Tear gas won’t ever win any awards for pleasantness. Your eyes turn to fire as you squint your way through the clouds. Your throat coughs up whatever it can to protect your lungs. By Richard Johnson, A Canadian Student at Birzeit University www.hcef.org By Richard Johnson, A Canadian Student at Birzeit University 12 March, 2001. Monday. 12:30 p.m. Tear gas won’t ever win any awards for pleasantness. Your eyes turn to fire as you squint your way through the clouds. Your throat coughs up whatever it can to protect your lungs. Nostrils flare and turn a fire engine red. You just drop what you have and run, taking care to help up those who have fallen. With an ominous pop the canister flies from its muzzle, coming to rest after a few bounces on the pavement. On its side is a helpful warning label about inhaling the smoke, and the fantastically overstated print “Made in USA.” For at least a few moments today, vehicle traffic could pass through the haphazardly fixed road between Birzeit and Ramallah. At the zenith of our initially peaceful demonstration, a symbolic ambulance was the first to pass through amid cheers from the five hundred or so marchers and members of the press. Then a few taxis passed through, and several of the Palestinian youth climbed in and on top, waving flags and banners and pictures of Arafat. And then things went downhill in a furious frenzy. Today was the day of the planned protest by faculty, staff, and students of Birzeit University, as well as most internationals in the Ramallah area and the usual Palestinian crowds from the city. Cars lined either side of the destroyed road at the nexus between Ramallah and the little village of Surda. Above on the hilltops the IDF kept close watch – at least thirty soldiers, a dozen jeeps, one armored personnel carrier, and one tank. We marchers from Birzeit met the marchers from Ramallah at the crossroads. The conglomerate of people first gathered on the Surda side of the destroyed road and began to fill in the trench and level the earthen banks. En masse, we proceeded back to the Ramallah side to repeat the task. Speeches were made, interviews were given, protest posters abounded. My personal favourite was the life-like drawing of Ariel Sharon with a milk mustache and a glass of milk, which read, “Got Milk? We Don’t.” It was a great turnout of students, professors, villagers, urbanites, and the media. London Times, New York Times, CNN, Washington Post, others from Germany, Sweden, France, and the Arab World. But not everyone wanted to be peaceful. Two IDF jeeps came down and parked at the intersection of the newly fixed street and the settler bypass road. A few youths began to throw stones, despite objections from most of us there. The escalation was sensational – a chaotic turn of events. The soldiers fired rubber-coated bullets at stone throwers; sometimes the hapless demonstrators on the Ramallah side were caught in the line of fire as the fled. I stood on the Surda side. Other shabaab (young guys) took to the hills with their stones, spreading the ground the soldiers had to cover. Tear gas was the next step. From positions on the hills the Israeli troops launched canisters to clear everyone. It wasn’t more than fifteen minutes before they turned their attention to the village flank. A jeep descended on our side of the road under cover of gas. We all ran up the road a hundred meters or so and took cover behind parked cars. No bullets were fired in our direction, but they continued on the Ramallah side. A few people who hadn’t fled fast enough were caught in the road between clouds of tear gas. Ambulances got as close as they could to pick up the wounded. As far as I know now, no one was actually shot. At last we saw, as we stood high on the hill at the entrance to Surda, Israeli bulldozers arrive in a convoy of jeeps. As we rubbed our eyes and finally lowered our paper gas masks, those great orange Caterpillars began to do what we just humanely undid: the road will soon be broken again. The strangulation of the villages lingers like a cloud of biting gas. “I’m sure it must be hard being a Palestinian,” Ariel Sharon admitted on CNN last night while he defended the closure. Come try it for a day, grandpa. At least you Got Milk. Richard Pictures of the destroyed road available at http://www.birzeit.edu/news/2001/mar10.html