Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Shooting at Farmers

Posted on Writing from Gaza on February 4, 2009

“If you hadn’t been here with us, they would have killed us all”.

It seems like a bit of an overstatement from Yusef Abu Shaheen, after 7 international activists and 4 members of an Italian tv crew accompanied him and 5 other farm workers to his land in Al Farahin - a village east of Khan Younis, close to the Green Line. But then, exactly one week before, they had watched their friend, 27 year old Anwar, shot down by Israeli soldiers, while he was doing exactly as we did yesterday - harvesting parsely.


The farmers were clearly nervous when we got out into the fields - our distance from the Green Line the subject of much debate. The farmers were claiming we were 700m from the electric fence that marks the boundary. Others thought 500m. It seemed more like 300m to me - but I have been ever poor with distances. The debate was largely meaningless, however. Currently, anyone who ventures within 1km of the Green Line throughout most of the Gaza Strip risks being shot.

Bearing this in mind, they requested we position ourselves around them - shielding their bodies with our own - all of us aware that even with the recent levels of carnage, the Israeli soldiers patrolling the borders will think twice before shooting an international. At least we hope.


In this way, we were able to harvest for around two hours. It was a gorgeous day, and the mood became jovial - there was lots of posing for photos with enormous bunches of parsely. Farmers posed with each other; with internationals. We picked and ate the sweetest and saltiest parsely I’ve ever tasted, under the warm winter sun. The workers were efficient, but not working too hard. Tasks were divided up between cutting and tying bundles of parsely; and collecting them to load onto the donkey carts. One cart was stacked high, with a second cart about a third done, when the shooting started. The farmers all dropped to the ground immediately - taking cover from the bushy parsely plants.

Israeli jeeps had been passing along the road that runs the length of the Green Line as early as 15 minutes after we arrived. A few had stopped momentarily, but then continued. A few shots were fired - maybe 4 or 6. And then I was convinced they had finished. I was wrong. They then went on to fire at various degrees of closeness for next 45 minutes. Some bullets were close enough to hear the whizz; some fired in entirely the wrong direction - prompting jeers from a number of internationals. Some hit the dirt metres in front of our feet.

It was the first time I had experienced so much gun-fire, and it would be a lie to say I wasn’t scared. But I wasn’t as scared as I imagined I might be. My mob-instinct, that often had me running from tear gas and rubber bullets during demonstrations in the West Bank (believing that if so many people were running away, then the apocalypse must be behind them), was to immediately go to ground with the farmers. But a quick glance around at all of the other international activists standing tall, with arms in the air - indicating to the soldiers that they bore no weapons - helped me to remember my role, and I remained standing. We stood there, not so much in the belief that they wouldn’t shoot us - many international activists have been shot by the Israeli army with live ammunition (including one in Ni’lin just last week) - but in the hope that they wouldn’t aim to kill.

One of the internationals began to get angry. ”They know we’re civilans!”, she stormed. “They wouldn’t be walking around the jeep like that if they thought we had weapons!” It was true. The combination of fluorescent vests; megaphone announcements; press releases; phone calls to embassies and to the IDF humanitarian hotline left the soldiers in no doubt that they were firing on unarmed civilians. They just didn’t care.

The farmers tried to wait out the army, hoping they would get bored and leave. And during lulls in the shooting, they would get up to continue harvesting. But the gun-fire intensified in rapidity and proximity, until finally, the farmers decided to leave without completing the day’s harvest. Not surprisingly, it was when we started to leave that the shooting was the most intense. (It was the same in Ni’lin last week - the Palestinian and Swedish activists were shot as the demonstration was departing).

No one was injured, happily - though mostly out of luck. Any number of the bullets that hit close-by could have ricocheted into someone’s body or head. At one point when I was walking back to the village - accompanying a farmer and a donkey - bullets that I surmise weren’t aimed at us, whizzed loudly past our heads. I ducked then.

We will go out with the same farmers again, tomorrow. Many of us are more worried about this than we were about Tuesday’s action. There is a concern that the second time around the soldiers will be more vicious - and more likely to start shooting sooner. Because of this concern we have made the decision that when the farmers decide to leave, we will all leave with them - rather than accompanying the farmers to safety before returning to the fields until the soldiers leave, as has previously been the strategy. Largely, this is due to the belief that Israeli soldiers are particularly psychotic at the moment - having just massacred more than 1000 civilians. As one friend put it, “It is very difficult to put that back in a box”.