Abu Ghnaim Diary
Wednesday 26 March 1997
"Birzeit students join in", part 2

Strange days, indeed

The soldiers move into action, getting out of their jeeps and fixing rubber-coated metal bullet canisters onto the ends of their M-16s. Others load up grenade launchers with tear gas cartridges. The students and other demonstrators start throwing stones, although they are too far away. Some have muqaleyya, the slings that are used to launch stones but this arena offers little cover and the extra yards gained by this device don't solve the problem.

Photo: 'Abu Baboose'

Some soldiers climb up the mountain on the opposite side of the road and chase demonstrators back along the hilltop path towards Ramallah. Both sides are yelling insults at each other. Palestinian students swearing at the Israeli soldiers in Hebrew and the soldiers swearing at the students in Arabic. They are making accompanying obscene gestures at each other, most with a pretty Freudian twist.

Both sides are laughing. It is a beautiful, sunny day and both sides actually seem to be enjoying themselves. Maybe reveling in their mutual antagonism would be a better way to put it. Students who recognise me ask me how I am "finding it".

"Well, I guess Ramallah really doesn't have a real cinema," I tell them, tongue in cheek. One student on my mountain (right) is giving a double babboos to the soldiers on the other side. He is shaking his ass in a strange dance and really getting into it. The soldiers tell him and the others to come over to where they are, with accompanying gestures. The students repeat the invitation. No one moves.

Photo: Soldiers throwing stones.

Most peculiar, Momma

Through my telephoto, I am confronted by a bizarre sight (pictured left): Three Israeli soldiers throwing stones at Palestinian demonstrators.

The soldiers are standing on a cliff, their guns slung on their backs, lobbing rocks at people down below in between screaming insults at the students and other demonstrators. They are later described by a friend as "The Three Stooges".

I get a close up of one of them. This is a little too weird. There is no way on earth, forget the fact that this is a Palestinian area miles away from the nearest Israeli citizen, that what is going on before my eyes could be considered to be 'riot control'.

Photo: Soldiers on the roof.

The three soldiers jump from the hillside onto the roof of a building under construction (pictured right), pointing their guns to intimidate, occasionally shooting (left frame and enlargement) while carrying on the stone throwing (right frame and enlargement).

The soldier on the left is laughing. He throws a concrete slab at the people below. I'm wondering what would happen if he actually killed someone here. Probably nothing.

Photo: Frozen moment.

I capture a moment in which a student is throwing a rock up at the soldiers on the roof, teetering on one leg as if in the middle of a dance movement. This stone isn't going to hurt the soldiers, but it will make them wary of sticking their heads out over the edge and slow down their shooting at people.

Down below, the demonstrators are being careful not to get hit from above. The sun is bright and the paving stones the soldier is throwing are the same colour as the sides of the building, which explains why I didn't add any photos of them being thrown.

This is certainly a different picture of what happens at clashes than you see on CNN, isn't it? Next time you see a CNN report on clashes in the West Bank, notice how the majority of the footage is taken from behind the soldiers. This is because it is unlikely the camera crew will be injured from this location, which says a lot about the "life threatening situations" the Israeli army spokesman talks about frequently. Once the soldiers get dug in, it is very unlikely that a stone will hit them because no sensible stone thrower worth his salt is unaware of the difference in range between an M-16 and some compressed dirt.

Notice also that in the footage of CNN and many of its companion news agencies, you will rarely get shots from amongst the demonstrators looking towads the soldiers, only from the side. This may be for very obvious and understandable reasons, but the cost to journalism is that TV viewers are never really introduced to the sense of what it is like to be standing 50 yards away from people shooting directly at you with high velocity ammunition.

I've also never heard the scarey sound of rubber or plastic-coated metal bullets scything through the air on CNN. You don't need to endanger your life to pick up this bit of telling audio and indeed CNN's crews do capture it. It just never seems to make it to the screen.

I know that CNN crews do capture audio like this thanks to CNN's website at http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/meast/, where you can often find unedited footage of clashes. Their multimedia person seems to have access to the raw footage from the video cameras of the crews before the editors start cutting and Gerald Kessell or whoever adds the voice over. In these outtakes at least, you can hear the full glory of clashes, and occasionally see takes that I am willing to bet never make it onto the screen.

One such example was during clashes in Bethlehem in which an Israeli soldier shoots at demonstrators and then cries out in Hebrew, "I got one! I got one!" His commander is obviously aware that there is a TV crew there - and who judging by his thick accent is not a native English speaker - actually switches to English and begins clapping his hands, saying, "Good! Good! Good!" It was on the website, but was it on the TV?

Photo: Animated gif of pointing gun.

Time freezes

I look through my telephoto lens at some point at the soldiers on the other mountain and see to my shock that one is pointing his gun at me (pictured right). Time freezes as the realisation hits me, and all of reality seems to revolve around the barrel of the gun.

I am wondering why pointing a gun at Nigel seems to have become a habit for Israeli soldiers. After my experience only five days ago when I caught a soldier aiming at me from inside a graveyard in Bethlehem, I feel justified in getting a little paranoid.

I am not standing near any demonstrators. I have very un-Palestinian long hair. As it is not absolutely clear whether he is able to see I have a camera or not, I turn around and start walking quickly backwards, holding the camera up in one hand.

Hanan, who has just arrived on the scene a few seconds ago, has been peering through her very wide angle digital camera, about the most inappropriate thing she could be doing at this moment. It became like one of those moments in films when someone is trying to shout a warning from a long distance away that a piano is about to fall on their head, and the person is going, "What?! What?!"

Hanan asks why I'm going, as she notices me doing this strange fast walk in the opposite direction of where everything is happening, holding a camera high in one hand. "Because someone's pointing a gun at me!" I reply. "Oh!" she says, startled, and starts walking away very quickly and strangely as well.

Forget everything you learnt from Starsky and Hutch and NYPD Blue. This is not the right country to freeze when someone points a gun at you.

Photo: It's a film...

Hurrah, it's Hollywood!

I climb down the side of the mountain into what I realise is a far tenser environment. It's less populated here for reasons that are becoming more and more obvious. This is where all the projectiles live, for one. I walk towards the Israelis coming down the road, to photograph them.

Looking at the way they're moving, it's Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now all rolled into one down here. The soldiers are moving in formation ready for anything although all they are likely to get is a couple of stones tossed at them. It all looks so unnecessary and theatrical. The place is almost deserted for heavens' sake, why the crouching and running? Macho military posing works much better in Hollywood.

Teargas starts to sting my eyes as I take these photos. The smoke has dissipated by this time but the gas remains, an invisible jellyfish in the air. Because of this, and the fact that there is really nothing else to photograph down here right now, I return to my mountain refuge. Something has changed. Students shout down to warn me that soldiers have moved up to the Jerusalem end of it as I'm scrambling up, and that they are shooting. I adjust my route up to arrive at the top nearer the Ramallah end, emerging to see a series of exchanges, mostly verbal, going on between the soldiers and the shabab (a very common expression here: lit. "youth", fig. "guys").

Back down below, on the way to Ramallah, the Palestinian Police are having no luck stopping the latecomers who run past them. It's like that game that I remember from school playgrounds: British Bulldog.

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