 

Due to violence from the army and settlers, as well as heavily restricted access to the area, more than 40% of Palestinian residencies in H1 have now been abandoned, and shops and markets have been forced to close by court order. There are now ghost streets where the biggest markets used to be. The markets that do remain open face aggression from settlers who live above them, who throw rubbish and stones down. Palestinians have put nets above the markets to collect all the debris to protect themselves from all the debris that’s thrown down. Settlers in Hebron are fervently religious and notoriously violent, known to set fire to homes and shops, as well as damage water containers. Muslim prayer calls are frequently banned for periods of time and schools are closed during Jewish holidays. 

Freedom Riders travelled to Hebron today to witness its apartheid and meet the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, who help renovate shops and preserve the cultural heritage of the city. We were told to bring our passports and ID cards, because interaction with the Israeli army was inevitable. As we passed through a checkpoint into H1, painfully a Palestinian member of the group who had forgotten his ID card had to remain behind. He later told the group how awful it felt to watch people – including international travellers – entering in and out of this part of the city, whilst he was completely locked out.

When you approach a checkpoint, you are totally at the mercy of the soldiers controlling it. You’re forced to move like cattle through a narrow, caged passage, through two turnstiles and a body scanner. Smug soldiers watch everyone coming through, and can arbitrarily demand to check IDs and refuse people entry as and when they want. Some of the group said they felt scared at the checkpoint; I felt a deep, burning sense of anger at the total power and control the Israeli army hold over Palestinians. There is no doubt this level of surveillance and humiliation, amongst everything else in the occupation, seriously impacts your sense of dignity. 

We were only about 15 metres clear of the checkpoint when we turned into an empty road where two armed soldiers faced a scared 16 year old boy, with their guns half-raised. It was incredibly distressing to see, especially in Hebron. Less than a week ago, two young Palestinian men were executed by the Israeli military here. The military don’t hesitate to kill, arrest, torture and imprison children, and Palestinians present with the group today were afraid that the soldiers would shoot him. Consequently, the whole group stopped to witness the situation and stand in solidarity with the young boy who was being targeted. 

The boy was terrified. The soldiers, on the other hand, were nonchalant. This was enraging to witness, and it struck me how little it really takes for humans to be able to dehumanise others, and how the IDF as an institution must be very adept at training soldiers to dehumanise. How else could they butcher and terrorize Palestinians in the way that they do? As I witnessed the scene, I talked to a Palestinian woman about the Israeli military and we wondered how much they’re paid to do this, she concluded: “But they don’t realise, they’ve sold their humanity. No wage can be worth that”.

We stood and took photos of the situation, with the hope that this could bring some sense of accountability to the soldiers and hopefully deter them from doing harm. However, when it comes to the Israeli army, accountability is almost non-existent. There are thousands of videos online of vicious military violence against Palestinians. Regardless, in that moment on that street, bearing witness felt like all we could do; we were concerned that actively getting involved might escalate the situation.

Before long, even more armed soldiers had arrived by foot and they grouped around the boy. Eventually, a jeep turned up. The soldiers didn’t seem to care that we were there: they posed for photos, proud, and one even directly addressed the group, smirking: “Ok people, hi, how are you? Did you enjoy your time in Israel? You can move away now”. We didn’t. He declared that the army were holding the boy because “he wasn’t meant to be in this area”, and when some of the members of the Freedom Ride demanded “well why are you holding him here then? Let him go!”, the soldier never replied. 

One of the Palestinians in the group asked a soldier: “What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to protect my country”.

The group’s interactions with the military proved fruitless: they arrested the boy and put him in the back of the jeep. It’s likely they then drove him to an interrogation centre, where he’ll be detained and aggressively questioned, asked to sign a statement that is written in Hebrew, then charged with a false crime that will be decided on in a corrupt military court, and then imprisoned. If the stand-off in the street wasn’t enough to completely traumatise him, the military arrest process will. 

I can’t get him out of my mind – what happened to him? How does he feel? How will this impact his life? 

