Last year on this day, 25 people were given a choice on the side of a highway in the West Bank: get back on the bus or be arrested. One of those choices was mine to make and with little hesitation, I climbed onto the bus and watched as many of my companions were taken into custody.
A half an hour before that, I had been talking to a Palestinian girl on our way to the weekly protest in Bil’in. She told me how her parents did not like her going to the protests for fear she would be arrested or injured. When our bus was pulled over at the flying checkpoint, I described what was happening outside and when they collected our IDs, she passed me her papers and I handed them over along with my American passport. I guided her into the aisle when they ordered us off the bus. I did all of these things because she was blind.
When we were given the ultimatum at the guardrail, she stayed, I left. I felt a bit like I had abandoned her, but I stand by my choice today. There was a great distance between us in that moment. It is even greater now.
This protest/Friday prayer was super cool and fairly well-attended, but I think it could have been twice as big; this girl in the foreground was one of the only females present. Considering the dynamic role Palestinian women have played in other protest movements, this seems like a missed opportunity.
Today, January 27th, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Last year at this time, Jesse, Mori, and I went to Yad Vashem in the morning for reflection. We didn’t have much time, but we made a pass through the Children’s Memorial, which was overwhelming and awe-inspiring. The memory I recall most strongly was the feeling of being lost in the darkness of the halls, unsure of the space around me where candles seemed to float at varied distances. It was a very good place to be quiet for a time.
Immediately after our visit, the three of us headed to Mt. Scopus, where local activists were staging a protest against a plan to confiscate Palestinian land for a proposed national park. The idea was to prepare the land to plant olive trees and a small group of Israelis and Palestinians spent an hour or two moving rocks and digging small holes. Most attendees were young, many were children.
Before writing this post, I spent some time thinking about if and how the two parts of this day were connected. I’m not in the business of mashing ideas and experiences into forced revelations so I will stop at a simple appreciation for the role of children in this world. Even as they are inevitably entangled in humanity’s conflicts, their innocence and honesty should be be a source of inspiration and hope for all of us.
April 2009, Rome
This was probably the first time I tried to cover an event as a photographer and create a comprehensive photo essay. The occasion was a Communist rally on a warm spring day in Rome, where I had arrived days before for the second leg of a study abroad program. I can’t remember how my friends and I heard about the rally, but it was a Saturday morning, and we took the worlds’ worst metro system to the Pyramid stop, where we emerged, wide-eyed, to a sea of red flags and hammers and sickles. It was overwhelming for my midwestern senses, which were still adjusting to a world outside of Minnesota, much less the USA. But then the adrenaline kicked in and we started to follow the parade towards the Colosseum.
I stayed on the outside of the parade, working my way toward the front. I took a lot of pictures of people’s backs and sides, much to my irritation nowadays. Nearly an hour into the march, I found the beginning of the pack and the leaders of the action. They were riding in the back of this white pickup truck which was advancing at a crawl down the middle of the street. One shouted into a megaphone in Italian. An old man wearing a red scarf walked on the passenger side of the truck. But most of all, I was transfixed by this young woman who seemed to rally the crowd with ease, starting chants and directing the fists of Italian youth. I read her as a symbol of the movement. She was young, maybe as young as I was, and her behavior was a fascinating split between powerful and frail, anonymous and strangely familiar.
As the parade approached the Colosseum, the men in the very front produced giant sparklers which gave off a tremendous amount of smoke when lit. It was the climax of the entire morning and emotions ran high. I began a flat out dash to the very front, planning to throw myself in front of the marchers to get the shot: the men with the angry red sparklers against the backdrop of the Colosseum. Suddenly, other photographers were there, all with giant lenses. I jockeyed with professionals for space, also for the first time, watching to see where they would try and shoot from. And then, my camera ran out of battery. Just like that. Dead. No more photos. I never got the shot. Although the friends I came with were behind me, at least a few of them snapped photos that could have ran on AP with ease. Most of the work is showing up and finding the right place at the right time, but it doesn’t count when your equipment doesn’t show up with you.
I learned a hard lesson that day, but since then, I’ve never ran out of battery at an event. However, I still hate photographing flags, fundamentally fickle in the wind.
Our bus of Israeli and international activists was stopped en route to a demonstration in the village of Bil’in this morning at a temporary checkpoint in the West Bank. Because of police action, we were denied the right to demonstrate at the seventh anniversary of the world-famous protests against the wall in Bil’in. A police officer boarded the bus at 11:25am and collected everyone’s identification for a “routine check.” For myself and other internationals, this meant reluctantly handing over our passports. We sweated it out for about ten minutes on the bus, before being asked to disembark. An experienced international activist called the other foreigners together and discussed with us the merits of attempting to walk through the checkpoint sans passport. It could, he argued, confuse the police and force their hand, which would probably result in us getting our passports back, and possibly result in our arrest. Luckily, we didn’t have to choose because after another five minutes or so, our IDs were passed back unscathed.
However, this did not mean that our path forward had been blessed by the police. On the contrary, we had been deemed a potential security threat and were ordered to return to Jerusalem. A loud discussion in Hebrew ensued, while more officers arrived on the scene and began filming us, recording our faces for posterity. I’m not sure what, if anything, will become of this footage. There wasn’t much to see. We were just standing there. They already knew exactly who we were from our passports. I’m sure they had already updated our information in whatever huge database the Israeli police are maintaining on its population and those who enter their country. Even so, I put on sunglasses and ducked a bit.
