Soldiers get trigger-happy with the tear gas at Ni’lin

18 January 2009

The anti-Apartheid Barrier demonstrations at the West Bank village of Ni’lin have become a regular affair. Every Friday, after noon prayers, there is a standoff between soldiers and young Palestinians that degenerates into a disproportionate battle of Israeli firepower and teenagers running for their lives.

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Internationals from PSP and ISM along with Israeli Anarchists attend such standoffs to provide a visible presence so that Israeli forces are, in theory, less likely to use lethal force. Shamefully, but undeniably, this does provide some form of deterrent to the Israeli forces, and ‘only’ four Palestinians have been killed in the last six years at demonstrations where internationals were present.

Last Friday’s standoff began as usual with villagers gathering for midday prayers in an ancient olive grove that looks as though it hasn’t changed since biblical times. The scene is serene as groups of young men seated beneath gnarled olive trees listen reverently to the imam’s teachings and then prostrating themselves in communal prayer.

Then the group dissipates and some of the young men make their way to a bluff overlooking the barrier building site, where an Israeli army jeep is waiting below, weapons at the ready. The standoff is well practiced on both sides and the provocation begins predictably with a few stones slung by teenagers. The brutal response is equally predictable: a barrage of flaming aluminium canisters jetting tear gas at anyone unlucky enough to be nearby.

This time the barrage was more intense than usual. No one was killed or seriously injured, but the army fired an awful lot of tear gas. There was a constant game of cat-and-mouse as Palestinians and a dozen international observers ran, jumped walls and hid behind olive trees whilst tear gas canisters seared past.

The soldiers pursued us through the olive groves and then through the village where there were some hairy moments as Palestinians and internationals alike were cornered in the stinging choking fumes with soldiers getting closer. Suddenly a new type of tear-gas launcher was used to fire a barrage of what seemed to be more than 50 canisters launched simultaneously. The air became unbreathable throughout whole areas of the village, and it took a while to pass.

Tear gas is extremely unpleasant, and can kill in close proximity. The canisters themselves can burn viciously and penetrate flesh. Thankfully only a few minor injuries were sustained on this occasion, there was no sign of live fire and the whole affair was over by mid-afternoon. Nevertheless, it is a frightening prospect that new types of weaponry seem to be appearing with increasing regularity.