We Are All Just in Costume
by Raizel McNally
When we walked past the IDF’s medical van one of the soldiers stood in the door—filming us and laughing—her baby pink phone case striking against the olive-green combat uniform. The walk up the hill felt almost joyful: people drummed, flags waved. We were taking a stand together. The scenery of the South Hebron Hills is beautiful, too. On our drive in we saw goats grazing in the hills. Below the trail was a young olive orchard. Aviv had his megaphone over his shoulder.Justin was in his little yellow bucket hat. We all had backpacks full of sunscreen, Bamba, and water. I had one pair of earplugs deep in a small bag within my bag.
As we walked out of the village and up to the road, the army jeeps that had been parked at the entrance peeled off one by one and drove to intersect us at the top of the hill. It felt like they never stopped coming: new cars with more soldiers appearing every few minutes. At first, it all was exciting and important. I walked with my phone camera at the ready, pointing it as soon as I saw a soldier close to any protester, especially the Palestinians. As we stood facing them, sweaty in hiking pants and sun hats, it felt like they were kids in costumes(except for the M16s strapped across their chests). I watched one shove a man who was peacefully filming. I hadn’t understood where they were trying to make us go.
I watched Avigail watch them, and I thought about conversations we’ve had about her time in the army. Shosh said her first reaction when we saw the soldiers was a deep, crushing sadness. I understand what she meant. We all know the soldiers. Yonit scanned their faces to see if she had gone to school with any of them. Most of them were probably Oscar’s age. They had been groomed their whole lives for this role. To stand above people who are just trying to save their home. To watch them kneel and pray. To fire tear gas and stun grenades into the crowd as soon as prayers are done.
There was one woman who must have been over 80 years old. She had a pink hat and clutched her two canes. Her friend left after inhaling tear gas, and I overheard the old woman on the phone explaining why she wasn’t leaving even after she had fallen on the rocks: I came here to stand with them so I’m going to stand with them. I wished I could have been as brave as her. Every time we saw something fired, I panicked. We never quite knew which way to run. The experienced activists mostly stayed at the top of the hill, facing the army. They seemed unphased by it all—they must have known the burning, claustrophobic feeling would pass after a few minutes. That the stun grenades just made smoke and loud noise, nothing too bad. They stood their ground solemnly and defiant.
There must have been at least 10 people there in helmets and blue, bulletproof vests with “PRESS” written in big white letters. The same vests and helmets Shireen Abu Ahklah had been wearing when she was murdered less than two weeks prior. I wondered how their loved ones felt about them coming, if their children cried when they left home that morning, and if they had mothers praying for them to come back alive.
There was a young Palestinian girl, maybe ten or twelve, with a colorful school backpack standing near us in the back. Someone said they wouldn’t bring their kid to “this kind of thing.” Someone else said she would have to face this anyways and may as well confront it in an organized protest.
I haven’t felt that kind of fear in a while, maybe ever. Running through shrubs, squeezing Avigail’s hand, reminding us both that we can, in fact, breathe. That in a few minutes it will pass. Trying to squint through tear filled eyes to assess the direction that has the least soldiers, the least canisters. I kept replaying Ari’s comment from our first pre-protest meeting, and her response to the question: “What's the worst case scenario? You get shot.” I didn’t think anyone was at risk of dying. But I wondered what would happen if a canister struck us in the back as we ran. If settlers showed up with rocks. What was running through the teenage soldiers’ heads when they put down their cameras and put their hands back on their guns. How many times do you have to go to one of these protests to become desensitized? To not turn and run blindly when you hear something fired. It felt like that Fourth of July when I was a tiny child. Frantically tugging my dad’s hand as we ran home, completely convinced one of the fireworks was going to fall onto us.