May 18th 2011

On Our Way to Palestine...

by Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies.

Sunday marked the Nakba -- or day of "catastrophe" in Arabic -- referring to the 1948 declaration of Israel when more than 700,000 Palestinian civilians were made homeless overnight.

In remembrance of the Nakba, last weekend thousands of Palestinians and their supporters marched from Syria (video), Gaza, Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Lebanon toward Israel's borders, and were -- in most cases -- thwarted, sometimes violently, from reaching their destination by Arab security forces.

Israeli troops in turn injured, killed and arrested scores of demonstrators demanding their Right of Return in Qalandia, East Jerusalem, the Erez Crossing, Golan Heights and Maroun el Ras.

Today, Palestinian refugees and their descendants number around 5 million worldwide.

Nour Samaha, a 28-year-old freelance Swiss-Lebanese writer based in Beirut for the past 18 months, participated in the Lebanese Nakba march to Palestine. Her story, posted on Facebook, is riveting: Nour's day begins with smiles and excitement, and ends with rage, shock and disillusionment. Most compelling for me though is that as the violence of the day unfolds, well-meaning young protesters don't run scared -- they get angrier:

"The more bodies were pulled away from the fence, whether dead or wounded, the more we, as a crowd, wanted to be there. To help, to support, to get angry, to chant, to do whatever was necessary to defend."

From Tahrir Square to Pearl Square one wonders at the courage of the Arab youth who stand firm in the face of live bullets and truncheons. Are they crazy? So many of these brave organizers and participants are middle class and/or educated -- they have much to lose.

Nour's story -- told in her own words below -- illustrates how easily a simple yearning for justice can morph into a non-negotiable determination to wrench that prize any which way. The real lesson for Arab autocrats and Israel is that violence against today's protesters can no longer gain them the upper hand for very long. Something new is in the air and it's wildly contagious -- spreading from Tunis to Manama, Benghazi to Maroun el Ras:


Sunday 15th May, 2011.

7.30am, Nada calls. "The buses are already full and they told us if we want to hitch a ride we'd have to stand the whole way down, is there space with you?" The buses are full? Big smile on my face. "Of course!" Quick change of plan, and I wait for Rana before we set off to pick up Nada and Lara and join Ahmad in Khalde.

After a stop for coffee, we began our journey down, with Ahmad leading our two-car convoy. It was very unlikely we would get lost though, because every kilometre or so we'd pass half a dozen buses decked out with Palestinian flags, clearly heading in the same direction as us. And if somehow we missed those, someone had kindly taken the time to signpost the entire journey down with directions to Palestine. I guess for future reference, you know, after we've liberated it and we can make plans to hang out in Haifa for the weekend. Forward planning; I like.

Adorned with keffiyehs, and draping flags out of the car window, we laughed at those who had predicted the worst for us that day, rather, exchanged ideas of how we would cross the border fence. "What did you hear?" "Someone said they're going to shoot at us." "They wouldn't dare!" "I wonder how many of us are going to show up?" "I wonder how many of THEM are going to show up?" "Look! More buses!" Nada told us she had promised her father that she won't be the first person to break across the border, "but I will be the second!". Ohh yay, I get to be the first.

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Trying to be clever, Ahmad searched for an alternate route to beat the crowds to Maroun el Ras. Clearly the organisers, in conjunction with Hizbullah, had predicted there would be people with Ahmad's mentality, and blocked all other roads leading to the hill top, ensuring complete control of the masses of people descending on the border from all corners of the country. And it was very well executed. Herding us like sheep into a pen, we got in line behind each other, slowly moving forward. Well, I say got in line, there were more than a few who thought the line didn't apply to them- we are still in Lebanon after all.

