Tuesday, February 20, 2007
A Post Modern Occupation
posted by: [jimiffondu] at 7:33 PM
Thanks to Whirling McDervish for this piece...

On Friday 09.02.07, Jerusalem’s old city was declared a military ‘no go’ area after clashes between IDF troops and Israeli Arab (Palestinian) youths flared up. Israeli excavation beneath the Dome of the Rock complex is steadily chipping away at the city’s precarious foundations. While for Muslims, the rock, beneath the dome, is where, according to Islam, the prophet Mohammed ascended to Heaven, for Jews, this is the supposed site of King Solomon’s temple, previously destroyed and supplanted by the Islamic Dome of the Rock. The ‘wailing wall’ represents the only surviving remnants of this temple as evidenced to date. Jews believe that the rebuilding of the temple will precede the return of the messiah. Muslims believe that the collapse of the dome of the rock will put apocalyptic events in motion.

After Muslim midday prayers on Friday, continued Israeli excavation work sparked a riot. Troops moved in, firing plastic bullets and tear gas at stone throwing youths, even storming and tear gassing protestors in the Dome of the Rock complex itself where, apparently, at a loss to find rubble ammunition in the austere grounds protestors took to throwing anything at hand, including shoes. On Sunday entrance to the old city itself was restricted by the IDF; only residents, Israeli Arabs above the age of 45, and, evidently, internationals were allowed in. Many of the old city’s narrow backstreets were strewn with stones from Friday’s clashes and alleyways leading to extremist Israeli settlements were heavily guarded by IDF soldiers.

Jerusalem is strange; the divide between old and new more so. Politically far removed from any West Bank city, there is a completely different atmosphere, perhaps one that belies the belittlement of Arabs with Jerusalem ID’s and their relative freedom compared to fellow Palestinians trapped behind the Apartheid wall just minutes away. Jerusalem’s old city is perhaps the only place in the world you can cross the Middle East / Europe divide in a matter of minutes, and so, from a western point of view, the local portal between eyed curiosity and anonymity. There couldn’t be a starker contrast leaving behind the complex maze of narrow heaving, bazaared streets of the Arab quarter and stepping into the uncluttered space of restauranted courtyards, art galleried parades, and cappuccino coffee shopped terraces of the Jewish quarter. Just a few streets away, back in the Arab quarter, extremist Jews hold out in occupied, backstreet apartments, conspicuously signposted by Star of David flags, draped and unmoving in the breezeless streets, barbed wire tangled across rooftops and balconies, and CCTV surveillance systems aimed accusingly upon Arab neighbourhoods. These Jews, many from Europe and the US, may have a zealous, even romantically misplaced, disposition for staking their claim to their utopian promised city, but rhetoric fuelled, barbed wired assault on the Arab quarter is an outwardly belligerent attack on the values and aesthetics of a once thriving old city culture. These implanted strongholds are not only dividing neighbourhoods but the minds and aspirations of a once prosperous people. Back in the Jewish quarter there is a different vibe altogether; none of the barbed wire, none of the despondent apathy so apparent among many of the Arabs, more the kitsch banter of pasty tourists perusing ‘jerUSAlem’ hats and t-shirts, and the flash of instamatic cameras unconsciously recording the history of a cultural whitewash, a little lost with every shutter release, every oblivious smile.

On the same day as the Jerusalem riots, we were in Hebron where it also kicked off. We were supposed to meet up with a demonstration in support of Palestinian families effectively imprisoned in Tal Rumeida, a now predominantly Jewish area, still home to a fast dwindling number of Palestinians. Largely due to the failure of the Israeli state to intervene in problems of a racially prejudiced nature, Tal Rumeidan Palestinians are experiencing harassment from Jewish extremist settlers, often violently so, as well as segregation and difficulty of movement in and out of their neighbourhoods. These Palestinians have, astoundingly, been completely banned from driving cars?!? We did not manage to meet up with the demonstration as we were stopped from entering Tal Rumeida, the checkpoint conveniently closed by the Israelis as we turned up, so, instead, we spent the afternoon with the Hebronites under incursion from the Israeli military.

