Written by Chaz, a friend of the band who used to do an underground hip-hop project called xKurohatax.
This report was written from my observations from tagging along with the punk/hardcore band Hello Bastards on their tour of Israel from the dates 5th February 2009 – 15th February 2009. Part of it was written halfway through our stay in Israel, other part was written on my return to London, England. These views are my own and do not necessarily represent those of Hello Bastards.
Arriving at the airport in Tel Aviv is a story in itself. Getting off the plane we were asked questions by airport security every few meters or so and that’s even before we get to passport control. Questions such as “what are you doing here” “how do you all know each other” “it’s strange you all know each other considering you are all from different countries, explain yourself” among others. It took us roughly 1 hour to get through the airport security and this was partly achieved due to one of our group who told the final security person that we had all met at a Coldplay concert and the guy who questioned us loved Coldplay. Making our way from the airport to the train station we were followed by plain clothes police. At the platform, these plain clothes officers were trying to listen to our conversations and making it quite obvious that we were being watched. We thought that we were special for receiving this extra attention but our good friend Santi informed us that this is pretty normal procedure for security at the main train stations in Israel. Not a good sign!
The first thing that you notice when arriving in Tel Aviv is the pollution. It is overwhelming and that’s saying something coming from London. We hopped onto the train – our destination, an unassuming Arab suburb just outside Tel Aviv called Jaffa. Jaffa has character that’s for sure; Jaffa is one of the better areas of Tel Aviv, not because of the architecture or tourist sites as there was not really any (Jaffa is pretty much a run down area), but because of the hard working nature of the town and the people who live there.
We stayed in Jaffa with a bunch of people from Anarchists Against The Wall (Santi who plays bass in Hello Bastards and Jonathan one of the people to set up AATW) – more about them later. After just a few hours sleep it was time to head to the rehearsal space booked for the band and from there onto the venue for the gig that night. The gig was in a really small venue. It was a great gig. The other bands that played that evening were all from Israel and were amazing. The scene here may be small but it is very creative and political and something which has been missing from gigs I have been to for the past few years – fun! Before Hello Bastards played some kid in a balaclava burnt an Israeli flag, this built tension and set the scene for when the band played. When Hello Bastards came on stage Amy gave an amazing speech about anarchism and the solidarity of all struggles from Greece to Palestine – the crowd seemed to welcome this and people started dancing even before a song was played. The kids knew most of the songs and cheered at every speech Amy and Max gave. The kids really appreciated the fact that the band spoke about many aspects of the Palestinian struggle from check-points to house demolitions.
Jaffa was our base for our stay in Israel. We traveled to many places of interest – Nazareth, Haifa, Dead Sea, Judean Desert among others. The natural areas of Israel are stunning and are something which I am grateful to have seen. Israel is a place of extreme contradictions. You have the wealthy Israeli areas right next to the deprived and run down Arab areas. The racism and patriotism in Israel is extreme to say the least. Israeli flags are everywhere; they are on every car, every building and every piece of rock in the desert – all claimed by an Israeli flag – it is very disheartening. For our journeys throughout the country we had to hire a car, this introduced us to our first real experience of racism so far on the trip. The guy working for this car rental company (a major brand) said to us “I will draw a line on your map to show you the places not to visit” naively one of us asked “why because of theft or crime” the guy said “no, because these areas are Arab areas.” Most Israelis we came across were rude and unhelpful; I feel sorry to say that but we get treated weird here. They stare at us and most of the time ignored us when we tried to talk to them. This is opposed to the Arab areas where people talk to us and smile and are helpful showing us the way when we get lost.
OK, so we are staying with a group of people from Anarchists Against The Wall. AATW are an Israeli direct action group who act as human shields and protest against various aspects of Israeli oppression, primarily supporting the Palestinians during house demolitions and marching against the apartheid wall which Israel are constructing right through Palestinian land. These are some of the most dedicated people I have ever met in my life. These people are full time activists and willingly put their lives on the lines at demonstrations here. The day we arrived in Israel, house demolitions were taking place in Jaffa. We were asked if we wanted to attend the demonstration to show support to the locals; although feeling guilty, we decided not to go as we were tired, we had had no sleep, the band had to rehearse later that day and whatnot, but there was also the possibility of getting arrested, potentially jeopardising the remainder of our trip.