Do his parents know he’s been arrested? What kind of terror will they feel when they find out?

Later on, Freedom Riders and local organisers debriefed on the day’s events. There was a heavy atmosphere in the room. Many of us felt sad and angry about what we had witnessed. International participants and Palestinians alike couldn’t help but cry, and a Jewish member of the group explained how livid he was that today’s violence was “being done by Jewish people in the name of the Jewish religion”. Some of us felt conflicted: we weren’t sure whether talking to the army was a good idea. We didn’t know whether our presence and actions had mitigated the violence committed against the boy, or actually made it worse. We’ll never know if he would have been killed if we weren’t there, or if he will be killed because we were there. When it comes to the Israeli occupation, it’s impossible to predict. 

At the end of the debrief, which went on late into the night, one of the members of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee said that what they see in Hebron is more than apartheid: it’s ethnic cleansing. He described the difference: apartheid forces you to take restricted routes to move forward. Ethnic cleansing stops you from passing anywhere.

As the Freedom Ride travels to different places in Palestine, we are hearing about and seeing astronomical amounts of violence at the hands of the Israelis; it’s an everyday occurrence in Palestine. Everyone has a story to tell about their own experiences: a family member who has been in prison or killed. All of these accounts are just tiny parts of an aggressive, violent system. This is how structural oppression works: individual, traumatising acts of aggression that happen on a mass-scale and serve a greater end goal. In this case, one of colonisation and ethnic cleansing. 

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Day 8 – The land that makes you belong to it

Written by Christine
Photos by Bryan MacCormack w/Left in Focus

Our last full day in Bethlehem dawned with a heavy, cold rain. I noticed my own sleepiness reflected in the faces of others as we took our breakfast together. A large portion of us had been up late the night before, laughing and singing and talking together in the lobby of the hotel, infected by the contagious joy of the music we had heard performed in Aida Refugee Camp. Now, though: eyelids were heavy. Coffee cups were filled and refilled. The day’s work lay ahead.

Our first stop was Ibdaa Cultural Center in Dheisheh refugee camp. Established in 1950, the camp housed refugees from villages in the greater Bethlehem region. For the first six years of its operation, Dheisheh camp residents lived in tents, 3-by-4 meters in area per family. Like in Jenin Camp, after time had passed, more permanent structures were erected.

Now, the camp is known for its exceptionally strong cultural outreach programs to children and women. The front room of the center is crowded with sports trophies. In the back, traditional pieces of Palestinian tatriz embroidery are available for purchase. Produced by the Women’s Tatriz Collective after the start of the second Intifada in 2000, the sale of these items provides financial support to families living in the camp.

After a presentation on the history of the camp and Ibdaa, we moved upstairs for two guest lectures. 

The first, led by Gerard Horton of Military Court Watch, dealt with what he called “the mechanics of the occupation.” Since 1967, we learned, all of occupied Palestine has been subject to Israeli martial law. More than 760,000 men, women and children have been detained since that time.

“Ask yourself,” Horton said. “What is the primary objective of the [Israeli] military in the West Bank? It’s no real secret,” he said. “It’s to guarantee the protection of the settlers who live in the West Bank.” 

As of this February, settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank numbered more than 600,000.

“When you look at some of the data, it is truly staggering,” Horton said. According to the US State Department, not a single settler was killed in the West Bank in 2012.

“How on earth has the Israeli military been so successful?” Horton asked us. “They haven’t come up with some fancy new strategy. The strategies they employ are tried and tested throughout history, but they have perfected them. They basically consist of two elements. The first one is mass intimidation. The second one is collective punishment.”

The second talk dealt with Palestinian refugees and international law, given by Lubnah Shomali of the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.

“It should be noted that the provision of services to refugees,” said Shomali, “whether they are Palestinian or otherwise, in order that they are able to live in dignity during their time of refuge, is a right according to international law. So it’s not just a moral obligation upon states. It’s also a legal obligation.” 