Finally arriving at the foot of the hill, we debated staying in line behind the buses, or parking the car and trekking it up. Seeing as the traffic was at a standstill, we opted for the park'n'trek, trusting the army soldier who told us it'll take us "15 minutes, easy!" to get to the top. 15 minutes later, and nowhere near the top, we stopped to collect our breath (it was hot and none of us are avid mountain climbers), and watched as people ranging from our grand-parents age to babies slowly walked up past us. Covered in Palestinian memorabilia, from flags, to scarves, to traditional dress, to keffiyehs, to self-designed t-shirts, Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians, and even a few Westerners, chanted and sang, while some played the tablah. There was a festive feeling, the atmosphere was almost electric with nationalism, solidarity, and hope. "The people want to free Palestine!" was chanted repetitively on the road towards Maroun el Ras.

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On the final stretch of the hill, just behind the destination point, shots were heard. Young boys started running towards the sounds. Others stopped, confused. Rana and I? We started running (I say running; we were going uphill, walking at a brisk pace is more realistic) towards the sounds. They were so sporadic I thought that possibly they were fireworks. Or something.

Eventually we rounded the corner and arrived at our destination point; the garden donated by Iran following the 2006 war with Israel, which overlooks the border with Israel. An old ice-cream van was selling cones and playing slightly out of tune music, making it sound more creepy than friendly. Chairs were scattered across the ground, for those weary from walking to sit and listen to the speeches on revolution, on resistance, on remembrance, being aired over loud-speakers. Rana and I waited, as we had lost Nada and Lara on the way after they stopped to help an old lady walk the distance. While we waited, we watched as balloons, lots of pretty red, green and white balloons were released into the skies. Altogether people seemed content, occasionally rising to the bait with "Free Palestine!" when a particular speaker struck the right chord.

From the start we had taken the decision to go to the border fence, so once we found the others, we headed down towards the fence. Looking into the distance at the border, one could see a hail of stones being thrown over the fence, almost automatic, as if in time with some invisible beat. Some had even managed to throw a couple of flags onto the fence. People had gathered at different points on the descent, and the mood was quickly changing from one of festive to one of concern the further down we got. Ahmad called. We had lost each other before even getting to Maroun el Ras, but by this point we all had the same plan- head down the hill. As the shots continued to ring out, news quickly travelled up the hill, with people passing on unconfirmed statistics of the dead and wounded. "1 dead." "4 dead." "10 wounded." The shots continued.

At the bottom of the hill was a dirt road. By this time it was probably around 1pm, and the army had started to gather, forming a blockade to prevent protestors from crossing into the field which led to the fence. We had seen scores of people retreating from the fence following several shots from the Israelis, before returning, hurling stones with renewed anger. Attempting to pass the blockade, we were at first politely asked to back away, before being roughly pushed back by the army, who were shouting at us to back up. "But we want to be at the fence," we pleaded with them. "What? You want to go over there are get shot? Are you not seeing the bodies they're bringing back?" One soldier responded aggressively.

But we were. We were seeing the bodies alright. We were seeing them, boys as young as 15, critically wounded. We were seeing them, wrapped in make-shift blankets and stretchers made of keffiyehs and Palestinian flags tied together. We were seeing them, covered in blood from gunshot wounds to the head, chest, or abdomen. We were seeing them, lifted high for the crowds to see, who responded with chants of 'Allah w akbar!' until they reached fever pitch. Grown men were breaking down, crying, as friends were being carried away. Others screamed until they could no longer make a sound. And that's why we wanted to be at the fence. The more bodies were pulled away from the fence, whether dead or wounded, the more we, as a crowd, wanted to be there. To help, to support, to get angry, to chant, to do whatever was necessary to defend.

At one point the army got tetchy with the crowd's pushing and shoving, and fired warning shots in the air. Followed by another round. People ducked to the ground to avoid the spray of bullets, unsure of what just took place. This wasn't supposed to happen; isn't the army supposed to fire at the enemy? Wasn't the enemy on the other side of the fence currently killing our protestors? The crowd reacted quickly, picking up whatever was around them and throwing them at the army; sticks, stones, bottles. A rain of objects fell on the soldiers, who retaliated with another round of shots. People started screaming at them; "Why??" "You should be firing at the Israelis not at us!" "Use your fire on the Israelis!" "You fire on your own people?!"