Demonstrations take place here everyday, seemingly the struggle is continuous. A few days later we were asked to attend another demonstration as part of AATW to stop a fascist MP who would be going to an Arab village under the guise of acting as an observer but more likely to provoke a reaction from Arabs during the Israeli elections. We thought long and hard as this demo had the potential to be violent. The main policy of the party this man belongs to is to kick out all those Israelis and Arabs who refuse to swear allegiance to Israel – fascism, I think you would agree! This guy comes from Russia. So what should we do? Should we continue with our tourism or attend a demonstration where we could get into serious trouble? We stayed awake talking from 10.00pm till 2.00am discussing the consequences. We decided to go! The demonstration was in an Arab town called Umm Al-Fahm (separated from the West Bank) at 6.00 in the morning and we had to wake up at 4.00am. So after just 2 hours of sleeping we managed to wake up and join the crew. We met about 20 other activists somewhere in Tel Aviv and we all travelled to the demonstration. When we arrived at the demonstration, the road had been blockaded; we were stopped by Palestinians who asked us if we were fascists? We were not so they let us through. The IDF were everywhere with huge guns, it was very intimidating. The Palestinians were angry wishing to stop this fascist from entering the town. The demonstration passed off relatively successful with only minor scuffles and we were asked by the organiser of the demonstration to attend his mum’s house to eat humus – of course we went. The house was a really traditional Palestinian house and was very humble. When we arrived with the other activists the old man of the house asked the women to go to one room while the men to the other. This was interesting to see how the activists (many were anarchists) dealt with this situation. We were in the house for maybe 1 hour before suddenly people started shouting in Arabic and rushed out of the house – the fascist MP had managed to get into the town via a different route; we said our goodbyes and thanked the family for the wonderful food. We all rushed to the new location, by the time we arrived it had kicked off. The man who had just invited us to his house had got arrested.
The Palestinians were rioting; kids were throwing stones at the IDF. It was getting violent. Some of us joined the action some of us stayed at the back. Myself and one of our group (Wayne) moved towards the action – more out of curiosity than some new found courage – as we did so a soldier lifted his gun and aimed it directly at us, I immediately crashed to the floor and Wayne ran for it. When I looked up the people from AATW were at the front of the demonstration trying to de-arrest some of the people who were being arrested, regardless for their own safety. Luckily nothing was fired from the soldiers, but it was scary. Tit for tat struggles continued for the best part of 2 hours when suddenly the heavens opened, and I have never seen lightening or thunder like that in my life. It was time to go.
When we got back to Tel Aviv we were left with another dilemma. We were asked to attend a demonstration as human shields in the Occupied Territories in a place called Ni’ilin, or another town nearby called Bi’lan. Both places are where people are getting shot and killed right now. The week before we arrived in Israel a Swedish activist was shot in the leg by a sniper. The day we arrived Jonathan (one of the guys we are staying with) was also shot in the leg, luckily the bullet missed his leg and went straight through his trousers. We were told that it is a new policy of the IDF to deliberately aim at Western activists and shoot them below the waist, presumably to stop activists from going to these places and reporting on the situation. So, needless to say we are debating what to do. The demo is tomorrow (Friday). If we go with AATW we know that they will be going into the firing line and we have to follow as we can’t get separated, they will essentially be our guides. To be honest, we are not that brave, or I am not anyway, this is different from demonstrations in Europe where the chance of death or serious injury is minimal, we now have to face the possibility that something terrible could happen to any one of us. But after many hours of discussing we have decided to possibly go with them. We have been briefed that there is a very real chance of being shot by snipers or hit by rubber bullets from the soldiers – after all we are expected to be human shields. The decision is ours. My heart says we should do it, my mind says we should not. I will let you know on my return what happened.
We are now on our way to Jerusalem!
In a recent interview conducted with Norman Finkelstein for a Middle Eastern newspaper, when asked if he will ever return to Israel he replied “I do not have any particular interest to go and visit that lunatic state.” I have to say, I concur completely with that statement.
In fact I feel that Israel is not just a lunatic state but also a fascist and racist one at that and returning to that country is the last thing I can envisage doing (unless to go and demonstrate in Palestine.) In our short time in Israel I have witnessed both fascism and racism first hand; this country needs to take a serious look at itself – I have never been to a country which is on the verge of becoming a clone of Nazi Germany, maybe I am exaggerating but I have come away from this tour feeling depressed and seriously concerned for the safety of those I have left behind.