I thought, then, of the cold rain currently falling on Dhesheh, and remembered the talk given to us in Jenin Refugee Camp. At a certain point, we’d stopped near a deep rut in the sidewalk, where the concrete had broken through to form a rough trough that ran down the center of the narrow sloped street. When it rains, our guide told us, we swim. I tried to imagine living with dignity in a Palestinian refugee camp as a torrent of rain water, sullied by rubbish and dust from the streets, soaked through my shoes and socks and pants as I made my way to work or school.

It was hard to imagine.

 After lunch the rain cleared, and we took the bus out to Mar Saba, a monastery located in a remote, beautiful desert. We walked up and down the winding stone steps, built into the canyon wall, picking our way over a metal foot bridge, peering into the abandoned cave-dwellings of hermits and saints, picking sprigs of fragrant, fuzzy-leafed wild mountain sage. At the end of our walk, a local man, Hasan il’Sukkon, invited the whole group to his home at the lip of the canyon for tea and music.

For years, il’Sukkon told me through a translator, he had worked as a night guard for the monastery. Now, he supports himself and his family by giving tours and performing his original songs at weddings. 

“Living here is beautiful,” he told me, gesturing out over the rolling sand-colored hills. “But the disturbance from Israelis makes life insecure.” 

Six years ago, the Israeli army demolished the nearby home of his uncle. When I asked what he would do if the army came to destroy his home, il’Sukkon shrugged, answering indirectly that they were lucky in this part of the West Bank, because there was no settlement immediately nearby.

“All I need,” he said, “is to live, to provide food for my family. After I die, I don’t want them to destroy everything.”

On the bus ride home, I put a pair of headphones on, playing back one of the songs Shezzar had played the night before. Mountanee, sang the vocalist: homeland.

“But it’s more than that,” Osama, one of the acting students told me last night. He explained that the word means something closer to “the land that makes you belong to it.” Not the kind of land that you own, but the kind of land you belong to. And I didn’t know that as I listened to the music I’d recorded the night before, thinking on everything il’Sukkon had said, several kilometers away in Dheisheh camp, the acting students of The Freedom Theatre were performing the story of a young girl whose brother had been killed by the Israeli army days earlier. Virtually everyone in attendance was weeping.

And while I didn’t think of it then, I can’t help now but think about dignity. How sometimes it looks like a young girl weeping, grieving publicly, suffering but not crushed. How sometimes it sounds like the ribabi played in the open air at the lip of a canyon. How sometimes it feels like belonging, and responsibility, and that it is still alive here in the people of Palestine, everywhere I look.

Day 7 – Calls for revolution and solidarity

 

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Photo by Bryan MacCormack 
Written by Veronika Nýdrlová and Anika Machura

We spent our day getting to know about Aida Refugee Camp, which is one of the 59 refugee camps built in the occupied West Bank since 1948. Aida is home to more than 6000 Palestinians. We were welcomed in Alrowwad Theatre and Cultural Training Centre, a cultural community space which is a “Home for Dreams, Hopes, Imagination and Creativity”. Here all people, especially children, can gather for education and cultural activities such as traditional dancing, camera and photography workshops and music lessons. We were introduced to the concept of ‘beautiful resistance’, being explained to us as the opposite to the ugly occupation. We had quite a discussion about what the word resistance really means for Palestinians, and for all of us. Could resistance actually be described as beautiful, and if so, is every kind of resistance beautiful? Or is it more a necessary reaction which shouldn’t be classified or judged?

In a walking tour through Aida Camp we got to know many collective and individual stories of the people who lived here for many generations, nowadays right next to the separation wall. No one knows what is going to happen to the self-built houses in the camp, since the leasing of this area’s land is for 99 years of which 68 have passed. The inhabitants of the camp are threatened on a daily basis by the Israeli army that starts shooting tear gas into the camp in the afternoons or demolishes the water tanks on the roof tops at any time.

