Friday, July 08, 2005

Column: Road Blocking Demonstration

Last week I was at two different anti-expulsion demonstrations in Safed. The first one was on Monday and it was pretty tame -- there was no road blocking and little police presence. The one that followed on Wednesday was different. It was understood before hand that there would be road blocking and police and most likely beatings and arrests.

I arrived at the entrance to the city on Wednesday, at 5:00 pm, as the demonstration was getting under way. The road blocking had not yet started. Soon a teenage girl approached and asked if we would join those that would be sitting in the street. She had an orange t-shirt on that said, “You were arrested? You won!” Her hands were tied together with an orange ribbon and she held them in front of her, showing that she wanted to get arrested for the cause. She and her peers, boys and girls, came to the demonstration to lead it, stop the traffic, and deal with whatever the consequences might be. Altogether there were about 200 demonstrators of all ages – a diversified group.

The level of police response that began after the road blocking started never reached anything like what I had seen in Jerusalem over the years -- where baton wielding police on horseback are a very real threat. One officer even had a smile on his face and told anyone that would listen that he really didn’t want to be there but it was his job. Another officer, surprisingly a religious one, was the most aggressive -- angrily pushing and dragging people out of the street. Those that were dragged out generally were released and came back and sat down again in a cat and mouse game – although there might have been an arrest or two – it was hard to tell what happened to a couple of demonstrators who were carried off to a police car.

The following day there was this coverage in the leftwing paper, Haaretz;
“Four officers were lightly injured in Safed, where hundreds of protesters blocking the Egged intersection attacked the officers, kicking and biting them. One of the demonstrators was arrested with a knife in his hand.”

I saw nothing of the kind. No biting, no kicking, no knives, and certainly no injured policemen – although I don’t know what is meant by “lightly injured.” What I can assure you of is that there was no reason to think that any of them were injured at all by the way they acted and carried themselves and I stayed until nearly the very end of the demonstration – a good hour after the road blocking had stopped.

Almost across the board, the motorists who had been stopped in the road reacted calmly and showed their support – many wrapping orange ribbons around their antennas. A few were upset and one even got out of his car and there was some pushing – but it ended quickly. An ambulance and a fire truck were let through immediately as the protestors cleared the way.

An hour and a half or so into the demonstration – the road blocking lasting about an hour – the word was being passed around that the Yassam was on the way and it might be a good idea to break up the demonstration. The Yassam is the riot squad and they can be brutally violent. About 40 minutes later they did arrive in a police van and four of them charged into the street. One of them grabbed a teenage girl and threw her hard onto the pavement where she bounced and skidded to a stop.

Miraculously, she sufferred only minor injuries and was released from the hospital later on. After she was thrown to the street on that first Yassam charge the demonstration effectively came to an end.

At that point, the police (about 10 in number) and the four Yassamnikim were standing in a row on an island that seperates the traffic. The demonstrators were now off the street and standing on the sidewalks. Everyone just stood around for a while to see what would happen and if the protest was over.

One woman walked over to the little island and began to speak with the Yassamnikim. To her surprise one of them didn’t know Hebrew and answered her in fluent Spanish.

Was one or more of those Yassamnikim mercenaries brought in from abroad to beef up the Israeli police? There has been some talk that mercenaries are training here for that purpose. It seems that at least one of them was here on Wednesday, raising the suspicion that those rumors may indeed be true.


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