By Dylan Bergeson/ Special to the AS Review
I immediately knew something was wrong when I turned my cell phone back on.
I had been busy for only one hour with an interview; it was now 9 p.m. Scrolling through a list of new voice mail hits and missed calls, I selected the first text message. A man had been kidnapped from the Palestinian city of Nablus, across town from where I now stood. While thought to be German, details were vague. Friends had begun to fear that I had been taken. It took a moment to sort out my thoughts:
In the several days since newspapers throughout Europe reprinted a racial caricature of the Prophet Mohammed and other cartoons from the Danish Jyllands-Posten paper, I had noticed young boys in Balata refugee camp becoming more aggressive. Instead of the typical cacophony of “hello,” “how are you,” “what’s your name,” that usually accompanied me down the street, I started hearing “are you from Denmark?” I also learned the children’s English vocabularies included a surprising and creative variety of naughty phrases.
Fighters had been asking members of the camp if I was Danish as well. Locals began to caution me about walking in the streets alone; something no one had felt compelled to say before, even during election tensions. One man said, “Now they are yelling at you, but maybe next time they will throw rocks or something worse.”
I had only been aware of the kidnapping for five minutes when the German man was released. Still, that he was taken from a hotel long understood as safe and neutral territory was reason enough to proceed with tact. So, grudgingly, I put my documentary project on hold and left early the following morning.
Uncertainty is a way of life in Palestine, and I am beginning to see that insecurity is, as well. I had never before felt unsafe in the hands of a Palestinian community. Activists engaged in the struggle for liberty in the occupied territories sometimes gloss over the ugly parts of Palestinian society. The stories they relay to the world can lack verisimilitude as much as those of corporate media. In any case, I felt disappointed and betrayed. The next morning, instead of returning to the womb of Jerusalem, I hired a taxi to a demonstration in the village of Bil’in, video camera in hand. Perhaps I purposefully retreated into the familiar scenario of armed occupation soldiers beating peaceful protesters to feel insecure in a way that was less threatening to my epistemology. Maybe I needed to remind myself why some Palestinians are angry at the world.
It was pouring when we arrived. On the horizon I could see the recent settlement construction peeking through the mist. A private company has been expanding and building housing complexes for a nearby Israeli settlement – in any case illegal by international law – into Bil’in’s land at a rate far exceeding that needed to accommodate “natural growth.” Cynically, the contractors neglected to apply for Israeli building permits – hundreds of Palestinian homes outside Israel’s borders are demolished each year for lack of such documentation.
After demonstrations with strong international support and heavy media coverage, Israeli courts halted the construction but stopped short of ordering the new buildings to be destroyed. The current route of Israel’s Apartheid Wall would cut through Bil’in to incorporate the settlement, permanently annexing existing housing developments.
The soldiers allowed us to demonstrate for about an hour before becoming notably violent and detaining several Israeli peace activists. As the soldiers were escorting a man along a road with low stone walls on either side, a group of Israelis and internationals intercepted them from outside the east wall and “unarrested” him. It was a tug-o-war match, the soldiers holding the man’s feet, the activists taking his upper body. His pants came down and his shirt lifted up, exposing his skin to the stones he was being scraped back and forth against, but the crowd of protesters managed to pull him free. An outraged soldier began shooting randomly aimed bullets at head level into the air around him, luckily hitting no one.
Then came the tear gas. We retreated, ducking behind cars and olive trees. Shabab (male youth) began slinging stones in an ironic David versus Goliath display. Soldiers responded by sniping two activists with tear gas canisters fired from M16s; one of them, an Israeli woman, was pelted in the head at close range. I tried my best to memorize the faces of the attacking soldiers; they were my peers, boys and girls my age and younger, usually just out of high school. It made the situation easier to cope with and easier to forgive.
I forced myself to breathe normally through the gas, reminding myself that my body was receiving oxygen– tear gas interferes with the brain’s ability to communicate with the lungs, often leading to hyperventilation. Then through blurred vision I looked at the scene around me, and continued filming.
In these moments on the frontline, where the human will to be free clashes along with the willingness and ability to subjugate, there are lessons lurking behind the urgent horror and injustice of the Occupation. Mostly I find myself pondering motivations. Was Stanley Milgram correct? Do populations easily commit acts of moral depravity when responsibility is removed by the presence of leadership?
I find myself pondering motivations and fate. Hundreds of internationals, Palestinians, and Israeli soldiers meet daily in scenes like this, each with a story of how they arrived, and I wonder, as we meander through life forging experiences and memories, does this calcify the way we see the world?
The West appears to be launching yet another cultural front against Islam. News coverage that could have been cut and pasted from the months following 9/11 is resurfacing: a mosque accused of manufacturing terrorists in London; anger in the Middle East once again boiled down to hatred of Western liberties. Presenting the story as primarily a free speech debate frames the situation as cultural, not political in nature. It ignores the centuries-old context of Western colonization coupled with the practice of exoticizing and vilifying Muslim societies.
In Palestine, people are feverish– it’s no lie. Thousands of Muslims are venting their rage through interfaith solidarity with Christians, Samaritans, Jews, and atheists through acts of nonviolence, like boycotting. Islamic organizations often demonized in the West have sought to quiet, not inflame, anti-Western expression.
Hamas began participating in nonviolent demonstrations, saying it will pursue any means of resistance it observes as effective. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood released an article titled “Yes to anger, no to violence,” condemning property damage and urging the Muslim community to proceed with composure, rather than behave in ways that reinforce Islamophobia.
These stories fail to penetrate into many Western minds that lump Hamas, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban into one homogenous clot of “terrorist” stereotypes. American news corporations are more interested in covering minority divisions that wear masks and burn European flags. But “Culture War” analysis is disingenuous. It has little to do with defending free speech, only the West’s use of free speech. Arabs and Muslims exercising their freedom to assemble in demonstrations united across national and cultural borders are represented as extremists.
At the same time as we defend Denmark’s democratic rights, freedom comes with responsibility. We must speak out against racism wherever it occurs.