The afternoon was filled with a string of very interesting talks. We heard professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, teaching at various Palestinian universities and a former lecturer at Yale, who talked about the occupation in a global context and opened some other interesting topics. “I want to make a workshop on revolution”, he said after talking about all the initiatives, especially organised by NGOs, to support Palestine, which not always benefit the Palestinian communities.

One of our Freedom Riders and actors from The Freedom Theatre, Osama who grew up in Al-Azzeh Refugee Camp, explained his categorisation of the different refugee generations: the Nakba generation, the Stone generation, the Intifada generation and the Oslo generation, divided further into the Tank and the Wall generation. Growing up throwing stones at army jeeps every day to express his feelings and to show that he was a living human being, Osama said, “I believe that theatre is the way I can call for revolution”.

One other fellow Freedom Rider and leader of the Jana Natya Manch theatre group, Sudhanva, gave a talk about solidarity, its definition and why it was important for him and his group to get together with the Palestinian actors from The Freedom Theatre. He closed with the famous quotation of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Photos by Bryan MacCormack w/Left in Focus, and Ibraheem Moqbel

Omar Kettani from the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University continued talking about the effects of the occupation, especially on education in the West Bank. He connected to what Osama was talking about and introduced the Bank generation, children who are caught somewhere in the middle of their parent’s loans and their expensive lifestyle in the Ramallah area. Omar Kettani emphasized that “education is resistance, but not the education that brings you to a privileged level; that is the opposite”.

At the end of the afternoon, the director of the community centre, Abdelfattah Abusrour, summarised the vision of Alrowwad and focused on an important part of the resistance, which is the creativity of the new generation. “We are prisoners of the collective narrative, we need to recognise the individual stories,” he said.

The band Shajar closed with variations of traditional Palestinian music, being warmly appreciated by all of us after this really important educational day in Aida Refugee Camp.

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Photo by Bryan MacCormack w/Left in Focus

The Alrowwad stage became full of clapping and singing and the Freedom Riders left the camp with heads full of stories and impressions, singing on the bus back to our guesthouse.

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Drawings by Tim Sanders

Day 5 – Struggle and Solidarity: the Friday Demonstration in Nabi Saleh

Written by Janey
Photos by Bryan MacCormack w/Left In Focus

Today we join the people of Nabi Saleh – a small Palestinian village of about 550 located in beautiful countryside 20km north of Ramallah – in their Friday protest against the occupation. Weekly protests are not unique to Nabi Saleh. Every Friday, across Palestine, villages and refugee camps protest against Israeli colonisation.

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Israeli settlers appropriated the land in Nabi Saleh in 1976. Ever since, more and more of the land and its resources have been confiscated by Israel. Most recently, Israel took over the village’s spring. This is a familiar tactic of the occupation: appropriate and control Palestine’s water sources. This disrupts, deprives and destabilizes whole communities by halting agriculture and cutting off water supply to Palestinian homes. Under the control of the Israeli military, Palestinians are allowed access to the spring only 12 hours per week. Settlers have 24-hour access.

In addition, locals have been harassed, attacked and killed by Israeli soldiers and armed settlers.

Heavy anticipation and worry weighted the air on the bus to Nabi Saleh.  The groups’ experience with political demonstrations varied: some of us were seasoned protestors; some of us were completely new to it. Regardless, many of us were nervous. The Israeli army and police are hostile and act with total impunity. They don’t hesitate to use tear gas, steel-coated rubber bullets, ‘skunk guns’ (foul smelling water), tanks and live ammunition. They also don’t hesitate to arrest people – including children.

Once we arrived to the village, we met with Manal Tamini, a member of the Popular Resistance Committee. Manal asked that if we were tear-gassed, we would not run away and show our backs to the oppressors. Instead, we should run in the opposite direction of the wind for about 10 meters to escape the burning fumes, and try not to rub our eyes if the gas did reach us. We were warned that if we took cameras, they could draw attention to us.

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And so, under the midday sun on a beautiful, grassy hillside, the march set off along the main road in Nabi Saleh. About 70 of us, including local children, followed Nawal – a local community activist and Manal’s sister-in-law – who waved a huge Palestinian flag, leading the group in chants: “1-2-3-4! Occupation no more! 5-6-7-8, Israel is a fascist state!”