There had been problems in the city the day before, also due to the excavation work beneath the Dome of the Rock, so tensions were expected to flare again after Friday’s Muslim prayers. In typical fashion, IDF soldiers waited tauntingly, idly draped across concrete roadblocks, M-16 nozzles directed vaguely down adjacent streets. It seemed like a bit of a show really, with a multitude of press, internationals, peace activists, and locals onlooking, evidently awaiting the inevitable; an unwittingly macabre bunch. The first incident we witnessed involved four young Israeli soldiers half-intent on getting even with a youth throwing pebbles from about 100m away. These stones rolled to a standstill at soldiers’ feet – hardly a threat. However, in an operation that resembled something out of Hollywood, these Raybanned soldiers went in, guns raised in terminator style poses, ducking and diving in and out of doorways, backs hard-up against walls, conscious austerity aimed at a multitude of poised cameras an open betrayal of ambitions to military cool. When they suddenly broke off the chase, it was as if they had forgotten what they set out to do, so lost were they in the process of themselves. While they were absorbed, the stone throwing youth had escaped, and all they could do was back up in the direction of the roadblock, slowly nodding, left and right, checking each other pull snapshot poses.

Later, in the market area, abandoned fruit and veg stalls fuelled a one sided food fight. Youths took to hurling oranges, apples and tomatoes, only to get tear gas and rubber bullets in return. Another Palestinian attack from the rooftops was medievally inspired; what seemed to be a wheelbarrow, or the like, full of stones emptied over the edge into a narrow soldier patrolled alley below. Soldiers, lucky to escape unscathed and largely saved by over hanging shop canopies, were quick to pop sound bombs and tear gas canisters onto the roofs. The sound bombs are loud, reverberating throughout the streets, up and down alleyways with solid sound waves. They can easily damage ear drums in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even when you know they are coming, they really jar you to the core.

During all this, weathered workmen continued road works down the central reservation of the adjacent street. One resting on a spade, woollen hat pushed to the back of his head, the other wading backwards through and levelling freshly poured concrete, casually pausing to flick away fallen ash from the fag drooping at the corner of his mouth. They did in fact smile at us as if to intimate the apparent comic nature of continuing work under the circumstances, but you can't escape the fact that they must see this sort of thing frequently. Thinking about it in terms of this, their smiles meant something completely different.

As we sheltered, out of soldiers’ field of fire, beneath overhead shopping parade canopies, also protecting us from short falling stones from the rooftops, soldiers and youths continued projectile exchanges, while unfazed children scampered about, the entrepreneurs among them trying to sell us token, souvenir spent rubber bullets collected from the street, another even boasting a tear gas grenade and proudly posing for photographs with a head wrapped keffiyah obscuring his features.

A brief burst of stones from the rooftops above us saw Israeli soldiers retaliate, this time returning stone projectiles in mocking condescension, dispelling any misplaced notion of an organised military operation. Events certainly portrayed the escapade as nothing more than a gangland streetfight, and did little to attest to professional conduct from an army whose command claim the occupation to be an administrative necessity in maintaining state security.

Infact, the IDF are a ragtag bunch. There does not seem to be any pervading ethic concerning rules of engagement, more individual snapping points, personal prejudices and unit vendettas. Some soldiers will fly into rages when challenged; others are more diplomatic, making it known that they can’t express true held views whilst in uniform. The image of a self-conscious, slightly paranoid, perhaps even post modern occupation is inescapable. Oversized khakis and clumpy boots impede gangly teenagers aspiring to institutionalised military cool; the cool being an image that you cant help but feel is the adhesive factor holding operations together. What else in a ground-level self-doubting occupation? Officers donned in Raybans or mirrored shades, exhaling toasted tobacco smoke in self-conceived ‘unparody’ of Vietnam platoon GI’s provide the role model, the hardened, aloof and indomitable hero to imitate whose buried ethics provide a simple framework for a conscript’s better self to hide behind. These are the collective heroes that sanctify occupation, the icons of self-denial that conscripts hold aloft in obscuring their own, disturbing and disconsonant views.

On that day in Hebron, if the soldiers had withdrawn there would have been no one for Palestinian youths to throw stones at. However, Israeli machismo, strutting a state funded brawl, and staged on the stomping grounds of hundreds of Palestinian malcontents could only see the situation escalate into a full blown riot.

Down otherwise deserted streets, tables and chairs borrowed from market stalls were piled up into crude roadblocks, tyres burnt in true Intifada style while mobs of youths darted from street to street retreating from the intermittent pops and bangs of further sound and tear gas grenades. In the city centre a loosely associated contingent of about hundred youths, attempting stealth behind the acrid smoke of burning tyres, rained stones toward four soldiers, stupidly pulled in and cut off, awaiting further military assistance. When it came the soldiers left veiled in clouds of tear gas, leaving the Palestinian mob elated at their small but significant victory. Crowds swarmed and cheered. Today they had seen the soldiers off.

Thanks to Laura for this video from the day...

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