Before I talk about the decision we made about whether to attend the demonstration or not I just need to back track as there is some information missing from my first email which I need to mention. From the first demo that we attended in Umm Al-Fahm eight Palestinian protesters were later arrested. One of those arrested (the Palestinian man who invited us to his house) is still in jail – there is a news report from AATW here regarding that demonstration.
There are interesting political dynamics within the Palestinian villages we visited. The village where this demonstration took place is Communist run, and the aforementioned Palestinian man arrested is the leader of the Communist Party in this area. I was informed that the Party does great things for this village and seems to have huge support here. There were Communist flags everywhere; every house and every car in the village had flags, quite a contrast to other Palestinian villages we visited where Hamas seems to be the dominant party.
I also neglected to mention that during our time here, elections took place; this created a very tense atmosphere. The results were pretty shocking. The party Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Is Our Home) run by neo-fascist Avigdor Lieberman came in 3rd place. To get some understanding of this result, this is the equivalent of the BNP beating the Liberal Democrats in the UK elections. This is a surge to the extreme right for Israel and shows the mentality of this country. In any other country Lieberman would have been considered a fascist, but here he is considered as a legitimate player within Israeli politics. Not that there is much difference between the left and right in Israel anyway, but this result does stand testament to the current thinking of Israeli citizens – it’s very worrisome. It could be because of this that we had many issues with Israelis. Without trying to generalise too much, we were made to feel like foreigners and unwelcome the whole time we were there. Everybody would stare at us; make comments about us, in the end we kind of adopted a siege mentality. Some Israelis were helpful and nice, don’t get me wrong, but we just came away from this trip with a very bad feeling. We always felt more comfortable in the Arab areas, where people were very friendly and welcoming. Israelis always seem to be on edge. At two Hello Bastards gigs fights broke out and I ended up restraining people from fighting at both gigs – I did not come here for this shit. Israel is like one huge army garrison. Just to enter a vegetarian restaurant we had to have our bags searched by a security guard with a gun and at the gigs it was the same procedure. It was like this everywhere. There is a great amount of paranoia in Israel, and it has to be asked is it really necessary? I have lived through the IRA bombings on mainland England and I do not remember anything even remotely close to this.
Anyway, returning to the present, after much deliberation we decided to attend the demonstration. We discussed whether to attend for many many hours, in fact this one subject probably occupied most of our conversations on this trip. There are demonstrations happening all over the West Bank on a daily basis. From my understanding the two main demonstrations are in the Palestinian towns of Bil’in and Ni’ilin – both are in the Ramallah and al-Bireh area of the West Bank. We were told by many people we spoke to at gigs that as this is our first time in the West Bank we should really go to Bil’in, which, although is still relatively dangerous, it is less so than Ni’ilin, however, this was usually followed by the comment “but knowing the people you are staying with you will be going to Ni’ilin.” We tried our best to encourage our hosts that Bil’in is the better option for us in terms of safety and that it’s our first time in the West Bank so we should be careful, all this whilst trying our best not to show how scared we were. The morning arrived of the demonstration and we were informed that we would be going to Ni’ilin. Damn, my thoughts immediately turned to the Swedish activist shot there recently and to all the stories I had been told about Ni’ilin – I felt a bit faint and was scared. I was asked to draw on courage I was not sure I had; a sense of reality hit me, this was it, there was no backing out, we would be going to one of the most dangerous places to protest in the West Bank and we could get seriously injured or killed. I guess deep down I knew Ni’ilin would be our destination; after all, I had got to know these activists pretty well and anything less than helping people in the most extreme situations would be failure to them.
I asked our host “why the fuck Ni’ilin”, the response was “Bil’in already has lots of internationals and activists there; Ni’ilin needs our help more, we need to be there” and that was that. On a side note, international activists are very important to the Palestinian struggle and can save lives. The IDF are less inclined to kill Palestinians if they know they could inadvertently kill an international or Israeli citizen (although as we know from Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall this is not always the case.)
We made our way to the meeting point where we met about 10 other internationals, in total there were 17 of us leaving from this point. We all bundled into a few cars and off we went. On the way we were briefed about what to expect, what to do and what not to. We were going to march to the proposed area where the separation wall will be once it is built.
