A Very Terrible Week

Dear friends,

I had friends aboard the boats that attempted to reach Gaza. I spent more than two days not knowing if they were alive or dead. It was perhaps the most tortuous wait of my life. Many of those involved in the Palestinian resistance here knew dozens of people on those boats. I knew four, two of them well. The sense of anger and grief is tangible here, and is shared by everyone who considers themselves part of the movement to free Palestine. The one bit of solace has been the global response to the attacks – thank you to everyone who has in any way contributed to that.

However, it is another event that happened last week that I want to write about here.

As many of you will have heard, a friend of mine, Emily, a fellow activist, was seriously injured last week when she was shot in the face with a tear gas canister, fired from approximately 15 metres by an Israeli soldier. Emily was participating in one of the many demonstrations that sprung up across the West Bank in solidarity with the activists on the boats. She was waving a flag, standing near the front of the demonstration with another ISM volunteer, when three tear gas canisters were shot straight at them – the first two went either side of Emily’s head, the third hit her just below her left eye.

I suppose it’s worth pointing out that tear gas is supposed to be used to disperse a crowd by gassing them. Being gassed is an unpleasant experience – it makes it hard to breathe, and your eyes sting like crazy. Inhalation can be extremely dangerous for the young or the elderly, and for those with existing respiratory problems; it can cause miscarriage for pregnant women (a seven-month pregnant woman lost her child just this weekend). However, for most of us, it is simply very unpleasant. The Israeli military though frequently fire the canisters directly at demonstrators, essentially using the canisters, which come in a few different varieties, as very large bullets. The type that was fired at Emily is an aluminium cylinder, approximately ten centimetres long.

In just the past month or so, there have been two other serious injuries sustained by non-violent protesters who were hit in the face with a canister. The first victim, in the village of Bili’in, suffered a brain haemorrage and a fractured skull. The second, a teenager in An Nabi Saleh, was more fortunate – it opened up a big hole in his cheek, and broke his cheek bone, but I’m told he’s now doing well. The most upsetting part of that second incident was seeing the Israeli soldiers start shooting volleys of tear gas at the ambulance the second it rounded the corner, forcing it to turn back and go a much longer route to take the injured boy to the hospital.

I arrived at the hospital just before Emily went in to surgery. We were told that surgeons would perform two operations. One on her eye, one on the rest of her face, as the canister had broken the bones around her eye, her cheekbone and her jaw.

For more than five hours, we waited for her to come out of theatre. When she did, at about 1am, the doctors confirmed what we had been warned to expect. They had had to remove Emily’s left eye. The better news was that her other eye was not infected, and that the surgery on the rest of her face had gone well.

The following few days were mostly spent in the hospital. Emily’s mood has been, understandably, very up and down, but I have been immensely impressed by the courage and strength she has shown throughout. Physically, she has also improved noticeably with each day that’s passed.

What happened to Emily, and what was done on the boats, is horrific and upsetting, but comes as no surprise to anyone who regularly witnesses or experiences Israeli responses to non-violent resistance. There is now a long list of names of innocent people killed in Friday demonstrations, and a far longer list of those seriously injured. Emily’s name joins those of other ISM volunteers who have, over the past few years, been killed or seriously hurt when standing in solidarity with the people of Palestine – Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, killed in Rafah in 2003; Brian Avery, shot in the face in Jenin, also in 2003; Tristan Anderson, hit in the face with a high-velocity tear gas canister in Nilin last year.

It has been encouraging to see the global protests and condemnation of the attack on the Freedom Flotilla. I believe there is a genuine opportunity here to push for an end to the siege on Gaza, at least from Egypt’s side, if not from Israel’s. If the fate of those aboard those boats leads to an end to the blockade, they will not have died or suffered in vain. What Israel did that day was a continuation of their long-term approach to those who dare to stand up to them and say that their policies are not acceptable.

I’ll end with a quote that I heard a couple of months ago, paraphrased from the Palestinian cartoonist, Naji Al Ali: “If you are to live, you must live free. If you have to die, then, like the trees, die standing”.

With love,