This Is What It Was Like When I Got Teargassed In The Middle Of A Protest Last Month In The West Bank

nabi salih protest west bankProtestors run from soldiers at the start of the demonstration.

Photo: Simone Foxman for Business Insider

Every Friday since December 2009, residents of the town of Nabi Salih, not far from the booming Palestinian city of Ramallah, gather together with journalists, supporters, and onlookers from around the world to march down the hillside in protest of the occupation of the Palestinian territories.And each and every Friday, Israeli soldiers congregate at the bottom of the hill, waiting to push back the protests.

Journalists frequent the weekly protests, and while visiting Ramallah last month to learn more about what it’s like to live and work there, I joined them for Business Insider. Armed with only a camera and sunglasses, I got a ride out to the small town before the action began, stationing myself at a gas station on the road down from the centre of town.

Click here to see my experience in the protest >
The protests began in December 2009, when settlers from the nearby Israeli settlement of Halamish seized control of and barred Palestinians from Ein al-Kaws, a spring on land traditionally owned by the most prominent family in Nabi Salih. The settlers have been ordered to stop construction on the land, but Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that they continue to construct generally tourism-related objects around it and prevent Palestinian access.

However, a resident of a nearby town suggested that the continuing protests—which criticise the occupation of Palestinian territory rather than the spring alone—have dissuaded Israeli soldiers from taking stronger action to halt the settlers’ projects.

With the issue of the spring still unresolved—not to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general—these protests have now become routine. Palestinians march down the hill and block it with stones, Israeli soldiers push them back by spewing sewage, firing tear gas canisters, and shooting rubber bullets.

The Palestinian protestors unambiguously suffer the greatest casualties. Late last year, 28-year-old Mustafa Tamimi was killed after being hit by a tear gas canister at close range. According to human rights organisation B’Tselem, Israeli soldiers entered villagers homes in the middle of the night to photograph children over the age of 10, which could make it difficult for them to obtain documentation to move about the country later on. Soldiers have also been known to raid the village and arrest anyone involved in illegal protests, particularly activist Bassem el-Tamimi, who garnered international attention after the Israeli authorities accused him of inciting violence.

Palestinians, on the other hand, are not completely without fault. Younger protestors—generally children and young men—do throw stones at the soldiers, antagonizing if generally not harming them. While they argue that the Israeli response to these actions is unwarranted, it nonetheless feeds arguments that such demonstrations are violent on both sides.

From an economic standpoint, these protests belie a deep inefficiency in the West Bank that will not be resolved until many of the problems of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are resolved. While Friday is considered a weekend day, the weekly conflicts nonetheless restrict travel and commerce throughout the West Bank. Inputs of time and material by both Palestinians and Israelis are enormous. And the continuing strife does little to mitigate ongoing tensions between the two sides.

The demonstration marked the only time that I felt uncomfortable and unsafe during my stay in the West Bank.

This report is part of a Business Insider series on the Palestinian economy and the state of the Isreali-Palestinian conflict.

Demonstrations begin at the town's central square. Luckily, I met some foreign journalists and observers who had done this before, and walked with them to join the group.

Residents of Nabi Salih and outside protestors began the demonstration by marching down the road leading down the hill from the centre of town. There wasn't a huge turnout on June 22.

A large percentage of the protesters were children. Other reporters and I followed and stood to the side.

Residents flout the soldiers. They collected these empty tear gas canisters and strung them along the side of the road. Weekly protests have stretched on for the last two and a half years.

Israeli soldiers and armoured cars stand guard outside Ein al-Kaws, a spring settlers of the nearby Halamish took control of in December 2009. That move sparked the protests.

The Israeli settlement of Halamish is located on the next hillside. The residents of Nabi Salih accuse the settlers of stealing their land and restricting their access to the spring of Ein al-Kaws, located at the base of both hills, in violation of international agreements.

As the protesters headed down the road towards an Israeli checkpoint, I held back. Israeli trucks can start advancing on the protestors at any time during their march, although this time they waited until protestors got close to start pushing them back up the hill.

Demonstrators attempted to block the road with rocks. Some covered their faces to prevent Israeli soldiers from discovering their identities.

Boys stuck out claims on the hill above the road, collecting rocks to throw at Israeli soldiers.

It's easy to pick out the photojournalists who frequent such protests. They were carrying multiple camera, donned helmets, and often wore bulletproof vests. (Note to self...)

As protestors neared the bottom of the hill, the soldiers rolled out the first of their vehicles.

But, in my opinion at least, tear gas canisters were much scarier. This is an old one I stumbled across while running away from the skunk truck.

The skunk truck did not discourage protestors for long, however. The regrouped farther up the hill leading to Nabi Salih. Although right here I'm behind them, I tried to stay to the side of volleys between soldiers and protestors because it's not hard to get caught in the crossfire.

Undaunted by falling canisters, this young man hurled stones at the oncoming trucks.

At first, soldiers shot them high into the sky and it was difficult to see where the canisters would fall. Running up the hill away from the stone throwers and the army, I tried to avoid getting downwind of the gas. Unfortunately, I was not completely successful.

Protestors and observers high up on the hill cough after getting a taste of the gas. I got a whiff of tear gas—which had blown downwind of canisters—as I was running up the hill away from soldiers. Even at such a low, invisible dosage, I instantly recognised the burning, choking sensation in my lungs and sinuses.

Stone-throwers and soldiers prepare to face off on the hill.

Soldiers started shooting tear gas canisters horizontally, pushing protestors up a dirt path on a nearby hill. I decided this was a good time to get away from the madness—particularly after a canister shooting horizontally whizzed close by me. At long range, it probably wouldn't have killed me, but a direct hit to the head could probably knock someone out.

Protestors regroup up a nearby hill. The air over the hill soon filled with tear gas and smoke, and the protestors dispersed.

Other foreigners and I ultimately made it back to a gas station located on the hill leading up to the town. I was instructed never to give a soldier my passport, as presence at a protest might cause trouble on my way out of the country, regardless of the fact that I was a reporter.

A soldier stops a vehicle trying to head through the town, as a young protester shouts and stomps her feet.

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