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We rushed at the army again, trying to get through, but to no avail. "Please, Mademoiselle, don't try and come through" one said. The crowd, once again infuriated because a fresh body was brought up, pushed and shoved, and I managed to wriggle my way through, even as one of the organisers tried to hold me back. Elated, I ran down, half afraid the army may start shooting at the few of us who got through. Spinning round, I checked to see if Rana or Nada had made it. Rana had. Thank God. There was a part of me that couldn't do this alone.

As we stopped to catch our breath and pat each other on the back, the organiser who previously tried to stop me from breaking through the barrier jogged passed. "I'm so sorry, but I had to come down" I started to explain to him as he passed. "I know, I wanted to come too," he responded with a smile.

We walked towards the fence, passing a dozen people who were kneeling on the floor, tying together keffiyehs for the stretchers. I had already passed over both my flag (actually it was Rana's) and my keffiyeh when they had come to the crowd nearby the army, asking for donations. As we were walking towards the fence, the few army troops that had remained were walking back, toward the hill. Looking at each other with concern, Rana and I wondered why they were leaving. Now it was just us and the Israeli army.

Minding our step, we got closer to the fence. The area immediately in front of the fence, where the remaining protesters had gathered, was essentially a minefield, littered with unexploded mines. In an attempt to prevent further casualties, the protestors had marked off the mines with (again) make-shift fences, as a warning to avoid that particular patch. At one point, several of the protestors unearthed the mines themselves, carefully lifting them and placing them together next to the fence. One protestor stated that at least 40 mines had been uprooted and placed there. Not wanting to count them ourselves and tempt fate, we took his word for it.

It was a strangely beautiful sight. All around people were working together. They were either breaking rocks to make smaller stones and giving them to the throwers, or helping carry the wounded, or handing out what little water was left, or giving words of encouragement, or warning the freshly arrived of the landmines. Exhaustion was pushed to one side, replaced by a sense of determination and purpose. "The people want to free Palestine!" "The people want to return to Palestine!"

Shots rang out. Everyone scrambled to the ground, face down, while shouting "watch out for the mines!", "Heads down! Keep your heads down!". But within seconds, everyone was on their feet again, running towards the fence, with their arms cocked and ready to throw. It would take about a minute before you heard "ambulance!", "injured!", or "killed!" as a result of the latest barrage of bullets, causing the protesters to get riled up even further. This did not happen just once, or twice. This was happening all the time. It got to a point where some people stopped ducking the bullets.

We noticed the Lebanese army had decided to come back. Not wanting to be pushed back prematurely, Rana and I escaped to a pile of rocks to the far right of the stone-throwers. A couple of boys were sitting, taking a break. "Where are you girls from?" "Beirut. You?" "Rashadiyeh Camp." Pointing to the trees located beyond the fence and on the Israeli border, they said, "If you look really carefully, you can see one or two of their soldiers." And, after much squinting, you could. You could see a couple of soldiers moving between the trees, probably at the same distance from the fence on their side as we were on our side. "Cowards!" I shout. "You hide behind your trees and your fence hiding from kids with stones, and you shoot bullets? Are we that much of a threat to you?"

By now it was after 5pm, and the Lebanese army had clearly been given fresh orders; move the protestors away from the fence, using any means necessary. And they did. To the letter. People were being hit with sticks, others were being shoved with rifle butts. Very quickly a crowd had gathered around us. Possibly a little naively, I thought it was to protect us, as we seemed to be the only two girls in that particular corner. "Careful, careful, there are girls here! Watch out for the girls!" they shouted at the soldiers, who relented slightly.

The army started firing. And wouldn't stop. Not even for a minute. They fired above our heads and marched forward, straight towards the protestors. Running back to the hill, we all seemed to forget about the Israelis, about the landmines, and focused only on protecting ourselves against the Lebanese army. We weren't sure at this point whether they were real bullets or not. Later we were told they were blanks, created to make sound. Keeping our heads down, we looked like a crowd of hunchbacks, screaming at them to stop. At one point I turned around and started running back towards the army, yelling obscenities. I felt arms grabbing at me, pulling me back, telling me not to be scared. I wasn't scared. I was angry, and ashamed. By now tears were streaming down my face, and my throat was hoarse. I had only two thoughts running through my head; why is my army protecting my enemy, and where the fuck is Rana?

