It was not a smell we expected at midnight on a quiet street in Jenin, at least not these days. But there it was, the sound of a small explosion followed by the faint smell of gunpowder. And then, slowly, as our nose and eyes became intolerably irritated, we realized that the explosion wasn’t a mortar in the distance but tear gas a few blocks away.
The irony was impossible to miss for me and Bryan Reynolds, a drama professor and my colleague at the University of California at Irvine, with whom I traveled to Jenin in the West Bank to help produce his new play, “Nabi Saleh,” about the Palestinian village by the same name: A year before, to the day, we were almost overcome by tear gas as we filmed a weekly protest against ongoing Israeli annexations of the village’s land.
My first thought was it was the Israelis launching a nighttime raid — an all-too-common occurrence in Jenin. Perhaps it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reminding Palestinians who’s still boss after his party’s unexpectedly large victory in the March 17 election. But the retreating silhouettes we saw were too thin to be Israeli soldiers, who travel far more heavily armed and armored and rarely back down. The confused Arabic shouts confirmed that these were local Palestinian security forces, not the Israelis.
Soon enough a group of about a dozen teenage boys came running down the street, their comrades converging on them out of nowhere from surrounding blocks. Rocks and insults were duly hurled at the retreating cops, and then, as quickly as it started, the confrontation was over.
“The muqawama!” — the resistance — a lonely shop owner said half-jokingly to Bryan and me as he invited us inside his store to escape the fumes. And in one sense this is the sad reality of Palestinian resistance on the day after Bibi won another term in office: young men reduced to scaring away Palestinian security forces viewed as doing little more than Israel’s bidding in the middle of the night. It’s a far cry from the height of the Aqsa intifada more than a dozen years ago, when Jenin was the center of Palestinian resistance.
On the other hand, this little incident is a good indicator of just how dead the Oslo peace process is two days after Netanyahu announced that he would never allow the creation of a Palestinian state. That night it was a little skirmish between local kids and cops; tomorrow it will be far more violent confrontations between Palestinian society writ large and the full weight of Israel’s occupation machine.
In truth, it never really mattered who was going to win the Israeli election. Every Israeli government, no matter the party in power, has contributed its share to the building and entrenchment of the occupation that Netanyahu admitted is never going to end. As Bryan and I sat with the amazing young actors who performed in the opening of “Nabi Saleh” a few hours before, I asked them their opinions of the election results. At 1-0 with eight minutes left, the Barcelona–Manchester City Champions’ League game was far more interesting than a question about an election that, like everyone before it during their lifetime, would bring nothing but more occupation. At least the outcome of the game wasn’t determined before the contest began.
Kids out for some midnight fun aside, the Jenin Freedom Theatre and the Freedom Bus Ride it has sponsored the last few years represent among the most effective and hopeful examples of resistance against the occupation that Israel now admits will only expand, if the world allows it. Traveling through the West Bank on the bus with Palestinian and international activists and artists, one witnesses how popular resistance committees in front-line villages from the Jordan Valley to the Hebron hills are finding ever more creative ways to tear down the myths that have long helped sustain the occupation, even if they can’t yet tear down the walls isolating them from their fellows.
It will be crucial in the coming years for Palestinians and their supporters, including increasing numbers of Israelis who, like white South Africans and Americans before them, have decided to abandon the racialized and racist politics of the state to which they belong, to continue developing such resistance strategies. They will be helped by increasing numbers of Israeli leaders who are openly advocating not just annexation but granting full citizenship rights to Palestinians, at least in the West Bank.
What is clear is that with this election, Israel and the Palestinians have arrived not at the proverbial fork in the road so much as at the beginning of a new road that will take them, willingly or not, away from the reality of two peoples separated by walls, laws and guns and toward one society under one system that, however slowly, can’t help granting equal political rights to all the inhabitants of the country.
How painful and bloody this journey remains is largely up to Israelis, but Palestinian creativity will play a determining role in the shape and distance of the road ahead. Those kids fighting the cops on the streets and their peers a few blocks away fighting their fears on the stage hold a big piece of the future of both societies in their hands.
Postscript: As I finished writing this article, the raucous call to the fajr, or predawn prayer, which echoes across the buildings and hills of Jenin at 4 a.m., was interrupted by the sound of gunfire and explosions. Was it the Sulta (Palestinian Authority) forces, or perhaps the Israelis, out for some late-night excitement? In the morning I learned that the attack was by the Israelis, who burst into the home of Mustafa ash-Shata, a prominent local journalist, activist and board member of the Freedom Theatre, as part of a series of raids and arrests around the city. They broke down the door of his house and, weapons cocked, arrested him in his bed while his wife and kids looked on in horror. As of publication time, there is still no word of his whereabouts or why he was taken.