We were told not to initiate anything once the protest starts as we were there merely to support the locals; this meant no stone throwing or anything else along those lines as this could have serious consequences not only for the activists but also for the locals. We were told to buddy up; we had to stay with our buddy at all times as we would be responsible for each other. We were told that when the tear gas attacks happen (not if but when) do not run as when you panic you breathe in more gas, and that you should cover your face with a scarf or some sort of material as this will give you a few valuable seconds to make your way out of the range of the gas and do not touch your eyes or use water to wash your eyes as this makes it worse – we were told that the gas here is different and I found out a lot stronger from ones used in Europe. We were also told that when shit happens always follow the Palestinians as they know where to run. We prepared as much as possible and agreed who our buddies would be (determined by where you will likely demonstrate at the rear or front of the demonstration) and exchanged phone numbers in case we get separated. We were informed that the town we were heading to was a Hamas town and that it was very traditional. Women are not allowed to protest with the men although exceptions are made for internationals, we also had to be culturally aware and were informed that we could expect to see scenes of extreme animal cruelty; if we were to see anything we were asked to bite our lips unless we really felt it necessary to step in.
After an hour’s driving from Tel Aviv we came to the first military check-point. Our driver who speaks Hebrew explained that we were heading to a town near Ni’ilin. The soldiers although suspicious let us through. Along the journey we passed many Israeli settlements.
The settlements are easy to spot. They look like nice houses from Bavaria or somewhere similar – they all have red roofs with white bases, with nice manicured gardens. This is in contrast to their neighbouring Palestinian towns which are essentially slums. Our driver informed us that most of the water for the region was being directed to these settlements whilst the Palestinians have a regulated water service. Most of the time water does not flow into their houses and when it does it has no pressure, Palestinians have to make do with homemade wells even though this is Palestinian land. The populations of these settlements are predominantly Americans and Russians – they are not native to the land.
We soon came to our next check-point – again after a few minutes of discussions between our driver and a soldier we were let through. Along the journey we noticed that there were parallel roads. We were told Israelis and Palestinians have separate roads – needless to say many of the Palestinian roads were like dirt tracks compared to the well maintained Israeli roads. We had to go through one more check point on the edge of Ni’ilin before we could get into the town. Apparently we were able to move through these check points because our driver was Israeli, if she was Palestinian, we would not be going anywhere. We entered the town and greeted the other internationals. Most of the internationals were from the ISM (International Solidarity Movement) who have a house in the village and many were also from AATW.
Ni’ilin is a very deprived and run down town. It is built on a steep hill surrounded by farm land, rocky terrain and olive trees. The demonstration started at 12.00 after prayer time.
As we made our way to the starting point of the march which was outside a mosque at the top of the hill, Palestinians came out and gave the activists chocolate as a thank you for showing support in their struggle. From the mosque there is a road which we would be marching down towards the area where the separation wall is planned to be built – right through Palestinian land – that would be our target! The land is covered in olive trees and lots of huge rocks from which we were told that Israeli soldiers were hiding, waiting for us to start marching before attacking us. We could see some movement in the distance but we did not notice anything too close. The weather was hot and made it very uncomfortable. The prayers had finished and the Palestinians streamed out of the mosque and immediately covered their faces in keffiyehs and started marching. We waited until they walked past us as we did not want to go to the front for obvious reasons. They started chanting in Arabic – we were later told they were chanting “go away Hitlers.” We joined the protest half way through; there were maybe 200 people in total with probably 30 or so internationals from Spain, Sweden, France, USA and Canada and the Hello Bastards people from South America, Poland and Germany. We marched maybe 50 paces before all hell broke loose. Almost immediately tear gas canisters started coming at us from all directions. They are supposed to be fired into the air to give people chance to avoid the canisters as they landed as they could kill you if they hit you on the head (one of our hosts Jonathan had previously been hit on the head and had two brain haemorrhages because of this) they are very dangerous. These were being fired directly at us literally at our faces. This would give you a second or two to move out of the way. Almost immediately panic struck, some people scattered in one direction some in others. I looked round and could not see my buddy anywhere; the gas was too thick, throwing up a sort of smoke screen.
