“He spent 2 years in jail for that drawing,” E tells us, as I snap a picture of some graffiti on the wall. In graphic black paint, it depicts 2 small children picking up stones to throw, and a mother in her hijab with head covered, picking up more stones to hand to them.
As Canadians, we’re in shock. Jail? For painting a picture? Why? Because it’s political, of course. And in the West Bank, the political matters.
For 6 days now, the Israelis and Hamas have been bombing each other, with Palestinians suffering the highest death tolls. Over 150 Palestinian casualties, many of them children, versus Israel’s 6. Angry demonstrations and protests have been taking place in the Palestine administered, but Israeli occupied cities of Hebron, Ramallah and Bethlehem.
And now, we’re walking out of the refugee camp in the centre of Bethlehem, and headed straight into the nucleus of the protests. It’s a 5 minute walk and a world away from where we’ve just had coffee with E and his friends in the community pool hall.
We walk past a line of Palestinian soldiers dressed in army green and looking serious. I am intimidated by the guns they’re carrying, but we find out later that the guns aren’t loaded. They’re just a show of bravado.
“See the blood.” E says, pointing at drops on the blue striped shirt of a young man, his whole head disguised in a scarf. “Someone was shot by an Israeli soldier today.”
Was he killed? “Not yet,” is the black reply.
There’s a sudden commotion, and I turn just in time to see a molotov cocktail being flung at the Israeli Tower that sits atop the wall that divides Bethlehem from Jerusalem. When it hits it’s target, the ragtag group of teenagers and young men break into cheers and applause.
We’re far enough away from the action that I don’t feel in real danger, but the tension in the air is palpable and I’m definitely on edge. I hear a few gunshots in the distance and a can of tear gas is fired into the crowd of boys milling about the street.
“Do you want to go closer? Smell the gas?” E jokes with a grin. I am tense, but this is normal life for him. He tells us that during the night, Israeli soldiers have been filling the camps with tear gas, and randomly arresting individuals for “terrorism.” I am not sure how to feel.
A young boy runs through the crowd, yelling and jeering, with an Israeli flag that he has somehow managed to steal from the tower. At what risk, I wonder? A crowd of boys gathers around him. They want to set it ablaze, and after several unsuccessful attempts, they succeed. It is anti-climactic, but still they are jubilant, and for good measure, they stomp decisively on the burnt flag.
More molotov cocktails are being thrown at the Tower, some hitting the mark, but most missing. I hear more gunshots and see the boys of Bethlehem running away from the tear gas, anonymous with their mouths and eyes covered by checkered scarves.
My nerves are frayed and I’ve had enough. I want to get off the street before it gets dark.
E walks us a few blocks away and directs us towards the souk. Away from the dividing wall, the rest of Bethlehem is peaceful.
We say our farewells and ask him what he’s up to for the rest of the evening.
“It’s better for you, if you don’t know,” he says with a rueful grin.
“By the way, the man who was shot this afternoon? He died.” he tells us as he strides back purposefully in the direction of the tear gas and molotov cocktails.