At a crossroad in Jenin

I spent hours at a crossroad in Jenin standing either beside or in front of a group of stone throwing guys. A group of around 30 boys between 5 and 25 years old. Boys vibrating of restlessness, anger violence and adrenaline. Boys want to resist and fight the occupation. In front of us there was an Israeli tank and APC.

One of the activities that the International Solidarity Movement has in Jenin is to stand in front of the tanks, even in crossfire to make the Israeli Defence Force IDF (by the ISM called Israeli Occupation force) less inclined to shoot Palestinian kids. Israeli soldiers shoot very easily against Palestinians – independent of age, gender or activity – but until now they have never shot an international activist intentionally.

When I first get there in the morning the mere sight of the children with stones in their hands stuns me, the depressing sight of the crossroad empty on everything but those kids and the tanks and the horrible destruction of the road and the houses around. Can something that looks a bit cool on TV be so depressing in real life.

When we get there they all get even more exhilarated. The usual ‘what’s you’re name?’ ‘Marhaba’, handshaking, inspecting sunglasses and cameras, asking us to cite political chants, touching, laughing, screaming. Everything you get from other Palestinian kids, but here like in high speed, tenser, more intense, quicker, more like an ice-hockey power play than an ordinary morning cheering.

I give quick answers to have time to give attention to the others that insists on it. Like the goalkeeper during the power play – maximum attention to see and hear everything. Some of the kids throw stones; they are not even close to the tank. Others are preparing Molotov cocktails. Some of them are just hanging around. Jim, a friend that has been in Jenin for some time asks – just to be polite – after the kid brother of one of the boys.

They run away to get him. After two minutes they come running with the three-year old boy shouting Jim, Jim. I hear him say in a low voice next to me, ‘for fuck sake I didn’t mean that, don’t bring him here’. But it’s already too late. The one that seems to be the oldest tells the boy to throw a stone at the tank. If the last stone was far from hitting, this one is a universe away. Jim pleads them to take the boy home. He gets nervous laughter as a response.

The impressions come as fireworks immediately. Are we in fact encouraging them to be here by us being there, are we given them an audience, are we making them even more excited. I ask Jim, he looks tired at me and says ‘I don’t know, I have thought about it as well, but what is the alternative’? Very soon I start to feel restless and uncomfortable. I think aloud and tell a friend ‘isn’t this extremely depressing, what is the meaning, they don’t even hit, it’s just pointless’.

His reaction is immediate and hard ‘then you must think that the whole intifada is meaningless, because this was what the first intifada was all about, throwing stones’, he formulates it as a question but I don’t find any words to answer. ‘What is the alternative?’ he asks me, ‘I don’t know’ I tell him in a low voice. By then my brain is working fast, I start to question myself. Do I think that the intifada was pointless? ‘Maybe I do’, I think in a childish refractory way, ‘of course I don’t’ I think with an analytical approach. But all the time I have a feeling in my stomach telling me that I don’t like standing at this crossroad.

From time to time the tanks start to move, sometimes they shoot, real bullets, rubber bullets, sound bombs, teargas. Then the kids run away in panic. They are familiar with the hiding places along the streets. Four jeeps drive by, then the stones finally hit, you can see that the soldiers in the jeeps are nervous, irritated, afraid, one of them make a move as to stop, hesitates, drives by.

We – the internationals, with our bullet proof passports stand at the crossroad all the time. After a while we hear shooting, and it’s not directed against us. Some minutes later some young men come running asking us for our mobile phones. It takes several seconds to figure out that someone has been shot. The private mobile net either doesn’t work, or you’re not able to call between the two systems.

A couple of the internationals start running towards the hospital. And then everything happens very quickly, an ambulance comes driving, and two groups of men come carrying two injured men. One of them is badly injured, I can see that, he is loosing a lot of blood. The ambulance personal work effectively. It takes a moment and they are gone. The crossroad is suddenly empty. We remain, and when a jeep parks in the middle of the crossroad we just stand there. Two of the internationals walk up to them; I can hear one of the soldiers say ‘you might get shot by accident’. Even if it is a warning it’s just too funny not to laugh, so I do, and by doing that I loose some of my tension.

We leave the crossroad for about an hour to go to the hospital. When we get back activity is high again. The one that looks the oldest is also playing the role of the leader. He is not a leader in the sense of being the most responsible, strategic or calm. He is the one that tells all the small kids to go out in the street, he is extremely restless, speaks in a very high voice, when he doesn’t shout, he has a wooden stick he sometimes whips the others with.

My name gets attention – if it does in other parts of the world – the negative echo of America is even worse here. And I am the only female in that crossroad. The leader starts testing me. And I decide to defy him – feeling safe having friends close. When he raises his voice, I do the same, when he makes a quick move I do as well, when he looks steady into my eyes I look back not taking one single step back.

After 20 minutes of ‘power show’ I have passed the test. I smile inside me. When they don’t throw stones at the tanks they throw them at each other, they have small fights among themselves.

A kid, maybe ten is one of the most agitated ones, he runs around all the time, throwing stones at the tanks, he is one of them that dares to go nearest, he even hits, he is as annoying as the leader in the eager to be seen all the time, to have attention, he irritates the others, beats the smaller ones, the older beats him. And then, for a moment he stands still and with so much love and kindness in his eyes he touches the very blond hair of a friend and tells him that he is beautiful. My eyes wide open I feel very amazed but not surprised.

Some very small kids have gone close to the tanks and are hitting the tanks with the stones. It’s impossible not to think about David against Goliath even though the power balance between them two must have been almost equal in comparition with this. We, the internationals go closer as well, to try to avoid shooting.

More and more stones are throwed and the tanks start shooting and throwing sound bombs. I have been talking to the older ones, trying to make them think of something else. Now that I’m accepted the leader has showed me his four bullet scares he has, and they have all told me which political fraction they support. But they loose concentration when the tanks start rolling against us.

Big stones are thrown hard, and then they start running, scream at me to run after them. Suddenly I’m standing at the crossroad with the infernal sound of the tanks, the dust all around me not knowing what to do, I take two steps back into the alley, but when I see the tank rolling down I take several steps forward and stand in front of it for seconds, then beside it.

My heart is beating high and I have no idea how long I stand there, the tank rolls back and away. All of a sudden young men looking with admiration at me surround me. I see the leader explaining for the others that when they run I walked against the tank. But it still doesn’t feel less depressing to stand at the crossroad. But I do not think it is wrong. War is depressing.

The occupation with it’s curfew, and checkpoints that has made Palestine into a 64 piece area almost impossible to travel even between villages and tanks standing in the middle of the roads. All political leaders even the most moderate ones are killed or arrested. The alternative to throw stones at the tanks is to stay in, to show that they accept that Israel makes their homes, streets and cities their prisons.

The alternative to throw stones at the tanks is to become a suicide bomber, the kids talk and joke about it. Could I have told the kids to do something else instead of throwing stones? I think of the two six year old boys that were killed playing football in a refugee camp in Ramallah. I could but I won’t. There is no better alternative. So I stay at the crossroad in Jenin. But I do have an alternative. I can just go back to my country whenever I want to. They don’t.

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