Tear Gas Attack in Bethlehem
“It will be different in Bethlehem, Lawrence.”
Nada warned me about the Nakba Day protest as she drove her sister’s new-looking white Prius into town, easily through some checkpoint, and right past the vaunted Banksy Hotel, actually named the Walled Off Hotel that includes Banksy artwork in addition to others. A human-size statue of a uniformed bellhop monkey graced the front door. What the racist hell was that?! No, I did not want to check it out.
Nada and I had been part of the previous day’s protest against the relocated US Embassy into Jerusalem, an action in violation of international law, diplomatic norms, and all US precedent. No other major nation, all NATO members included, has embassy representation in the contested and Israeli-occupied Holy City.
We had been herded behind a row of metal police barricades at yesterday’s demo along with several hundred completely peaceful protesters and what looked like a ton of international media. We were boisterous, loud and proud for Palestine, against Trump’s US embassy move, with at least four carefully crafted handmade signs our group created the previous day. Nada also sported a Palestinian flag around her shoulders. After what seemed about 20 minutes of normal protesting, long lines of Israeli police thugs charged our densely packed protest crowds to attack sign and flag wavers, apparently picking out people at random.
Defenseless people were thrown to the ground, pummeled and dragged on the concrete. The roided police, definitely juiced on whatever high-grade shit Tel Aviv is pushing these days, repeatedly attacked us with no warning. It was a classic police intimidation move, but it didn’t work. The protesters did not scatter and run and many tried to protect each other. I saw one middle-age woman dragging a prone cop off some guy he was beating. Another excited woman who looked like someone’s mom kicked over a metal barricade in disgust at all the police attacks swirling around us.
Jerusalem was a walk in the park
I learned afterward, however, that this Israeli police action might as well have been a walk in the park. “They didn’t shoot at us or really anything because Israelis were there in the protest, too. They won’t shoot when Israelis are present,” I was dutifully informed.
Nada parked her Prius Hybrid on a big open side street, and our hipster duo walked only a few feet before the gargantuan razer wire-topped separation wall loomed to the side of us as we glided past several PRESS photographers milling about in button-down flack jackets, Richard Engel battle helmets and professional full face tear-gas mask apparel. Exactly like a war zone. Guess that was my big tip-off that things definitely were gonna to be different today in Bethlehem.
A crowd of protesters were gathering hundreds of yards down the main thoroughfare, and we headed toward them on the sidewalk. I noticed behind us at the separation wall that the huge guard tower had been partially burned. Black roasted concrete and befowled glass-topped nightmare prison tower of doom courtesy of the toughest resistance on the planet.
So I’m guessing there was going to be no Israeli flower-power carrying peaceniks at this protest party, especially in the wake of yesterday’s Israeli military massacre of 60 Palestinians in Gaza and more than 2,500 seriously wounded. We were pissed off and bracing for the worst, and the Israeli apartheid Zionist armed forces were in no mood to party.
Nada and I walked past a beautiful colonial-era building and several normal looking businesses and store fronts before reaching the assembled protesters beneath a very modern digital advertising screen stretched over the length of the wide boulevard.
This was no tumbledown backstreet in a god forsaken refugee camp. No sir, Mr. Lawrence. This was sanitized and separated 2018 Bethlehem, for god’s sake. Which one is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, the colorized pixilated fates were pushing new cars, hand soap and eye shadow in preparation for my highly anticipated dance at the IDF cotillion, now only minutes away.
(I know, I know, IOF. Israeli Occupation Forces. Sometimes the oppressed and brutalized can be so touchy. But some Palestinians don’t accept the term “occupation.” So there.)
Several hundred protesters wandered about with large Palestinian flags and all-black mourning banners. Someone brought in a dozen or so open-bottom red paper balloons with small candle holders intended to provide lift for a airborne peace flotilla, I guess. A few folks accidently burned their balloons, but one or two did ascend beyond our maddened crowd. It was around midday under clear blue skies. Kids had fistfuls of green, red, black and white plastic Palestinian flags on cheap plastic rods to hand out. I grabbed one and off we went.