I made a run for the nearest rocks to allow me to get my head together and work out where I was. I noticed some of the activists were entrenched between rocks further in front. It was impossible to get to them so I had to make a run for it up the hill where I noticed people had managed to escape to. Before I ran I had a quick look to see if I could see any soldiers, I could not. Off I went, almost immediately gas canisters were fired falling nearby, gas was everywhere, I pulled up my scarf and tried to avoid the gas and run for it. I made it but only just. I was almost on my knees due to the strength of the gas, my eyes were burning and my throat felt like it was on fire. It was unbearable. On top of the rocks I watched the others at the front trying to make a break for it; eventually they made it without any injuries. Back near the starting point of the demo I found my buddy and we collated our thoughts and sought our next plan. All this, while gas canisters were landing everywhere, we were being driven back, it was impossible to stay at our current location. That’s when stun grenades were launched at us and popping sounds, I later found out they were from rubber coated bullets and live rounds. If I didn’t feel like I was in warzone before, I did now. We retreated back into the village as the front lines were impossible to stay there, gas was everywhere and the wind was in favour of the soldiers. It was at this stage that children many as young as 7 or 8 years took their slingshots and with more courage than any of us combined went to the front and fought the IDF. There were lines of kids, stone after stone being slung at the IDF – they actually drove the IDF back for a time allowing the elders of the village and activists to coordinate at the rear. I had nothing but admiration for the courage of these children. It was at this stage that an experience happened that I will never forget. It was both tragic and beautiful at the same time. A bird (dove) fell right in front of us succumbed from the gas. A Palestinian man picked up the bird and tried to run out of the way of the gas trying to get the bird into clean air. The bird was clinging to life but eventually the gas was too strong. The man and a group of others found a patch of land and dug a hole and buried the bird – they said that the bird was a martyr! Compassion in such circumstances is inspiring. It was decided to build a barricade blocking the road from a possible incursion into the village by the IDF. We immediately set about finding rocks and other items which could be used. The barricade was almost finished when a group of Palestinians came running towards us gesturing for us to run – we did not hang around! At that point an army jeep seemingly from nowhere and with a loud noise crashed through the barricade. We ran for our lives!
I looked around, two soldiers got out of the jeep one with a gun raised straight at me – all I could do was continue running, I was maybe 20 paces from them – at that moment I was just waiting for a bullet in my back. All of a sudden two bullets whizzed past me. One went straight past my right ear, the bullet so close it hissed as it went passed and the other past my right leg. I assume that they were rubber coated bullets as they ricocheted off the wall in front of me and continued bouncing of walls down the street. Seeing what was happening, a Palestinian women opened the door of her house and encouraged us to enter her house for safety until the danger passed. This game of back and forth attacks continued for many hours until it was time to leave. We had been attacked throughout the day with tear gas, stun grenades, smoke grenades, rubber coated bullets and later we found out, live rounds. Our day had ended, unfortunately for the Palestinians this was just another day of the continued oppression by the Israeli army. They cannot even have a peaceful demonstration on their own land without being attacked and shot at – it’s disgusting! I cannot imagine how people remain so strong and can show such compassion in what is at times a soul destroying situation. The Palestinians were very grateful to the internationals and were given food again as a thank you. Our joy of surviving Ni’lian was soon quashed when we found out that in Hebron a bit further north from where we were, a Palestinian boy of 14 was shot dead during a protest. Our journey home was spent in silence!
Our time in Israel was coming to an end. We had one last obstacle and that was leaving the country which we had been told could be more difficult than entering it. We were asked to show our passports and were questioned 12 times at the airport. We were questioned individually many times, asked whether “we had been to the occupied territories”, “why were we staying in Jaffa” as Jaffa is considered an Arab area among much other harassment. The questioning was incessant. In total it took nearly 2 hours to get through the gates and barely making it onto the plane in time. We later found out that a friend who travelled separately was questioned for 3 hours and banned from returning to the country.
Israel is a complete military state and one that I have no intention of ever going back to again. However, I do aim to go back to Palestine at the earliest opportunity to help fight Israeli fascism with AATW. The work which ATTW and the ISM do is remarkable given the circumstances. Both groups need funding and it is our aim to support them as much as possible by organising benefit gigs, etc. Please check out the AATW website, it is updated almost daily and support them in any way you can. www.awalls.org
PS: 14 people were injured at the demonstration.