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A Pause in the Protest

Ritual chaos — and strange beauty — at the wall separating Israel and Palestine.

By Mateo Hoke


A picture taken on July 14, 2016, shows a general view of the Palestinian Shuafat refugee camp behind the controversial Israeli separation wall in east Jerusalem. (Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

People from the small village of Bil’in in Palestine’s West Bank, along with foreign solidarity activists, journalists, and Israeli anarchists, hike across dusty hills to the separation wall between Israel and the occupied territories. At the edge of the border, the crowd halts and chants, “One, two, three, four, down with your apartheid wall!” Israeli soldiers have been waiting on the far side of the wall all morning, like dance partners. The two groups line up for an aggressive waltz, and everyone knows the steps.

The soldiers — protected by bulletproof shields, helmets, gas masks, and flak jackets — stand in pairs, spaced strategically, overlooking the 26-foot concrete barrier. Atop the tallest point on the Israeli side of the wall is a horde of soldiers dressed in black. They are armed with guns, tear-gas launchers, concussion grenades, and other weapons of crowd dispersal.

In T-shirts and jeans, the Palestinian kids maneuver — exposed — through an open field, heaving rocks at the closest sentries. Their throws rarely cause the soldiers to so much as inch.

This ritual takes place year-round, under every color of sky. On this July Friday in 2012, the desert sky is crystalline blue — the hue of a polished gemstone.

As the protestors approach the wall — some carrying flags, some tying kefiyehs around their faces — pawping sounds burst from behind the wall.



A version of this story first appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Pacific Standard.

The noises mean it’s time to look up. In a matter of seconds, metal canisters — boiling with noxious gas — will fall from the sky.

When they land, they set grass on fire, transforming the land beneath the blue gemstone into a chemical hellscape. The canisters are designed to punish those daring enough to pick them up and hurl them back. They can melt the flesh off un-gloved fingers.

The canisters come in groups, shot from different directions. Move away from one coming from the left and you’re liable to step into the path of one from the right. Tear-gas canisters have killed and badly injured handfuls of protesters here in Bil’in over the years, making it all the more surreal to stand below as the projectiles burn smoky trails in the sky. Bodies, young and old, scatter.


I see the arcs the canisters are taking, their tails curling like incense smoke in a cathedral. Time slows. The swirling lines crisscross the clear air, flying ever closer. There’s a roaring stillness, a peculiar beauty. I stand motionless, camera limp around my neck, looking up as if the sky were a painting. For a moment, I admire the dreamlike tranquility of it all.

Then, bouncing thuds circle around my feet, and canisters begin blowing open. Dry grasses explode into flames as large white clouds burst from the ground, signaling that it is time to go.