Up at the separation wall, Israeli soldiers were massed around a few military vehicles preparing to engage our determined cadre of unarmed children, students, workers, professionals, longtime agitators, committed nationalists, and a core of international advocates for peace and justice.
A resolute and dangerous existential threat, for sure.
“PAL-A-STEEN !! PAL-A-STEEN !!”
I recognized that chant, but everything else was a call-and-response rising unintelligible strengthening thunder that got louder with every step we took toward the uniformed Israeli troops. If I hadn’t before, I now immediately recognized the serious unfolding nature of developing situation.
“Shall we get up in front?” I said to Nada also waving a plastic Palestinian flag. “Yeah?” she replied, I think in a surprised positive manner, and we kicked it up a gear or two to be there with the advancing vanguard. I didn’t come halfway around the world to hide in the back of the line. There was only one honest place to be right there and then.
I was privileged to be marching for Palestine with incredible women like Nada and 4 or 5 of her female colleagues from a legal and cultural aid group based in East Jerusalem. Nada, 29, was the group staff leader, while the others were mostly interns rotating through a multiple week assignment. A secular Palestinian from a Catholic family, Nada represented the finest of her generation, both at home and abroad, as a tireless feminist and educated nationalist devoted to a peaceful lifting of the illegal, immoral suffocating military occupation of her besieged nation.
Someone who has lived and worked abroad, and could be anywhere else at that particular moment, Nada understood the risks. Like so many other secular and religious Palestinian women in that completely exposed firing line of a wide open street, brandishing only a cheap plastic flag and an unwavering heart, Nada was facing down a remorseless war machine that had hours ago murdered unarmed scores of her people. It would be real tough measuring up to that brand of courage.
I reached the far end of the front line and looked down the perfectly aligned row. Some big guy in the middle was taller than the rest, all clutching a waist-high horizontal Arabic-language banner. I think Nada was right behind me at that point. I was yelling “Palestine!”, holding up my flag, holding up my camera phone and not thinking much about anything as I finally turned toward the assembled fascist guard.
There was no fellow protesters between me and the IDF, just one photographer and some dude taking film ahead of him. We were starting to get close, the street was narrowing, and I could almost see the individual soldiers.
Flash-bang, percussion warning rounds went off. More than a few. Loud menacing echos thundered off some of the taller buildings, but nothing had been fired along our street it appeared, and we kept advancing. White smoke puffs suddenly wafted off the military vehicle by the soldiers at the other side of the street.
“Allah Akhbar !! Allah Akhbar !!”
There was still absolutely no one between yours truly and the bad boys up ahead. What a fabulous freakin’ crystal clear unobstructed view of the fascist guard in action. They were shooting directly at me and the Palestinian people by my side. It was a revolutionary honor of the highest order. I was eternally grateful to once again be on the front line.
The tear gas started to fly, first one smoking canister zipped in to my side toward all the other people, who had wisely bolted to the rear, then more, and suddenly smoking canisters were all around me. Nearly surrounded. I had turned around to face the rear, but for a second or two, it was okay, no biggie, and I thought about kicking the canisters away.
But the acrid smoke and nasty chemicals that smelled and tasted like extreme gunpowder were everywhere. The choking in my mouth and gut started to overwhelm me. Now facing completely toward the rear protesters who had scrambled away, there was nothing but rising white smoke around me, like I had been intentionally encircled by some mystical legendary burning ring of fire. I was completely fucked.
Then some gust, some luck opened a clear air space the width of my body to the rear far side, enough for me to make a quick dash finally off the polluted street. Otherwise I would have had to bolt directly into that rising wall of towering smoke. But like Walter and Roland decades ago in Soldier Field, I found and hit my lane. For once in my ridiculous life, I hit the open lane. Probably the last goddamn fool to get the hell off that wasted street. A bigtime revolutionary, definitely. Yeah, right.
Off the pavement, thunderous explosions, perhaps rubber bullet gun shots, ringing through the stinging air, miraculously I found entrance steps leading down into a surrounding courtyard away from the street. Immediately some street medics followed me in and administered eye swabs to staunch the burning. I swallowed the tear gas, too, and experienced some world-class choking. I thanked my medics, ambulance sirens blaring, and within minutes got back on the street with everyone else.
