IMEMC correspondent Anna Sanders joined the anti-wall Freedom March organized by the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and a number of Palestinian grass-roots organizations. Anna Wrote:

Even though on my first night in the Bethlehem-area town of Beit Sahour tracer bullets were fired into the area to break up fights in the area I hadn’t really had much contact with the direct military occupation in Palestine in my month here. So when I boarded the bus to join the ISM march against the Wall I didn’t know exactly what to expect.

After arriving in the Qalquiliya-region town of Izbat Salman we started the afternoon part of the march south towards Sanniriya. Ten minutes down the road we came to our check point at the intersection of three Palestinian towns, two of which have been artificially separated by a Jewish Settlement.

The checkpoint controls the flow of human and car between the towns but more importantly acts as the only entrance and exit point to the town of Beit Amin which has been enclosed by security fences and will eventually be isolated from its sister town on the other side of the Wall, all for the benefit of the nearby settlement.

As we approached we saw 15 -20 Palestinian men and boys being held at the side of the road by various soldiers. The ISM chant leader began to ask the soldiers why they were being held and demanded that their IDs be returned to them and they be set free. One of the soldiers responded that they were being held because of our presence and that we were only making things worse for them by being there.

In an impromptu act we decided to let the soldiers know that we would be staying there until the Palestinians had been released. We gathered in the road, joined by other Palestinians from Sanniriya, chanting slogans against the occupation and in support of a free Palestine.

After having used up the six minutes allotted to us by the soldiers to protest, the situation became tenser as the soldiers moved in to forcibly push us back. At this point, one of the soldiers grabbed one of the chant leaders, managing to separate him from our group and detain him. The ISMers instinctually formed a tight group, locked arms and sat down, making any further arrests very difficult for the 7 or 8 soldiers who were in front of us.

Not knowing what this situation was developing into and seeing almost all of the Palestinians begin to run back towards the town, I also backed away. At this point you could see a clear divide between the internationals and the Palestinians and how the soldiers treated each group.

The Palestinians were forced up the road by clearly agitated soldiers who, looking through their view scopes, pointed their gun at any Palestinians that straggled behind or scrambled up the hill away from the road. As an international, I apparently had much more freedom of movement as I could go back and forth, crossing the line of soldiers between the group of Palestinians and the ISM group.

The stand-off between the seated ISMers and the soldiers cooled down as the soldiers took the strategy of ignoring ISM presence and resuming trafficking duties and finally ended when the last Palestinian being held was put in an army jeep so the soldiers could “drive him home.”

As the men were released little by little in small groups some of the men explained the circumstances of their detention as they quickly passed by the ISM group. One young man said he had been held since the morning of the day before and another older man debunked the soldiers’ claim that the detentions were due to the international presence, asserting that, in fact, the army usually detains dozens and sometimes hundreds of Palestinians every day, and that the international presence seemed to be the only reason why so relatively few had been held that day.

The action at the checkpoint, as it was summed up that evening in the affinity group that I participated in while with the march, was, with the exception of Palestinian man who was taken by the soldiers and the ISM activist who was arrested, considered successful in that its purpose was to pressure the soldiers into releasing the men being held and that was eventually accomplished.

The affinity group system, although perhaps a little heavy on rules of process (what’s the difference between a mediator and a facilitator, a representative and a spokesman and should these really be issues), served as a place for already formed groups of ISMers with diverse experience in the march to come together and discuss reactions to the day’s events and make proposals for how to improve problems encountered along the way.

My brief stint with the march did not give me the enough time to really experience first-hand how effective affinity group meetings can be but one woman explained to me a telling example of how the focus on bringing problems to the attention of the group at large can both resolve and generate problems.

That morning we were driven to a starting point a hundred feet or so from the barbed wire fence marking the path the Wall will take. We walked up a hill and continued on along the fence until we reached the next village, where we were joined by women’s groups, an Israeli anarchist contingent and good-sized group of local Palestinians.

One of the destinations of the march that day was to visit a house in Mas-ha which has been surrounded on all sides, literally encaged, by army-erected security fences for the protection of the settlement next door.

The residents in the house have one gate from which they can enter and leave and the times when they can do so is regulated by the army. On Shabbat, children from the settlement throw stones at their house. People I know who had already visited this house and spoke with the people living there and said it was such a ludicrous sight that you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. As this house stands out as almost an icon of the callousness with which the Wall is being built, I was looking forward to visiting it. The army, however, had other plans.

