Grownup children playing war: On Kufr Qaddum and violence

There’s no symmetry and no comparison between a pack of kids with slingshots and the fifth largest nuclear superpower in the world. And if the side at which violence is directed perceives no threat, is that supposed violence real?

By Amitai Ben Abba

Grownup children playing war: On Kufr Qaddum and violence
Palestinian youth throw stones at a demonstration in Qufr Qaddum, April 20, 2012 (Photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills)

The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Guerrilla of Qaddum’s children is running to and fro with stones and sometimes slingshots, making funny sounds at the soldiers that are lying bored overloaded with weapons and riot gear in the sun on the hill.

Kids have secret worlds of wandering imagination and play. In my own childhood, I would roam around empty building sites and fields, parks and barren streets, and the space would become only partial to the world of imagination flying in my mind. Street signs, stray cats, rubbish, thorns, empty beer cans and bongs and needles on the ground were sometimes present as props in the play, but they were mostly just regular constituents of the Jerusalem scenery, fading in and out of my child’s-play consciousness. Likewise, in Kufr Qaddum, kids play around fields filled with used teargas canisters, rubber coated steel bullets, shells of live ammo and burned patches of ground. My Kosovar and Bosnian friends would tell me of their uncanny childhoods. They were playing at war, like spies or commando units or pirates, wandering between ruins, while bombings and shootings and sometimes massacres were happening around them during the grown-ups’ actual war. In the Palestinian village of Kufr Qaddum the kids take the make-believe of children’s play to a whole other level.

Grownup children playing war: On Kufr Qaddum and violence
A child at Kufr Qaddum collecting used gas canisters. (Photo: Steve Hynd)

“3ah ‘Aah, ghri ghrri,” the kids cry at the soldiers, like the calls shepherds make to summon their herds. “Awawa 3a wah 3aaaaahhh!”

Some older Palestinian folks are there as well. “You’re not a commander,” one of them taunts the officer from a distance. “You’re just a municipality contractor in Kufr Qaddum. Look at you, the dog is your leader; our leader is this child over here.” The military released an assault dog on protesters in Kufr Qaddum last year.

The children roam about with zest, wearing shirts in all colors of the rainbow. The demo hasn’t even officially started yet. There is a powerful sense of the joy of resistance. There is an air of hope, of a struggle that persists with determination, with growth and openness. This is a pleasant surprise for me. From fellow activists’ recollections, the struggle in Qaddum seemed dark and dangerous in my mind, filled with violence and cultural tensions.

The joint weekly demonstrations in Kufr Qaddum started two years ago in July 2011. This village, in the north of the West Bank, suffered from land thefts and settler brutality by the nearby settlement of Kedumim. In 2003 the main road to the city of Nablus was shut down, leaving the village isolated with little access to resources, extremely high unemployment and abject poverty. This is the road towards which the marches lead now on a weekly basis, and the protesters call for its reopening on the top of their lungs. These are now the most well attended weekly protests. People from all over the village go out and risk arrest and injury, and they do it with style, I must add.

A certain tension felt, however, is the lack of feminine presence. Other than activists that come from the outside, there is not a woman to be seen at the demo. There are always noteworthy exceptions, though, such as Suriah Mahmood.

“I think to myself, who takes part in the demonstrations?  The shabab (youth) are our brothers and sons from Kafr Qaddum. I think it is my duty to go out to make trouble for the soldiers to make them busy so they are unable to continue to chase the shabab. I again feel something internal in my heart. Sometimes I throw stones or block [the] soldiers. I shout to make the soldiers nervous and crazy and can’t control my emotions because I think it’s the role of Palestinian women to stand with our brothers against occupation.” (Suriah Mahmood, from an interview with ISM activists)

Like in Bil’in, Nabi Saleh, Ni’ilin and other villages throughout Palestine, demonstrations are brutally repressed by the military. Skulls fractured by teargas canisters. Rubber coated steel bullets. Skunk water. Shooting gas into houses. Suffocation. Injuries. Night raids. Child arrests. Administrative detention and long prison sentences. The village got some international attention with the dog assault mentioned above, and more recently, with a bizarre case of psychological warfare when the military put up posters with pictures of four minors and the statement, “We are the army, watch yourselves, we’ll catch you should we see you, or we’ll come to your house.” In a night raid earlier this week, one of the minors, age 17, was kidnapped with two other folks aged 21 and 22.

People treat all this dread with humor. It’s a world in which megalomaniac underpaid municipal contractors participate in children’s make-believe war games. Murad, one of the main organizers of the demos and a real fantastic orator, introduced me to a four-year-old boy who the military tried to arrest a year ago on a stone throwing charge. The threat engulfed in a smile of a child.

“Everyone in Kufr Qaddum has a story,” Murad says and signals at the child with a grin. “Here’s a small grown up man.”

The demonstration starts after the prayer, but the military entered the village early today and threw stun grenades and fired tear gas at houses. I am told that a boy suffocated from the gas and lost consciousness for 20 minutes. Murad just sent an email saying that he’s okay now.

It’s all quite baffling. The soldiers are lying among the trees of the village up on the hills around the mosque, frying in the sun with their heavy battle gear and ceramic armor plates. The shabab throw rocks in their general direction, but the soldiers are well out of reach. They respond with a stray tear gas canister every once in a while. People say that their idea is to keep the demo on a low flame and then charge suddenly and attack the protesters from several directions at once. This video of an attack on journalists shows what happens to those who stay behind in these charges.

