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44 Years Since al-Naksa: Qalandia - June 5, 2011

[Protesters at Qalandia. Image from Nour Joudah.] [Protesters at Qalandia. Image from Nour Joudah.]

I spent most of this week undecided on whether or not to head to Qalandia today, though I suppose from the moment I considered going, I should have known that I wouldn’t be able to suppress the thought. The consensus by many was that buzz on the ground was relatively weak - not to be compared with the Nakba day protests - but between online promotional videos and Facebook statuses, I remained encouraged and intrigued, to say the least.

Protesters were called to meet at the Qalandia checkpoint at 11am for the peaceful march to Jerusalem. I got off the service (servees) from Ramallah near a supermarket on Qalandia’s main road - a little over a quarter of a mile from the checkpoint. I had spotted about twenty or so Palestinian students and foreigners in keffiyehs gathered and figured it was safe to assume that we were headed to the same place.

We started to head down to the checkpoint in small groups, three or four at a time, but not all at once. I walked down with a group of girls who seemed to be regulars, so to speak, and were speculating on scenarios that could arise, referencing the March 15th Nakba Day protests. When we arrived down near the checkpoint, the area was swarming with press, and it is probably safe to say that in these early moments, there was more press than protesters.

The crowd grew gradually, and after about twenty minutes, a group had decided it was time to get started. About ten or so girls with signs lined up at the Apartheid Wall and began leading the crowd in chants. However, less than ten minutes after they had moved up to the wall, the men to lead the march arrived, and the crowd shifted. We lined up behind them.

Thirty seconds later, popping sounds filled the air - sound bombs, rubber bullets, and tear gas started flying. The occupation forces were shooting, already – and people were running.

It was clear the sound wasn’t live ammunition, so initially the speed with which people fled wasn’t so quick, but within moments it picked up, and what seemed to be the entirety of the crowd sprinted back up toward the direction from where we had come. The gas was settling – and suffocating.

I ducked in to a small store that was already filled with people, and pushed my way to the back, to the refrigerators. I stood with two guys near the cold air and wiped my eyes, and drank, between my coughing fits, from the bottle of water I was handed. We spotted soldiers on the street outside the store almost immediately. They had made the crowd run up and were now setting a new frontline, no longer the checkpoint, but their armed presence.

The same person who had handed me water and an onion to smell inside the store was now standing next to me outside as we watched the soldiers march in. He asked me if I wanted to walk up to where the others had run; we were still close to the checkpoint behind the soldiers, in a sort of eerie state. We walked together, past the soldiers, and after pushing past some bystanders – there they were: our new frontline, the stone throwers. Without a word, we knew we needed to walk up and fast: the stone throwers and us, if we stayed near them, were about to get another wave of the suffocating tear gas. As we started to speed walk past the boys, we heard the shots; the canisters were coming down. And again, we ran.

This time there was no initial hesitation in speed. Make no doubt about it, it was a sprint. Baha, my new guide, had grabbed my wrist, sensing that my gas inhalation was starting to affect my speed. He pulled at me; no time to stop for air. No air to find anyway.

When we got to the top of the hill, I realized we were back at the supermarket where I had begun. Baha explained that the canisters landed nearby and that’s why it was stronger than the last time. Everyone else was discussing how it felt different, tasted different than tear gas. I took their word for it.

There was a larger group, maybe fifty or so, on the other side of the road, so we crossed to stand with them. I stayed close to this spot for most of the afternoon, only occasionally moving up when a crowd from below started running towards us, but then slowly moving back down moments later. This is how the day went, back and forth, and ambulances rushing from the front.

Conversations about wounded abounded and news was coming in about the Golan. “How many?” “Did anyone make it across?” “If only we could clear this street of cars, then we could have a proper march.”

Suddenly, there was a rush of runners – but this time, no noise. We had no clue, but again it was a sprint, so we sprinted.

We found out later that Israeli soldiers in plain clothes, mista’irbeen, had come out of a house to surprise those in the front from behind and separate them from us in the back. The soldiers disappeared into the camp again. Again, it settled, and again we stood, with more people inching forward. The afterschool crowd had let out now, too.

Then, we began to notice something.
Behind the soldiers – there!
T-shirts behind the army green. No! It couldn’t be.
But yes, it was.

There were protesters behind the soldiers, still at the checkpoint. It turned out that when the initial shots and gas canisters were fired, not everyone ran up the main road. Maybe twenty or thirty ran to the side and into the camp road near the checkpoint. After the soldiers had come up and established their new frontline – and I continue to use that term for this peaceful protest because that is what the Occupation Forces made it in their violent response  – these young hideaways had come back out, and stood defiant.

Though there was no hope of us getting back to them, and there would be no reaching Jerusalem, they stood there, for us. They did not move back up the road or stay on the side in the camp. They marched out with determination and pride and they stood behind the soldiers who were shooting in our direction. They stood behind their “frontline.” We could not defy the Wall or the border, but they could and did defy that wall and that border of violence.

It wasn’t until I got home and watched the video and looked at the pictures I snapped that I realized the girl standing next to me was screaming when we started to run from the checkpoint. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized Baha probably saved me from a trip to the hospital when he grabbed my wrist and, with his pull, forced my legs to keep running. It wasn’t until I got home that I felt much of anything had happened.

Forty-four years ago, a few days before June 5th, my parents got married in a ceremony in Rafah. My father’s friends told him war was starting in less than forty-eight hours. He should get back to the U.S. while he could. Before they had a chance to celebrate, my father snuck across the border to Egypt, and less than forty-eight hours later, he witnessed, for the second time in his life, the loss of his home – now a refugee camp – to Israeli military aggression. My mother would meet him months later in London and they would spend the rest of their lives raising their children in exile.

Forty-four years later, the children of their generation – in the Occupied Territories and in exile – remember the defeat of 1967, but they are not defeated. Instead, they are defiant. Instead, they carry their stories with them with every march.

To those who were lost in 1967, and to those who were lost today – you will never be forgotten, and your children are not defeated, because they remember you.

 

[For video footage of today's protest and the shooting, see Nour's video here.]

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