Our army “escort” started right after we met up with the other people that were joining the march that day. Throughout the day army jeeps tried to sandwich us between them so that they could dictate the speed and direction of the march. As their presence wasn’t something that had been anticipated or discussed in our quick morning meeting, dealing with the accompanying soldiers and the other non-ISM groups’ response to them was unplanned, but I think in the end, a show of ISM’s ability to integrate into new groups and confront situations with new people.

Throughout the march the day before and that morning most of the chants that we sang as we encountered soldiers, towns people or to keep spirits up in the dusty heat were, logically, almost all in English. Even though many of the Palestinians on the march knew English well and could sing along, and the children did their best to mimic the sounds and perfect their counting in English (“1,2,3,4, Occupation no more, 5,6,7,8 Stop the killing, stop the hate”), there was something not completely comfortable about coming into a Palestinian town singing in English.

On the road up to Mas-ha, however, the Palestinian leaders of ISM and the town locals took the lead in chanting, and we, the internationals, took the more subordinate, but still enjoyable role of mouthing sounds we wouldn’t be able to remember 10 seconds later. (I, personally only remember that in one of the sounds there is a loud interjection of “hey hey”- Not much of an accomplishment for having been in intensive Arabic classes the three weeks prior).

In a wonderful show of disobedience to the soldiers, an animatedly group chanting a Palestinian resistance song blocked a military jeep as it tried to make its way to the front of the group. Some of the internationals moved aside for the jeep to advance but when it got behind the singing group they simply ignored the jeep. The soldiers inside tried everything from revving the engine, driving up close on their heels to leaning on the horn for a minute or two at a time to drown out the singing, but to no avail. The jeep’s roar and the driver’s infantile horn-blowing were made powerless by the dignity and enthusiasm of the Palestinians continuing on with their song.

When the jeeps did manage to block us in on both ends, the situation began to heat up. The soldiers refused to let us continue down the road, forming a human wall, reinforced with the jeeps behind them. At one point, shoving started, which may have been initiated by people on the march. The people in the front pushed some of the activists who were getting agitated to the back, locked arms, and began loudly repeating “no violence”. This vocal reproach of violence sent a message to the people in our group that the consensus was against any sort of violent confrontation and it also seemed to soothe the soldiers a little and let them know that we weren’t interested in hurting them.

When we finally turned back, because of the soldier block, from our original plan of visiting the encaged house, the local townspeople guided us on a detour through the town’s agricultural fields that are in danger of being separated by the Wall. Again there was a stand-off with the jeeps that had found their way to the head of the march. By this time, however, the march had grown considerably, between 400-500 people. ISM stopped to evaluate the situation, taking into consideration that some Palestinians were already on the other side of the jeeps and that we didn’t want to turn back with them ahead. Then, all of a sudden, a middle-aged Palestinian man turned to the large group of young men and shouted almost indignantly, “Shebab [youth], this is our land and will go on it if we want!” A wave of young men started pouring forwards, almost oblivious to the soldiers that stood there, outnumbered and surprised. We, the internationals, followed the Palestinians, who welcomed us, onto their land, as it should be.

That afternoon we were invited two other times to see and hear about the effects the imminent construction of the “separation barrier” would have on the communities. Outside of Rafat, an old man wearing a traditional white keffiyah and dress, showed us his family’s olive grove on the other side of a valley where bulldozing had already been completed for the 20-foot-tall concrete slabs of the Wall. He told us that he and other town’s people had seen an Israeli military jeep drive through the valley and leave on the ground a set of explosives. His son was soon thereafter charged with being the owner of those explosives and was sent to prison, where he remains today. With the arrest and the “confiscation” of explosive material, the army had ample “evidence” to justify the Wall’s construction for security reasons.

In the town of Deir Balut, we were shown a half-finished school, conceived of and financed by the town’s initiative. The army had ordered construction to be halted, again for “security reasons”.

But perhaps the most poignant encounters that I had with the people living in the towns were in the two nights I was hosted by Palestinian families in their homes. Besides their immense hospitality and generosity, what I most enjoyed was simply getting to hear people’s stories, and hear those stories not in a context where they were being spotlighted or pitied but simply talking over salad and pita, as invited guests to someone’s home.