On arrival, I’d been told about the “Friday protests” where there’s always a few scuffles between security forces and those with anger to vent so I wasn’t surprised to be told I was to cover one this week. My assigned protest was to be the weekly rumble between fired-up Palestinian and members of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) in the rural village of Nilin near the Israel/West Bank border. Teamed up with AFP photographer Abbas Momani, I drove back into the West Bank to meet up with him. Warning bells began to ring as he asked me where my gas mask was as I climbed into his car..
After picking up another photographer, it’s fair to say that as the kilometres of winding mountain roads and crumbling villages passed and we neared Nilin, my nerves were starting to build. As we arrived into the village, heavily-armed IDF troops checked our Ids before we weaved through the concrete road blocks and drove the short distance to the hilltop car park that each week becomes the centre of events. Getting out of the car, a area near a pole carrying the Hamas flag was pointed out to me that was the scene of a protestors death a few weeks before. Ah. Okay.
After twenty minutes of prayers, the protestors joined up with a small group of Israelis who support the Palestinian cause and headed down into the olive groves. By now, TV crews wearing body armour had arrived and were already wearing their gas-masks as they filmed the chanting group so I decided to follow their lead and get prepared.
At this point, I should break away from the story to point out that however surreal this situation sounds, it can’t capture just how insane it was to be there. Finding myself gasping for breath through my mask as Palestinian youths all around me start to break out slingshots and launch rocks at lethal speeds just over my head at the approaching heavily-armed IDF troops is an experience that I won’t forget in a while.
It didn’t take long before the IDF returned fire as volleys of tear gas canisters and flash-bang charges whistled back towards us, bursting through the olive branches. As I built my confidence and started to work out when and where I could move to, Abbas showed his experience and confidence by disappearing deep into the clouds of smoke.
Hiding behind rock outcrops and trees, the game of “Tom and Jerry” (as Abbas called it) began with the photographers trying to get between the youths and the soldiers to capture expressions while constantly advancing and retreating with the flow of the fight.
After an hour of fighting in the olive grove, the action moved back down into the village. As soldiers tried to come around from different angles, the Palestinians ducked and jumped over hedges, walls and fences and ran through the gardens of homes nearby. All of the time, there was the constant action of shooting pictures, running for cover, looking for troops and listening for shouts while checking for moments between gas bursts where I could pull the mask off for a second and fill my lungs with fresh air.
Tear gas is an interesting thing as, hours later as I sit here in a restaurant back in Jerusalem, I can still taste it in my nose and throat despite having worn a military-grade gas mask. The protesting youths that turn up every Friday to pray and fight have only scarves. In between volleys of canister fire, groups of men came spluttering and wretching back through the clouds of smoke into the arms of the Red Crescent medical teams who sprayed a liquid onto their scarves that counteracted the effects of the chemical. Within minutes, the men were back on their feet and searching for fresh rocks to launch across the tree-line.
As we ran between gardens and down alleyways, the sounds of domestic life would come through house windows which made me suddenly realise just how ordinary all of this was. My adrenaline was charged and I was shooting nearly everything that moved but all around me, people got on with their weekend as though nothing was happening just outside their homes.
The car carrying the tannoy speaker that a short time before had been broadcasting prayers to the congregation was now blasting out Arabian-sounding music, providing a strange soundtrack to the experience.
Then, as soon as it had started, Abbas gave me the nod and it became clear that it was over for another week. Neither side had gained any ground, neither side could claim victory but the anger of the Palestinian protestors had been vented and the IDF had successfully controlled the situation. “Tom and Jerry” looks set to continue every week for as far as anyone can see.