“That was fun!” I said to the medics, still burning eyes and stinging throat.
“That was the real deal,” I remarked to no one as the bright orange jacketed health crew wandered off attending to others.
“Just got tear gassed. That was fun. That was fun,” I tried to convince myself, talking into my phone camera that had somehow kept going through all the shit.
“That was ugly, but I think I’m okay” as I again raised my Palestinian flag on the street in clear view of the soldiers.
Parading down the street to my comrades at a very leisurely walk, I yelled the following declarations:
“Thanks to the street medical corps. They helped me out. Woo hoo!
“Palesteen! Palesteen forever!
“From Chicago! I’m from the United States! I just got tear gassed by the fucking IDF! Proud to be here! Proud to be with Palestinians forever, man!
“Fuckin’ Palestine forever! Palesteen!”
Someone on the street kindly called out, “You are a brave man.”
“I don’t know about that. I’m a foolish man. Haaa!”
I started walking back toward the soldiers with some others, and we got up against a stone wall for cover. A young guy there was angling out toward the street in a very exposed manner. I repeated, “Don’t got shot! Don’t get shot, man!” Who knows what those IDF bastards were capable of right here, right now.
All hell started breaking loose.
The stone throwers were out in force now. Dudes scarfing up with keffiyehs and black bandanas and using long sling lines and even slingshots. But we were far enough away that whatever they tossed had little chance at hitting anywhere near the soldiers. Thankfully the fascists were not advancing much, and the street scene quickly became a standoff. I wandering among the stone throwers there on the frontline not far back from where we were gassed. Real life scenes of the newsreel stone throwers were all around me. Guys wrapping their heads completely in colorful scarves to not be identified. Stepping right into the middle of the street to hurl their projectiles. Guys with black ski masks gathering right beside me to plot strategy and targets.
They paid me no mind, and I said with a slight laugh to one, “You guys are crazy.”
Suddenly out of nowhere, running down the middle of the street right toward me was Nada. Dressed in tight black shirt and pants, straight long brown hair flowing free, this woman was in control.
“I was in . . . Are you okay?” she asked me.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I got tear gassed pretty good,” I replied confidently.
“Yeah, me too. I got one in the ass. I’m looking for . . . ” The name got lost in a siren wail.
The what? She got hit where? I was so caught up in the moment that what she said didn’t really register. The gas, sirens and continuing explosive thunder were all messing with my head.
“Here’s some water,” I offered.
“No, I’m okay. So they’re going to . . . “
Just then a lone slight woman with dark uncovered waving her Palestine flag walked by chanting “Palesteen! Palesteen!”
“Palesteen! Palesteen! Palesteen!” Nada immediately replied as she then walked behind me for the moment, apparently still searching for someone.
Later, Nada told me she knew the slight woman whose son had been killed in a resistance action. But the Israelis continue to refuse to release the body to her in a form of collective punishment.
Nada also mentioned her disappointment that so many people, when the going got rough, like right then and there, shouted Allah Akhbar! and not the more politically unifying Palesteen! No wonder she had immediately added her voice to the slight woman still waiting for her son to come home.
Just then one of our group, Anna, originally from Canada, walked in toward us on the sidewalk. She was on her phone at the time.
“I can see her. I’m gonna grab her. I’ll have to call you back!”
More protesters kept streaming down the sidewalk toward us away from the Israelis. When the tear gas attacks started, a lot of the protesters had been trapped in some side streets and were only now returning to the greater crowd of what had been our peaceful demo only minutes earlier.
Stone throwers out in full force
Now the stone throwers were out in full force. The slinged rocks whipped past your face with a vicious terrifying force and intensity depending on how close you were to the throwers. But a lot of them weren’t very accurate or in control. Some were lucky to get the rocks actually released out in the correct direction toward of the fascist guards.
“I think I just got hit by a rock” ricochet in the leg I yelled at no one in particular.
A direct hit would have been really bad. But, hey, it’s understandable. It’s one of the very few weapons the Palestinians have in reaction to every known and/or secret high-tech and supra-lethal device constantly employed by the Israeli fascist guard.
