Haggai Matar is an Israeli peace activist. Almost by accident, I happened on his Hebrew language account (temporarily taken down until it is published), then called Chronicle of Violence, of a brutal attack on him by the IDF during an demonstration against the Separation Wall in the West Bank village of Masara last week. An IDF soldier slammed Matar’s head into the door of a jeep multiple times drawing large quantities of blood and requiring medical treatment. The brutality of the incident and the surrealism of an IDF videographer videotaping a subsequent assault, while simultaneously asking him how he had been previously injured, made a very strong impression. It’s a beautiful piece of writing. The photo accompanying this story is from the same demonstration and is part of a powerful gallery documenting the day’s events. The angle at which the photographer shot the picture conveys the dominance and brutality of the looming Israeli soldier over the nonetheless defiant Palestinian woman. She somehow refuses to acknowledge her powerlessness as she holds her hand against his gun as if to ward it off. This is the story of the Occupation writ small. Matar’s story will be published in the Israeli paper, Ha-Ir this week.
I am publishing the English translation by Dimi Reider and Rela Mezali here:
The soldiers charged the wedding procession using their rifles to push people back. Behind the procession, two couples of newlyweds, two suits, two bridal gowns, looked on in shock. It was horrifying. I was standing even further behind, taking pictures, but I couldn’t bear the sight of what I was witnessing. One of the soldiers threw back my friend A., and she nearly fell to the ground. The line of soldiers continued its approach and within seconds I was getting my share too. I started shouting, “What are you doing?! It’s a wedding! It’s these people’s day of celebration!” I don’t know why I picked that phrase, but I kept on shouting “it’s their day of celebration” time and time again as the soldiers pressed on with their assault. I saw clearly that they couldn’t care less, that they didn’t understand that it was these people’s day of celebration, and in the heat of it all I yelled out, “Assholes!”. I don’t normally do things like that. Over the ten years in which I’ve been roaming the West Bank I have always managed to keep my calm with the soldiers, to explain as best I can what we are struggling for. But this time the situation was so absolutely intolerable that it just came out. And it got their attention. “Bring him in,” the officer said and the soldiers charged. They were pulling me one way as the wedding procession-demonstrators pulled me the other way.
The soldiers won. On the way to their military jeep they twisted my arms and beat me. I kept calling out that I wasn’t resisting the arrest, until a hand clutched my throat and I suddenly couldn’t breathe much less shout. Soldiers who passed by the group dragging me to the jeep pulled at my hair or added their own punch or two. Eventually I was placed upright behind a military jeep, far from the crowd, and I thought that at least I was over the worst. Then it landed; the first blow. My head was smashed against the jeep door. “What are you doing?! I’m not resis…,” I tried to protest when once again a hand from behind bashed my head onto the door. Two policemen approached, one of them hoisting a video recorder. The one who wasn’t recording asked me to put my hands out in front of me so that I could be handcuffed, but the soldiers started twisting them behind my back again. I asked the policeman to help me, but he just stood there and watched. Eventually the soldiers allowed me the liberty of placing my hands in the handcuffs.
Then I saw the blood. First a few drops on my hands and then more and more, totally soaking first my t-shirt then my trousers. This frightening warmth streaming down my face, dripping off my beard onto my clothes, my hands, the asphalt. The policeman with the recorder asked what had happened and I began to explain. From behind me, an un-shaven reservist with a pierced ear, probably the soldier who had done it, interrupted and said I’d fallen and bruised myself. I couldn’t take it. No more of these sickening lies. I shouted that he was a liar, a piece of shit. He slapped me hard, right in front of the camera, my head still bleeding, my hands cuffed. I tried to make the policeman understand the gravity of what had just happened and to file a complaint for assault, but he just went on filming. A military medic came by, protesting and grumbling about having to treat me. He wiped some of the blood off my forehead and stuck a piece of adhesive tape on the wound. “I’m sorry to say you’ll live,” he said, and walked away. The soldier who had been beating me gave me some water to drink and to wash my hands with.
A few minutes later two more friends were arrested, and they took us to the local police station. We were informed that we were being accused of entering a sealed military zone (though no one had declared one while we had been there), and of assaulting the unit commander.
