June 13, 2008
Another Palestinian Village in Death Throes
Seth Freedman, The Guardian
Scrambling up the rock-strewn hillside in the baking midday sun, we stumbled across two middle-aged men taking shade under an olive tree. As they bade my guide “Salaam aleikum”, their eyes scanned my face for a hint of recognition. Finding none, one of the men ventured a tentative greeting in English and, when I responded in kind, proffered two items in my direction.
One was a surgeon’s mask; the other a strip of alcohol-saturated prep pads: “You’ll need them for where you’re going”, he assured me. As we edged closer to our destination, it was clear we had been well-advised. Plumes of tear gas crisscrossed the air, trailing the canisters fired by the border police toward the scores of demonstrators. The pungent, acrid fumes filled our nostrils and mouths, while our ears resonated to the sporadic bursts of rubber bullets being shot in our direction.
From our vantage point atop the hill, we had a perfect view of the operating table that lay beneath us, and our surgical accessories added to the sense of theater that we were witnessing. As we looked on, we watched the obligatory rocks flung at the troops from youths wielding slingshots; the equally standard opening of fire by the police in response and the all-too familiar sight of wounded protesters being rushed by stretcher to waiting ambulances. There was nothing we onlookers and reporters could do but record the events in our notebooks and cameras; our roles no different to that of medical staff witnessing the slow deaths of terminally ill patients. In this case, the patients were the villagers of Nilin, the disease they were vainly fighting was the ever-spreading cancer of Israeli settlements across the corpus of their ancestral land.
In 1948, the first symptoms of Nilin’s impending malaise took the form of an expropriation of 40,000 dunams of land by the newly formed Israeli Army. While crushed by the weight this blow dealt to their livelihoods, the townspeople believed the tumor had gone into remission, only for a second attack to strike during the Six-Day War, when several thousand more dunams were invaded.
Since then, they have realized that the malignant growth is spreading further: yet more of their land has been sequestered by the Israeli authorities and the detested security wall erected in the midst of their olive groves.
Attempts to halt the cancer’s progress have failed; the Israeli government appearing resistant to any of the balm which the villagers have fought to apply, whether in the form of legal action, international pressure, or the intervention of local peace activists. Faced with what could well prove a fatal blow to the entire town, the residents have been forced to take drastic measures to try to keep the tide at bay. Now, on an almost daily basis, dozens of youths take to the hills to impede the wall’s construction; their medieval arsenal of sticks and stones no match for the heavily armed, heavily fortified troops who surround them on every side.
Talking to the locals is akin to visiting the terminally ill in a hospice; all one can do is offer words of comfort and try to placate them as the inevitable decline continues. “In the end, they will win —- and we know it,” said Khaled Mesleh, a 58-year-old grandfather whose family has lived in Nilin for more than 800 years. “We might succeed in holding up the building of the wall for a matter of days or weeks, but ultimately they will achieve their aims.”
Those aims, according to Mesleh, are to crush the villagers into submission once and for all. “The Israelis take our land, refuse us permission to expand the village, prevent us being able to work inside Israel … so that eventually we will simply say ‘we’ve had enough’ and leave. There are 6,000 residents of Nilin and none of them are happy; it’s impossible to be happy in such conditions.”
As the border police continued to pick off protesters with rubber bullets and live ammunition, we returned to his modest house to continue our discussion out of the line of fire. Children and grandchildren swarmed round the living room and kitchen; “They all live with me,” said Mesleh. “Where else can they go?” With the town’s borders continually narrowing, those of his offspring who have married and had children of their own are forced to continue living in the family home, or else to leave the village for good.
In the meantime, Hindi, one of his sons, has taken it upon himself to help organize the protests against the wall’s erection. Breathless and bathed in sweat, he returned to the house enraged by what he’d seen. A freelance photographer and camera operator by trade, he had plenty of evidence of the scale of the injustices being dealt to his fellow villagers. He showed us footage of a border police officer letting off rapid-fire bursts of rubber bullets in random directions, as well as clips of the wounded being rushed away from the scene by panicked medics. Hindi is just as resigned to the reality as his father: “At least by protesting we can try to prevent them taking even more of our land, but we [are in no doubt] that the wall will still be built.” All that the locals can do is keep placing themselves in the firing line, in the vain hope that their actions will do more good in the long run than the harm caused by the tear gas and rubber-coated missiles fired into their bodies.
In Nilin specifically as well as in the West Bank as a whole, one thing is certain: the drugs don’t work. The idea of international intervention is laughed at sorrowfully by Khaled and his peers. Similarly, the aid of the Israeli courts: “An Israeli judge banned them from continuing to build the wall here,” said Khaled, “but they [the army] couldn’t care less. They’re still here — and if the courts can’t stop them, who can?”
The answer — as he, his son and the rest of the villagers know all too well — is that no one can. The eyes of the world look on either benevolently (in the case of Israel’s backers in the US and elsewhere), or impotently; too cowed to act, too diplomatic to intervene. Time is not on the Palestinians’ side. Just as Nilin appears in its death throes today, so too will another village tomorrow, then another, then another. As the life of the Palestinian nation ebbs away, the best treatment on offer is merely palliative; and even that is proving too weak to soothe their never-ending anguish.