The call to prayer starts and the random teargas shelling persists. Older folks give tips to the kids, telling them when to run off and where to go. Others observe the scene from rooftops and call out warnings in case soldiers charge from different directions. Activists say that over the past two years, the protesters have gotten better at maneuvering the terrain, taking care of each other, avoiding arrests during demonstrations and leaving each demo with a weird sense of victory. There’s a joy to this struggle, a freshness embodied in the image of laughing men as they step out of the mosque and clap to the beat of the chants. A heyday is foreshadowed in these images, a peak of creative and uncompromising protest.

The demo sort of officially starts. Murad gives a poetic speech about persistence and resistance and lack of fear. People chant and walk up the road towards more soldiers. Then I hear that horrible buzz of the canisters and a white blur of teargas. Pain in the sinuses. Lungs clogging up. I instinctively reach to the onion in my pocket. I break it and breath deep into it, filling my lungs with its relieving smell; the symptoms ease and I can see stone throwing and soldiers and suddenly the soldiers charge us and everyone runs and I run after some kids into a house.

I am given tea. I sit and have tea for a few brief seconds to the war sounds of the outside. My host is kind. He’s not attending the demos. I avoid asking too many questions, sensing a certain tension around my presence as an outsider. This is a pearl of a moment nonetheless, I think to myself. I gulp down the tea and thank my host and head back out. Teargas is shot all around the house right afterwards, penetrating the windows and diffusing upstairs in the children’s rooms. How come the kids go out to throw stones? It’s a question of inhaling the gas inside in submission or outside in defiance.

“It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.” (Gandhi quote – weird phrasing, worthy message)

Murad says this is a peaceful protest. Indeed, completely unarmed, the protesters pose little to no threat to the soldiers. Perhaps it is seen differently from their side, but the soldiers stand lazily and disregard the stone throwers in front of them. If they just seemingly start charging, the flock of protesters runs off. If the side at which supposed violence is directed perceives no threat, is supposed violence real? In the media, and sometimes in our minds, the occupier is the one to define violence. Occupier – occupied. Why is violence even a question? Treat the next paragraph or two as a footnote.

The question of violence is still a big one. Before it was popularized by Gandhi and King, nonviolence was a non-issue when it came to imbalanced battles against oppression. It may be useful as a tactic. But adamant ideology is often a little jarring. Some left-wing organizations revel in the image of an ex-Israeli soldier putting a hand on the shoulder of a youth about to throw stones telling him “this is the wrong way.” Often, the discourse of pacifism, imposing and condescending, is very violent. Sometimes it extends beyond discourse. The classical example is that of the WTO actions in Seattle 1999, when adamant pacifists physically assaulted black bloc folks and turned them over to the police.

Obviously, there’s no symmetry and no comparison between a pack of kids with slingshots and the fifth largest nuclear superpower in the world, in the same sense that there’s no symmetry between a group of anarchists smashing windows compared to multinational corporations with armies of police, politicians, lawyers and TV channels. And does the debate on violence have any relevance to Kufr Qaddum, to the brief effervescence of imagined victory when the soldiers finally leave the village and the people clap and sing, not at gun-point, for a mere second?

Most successful insurrections over the past 15 years have been peaceful in the sense that the rebels used no guns and bombs to target individuals. There has been plenty of window smashing, stone throwing, tire burning and other acts of symbolic violence, particularly against property. Some struggles practically transformed according to strategic need. My favorite example is that of the Zapatistas in the Chiapas of Mexico. Their indigenous insurrection started at 1994 as a classical Latin American armed guerrilla revolution, but then metamorphosed into something completely unique, nonviolent in the sense that they said they would hold guns but not use them, and reaching out for international solidarity and public pressure on the Mexican government to let them have autonomy. Perhaps the Palestinian struggle bears signs of such metamorphoses as well. I propose we approach the question of violence like clowns – with different noses for different occasions.

But again, treat the two or three paragraphs above as an inflated footnote. Let the debate not overshadow the point. That it is criminal to isolate Kufr Qaddum. That the road to Nablus must be accessible. That children (indeed all people) deserve to live a childhood devoid of arrests, brutality and trauma.

Despite, or in spite, of the fires, squill grows tall in the fields of Qaddum. Sabres decorate the gardens. A boy is standing on a wall in front of the soldiers. Shabab throw rocks fearlessly. The soldiers languidly direct their teargas canons. It is a strange feeling, to be a target. I raise the lousy camera of my mobile phone in front of my face. Little do.

And yet I felt cordially welcomed. Outsiders are not expected to join in with the stone throwing. Criticism is valid, there may be a certain lack of solidarity in light of Che’s statement that “solidarity means running the same risk,” but running the same risk is mostly not possible anyway and there are still plenty of ways to support. Question mark? Hundreds of people attend, but only few of them are not from the village. The international, Palestinian and Israeli activists that join in do important work with medical support, media attention and legal and jail support (Israeli ID holders have particularly privileged access to the latter). There were some parts of the demo, certain roamings in alleyways, at which I was a little worried by the lack of cameras. Outside presence also forces the army to behave in a slightly less brutal way and even obey certain shooting regulations (they don’t obey them all – for instance, they shoot teargas directly at people and from short distances, a practice that has brought about horrible injuries and too many deaths throughout Palestine). The organizers are now reaching out for more companions.

“We want all people to know of our sufferings, to see our life, and support our struggle,” Murad says.

There’s something infectious about the joy of the struggle in Kufr Qaddum. Perhaps it is blooming. It’s an exciting moment to join in. What is often perceived as dark and desolate is in my eyes a unique and colorful display of resistance. Clowns and musicians are welcome as well. Heed the call.

Amitai Ben-Abba is an Israeli anarchist from Jerusalem. He takes part in demonstrations and direct actions across Occupied Palestine and writes about his experiences in his blog.

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