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A Protest in N'ilin

The Village and the Wall

by GLEN JOHNSON

The village is small and run-down. A couple of hundred residents. Green Hamas flags hang above the dirt street and wave in the breeze.

It is brutally hot. The buildings are plastered with images. One is a photo of a small Palestinian boy from the village. His face is smiling, superimposed over a picture of the West Bank Wall and a sniper tower.

At the age of 10 he was shot in the head by Israeli soldiers.

From the mosque’s minaret the midday prayer projects through the streets of Ni’lin in the West Bank.

I sit at a small coffee shop and wait. The only customer.

A child is running down the street, kite trailing in the sky above him. He is covered in dust and his shoes are worn-out.

Next to me, and on the wall, is the image of a man: Yousef. He was shot dead by Israeli soldiers in the village two weeks ago, during a protest against the West Bank Wall.

People start appearing. They make their way to the olive groves near the town’s centre.

Around 100 Palestinians have gathered. They are facing east and praying.

Littered about the place are shell casings. And tear gas canisters.

The canisters are lethal. Fired at high-velocity, they whip past you: crunching into trees. A range of hundreds of metres.

Earlier this year, a local man had his chest split open when shot with canisters by Israeli soldiers. He bled to death.

Another man – an American activist called Tristan – was shot in the back of the head with a canister. He was in a coma for months and had to have a section of his brain removed.

The villagers’ foreheads are to the ground. They are on their knees.

Palestinian flags wave in the sky, and they begin marching. Marching to the West Bank Wall. In protest of both the Wall’s construction and Israel’s 42 year occupation of the Palestinian Territories.

The wall cuts the villagers off from around 50 percent of their land.

There is a range of people: the villagers, international activists, local media, and a severely crippled young man from England.

His name is Geordie and he is in an electric wheelchair. People help him navigate his way through the terrain.

He is wearing a Palestinian Keffiyeh. It is draped around his neck.

He gets up from the wheelchair, it won’t take him any further – the ground is too uneven.

His knees are bent almost to right angles and he staggers forward. Steps no longer than ten centimetres. Irregular. A kind of shuffle. Losing his balance, people rush forward to support him.

“We have to help the Palestinians,” he says “We have to free Palestine.”

Geordie went to the Gaza Strip after Operation Cast Lead: Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza earlier this year. He is incredibly brave: a crippled boy hobbling into a major flashpoint.

A Palestinian holding a flag is talking to him.

“Last week, we were worried about you, but this is your second time, so we don’t worry!”

The march proceeds. Sweat drips, it has broken 40 degrees.

A Palestinian man passes a bottle of water, says “welcome” and tells me to drink.

His name is Salah. He works for the Palestinian Committee Against The Wall. And he talks about the aims of the protest.

They have marched every week for a year now.

“We have had to change strategy. Guns don’t work. Diplomacy didn’t work With non-violent protest maybe things will change.”

It is an interesting conversation. The question lingering at its core is: Can non-violent protest force change in the face of military aggression?

Salah says it had worked in the past.

“Look at South Africa, how protest got Apartheid to end,” he says.

“It is not just a walking protest: there is boycotting, getting governments to act.”

The path rounds a corner and we can see soldiers. In green. With body-armour and M-16s. Batons. There are nine army trucks.

They stand, an Israeli settlement to their right.

And the marchers continue towards the West Bank Wall, regardless.

They make it to the wall.

The first layer is seemingly impenetrable razor wire. Some men with Keffiyehs wrapped around their faces take wire-clippers to it.

Behind the first layer of razor wire is a ditch, around three metres deep and five metres wide. It is filled with more razor wire.

From behind this an electrified fence extends up. There is a road and more razor wire.

The soldiers are about 150 metres away.

A Swedish girl involved with the International Solidarity Movement says that there are international observers with the troops today.

“We wouldn’t have made it to the wall, if they (the observers) weren’t there. This is the third time in a year we have made it this far. Usually there are snipers in the olive groves. It’s impossible to get past them.

“They are trying to show that the Israeli army does not use violence, which is a lie,” she says.

Through a telephoto lens, you can see people in civilian dress, sprinkled among soldiers.

Then the protestors are shouting.

“Allah Akhbar, Allah Akhbar.”

The villagers have managed to cut through the wire. They remove a segment of about ten metres and begin throwing rocks at the electric fence extending upwards from the ditch below.

They are holding their hands to the sky, screaming.

“End the occupation. Israel: get out, get out.”

They cut through another section. Looping ropes around the wire, they haul it to the ground and cheer.

Two army trucks move down the road. People start running. Soldiers deploy from the trucks and run along the road.

Then teargas canisters are everywhere. Their sound is horrible.

There are massive booms. They are using canons which shoot multiple canisters at high velocity.

Then I can’t see anything. The gas is like a deep fog. It burns against the sweat on your face and arms, and your eyes start weeping.

The taste is hideous and chemical, it makes you not want to breath. You have to force the air into your lungs.

I am on my knees, coughing and spitting – trying to suck air in. Opening my eyes, I can’t see a metre in front of me. Everything is grey, the air is thick with gas.

I grab an onion that I bought in Ramallah from my bag, split it open and start sniffing it as hard as I can. Eyes closed. I bite into it, chewing, then spit it into my hands. Keep sniffing. The hiss of canisters is everywhere. It feels like someone is pouring vinegar onto my eyeballs and I am hocking gas from my lungs.

Then someone grabs my arm. He is wearing a gas mask and the vest of the Red Crescent. He sprays liquid on my shirt and tells me to breath against it.

He leads me out of the smoke, points and then vanishes back into the gas.

Young men with Keffiyeh’s wrapped around their faces are sprinting. There are slits in the fabric, revealing eyes. They whirl huge chunks of rock in slings and hurl them in the general direction of the soldiers below.

And more canisters come down.

People are hiding behind olive trees. They soldiers are using sound bombs, it sounds like a mortar is being dropped next to you.

A team of Red Crescent paramedics are treating people. The red swollen eyes. Gagging.

A paramedic is standing next to me, spraying a young man with a liquid that alleviates the symptoms almost immediately.

“We treat a lot of injuries,” he says.

“Two weeks ago they used live ammunition. We had six people shot, one to death.”

“Mostly it is tear-gas inhalation and wounds from rubber bullets and canisters.”

Over the past year, five protestors have been killed by live ammunition, he says.

A man with a Palestinian flag is telling people that it is time to go.

“They use rubber bullets next and real bullets. There will be snipers in the fields. We cut the fence. If we are stupid we would stay.” he says.

And people move up the path, away from the gas.

A woman from Spain says that she comes to these protests to show her support for the Palestinian cause.

Her eyes are puffy and red.

“No, these protests don’t make change. But it gives them a sense of achievement, that they are still resisting the occupation.”

We get back to the village and people walk to Yousef’s grave – the man shot dead in the village two weeks ago. They stand silently.

And then it is time to catch the final service taxi back to Ramallah. Leaving Ni’ilin, Israeli soldiers are at the entrance of the town. With sunglasses and M-16s. There is a queue of cars, waiting to be let through.

An hour later I am standing at Calandria checkpoint.

Waiting at a turnstile gate.

A man is getting yelled at by an official sitting behind bullet-proof glass. He doesn’t have the correct paperwork.

I had seen him on the bus from Ramallah to Calandria. We were driving beside the huge concrete slabs of the West Bank Wall. Graffitti covered it.

Some writing in huge block letters: CTRL-ALT-DELETE.

GLEN JOHNSON is from New Zealand, but now lives in Jerusalem. He can be reached at: johnson.glen.a@gmail.com