Music by: Checkpoint 303
Palestine: Bride, groom, soldiers and barbed wire
An Edmontonian reports from a nuptial protest in the occupied West Bank
In long white gowns, their faces heavy with makeup, two women, together with their male counterparts, lead a loud procession down a long, dusty road. Their followers cheer and dance around them waving flags, some riding horses. I am their wedding videographer, and manoeuvre through the crowd to capture their broad smiles, zoom in for close-ups of the couple holding hands and conduct interviews with the wedding party.
I run ahead of the line to get a wide shot, but am greeted by another type of party: behind rolls of menacing barbed wire stand men with helmets, large guns slung at their sides; Israeli soldiers are blocking the road the raucous wedding party is heading down.
Today, Palestinians and their international supporters are holding a unique demonstration in the small village of Al-Ma'sara, located 15 kilometres south of Bethlehem in Palestine's West Bank. Every Friday since 2006 the villagers of Al-Ma'sara have been protesting the wall that is to be built by Israel on their land.
The wall, which Israel calls the "Separation Barrier" but is referred to by many Palestinians as the "Apartheid Wall," was started by Israel in 2002. Despite a five-year-old ruling by the United Nations' International Court of Justice deeming the wall illegal, Israel continues to justify construction of the wall—which when completed will snake for over 700 kilometres, most of it within the occupied West Bank—for security purposes. For villagers in Al-Ma'Sara, the wall means their prime agricultural land and critical natural water resources are being stolen, and villages are being further isolated along with their economic livelihoods.
When the people of Al-Ma'sara realized they would be soon joining other Palestinian villages such as Ni'lin, Bil'in and Jayyous in the West Bank's north—where the wall is already a reality—villagers began to organize a popular committee to protest against the wall, putting forth non-violent resistance to the construction.
The village is located 22 kilometres from the internationally recognized Green Line, the armistice line set out in 1949, and is surrounded by Israeli settlements Gush Atsyoun and Efrata to the north and west and Tequa settlement to the east, inhabited by more than 50 000 Israeli settlers. Despite being considered illegal under international law, more than 300 000 Israelis now live in the West Bank, not including the almost 200 000 who live in Jerusalem and other "unauthorized" outposts.
"People say, 'The settlers won't build here,' but then we see they do," relates Al-Ma'sara resident Mahmoud Zwahre, sitting on the sofa in his family home, where international supporters are spending the night before the demonstration. "Who imagined in Jerusalem settlers would come to Silwan? Who imagined settlers would take over Sheik Jarrah, Beit Saffafa? Changes happen fast. If we don't see changes on the ground, the same will happen here".
Zwahre has been at the forefront of the resistance in Al-Ma'sara. Like many others, he has been arrested and detained without charge in Israeli jails. Currently, by order of an Israeli court, he is prohibited from demonstrating, but this has not stopped Zwahre from continuing to organize the demonstrations in the village.
"You can't measure the success of demonstrations by violence," Zwahre stresses. "The journalists are looking for something new. In Ni'lin and Bil'in you have images of the tear gas. In Al-Ma'sara, we use creative demonstrations to attract the media. Not only is agriculture and water affected, but the social life is affected by the wall. The wedding demo addresses this."
On any given summer day there are a multitude of weddings in every Palestinian village, every town. They are huge celebrations featuring dancing, fireworks and feasts. Traditionally, marriage is forever.
For a couple in Al-Ma'sara, their special day is all the more memorable, as they have decided to attempt to marry by the wall. In support of the bride, two Italian volunteers agreed to accompany her as mock brides. When I ask why she would participate in a demo in this manner, one of the volunteers remarked, "In Italy, it is bad luck to wear a wedding dress before the wedding, but I'm married to Palestine now."
Unfortunately, the vehicle carrying the real bride—who is from nearby Bethlehem—is stopped by Israeli soldiers on the road leading to the village and she is prevented from getting to the ceremony. The mock brides and their Palestinian "husbands" had arrived minutes earlier and were able to breach the barbed wire, dancing around the soldiers, to greet several hundred people on the other side of the Israeli-built barrier.
Jum'a, one of the popular committee organizers, expresses regret at how the day has gone, but says that it's far from a unique event in Palestine.
"A lot of weddings have happened away from the media, where they have been disrupted by the Israeli army," he says. "Maybe it's not good to make a demo out of a wedding. I mean, it's a wedding. It happens just once in your life. But we need to show how the occupation affects us. This demonstration is to show how our daily lives are affected, even in the moment when we should be smiling."
The bride's vehicle drives away while speeches are made, asking for peace and the right for Palestinians to inhabit their lands. Soon the soldiers became frustrated and arrest three Israeli activists who are attending the ceremony. The groom, carried on the shoulders of his best men, comes to the barrier where his bride was prevented from passing.
With the ongoing construction of both settlements and the wall, only 17 percent of the West Bank is left under exclusive Palestinian control, deemed Area A under the 1993 Oslo Accords. Even this small amount that remains is compromised—houses and land are often occupied by the Israeli army and Palestinians are frequently arrested in the night without just cause.
In US President Obama's May speech in Egypt he asked Israel to halt the construction of settlements in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly rejected the empty request, and through the continual housing demolitions, evictions, and land confiscation I have witnessed in my three months in Palestine I have seen with my own eyes that such lip service from the United States has had no impact on Israeli expansion at the cost of Palestinian land.
The demonstration is finished, the soldiers will soon remove the temporary barrier blocking entrance to the village, and the vehicles of families of the couple to-be will soon begin to stream into Al-Ma'sara.
As we drive away, with tears in his eyes, Jum'a expresses to me his frustration with the situation he and his village are trapped in.
"A lot of people know there is an occupation, there is the wall, there are prisoners, there are killings, a lot," he says. "But there are things people don't know about: our daily lives. When there is an attack like in Gaza, the media will cover it, but after it is finished, they are gone. Who is talking about the suffering of a woman who lost her child? Who is talking about the loss of water, electricity, the loss of feelings? Who is talking about thousands in jail? Who is talking about the trauma of children? The Israeli's occupy the sky and the land.
"Sometimes it feels like we're living without hope. But we are still smiling, because we have no other choice. Maybe there is a candle at the end of the tunnel. We hope that one day we reach it. Sometimes I get up from a deep sleep, the weather is good and I can see Jerusalem with my eyes. But I cannot visit. It's hard. Maybe everything has changed. The buildings, the streets. But I'm sure as a Palestinian the land will know me, because I am Palestinian." V