Deputy editor Drew Forrest was a member of the South African fact-finding delegation which toured Israel/Palestine last week.
Crack! Fizz! Then, even more alarmingly, WOOMF!! We can’t see what’s happening, but for the South African journalists tagging along it sounds ominously familiar.
A pitiless sun above, white dust and plastic litter underfoot, dry-stone walls, prickly pear thickets, ancient olive groves.
All around us on the dirt road are Palestinians, some as young as eight or nine, who seem unfazed by the noise of battle and almost six weeks of almost daily protest. They chant slogans in Arabic and wave Palestinian and green and white Hamas flags.
The turnout disappoints one of our Israeli hosts, Elan Orian from Anarchists Against the Wall. Perhaps 250 villagers from Nilleen are marching, instead of the expected thousand, accompanied by 40 or 50 Israeli sympathisers.
But he takes comfort from the fact that there is some support from nearby Palestinian settlements. ‘The biggest weakness is that each village protests on its own. It’s much easier for the military to deal with,” he says.
We top the ridge and the battlefield unfolds before us.
Visible through olive groves charred by past confrontations — hot teargas canisters start fires, our hosts say — is the parched valley that marks the route of the ‘separation barrier”. Beyond lies more Palestinian land, from which the barrier will soon divide them.
On the opposite ridge two bulldozers are busy uprooting olive trees to create a 70m-wide ‘exclusion zone” for the fence itself, gravel swathes to highlight footprints and access roads for Israeli security vehicles.
A long line of demonstrators is winding up the opposite hillside; with Israeli activists in the van to moderate security force violence, they plan to veer left and throw themselves in the path of the clanking behemoths.
Yesterday, a Palestinian proudly tells me, a small group of protesters broke through and inflicted some damage on the vehicles.
Nilleen, on the West Bank north-west of Jerusalem, near Ramallah, has just emerged from a four-day siege and curfew and the security forces are pumped for action. Having declared the valley a ‘closed military zone”, about 100 soldiers and border police — the latter particularly feared for their brutality — are strung out along the ridge.
As the demonstrators toil upwards, they come under a steady shower of teargas canisters and stun grenades, which can blow off fingers if handled, an activist warns me.
There is no retaliation, not even stone-throwing. Wherever we have been on the West Bank the theme has been one of non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation and the wall.
We follow through the drifting wisps of teargas; my eyes and nose start to stream. I stop on the ridge and my companions move on.
Unknown to me, the advance guard of the protesters has been beaten back by the troops, who are now driving onwards to clear the ridge. Suddenly, at 50m or less, a khaki-clad, helmeted group is striding through the bushes hurling stun grenades and firing rubber bullets as they come.
Something hisses past my head and through the tree behind me. Just ahead, a vivid flash and thunderclap. Over the rocks, through the thorn-bushes, slip-sliding down the path and I’m at the bottom of the hill again.
Behind me, carried on a stretcher, is a middle-aged American member of Christian Peacemaker Teams, which ‘maintains a violence-deterring presence between Israeli settlers, soldiers and Palestinians”. She has been hit in the buttock by a rubber bullet, indicating that her back was turned to her assailant.
Others are treated in the field by paramedics or moved to the clinic in Nilleen, while two Palestinians with ‘penetration wounds” are transferred to hospital.
In the past 16 days 220 protesters have been treated for injuries, according to a village spokesperson. In nearby Biddoo, where the wall has been completed, at least two have died.
Now begins the slow, straggling retreat, accelerated by an army flanking movement through the olive trees which harries the protesters back to the edge of the village.
The mood is bitterly defiant. A villager, holding aloft an olive branch, the resistance symbol of the Palestinian fellahin (farmers), proclaims the start of the third intifada. ‘Fuck you, soldiers!” screams another. An Israeli activist shouts up at the guardians of the bulldozers: ‘I’m ashamed of you! I’m ashamed to be Jewish!”
A Palestinian loads a slingshot and hurls a desultory rock or two across the valley; they drop harmlessly short of the soldiers.
An ironic symbol of a grossly unequal contest: David the Palestinian and his slingshot versus the Israeli Goliath. Except that the ruthlessly efficient giant shows no sign of falling.
In many ways it is RSA circa 1988 — stones against guns in an elemental fight against injustice.
There is no compensation for the uprooted olive trees, which are the basis of the Palestinian economy, and we were told in Biddoo that the soldiers use every possible device to obstruct Palestinian access to the groves from which the barrier separates them.
The unstated aim, villagers insist, is dispossession.
There is, too, the larger picture. The International Court of Justice condemned the wall as unilaterally imposing a political boundary between Israel and the West Bank it occupied during the 1967 war.
Designed to secure the Israeli settlements set up on conquered territory in defiance of the Geneva Convention — at Nilleen it balloons around the religious settlement of Modi’in Illit — it will entrench the seizure of another 8,6% of Palestinian land.
But in other respects conditions are far more suggestive of South Africa in the 1960s. With Israel’s economy growing at more than 5% a year and the backing of the world’s superpower, it is buffered from international pressure.
The suicide bombing wave of the second intifida, an increasingly distant event, appears to have closed Israeli ears and hearts to the plight of the Palestinians.
But the obvious difference between the West Bank 2008 and South Africa 20 years back is that the security forces are comfortably holding the line. And this imposes a terrible strain on the strategy of non-violence.
Although many Nilleen villagers are sure to return to the barricades tomorrow, next week and next month, the shrinking turnout worries Orian.
What, in this daunting context, drives the Israeli activists loosely organised under the misleading banner of Anarchists Against the Wall?
A few may be youthful hell-raisers in heavy-metal T-shirts, but many, perhaps most, are not ideological anarchists — they are grown-ups with brains, skills and jobs.
Orian, for example, is a physicist and environmental scientist in his thirties; Kobi Snitz, hit above the ear by a teargas canister during the protest, is a 36-year-old mathematician at Technikon Haifa.
We interview them at the Nilleen clinic: Ivan, an Argentinian immigrant struck in the face with a rifle butt; Snitz, who complains that the Israeli vanguard was advancing with arms raised when it was attacked; Jonathan Pollak, with a suspected fracture after a baton was broken across his leg.
Pollak tells us he has sustained at least 10 injuries in wall-related protests, including a brain haemorrhage which prevented him from standing for weeks. But he’ll be back, he says. The others echo him.
Guilt, snorts an Israeli photographer when we return to our hotel, arguing that the activists have a perverse need to suffer. I reflect that guilt can be a fitting response, particularly to rights violations in one’s name.
For Orian resistance to the wall has cemented Israelis and Palestinians in a new and fragile bond. Anarchists Against the Wall may be dismissed as lunatics and traitors by the Israeli mainstream, but like South African whites in the mould of Joe Slovo and Neil Aggett, they have opened a tiny conduit of goodwill between two warring peoples.
There is another motive which one would expect to resonate with Jews everywhere. It was highlighted by Amos Goldberg, our tour guide at Yad Va’shem, Jerusalem’s remarkable Holocaust memorial.
A middle-aged Holocaust historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and member of Children of Abraham, which fosters ties between Jewish and Muslim youth, Goldberg was arrested a month ago while confronting Israeli security forces in the conflict-torn West Bank city of Hebron.
His focus is less on the perpetrators and victims of the European genocide than on the millions of ordinary, decent people, many of them not anti-Semitic, who watched from the sidelines.
‘We blame the Poles for not helping the Jews,” he says. ‘I don’t want to be a bystander.”