We spent the long hours at the station arguing with our guards, a Russian-born reservist and a Russian-born policeman. In fact, we were conducting two very different and parallel debates. The reserve soldier was arguing philosophy, heatedly defending an extreme capitalist notion that each individual determines his own fate, that no individual life can be compared with any others, and that whoever is strong enough is perfectly entitled to crush other, weaker people. Yes, the Nazis too, he confirmed. The policeman was arguing local politics. “How do you know the border is where you say it is? How do you know we’re outside Israel?” he asked. He had no knowledge of the 1967 borders or of their legal status in Israeli and international law. And he didn’t care. He did care about the Palestinians’ theft of water. “Why should I have to pay for water only to find out, on my patrols with the Civil Administration, that the Arabs install pirate connections to our water lines and steal our water?” He didn’t care that this was water that belonged to the Palestinians in the first place, that they are allocated five times less water than the neighboring settlers, and that they are forced to pay four times as much for ever cubic meter. A law’s a law.
After the interrogation we spoke to the local officer, a pleasant, apparently intelligent man. When we told him that I needed medical attention he made sure we were released as soon as possible (not before being slammed with a restriction order banning us from the village and from the area of Gush Etzion for two weeks). Seeing us off to the station gate he asked us if we were really welcome in the Palestinian village. He couldn’t come to grips with the idea of us being wanted guests there, that we sometimes sleep there, that we’ve formed friendships there now going back three years, that one of the village activists and I call each other “brother”, and that friends from the village were here in their car to pick us up at the police station. His expression, as he shut the gate, was still bemused.
At the hospital in Tel Aviv, I was welcomed by a male nurse, who – I immediately recognized – was a Palestinian citizen of Israel. He was touched by my bloodied T-shirt inscribed “Gaza Habibti” (which, in Arabic, means “Gaza, my love”). We spoke in Arabic about what had happened, about the soldiers and about resistance. He said how important it was that there’s resistance, and that he himself would not join – he was too scared of finding himself in a predicament like mine. But he supported us, he really did.
Friday night in the ER is a weary time. There’s an accident here, some party-goers there, and everything takes forever. Three and a half hours, and I’m finally in the stitching room. I’m lying on the bed, the physician injects me local aesthesis and covers up my face with a cloth with an opening around the wound. “So what kind of a protest was it?,” the student nurse asked. “I’d really rather not talk about it just now,” I replied, not relishing this discussion while being stitched up. “So, you’re like an anarchist?” she insisted. “I wouldn’t call it that, no.” “So what would you call it?” “A person who cares, a social activist, a Leftist activist.” “Hold on, what’s Right and what’s Left? Which ones want to give away our country to the Arabs?” “The Left. They’re really smart, and never wrong about anything, and they want peace and justice,” the physician chimed in as he made his stitches. “Like the hippies in the 1980’s?” the nurse inquired (sic). “No, not really. But they love the Arabs and want to give them the country. Perhaps they should go to Norway, where there are lots more like them. Maybe the Norwegians will give their country to the Arabs, they’ll probably be pleased to.” “What, the Norwegians would do that?” “They haven’t said so, but they probably would. Tell me, are there any Arabs who love peace and who demonstrate?” I knew the last barb had been directed at me. I have a clear memory of observing to myself throughout the entire procedure that I felt as if I was being raped: ‘He’s leaning over me, stitching me up, and all along he’s mocking me, humiliating me, degrading everything I stand for.’ I didn’t know what to do. I replied. “Yes. It was a demonstration and a Palestinian wedding party. I was a there as a guest.” “Oh, so there are Arabs who want to give the country to the Jews?” the nurse mocked. “It’s not that simple,” I managed to mumble. “Of course not,” the doctor declared coyly. “Don’t worry, we’re giving you the best treatment we can, no matter whether you’re Left or Right,” the nurse suddenly noted. “This time,” the doctor said pointedly as he cut off the last thread and got up. I was so appalled I could barely concentrate on the instructions they gave me, repeatedly contradicting each other anyway as they explained them. I think I’m supposed not to wash the area for two days, and to come back six days after treatment to take out the stitches.
That was it. My wonderful friends waited there all along, with me, supporting me, telling stories, trying to speed things up. I can’t thank them enough. I drove those of them who needed rides back to their homes.
As I write this, back at my place, it’s three AM. I know that my trusty biological alarm will wake me up at half past eight. For the first time since it all started, just looking in the mirror, I’ve seen the stitches, the bruises on my face and hands, the caked blood. I’ve washed off what I can without getting the stitches wet. I’m off to bed. My cat joins in. It’s over.
But not really. There are stitches to attend to, a complaint to file with the Military Police against the soldiers who beat me up, a complaint to file against Ichilov hospital… who knows what else.
And it’s not over because they are still out there. Because they said that as of next week there would be a daily curfew from 5AM, to prevent demonstrations. It’s not over because people here don’t have the slightest understanding of borders, whether geographical or otherwise. Perhaps because there aren’t really any borders there anymore.