Commentary by Sabah Haider – 18 May 2011
For many of those who protested — and died — on Israel’s border with Lebanon this May 15, it was their first sighting of their ancestral home. On Sunday May 15, I stood in solidarity with tens of thousands of Palestinians, Lebanese and other pro-Palestinian protestors in Maroun al-Ras, Lebanon, where I witnessed the Israelis respond to protestors throwing rocks at Israel, over the barbed-wire fence marking the border, with live ammunition. Many young men were shot: 10 people died and 115 were wounded, the largest number of casualties at any of the day’s border protests in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon. There were reports that the Israelis used rubber bullets, but rubber bullets don’t kill.
Hundreds of buses from all over the country brought thousands to Maroun al-Ras, a village in southern Lebanon, that morning — the day was the 63rd anniversary of the Naqba, when so many Palestinians were displaced from their homeland at the creation of the state of Israel. I don’t think anyone paid for their journey to the protest that day. I wanted to pay the bus organizer, but he wouldn’t take it. “It’s been paid for,” he smiled.
In the weeks prior to the protest, the factions in the camps had encouraged one and all to go down to Maroun al-Ras on Naqba day, but cautioned people not to do anything to provoke the Israelis. One of them warned, “We want Palestine but we shouldn’t fight with the enemy from Lebanon, because we are guests here. If anything happens, the Lebanese will blame us.”
Thousands walked together for miles through the slippery, rocky hills to the plateau of Maroun al-Ras that overlooks Palestine. There were no speeches, no dances. Commemoration of Naqba day was, this year, about direct protests at the nearest border. Most people stayed on the top or side of the hill and watched as, below, a few hundred protesters threw rocks across over the fence. Like snipers, a dozen or so Israeli soldiers hid behind bushes shooting down protestors in spurts.
The sounds from the protesters grew, then roared, as the Israeli gunfire started, then stopped: silence from the Israeli side, then a few bullets. Every few minutes the pattern repeated. But it wasn’t random firing: all the bullets reached a target. After a while, I understood. If I heard three bullets, three people had been hit. I started counting makeshift stretchers made of kuffiyahs tied to flagpoles to avoid watching people fall to the ground, after being shot. Every time the firing started, we all ducked.
While crouched on the ground, I started counting bloody rocks. Then I counted how many legs I could see, those of men hovering above piles of rocks and dirt that I learned were landmines. I looked around and volunteers, mostly teenage boys, demarcated visible mines with sticks and stones and forming circles around them, to ensure no one accidentally set them off. I was only about 15 meters from the fence, but couldn’t make myself go any closer, even though I really wanted to look at the Israeli soldiers faces to see what kind of expression they had before they fired their guns.
A narrow dirt road, with a few Lebanese Army vehicles parked along it, divided the protestors near the fence, and those sitting on, or descending down the hill from Maroun al-Ras. Soldiers stood along it, directing ambulances and people. Ambulances waited for the next lot of dead and injured. Eventually, after Israeli firing intensified and people continued to approach the fence, the Lebanese Army formed a line to prevent more people from coming. “The Israelis are firing,” they yelled at the crowds, although still many people tried to get through.
After what felt hours by that fence, in a state of disbelief at the bloodshed, I retreated to the hillside with two Palestinian friends and watched. On my way back, a group of young men and women asked me for my kuffiyah, to use for the wounded. Naturally I obliged.
The protest ended with the Lebanese Army firing into the air and tear gas into the crowd to force the thousands of peaceful protestors to leave. The Lebanese army did not prevent people, however, including many children under 18, from approaching the fence until long after the Israelis had started firing. They also allowed protestors onto territory that had not been de-mined. I had no idea that I was walking in a mined area until a friend grabbed my shoulders and pulled me aside, saying, “Please be careful because there are mines.” It was also interesting to compare Hezbollah’s presence, and the consequent perception of their presence, with that of the Lebanese Armed Forces. By providing snacks, water, and aid for the elderly, it is difficult not to ignore the sharp contrast with the more severe, and seemingly negligent army.
The happy atmosphere I witnessed before the shooting started was filled with smiling Palestinian refugee friends from Lebanon, who were excited to go and “see” Palestine. While most were born and raised in Lebanon, they don’t have permission from the Lebanese army to go as far south as the border. Despite living within a couple of hours of a drive — at most — from their family’s towns and villages in Palestine, most of them had never even seen their country. My friend Ahmed helped me down the mountain. His family was forced to flee from Acre, Palestine, to Lebanon in 1948.
I’ll never forget, is when I saw a very old Pakistani man, wearing a traditional shalwar kameez outfit and cap, with a henna-stained beard, as he stood alongside the rest of the largely Palestinian protestors in the line of fire, and threw rocks at Israel. He must have been at least 60 years old. I had ducked to the ground upon Israeli firing, and I later saw him crouch down nearby me. A tear streamed down his cheek as his frail hands gathered some rocks. His hands full, without taking a breath he stood up, and started walking back towards the fence. Perhaps he was one of the many South Asians who fought Israel, with the fedayeen in the 70s and 80s and stayed on after, marrying Palestinian women. I wanted to ask the old man his story, but the Israelis started shooting again, and it wasn’t the time or place.
When Ahmed and I first descended down the steep hill covered in wild thyme, from Maroun al-Ras towards the border fence that day, I remember the views of Palestine were breathtaking: ancient trees, hills, lush green fields. It looks just like Lebanon, except it’s not, it’s Palestine.
A shorter version of this article was first published in Le Monde Diplomatique English Edition, on May 17, 2011.
Sabah Haider is a journalist and filmmaker based in Beirut. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.