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Yom al-Naksa

June 5, 2011

5 June 2011 – Ramallah, West Bank

Nothing can prepare you for a day like this.

The streets of Ramallah were tense. Suspicion hung in the air, and everyone was subject to mistrust. It was difficult to gauge whether or not it was because you were foreign or because everyone was on edge on a day planned for confrontation.

Naksa, meaning “setback,” is a day to commemorate the loss of Palestinian land to Israel during the 1967 war. It comes less than three weeks after Nakba, May 15, and serves as a double blow of frustration and anger in a world that feels like its gained nothing in the past half century.

At the day’s beginning nothing was clear, but violence was inevitable. Protests were to start at the Qalandiyah checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem at mid-day, but anything beyond that would be subject to the chain of events.

For my group, the plan was to head to Jerusalem to see the protests from the other side, but we had a setback of our own. One of the girls traveling with us was ordered to get off the bus to walk back to Ramallah. We can only assume that the Israeli soldiers checked her name in the system and discovered that she held a Palestinian ID card. Unwilling to watch our friend walk the lonely road back away from the checkpoint, we asked the bus driver to stop and joined her in the direction toward Ramallah.

On the West Bank side of the checkpoint, things were already gathering momentum. Cameramen, reporters, and print journalists were scattered throughout the area, marked by their microphones, heavy equipment, and bright yellow press jackets. Men and women of all ages, some dressed as though it were just any other day and some adorning colors of Palestinian nationalism, gathered alongside the spray painted wall where a colorful Yasser Arafat gazed over the gathering crowd.

The demonstration’s organizers, mostly Palestinian youth, handed out medical masks and cotton balls soaked in alcohol to protect against the tear gas.  They knew exactly what was coming and they were prepared.

The minutes ticked by slowly, everyone was waiting for it to begin, some apprehensive and some eager. Regardless of any hesitation as to how violent the day would be, the demonstrators gathered along the wall holding banners and chanting for freedom and redemption. The line of demonstrators was comprised of a dozen or so young men and women, who appeared fearless and empowered by the words they screamed out to the crowd. One has to be reminded that this was nothing new to them, just another day on the calendar.

The chanting lasted no more than a few minutes and then the crowd began to push forward with the goal of penetrating the wall and breaking through to Jerusalem. However, the objective was quickly shattered as soon as the first tear gas canister fell, only minutes after the protest began.

You don’t see anything, you just hear the distinct pop and then another, and another. The first instinct is to run, out of the assumption that worse will follow. So run I did.

It was mass chaos, people running in every direction to escape the white smoke of the tear gas. One fell right in front of me, and unable to avoid it I had to push through and brace myself for the worst.

My heavy breathing due to my quick pace worsened the symptoms, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to slow down and steady myself. You can feel gas enter your system and your whole body begins to sting from the inside out. My eyes watered but I kept running until I ducked into a side street with some others.

Amidst the chaos I had been separated from my group but was fortunate enough to find myself side by side with some of the young women whom had been demonstrating. I asked them how far the tear gas could be thrown and how far the Israeli soldiers could go past the border. “Nothing holds them back,” said Selma. They could go as far as they wanted and as far as they needed in order to squander the resistance.

We were accompanied by a group of young men who were biting down on raw onions in order to ease the sting of the tear gas. It was a method that showed how used to this those around me were. They knew all the tricks of the trade.

We made our way back to the main street leading to the checkpoint where I reunited with some students from my program. The traffic of cars and taxis continued to flow as more tear gas canisters fell from the sky. Some of those in the group jumped into a taxi, heading back toward the uneasy but calm Ramallah. Some elected to stay, as did I.

From that point on, the street became a battle ground. Foreigners were scattered throughout the Palestinians lining the streets, adding a strange dynamic to the situation. Even more odd, young children ran around the streets, tossing onions and sticks back and forth. I couldn’t help but wonder how all of this would play into their lives in the years to come.

We tried to maintain a safe distance away from the center point of conflict, where young Palestinian men began to throw rocks in the direction of the Israeli soldiers. Invisible from their viewpoint, we could see a hoard of Israeli soldiers perched on top of the building alongside them. It was clear who had the advantage in this game.

And so the day proceeded like this: the Palestinians would throw rocks, the Israelis would drop tear gas, the Palestinians would retreat, wait, and then push forward again. There were a few occasions when you could hear the distinct sound of guns and you knew the ammunition of choice had switched to bullets. One man was shot in clear view, ambulances rushed past the throngs of people to rescue him. The Red Crescent was everywhere, ready for the worst.

In the moment, surrounded by chaos, I can look back and see how naïve I was. All of the people around me experienced this day after day. Shop owners stood in their doorframes watching the spectacle and people were going on with their daily lives.

I suggested we buy a bag of onions to hand out, picking up on the anti-tear gas tactic. We walked up and down the street handing them out. Most refused, some having their own already and some smiling but shaking their head in refusal. At the time, I thought they were smiling out of kindness but looking back I feel as though their faces meant to say, “Look at these foreigners, they just don’t understand.” It wasn’t negative, but a better understanding of the situation.

That sentiment became clearer to me when a moment of panic broke out later in the afternoon. Someone began to shout “run, run!” and so we followed order. It was the fastest I had ever run in my life, leaving the unknown danger behind. We turned down a side street and then stopped in front of a brigade of laughing children. We had been but a handful of people running, sparked by an order from a stranger.

Once it became clear that the day would consist of more of the same, a back and forth war of rocks and tear gas, the group I was with decided our presence was no longer necessary. And in the ride back to Ramallah, we began to contemplate whether or not our presence meant anything at all. My intention for being there were different from my peers, but they clearly were struggling with the conflict’s deadlock in ways they hadn’t before. Here was the violence, right in front of them, and there was a sense of powerlessness to have any input or meaning to the situation.

Was that how the demonstrators felt as well? Powerless? But then why do they return day after day, anniversary after anniversary? Unfortunately it wasn’t a question I was able to obtain many answers for. But, that will be the next task.

It was reported by Ma’an News Agency that over 300 gathered at Qalandiyah for Yom al-Naksa. It seems like a small number, especially since on the ground it felt like so much more. Throughout the afternoon, I found it impossible not to contrast what I was witnessing to the events in Midan al-Tahrir on May 27. Both were protests that desired changed, but they were so very different from each other. In Cairo, people brought their children to witness freedom, and in Ramallah, children ran freely up and down a street marred by continued bloodshed.

Freedom is not yet present in Palestine, and it seems far from grasp in the near future.

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