You hear the stones whizzing overhead before they shatter onto the sides of homes, amid the sound of Hebrew epithets and the occasional rubber bullet. If you get close, tear gas scalds your nose, and the tears really do flow. If you get even closer, you feel the heat of the bonfire as its black smoke rises.
This is just a typical Friday afternoon in the Palestinian village of Kafr Qaddum where, for the past decade, the weekly sights, sounds and smells of resistance have become a staple of life.
Kafr Qaddum sits just a few hundred meters from the Israeli settlement of Kedumim, in the northern West Bank. Around half the village is under Israeli-controlled Area C, while the other half is in Area B, where civil matters are run by the Palestinian Authority and security matters by Israel.
The village has become one of the last strongholds of widespread protests in the West Bank, as similar demonstrations in villages like Bil’in have slowly died out in recent years. The goal of the Kafr Qaddum protesters: To get the road connecting the village to Kedumim reopened, cutting their drive time to Nablus (the nearest major Palestinian city).
Nitzan Alon is a retired major general in the Israel Defense Forces. The protests started in 2011 when he headed all military forces in the West Bank.
“In 2000, the road was closed due to acts of terrorism from Kafr Qaddum at the beginning of the second intifada,” he said in an interview. Over time the security situation improved, but a new neighborhood was built next to the road in Kedumim, so it remained closed.
“The intifada faded out around 2005, so there wasn’t really a security justification for keeping the road closed,” Alon said. “After a while, the Palestinians understood this and demanded that the road be opened. Their demands weren’t granted because the road now went through Kedumim, so the situation created a violent protest that has snowballed into what it is today.”
- Palestinians Report One Dead, Nine Wounded by Israeli Fire in West Bank Clashes
- When Israeli Soldiers Moonlight as Armed Robbers
- Here's What Happens With IDF Investigations Into Deaths of Innocent Palestinians
Murad Shteiwi, a community leader in Kafr Qaddum, is a chief organizer of the protests. His position is clear: The road belongs to Kafr Qaddum, long before the founding of Kedumim in 1975, and the protests will only end if the road is opened.
According to Alon, reopening the road is something that should be considered. But Kedumim’s mayor, Hananel Dorani, disagrees.
“It’s clear to every resident of Kedumim that the road must remain closed,” he said. “The army discussed with me the possibility of opening the road, but that would require very complex security arrangements that still wouldn’t account for car-ramming attacks and the like. After all, this is a road children pass through. Opening the road wouldn’t fix all our problems.”
Kedumim is an iconic name among settlers. After a long struggle by its founders, it became the first Jewish settlement in the Samarian hills. Between its history and location deep in the West Bank, surrounded by Palestinian villages, it’s a given that its settlers are very ideological.
One resident, Daniella Weiss, is herself a household name in the settler movement. A Kedumim founder and former mayor, Weiss has actually opposed the closing of the road.
“The illusion that we can pretend there is no [Palestinian] village here is a dangerous one,” she said. “Jews need freedom of movement and Arabs need freedom of movement. My opinion isn’t a popular one, but everybody suffers from the road being closed. I think they suffer from the protests as well.”
At Kedumim, it’s sometimes hard to know you’re in a symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The diverse greenery and red-roofed homes create a quaint suburban atmosphere. Only from certain points can you actually see Kafr Qaddum, even though it’s so close.
Nava’s home is one of these points. (She declined to give her last name.) Every weekend, soldiers gather in her backyard for final preparations before walking down to the village. She describes the protests as “the filth that’s been preventing me from having guests over for the past 10 years.”
Her family knows the drill: Close the windows when the IDF’s tear gas blows in.
A short walk from Nava’s house is the Ali family home in Kafr Qaddum. The gray gravel road near their house has turned black from the tires and trash burned in the protesters’ bonfires. Most weeks, the army turns this house into a makeshift post. Soldiers climb to the roof and shoot tear gas grenades and rubber bullets from it.
The protesters in turn use slingshots to hurl stones at the soldiers. The final result is a damaged roof, with windows and solar panels shattered, and piles of grenade shells lying about.
Inside, Raest, the family’s 69-year-old matriarch, shows boxes of the shells the family has collected over the years. She longs for the protests to end so her home will stop being ruined by both soldiers and protesters. Her daughter Ruba, 32, says the family hides on the bottom floor during the protests. “You feel like you’re in prison.”
But when asked if they support the protests despite the damage to their home and livelihoods, the family is adamant: They’re totally for them, because the road is their right.
Other residents have felt the price of the protests, too. In the past two years, one child has been put into a vegetative state by a rubber bullet and another has been confined to a wheelchair. Protesters, journalists and onlookers are frequently injured.
Still, residents of both Kafr Qaddum and Kedumim say they had good relations in the past. Osama Ali, Ruba’s older brother, said he got along fine with the settlers and still crosses the road to access his olive trees. But since the second intifada, Kafr Qaddum’s residents have been denied work permits in Israel, hitting the local economy hard.
‘Sent in to lose’
After Kedumim’s settlers and Kafr Qaddum’s residents, the third player in this long-running saga are the Israeli troops sent in to contain the event.
As you watch the protests, the soldiers’ adversaries can hardly be seen; even the troops have a hard time spotting them. The rock-throwers take cover inside homes and behind walls, maneuvering through alleys and among buildings. They curse and taunt the soldiers in Hebrew, even yelling racial slurs at the ones of Ethiopian descent.
“The army enters each protest with the goal not to find a solution – the soldiers feel frustrated,” said a reserve officer of his stint facing the demonstrators. “You go into this with a lot of protective gear because you know the stones are going to hit you. Your hands are tied because you can’t contain the protesters with significant force. The declared goal is to leave with no injuries on their side,” he added.
“The firing orders are at their strictest. For example, a Ruger – a type of sniper rifle that would be used for crowd control anywhere else – isn’t allowed in Qaddum,” the officer said.
When firing at stone-throwers, soldiers usually have a partner with them filming the shot on their phone and narrating the scenario, hoping to provide evidence if protesters say they were fired on while demonstrating peacefully.
“During my time there, two officers and a soldier were hurt badly by stones,” the officer recounted. “Soldiers are constantly hurt and you just continue as if everything’s normal. There isn’t a point where you can say you’ve won the protest.”
The demonstrations reflect the contrast between what most IDF units are trained for and their actual experience. “As an officer, you learn what a battle is. In a battle, the end goal is to emerge victorious,” the reserve officer said. “Here, there’s no such thing. The goal here is for nothing to happen.”
Generally, companies of soldiers come for four-month stints at Kedumim, while there are protesters who have been taking part for years and use their greater experience to their advantage.
“They might stand behind a trash can because they know we’re not allowed to shoot above the knee,” the reserve officer said. “The soldier feels humiliated. He’s sent in to lose. He has the option of either getting wounded by a stone or in trouble for hurting an Arab.”
To end the gridlock, Mayor Dorani suggests a new route be built that would shorten Kafr Qaddum residents’ journey time to Nablus; the residents wouldn’t even have to be consulted, in his view. “Once you create an alternative, they’ll use it,” he said, adding that he has presented plans to the military though nothing has come of it.
Back in the village, Shteiwi stresses that the people of Kafr Qaddum won’t forgo what they see as their historical right to use the road, and that the resistance will continue as long as it takes. Until then, black smoke will rise over the village every Friday.