More women protesters still carrying Palestinian flags walked quickly past us. Now I saw several women in traditional they were head coverings. All parts of the Palestinian society were present here.
Nada and other comrades ducked into a hotel located right there on the protest front line. She later told me the hotel manager basically kicked them out. Would not help at all. No Palestinian solidarity at all in that place. Terrible.
As I walked up toward the front line, a couple of orange-vested street medics recognized me from a video making the Facebook rounds. I had reacted spontaneously to the constant Zionist settler barrage of flags and guns and parades in the East Jerusalem Old City Muslim Quarter by purchasing a national banner right beside me at a shop stall, 20 shekels, and creating a one-man Palestinian parade of my own.
“We saw you in Jerusalem!”
“You saw that, huh?!”
They looked like fresh-faced young kids who should have been in college instead of risking their necks in service of their countrymen and women while under attack by Israeli armed forces.
“Where’s Nada at?” a comrade asked as she quickly walked up and away, and I pointed out her last known redoubt, the horrible hotel.
“The people love you,” said one medic who looked for all the world like an innocent cartoon character by wearing the gas mask’s protruding filter canister atop his head. “Like a Teletubbie!” Nada gleefully reminded me later.
“I want more Americans to be here,” I explained to the medics.
God, I remember back at the US Embassy in Managua decades ago when dozens, hundreds of fellow American anti-Reaganites protested his repugnant creation of the reactionary Contra factions and similar death squad regimes in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and elsewhere in central America, exactly the places now where the societies have imploded under decades of US neoliberal policies that are directly responsible for the hemorrhaging streams of refugees from exactly those countries that suffered and are suffering under US control. The refugees Trump refers to as animals and worse. There was no shortage of Americans with me in Nicaragua back when it counted.
Occupied Palestine of course is much farther away from the Americas, but with cheap plane flights anywhere these days, where was the once vaunted and respected international US peace community? Myself and a couple others were the only ones I saw here in 2018, in Bethlehem, where it counted.
What the hell happened to America?
“I want to ask you a question, sir,” the medic asked me as some type of gun or rocket fire blasted all around us. “What do you know about Palestine before coming here?”
I knew the history
“A lot. I knew the history before coming here. I know the history. I know the oppression.”
Decades ago I was introduced to what was then called the Arab-Israeli conflict working as a reporter in tiny Pana, Illinois, the home of once famed, now largely forgotten American journalist and author Vincent Sheean. A contemporary of Hemingway, Capa, Dorothy Thompson, Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and more, he was on site when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, and personally denounced by the German Nazi regime, reportedly the only journalist the Nazis ever personally singled out by name.
Sheean’s most famous book is Personal History (1935, Doubleday) that recounted the author’s exploits the previous decade in many nations and hotspots around the world. The book’s final chapter Holy Land concerns Sheean’s on-the-ground reporting of the infamous 1929 Arab-Jewish riots in Jerusalem, Hebron and nearby locales. He placed the cause of those deadly encounters squarely at the feet of intentional Zionist provocations at the Arab-owned Wailing Wall that pushed local Palestinians beyond endurance.
Sheean had initially come to Palestine to write some feature pieces on the Zionist movement which he was inclined to support. However, when he saw the actual conditions and situations here, he came to recognize the simple fact that Zionists intended to relocate people into a place that already had a native population. Personal History peaked my interest in the Middle East conflicts way back in the early 1980’s, and I’ve been following developments here ever since. The Holy Land chapter remains essential reading to anyone determined to understand the creation of Israel and its continuing occupation of Palestine.
So I stayed up at the front line with the stone throwers between the fascist guard and the mass of protesters in the rear. A few press photographers took up defensive positions, and I hung around while continuing to hold up my Palestinian flag.
“These guys probably don’t have much of a sense of humor,” I laughed about the fascist guards into my camera when I suddenly realized I was now between the stone throwers and the bad guys. “Maybe I shouldn’t be here,” I said to no one in particular and chuckled again.
“Thank you, sir! A lot of sense!” a Palestinian middle-age man blurted from the sidewalk.
“I’m proud to be here, man.”
“We also proud for you.”