Behind me. Phew. Some of the guys shoved us behind an ambulance where rescue workers had taken cover. "Calm down, don't worry, it's going to be fine," they kept telling us. I'm not worried, I just don't get it, I wanted to say, but the only thing that came out was "stop itttt!! Make them stop!!"

But they kept firing. They marched passed us, weapons in the air, still firing. It was so loud, and so many, the ground was vibrating. The rest of the crowd were already halfway up the hill, the army having succeeded in pushing them far away from the fence. We stood up, ready to make our way up the hill.

Hmmm. Dilemma. The crowd, now halfway up the hill, were facing the army, who had by now reached the dirt road. We were essentially behind the army. Our only option was to walk through the army (who was still firing). But by this point, the crowd, incensed by what had just happened, were now throwing stones, rocks, anything at the army. Downhill. With us behind. Awesome.

Eventually, by walking along the edge of the army positions, we managed to overtake them and get back to the 'right side' of the hill, only to be met with half a dozen tear gas canisters fired at the crowd by the army. Pleasant. There's something quite unforgettable about the streaming of the eyes, the burning of the throat, and the feeling of fire on your face.

A tire was lit and rolled, burning, down the hill towards the army. Cheers went up within the crowd. Random question, but who carries a tire with them? When I plan on liberating Palestine, I think 'camera, ID, water'; who thinks 'ahh, tire?

Finally we reached the top. The last of the people remained, clearly waiting for news from those who had been at the bottom. Rana and I ran into some friends; one of their friends had been shot while at the fence, by the Israelis. Quickly heading back to the car, tiredness was rapidly replaced by anger.

We head to the hospital in Bint Jbeil to see if we could find the guy. The first hospital we went to we left empty handed, except for the bizarre-conspiracy-laden 'advice' from one of the hospital workers that "in this area, you can't name individuals and ask about them, because if information was revealed about them, you could be the enemy and use that information". Yes, sir. Clearly, we look like the enemy. The keffiyehs, the flags, the tear-stained faces, and bedraggled hair were all just a decoy.

Munib Masri, an AUB student in his early twenties, was undergoing surgery when we pulled into Bint Jbeil Government Hospital. He had been shot twice in the back while at the border. He lost a kidney, his spleen, and half of his intestine. His friends and fellow students spent the rest of the night pacing outside the hospital, waiting for him to stabilise. One friend, Khalil, had managed to obtain the list of injured and dead, and spent the evening coordinating with Abu Wassim in Shatila camp, trying to figure out who these people were to alert their families. In Bint Jbeil Government Hospital alone, there were 3 dead, and 29 injured. Those killed were Mohammad Abu Shalha, 18 years old, Imad (last name unknown), and Hussein Youssef.

Just before we left the hospital, two men pulled up outside on a scooter. "Are there any injured here?" they asked. We responded to the affirmative, so one ran inside to talk to reception. In the meantime we asked the other where they were from. "Which camp are you from?" "We're not from the camps, we're from Syria." "What are you doing here?" "We've come to donate blood." At this point his friend came back, saying the hospital had enough blood, and asked for directions to the next nearest hospital, before speeding off to continue their mission.

The car journey home was quiet. One of the guys, Mohammed, kept asking how people could go back to their lives after what happened today. "You know, the majority of people will go home, shower, and wake up tomorrow as if today didn't happen." Unfortunately, he is right. What happened today, if it was in any other country, would be considered an act of war. For some reason here in Lebanon it's chalked up as yet another Israeli violation, filed as yet another complaint to the UN, shoulders are shrugged, and people move on. So many things happened today that should not have been allowed to happen, but the most important one is no one should forget. No one should forget the names of those killed, no one should forget they were people, with lives, with families, with their entire future ahead of them. According to news reports, 10 people were killed and over 100 wounded. I have a feeling more died. I want to know who they were. They are not a news ticker, they are real.

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