Experiencing colonial violence is different from learning about it.
Reading about precarious lives is one thing; being in a position where one’s life does not count is something else. It is a reality concealed behind a dark curtain of intertwined interests of states, media and the military-industrial complex. It reveals gaps between transparencies of the past and the inability to see present injustices.My experience in occupied Palestine during the past five months is situated between the experience and abstract knowledge of colonialism, military occupation and apartheid. After finishing my PhD residency at Western’s Visual Arts Department in May, I traveled to Palestine to conduct field research, collecting visual and sonic material, as well as sonic data for my dissertation on contemporary weapons, including drones, and their effect on Palestinian civilians.
Occupied by Israel since 1967, Gaza and the West Bank frequently encounter Israel’s drone activities, as well as other weapons that target human sound, sight and smell.
I arrived in the occupied Palestinian city of Bethlehem in August, and began researching and teaching at Dar Al-Kalima University of Arts and Culture. Although I was born and grew up in Palestine, returning after three decades in exile revealed the extent of Israel’s destruction of a country that once was an open cultural and economic centre. I found Palestine transformed into ghettos isolated from each other and from the outside world, its economy destroyed and controlled, its topography tortured and its population living a daily struggle.
My research material is in front of me in Bethlehem, which is divided from its sister city Jerusalem by an 8-metre high concrete wall with watchtowers, checkpoints and iron gates. Further fragmenting the land are Jewish-only colonies and their segregated roads, established on illegally confiscated Palestinian land in violation of International Law. The city includes three refugee camps, with a population of 20,000 Palestinians and their descendants who became refugees during the 1948 Nakba when Israel annexed their homes and land.
By mid-August, I began documenting the response of the Israeli army to unarmed Palestinians resisting the confiscation of large pieces of Bethlehem’s land and the uprooting of olive trees. The occupation forces prohibited landowners from reaching their land, built gates and a concrete wall, attacked protesters with teargas and sound bombs and arrested activists.
Following the burning of the Dawabsheh family by Jewish settlers in the Nablus District in August, and Israel’s attempt to divide Al Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem in September, a third Intifada erupted across the West Bank at the beginning of October. With the expansion of resistance across the West Bank, protests took place daily in Bethlehem by the Apartheid Wall’s watchtowers and iron gates, through which the army and military vehicles invade the city.
Documenting the occupation’s use of tear gas, sound bombs and smell weapons is part of my work. I record different types of tear gas, which vary in strength, colour and size. Some are fired individually, others in multiples from military jeeps. I have also documented the use of different types of sound bombs, rubber-coated steel bullets and smell weapons.Friday, Dec. 11, was a research day that I am unable to forget, when I experienced the thin line between life and death. I was treated like my life was worthless.
I was on my way home from the university when I saw a crowd running, and realized they were trying to escape from the ‘skunk’ truck, which I decided to record. I began to walk toward the ‘skunk’, hoping to reach the area where I usually stop with the other photographers. I could see a military jeep and soldiers on foot, a usual scene. My eyes were fixed on the ‘skunk’ firing torrents of Israeli lab-made sewage water on the surrounding houses.
I walked carefully, calmly and slowly for about 150 metres, taking shelter when possible, photographing and recording video when I could. When I reached a corner close to Bethlehem Museum, I stopped for a few minutes to take photographs.
I suddenly felt something like fire sting my leg and looked down to see blood on my shoes and pants. I did not realize that I was shot.
An ambulance drove toward me and two paramedics rushed with a stretcher, demanding I go with them to the hospital. At that moment, an Israeli military jeep mounted with multiple canons rained tear gas canisters on us.
The paramedics carried me through clouds of tear gas while we suffocated. We reached a local hospital where doctors identified the injury as due to a .22-inch calibre bullet had entered and exited my leg. I was lucky that the bullet did not remain in my leg or shatter any bones, the doctors stated. The use of this type of bullet is banned internationally, but the occupation army uses it, and calls it ‘non-lethal,’ though it often causes permanent disability and death, according to Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations.
To this day I am in disbelief.
I posed no threat to anyone. I was walking slowly and visibly holding only a camera, which captured the image of the sniper who shot me. What happened was not an accident. I have many questions without answers:
- Was I targeted personally or was my camera, with its capability of capturing the occupation’s human rights violations?
- Will there be any accountability for this shooting and for similar experiences of thousands of other Palestinians?
- Who will protect unarmed Palestinian boys and girls who throw stones at their occupiers and oppressors, who are armed with more than one machine gun each and equipped with the highest forms of protection?
- Who will pressure Israel to stop executing Palestinian youth daily, in cold blood, without any regard for International Law?
Rehab Nazzal is a PhD student in Western’s Department of Visual Arts, and a holder of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) doctoral award.