Within minutes, a military truck was driving down the road towards us. As it slowed to a halt right before us, eight armed soldiers piled out. I was struck by how young they were: 18-year-olds covered in armor, carrying huge guns and tear gas. I won’t lie: children with guns scare me. Nawal was unfazed, though. She stood close in front of them, calling out her chants and waving her flag, and people gathered behind her. Her life and the lives of her children and family depend on this resistance; the Israeli army has already killed two of her cousins. Within minutes, the soldiers began to throw canisters onto the road that exploded with a loud noise. This startled the crowd and we split, running in different directions. Shortly after, several tear gas canisters were thrown.

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The sound bombs and tear gas are “crowd dispersal” tactics. Tear gas overwhelms your senses: your throat is raw, you struggle to breathe and your eyes sting so much you can barely keep them open. All the while, you’re running. As we ran onto the grassy hillside in different directions to escape the tear gas, trampling through thistles and thorns, the truck reversed to stop between us.

As I ran, I saw an 11-year-old boy fall on his hands and knees coughing and retching. Lots of children were caught up in the tear gas, but Manal had told us earlier that it’s safer for children to come out into the streets than stay inside, as soldiers have been known to shoot tear gas directly into homes. Manal had already shown us footage of communities evacuating distressed, coughing children from second story windows. I wondered about how weekly tear gas must affect children’s lungs. I wondered about how anyone could throw tear gas at children, let alone use live ammunition.

Nawal and other locals shouted instructions to us: “run over there!”, “don’t rub your eyes!” Nawal ran among us, checking if we were okay. Crouching in long grass and behind houses, we learned that smelling wet wipes helps you breathe. Cigarettes, too – although maybe they just help to slow your breathing and give you something to focus on besides your racing heart.

Hiding from tear gas, I met Adaya, a young Israeli social worker who has been joining the protests with her friends for two months. She told me, “If the soldiers leave first, we win. If we leave first, they win”.

Once we had recovered from the first round of tear gas, many of us re-grouped to the road, and children remained on the hillside above, gathering stones to throw at the soldiers. In response, the army released several more rounds of tear gas and used a hand-held cannon to launch them from 50m away. Soon the whole hillside was covered in tear gas fumes, spreading with the wind. I found myself kneeling in the grass next to an olive sapling and an empty tear gas canister, a striking image of Israel’s violent assault on Palestinian land.

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Before long, the soldiers began to retreat down the hill. Children followed them, using slingshots to throw rocks. Eventually, the army left.

Overwhelmed by the aggression we had witnessed, we returned to Manal’s home. She told us how she had recently been released from prison on false charges, explaining that this is common. The Israeli authorities do all they can to grind Palestinians down, including fabricating crimes that people have committed, even children, and demanding large bail payments.

After the demonstration and an incredible lunch that Manal cooked for us, I spoke to her about the day and what international solidarity means to her. She told me she thinks the Freedom Riders were amazing, and that she had been touched when she saw tears in people’s eyes (not just because of the gas), because it showed that we truly understood their struggle. She also told me that the Freedom Riders were a welcome relief in comparison to people who travel to Palestine as “war tourists, ” attending demonstrations to take photos or “experience a live action movie,” the kind of people who also have a habit of criticising Palestinian protest tactics.

In Nabi Saleh, we experienced a tiny dose of what the Israeli authorities are capable of. However, my main learning from the day is that solidarity is twofold:

1)     Showing up on the ground, sharing risk and taking direction from the people who are at the forefront of struggle, and not criticising or questioning their decisions.

2)     Returning back to our countries as witnesses of the violence and advocate for Palestine.

This is exactly what the Freedom Ride facilitates, and I’m glad to be part of it.

Before I left to get back on the bus to Bethlehem, I found Adaya to say goodbye: “We won, for today! Maybe even just until tonight. But we will keep winning like this until the occupation is over.”

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