“More Americans should be here.”
“But you’re crazy (for not) stay home. You’re crazy man.”
“That’s for sure!”
“For sure, yeah?”
“Crazy in a good way.”
Someone told me later that the guy definitely was praising me. I wasn’t sure there for a minute.
Still holding up my Palestinian flag, I hung out with the clutch of mostly black-clad stone throwers for a while more. Some had commercial-grade gas masks, other black ski masks, and others keffiyehs wrapped around their entire heads except for eye slits. A tough looking, tough throwing bunch, definitely. But they knew I was on their side. I was only worried about one thing at that moment.
“Don’t shoot me in the back, IDF!!” my phone picked up as I collected more video.
Up on the sidewalk for now, a lot of us talked politics while trying to clear the tear gas and free up storage space on the smartphone video camera.
“I’m from Italy, but I live in China with my girlfriend.”
“Italy? Say, that’s pretty right-wing these days, isn’t it?”
“They don’t even have a government. It’s all mafia. Like Trump.”
“And you’re from Michigan? Where, Ann Arbor?”
“Yes, working this semester with a Catholic NGO.”
“Too bad you guys went Trump in the election. I can’t believe Michigan didn’t go for Hillary.”
“I couldn’t vote for her.”
“Oh, really? The Democratic Party has the greatest progressive agenda in the Western world and you can’t vote for Hillary? You didn’t want a women president, I take it?”
This over-educated grad assistant gives me some holier-than-thou sneer, and I let her have it.
“Hey, nice to know you’re more concerned with your political purity than taking your civic responsibility seriously. Thanks for making sure the poor, working class and minority communities had absolutely no chance under Trump. Hope you’re happy. Hey, nothing personal,” I yelled out walking into the siren-filled eye-burning haze.
Flaming dumpsters, burning tires
Thank God the soldiers were not really advancing, which gave the Palestinians time to regroup and compound the situation. One young man was struggling to pull a flaming dumpster on wheels up to the front line. He wasn’t getting far. I think the wheels were misaligned or perhaps melting in real time. To their credit, there were a number of battled-dressed press photographers in and among the milling stone throwers and flag wavers.
Then some real fun began.
Individual guys brought up one or two cars tires, whatever they could carry, and set them on fire. The black thick smoke began to envelope the sky. The flaming dumpster never made it anywhere near the frontline burning tires, tipped over its contexts well back of the burning tires. A silver SUV and a tan hatchback then drove up to the frontline. Both stopped and backed up and began turning around while more sirens screamed.
What the hell was going on?
The vehicles’ back doors and hatches were opened and loose tires poured onto the roadway. More fuel for the blackening fires.
Okay, now I get it.
The street turned into a war zone. Black haze reached back to the rear protesters within minutes. Stone throwers still kept up their fight, but all in all it was a standoff. No Palestinians were advancing past the massive towering black smoke wall, and the fascist guard was apparently satisfied to hold serve.
Other protesters said their comrades had been shot in the legs with rubber bullets.
Eventually Nada, her group and I all collected toward the rear and got outta there. Nothing else was really going to happen. Thank God, there were no serious injuries among us, outside eyes, noses, faces and guts full of tear gas. And a bruised ass. One woman said she was certain today’s tear gas was a different type than what they’d experienced at previous demonstrations.
“Someone should collect the canisters and get them analysed. I’m sure it’s different now.”
Every business and shop throughout Palestine was closed in a general strike in mourning solidarity for those massacred in Gaza the previous day, not to mention the Nakba anniversary. We tried to find something to eat and drink, but Bethlehem was locked down tight.
Nada and I took a cab back to her sister’s Prius, my comrade being very worried about the vehicle. The taxi driver actually tried to overcharge us, but Nada scotched that rip off. When we reached the car, it was absolutely fine. No damage, though some leftover barricade detritus was not far off. Nada knew when to be concerned.
As we walked up to the car, a young kid on the street said a few things my way, but I had no idea what.
“He recognizes you from the video, Lawrence.”
It had been a long and different day in Bethlehem. 
(see my gas attack video at end of original blog post, http://maushard.com/tear-gassed-in-bethlehem/)