Then, the police gave us an ultimatum: get back on the bus in five minutes, or be arrested. All of this in Hebrew. The internationals were getting spotty translations from anyone with a spare ear and the presence of mind to think bi-lingually. Then our party began to splinter apart. A few attempted to walk forward, sat down, and were arrested. I got back on the bus with a handful of others. Another man sat down and refused to move. Four officers carried him to a police car. All in all, eight activists were arrested, Israelis and internationals alike. They squeezed seven people into the police cars (over capacity, I believe), and one man, an Israeli-Palestinian, was left behind to wait for another vehicle to take him away. I don’t know what happened to him.
About ten of us remained on the bus, but our adventure with the police was far from over. They had kept the drivers’ ID, and were holding it until we were back in Jerusalem and they were satisfied that our venture in the West Bank was spoiled. We had no choice but to follow a police car for perhaps 20 minutes until they finally let us go somewhere in North Jerusalem. During the ride, I learned that the police had known of our plans (unclear how) and set up the checkpoint specifically to intercept us. We had received a very unusual military order, only valid in the West Bank, featuring a map with a red box drawn around Bil’in. The police were preventing “suspicious” people from entering this area. Another bus (maybe from Tel Aviv) was also stopped.
We headed to the police station in Giv’at Ze’ev where the other members of our party were detained. We learned that the detention center only had room for half of the people they had detained, so some were inside, while others waited outside in the increasingly nasty weather. Clouds blew in and the temperature dropped. There were rumors of snow in Ramallah later on, and we were all expecting rain. We also learned that the majority of the activists had just been detained, not arrested, and they could only be held for three hours. However, it is subjective when the three hours starts, so we worried that the activists waiting outside might not start their three hours until the first group was released and they could be moved inside. With Shabbat approaching, this could make things unpleasant for getting home that evening.
Some of the activists were making phone calls to lawyers, another pair ran off to buy food for the detainees. We waited for maybe an hour and a half, and the suddenly most of our companions were released. The Israeli-Palestinian, who had actually been arrested “for refusing arrest” was not among them. By this time, food had arrived and it was 3pm. We tore into the bread and fruit outside the station as it began to rain.
It was extremely frustrating to be prevented from going to the protest in Bil’in, especially because this was my one and only chance to attend. However, the experience reminded me of a paper presented at a Border Conflicts conference I attended last Fall which argued that modern borders are being moved back into countries, manifested in airports, cities, and of course, checkpoints. They are no longer geographically tied to the borderline itself. This paper was based on the situation in Ukraine, but the theory was demonstrated clearly today in Israel/Palestine. What better case study than a country where borders operate on a de-facto basis and are still being formed and defined? The police who stopped us at the checkpoint today represent a wall that is every bit as real and physical as the concrete blocks that loom in the West Bank.
Last Friday, I attended a Women in Black vigil in downtown Jerusalem and spent about an hour getting to know the women who come every week to protest the occupation. They come donned in black to “symbolize the suffering and tragedy of both the Israeli and Palestinian people,” but also wear smiles and are happy to chat with passers-by. Every Friday, for 24 years, they have come to Hagar Square to raise their signs: cardboard cutouts of a black hand with white lettering that read ‘Stop the Occupation,’ and black banners with translations in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. They are a mixture of Israelis and expats who have made Jerusalem their home. Some are Jewish, some are not.
For a few months now, they have been joined by counter-protesters across the street. They are all men, and come with large Israeli flags and signs declaring their support for the IDF and the government. The pro-government group usually receives nothing but enthusiastic honks and cheers, while the Women in Black endure glares, taunts, arguments, and worse every week. But this doesn’t faze any of them. Without fail, they will arrive at 1pm, calmly and courageously stand up for their beliefs, then head home at 2pm to farewells of Shabbat Shalom and wishes for a good week.
The international movement of Women in Black began in Jerusalem in January 1988 and chapters have since formed in many countries for a variety of issues, from Mafia violence to inter-ethnic cooperation. The Women in Black movement in Israel won the Aschen Peace Prize (1991), the peace award of the city of San Giovanni d’Asso in Italy (1994), and the Jewish Peace Fellowship’s “Peacemaker Award” (2001). In 2001, the international movement of Women in Black was honored with the Millennium Peace Prize for Women, awarded by the United Nations Development Fund for women (UNIFEM).
Today, I went with Jesse and Mori to an event protesting the construction of the Slopes of Mt. Scopus National Park, coordinated by the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement. The proposal would effectively annex Palestinian land, hemming in a nearby village between the wall and the park and preventing expansion. The same tactic was used south of Jerusalem a number of years ago, when the government took land for a ‘park’ and later built the settlement of Har Gilo. Today, about thirty activists, both Israeli and Palestinian, gathered to prepare the ground to plant olive trees. Most worked with shovels while Jesse and I moved some rocks out of the way. Prayer mats and yarmulkes alike were in danger of being swept away by wild gusts of wind. We only stayed for an hour, since rain threatened our work, but nevertheless, the earth on the hillside had been turned and made ready for a peaceful and symbolic means of resistance.