Interview with Israeli anarchist Jonathan Pollak

Jonathan Pollak is an Israeli activist who grew up in Tel Aviv and lives in Jaffa. He has been involved in non-violent direct action in the West Bank for the last two and half years, participating in more than 200 protests with Palestinians in the West Bank with the Israeli non-violent direct action group Anarchists Against the Wall and with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM).

On April 3, 2005 an Israeli soldier shot Jonathan in the head with a teargas canister from an M-16 from a distance of approximately thirty meters at a peaceful protest against the Wall in the West Bank village of Bil’in. Bil’in is one of tens of West Bank Palestinian villages losing land because of Israel’s wall construction. He was interviewed by ISM volunteer Pat O’Connor on April 7.

Pat O’Connor: Why are people protesting in Bil’in and other villages ?

Jonathan Pollak: Palestinians are protesting, and others with them, against the theft of their land, against the steps the Israeli government and Israeli army are taking to make their lives impossible, basically to commit a quiet ethnic cleansing. They are making life so impossible that people have to leave and the border areas near the Green Line are being emptied of Palestinians. The Israeli government is constructing the Wall in a way that is making enclaves of the West Bank, and basically rendering a Palestinian state impossible.

PC: What is happening generally in the village of Bil’in, and why you did you go there ?

JP: In the last two or three months there has been resistance in Bil’in to the construction of the Wall that’s taking a lot of their land. I don’t know exact numbers, but the Wall there is planned according to the construction plan of a new settlement and it’s being built very close to the last houses of the village. So for the last two months or so there have been demonstrations there on almost a daily basis, at least three times a week. We’ve been trying to support this with an Israeli presence and an international presence, and that’s why I’ve been going there a lot.

PC: What happened on April 3, 2005, the day you were shot in Bil’in ?

JP: It was a very quiet demonstration. People were torching tires at the entrance of the village to demonstrate. We then went down, a small group, something like ten of us, and were just staring at the bulldozers and didn’t reach them.

After a while we started going back to the village, and at some point I heard a shot. I looked back and I saw that it was the soldiers who shot it from about 30 meters, and I saw the canister flying directly at me. I had time to turn my head so it didn’t hit my face. It hit centimeters above my right temple. I saw the canister bounce back and then fainted. I fell down for 30 seconds or a minute, and then found myself in a Red Crescent ambulance.

At some point the soldiers came to the ambulance and demanded that I get out of it in order for them to evacuate me from there. There wasn’t an Israeli ambulance, but they still demanded that. I refused the army, and the ambulance drove towards a nearby checkpoint and I was moved into an Israeli ambulance which took me to the hospital. I was diagnosed as suffering from internal bleeding in the brain in two places and had twenty three stitches.

PC: Was there a reason why the Israeli soldiers fired the teargas as far as you could tell ?

JP: Nothing that I could tell. As I said it was very quiet that day. We were just going back to the village. Nothing happening.

I don’t think the shooting was aimed specifically at me. Generally, as a tactic the soldiers are shooting teargas canisters directly at the group as one of their methods for dispersing a crowd. Of course it’s completely against even their own regulations, telling them they have to shoot the canister in the air and not directly at the group, but in reality it happens all the time that they shoot the canister at the group. Numerous Palestinians have been injured by it, and also Israelis have been hit in the past.

PC: How are you feeling now ?

JP: My head hurts a lot and I’m very dizzy. I still have problems walking. I need a walker to move around. The doctor said I have to stay at home for a month and rest.

PC: The press reports that I first saw said that teargas was shot by soldiers, that it hit the ground and then showered rocks that hit you, that you were hit by rocks.

JP: That’s just a lie from the Israeli military spokesperson. As I said, I saw the teargas canister fired at me directly from where the soldiers were standing, and I saw it hit. There were definitely no stones that hit me. Secondly, if it was a stone it would not have caused so much damage. And thirdly it doesn’t really matter even if it did hit a stone. Because even according to their own regulations they are not supposed to shoot the canister straight in the direction of the demonstrators.

In order for the canister to hit a rock, and create such an impact that the rock would hit my head, and cause internal bleeding and an injury that would require 23 stitches… it can’t happen.

PC: The Israeli military spokesperson lied about what happened. Does this type of thing happen often ?

JP: They always do. It happens all the time. Reading an IDF spokesperson response is the best way to know what didn’t happen, basically. Their statements have no relation to reality or to the truth whatsoever.

PC: Why do you think then that their statements get reported so often then by the press ?

JP: I think that people like the press choose to believe it over the demonstrators, especially the official Israeli press, because the spokesperson is easier for them to relate to. Another reason, I think, is that the mainstream media here is very persistent in following the Israeli narrative, which the army spokesperson represents much better than we do.

PC: So the other day you were shot in the head. Is it common that protesters, whether Israeli or Palestinian or international are hurt or harassed in this way ?

JP: It’s very common for Palestinians to be hurt in that way or even worse. It’s less common for Israelis. There have been only three injuries to Israelis of this or greater severity in a year and a half of daily demonstrations. There have been hundreds of severe injuries to Palestinians and six deaths.

There was one demonstration in February 2004 in the village of Biddu, where they’ve had a lot of demonstrations. On that day we saw three Palestinians die from live ammunition. At least one of them was shot in the head by snipers standing on a rooftop nearby. That happened in front of my eyes so I can testify to it.

There’s been one person shot in the head as well in the village of Beitunia. Another guy was shot in Biddu in the upper part of his stomach. He died. There was one person who died apparently from inhaling teargas inside his home in Biddu the same day the three were shot dead.

PC: Is this violence preventing people from going out to protest ? Would it deter you ?

JP: I’m sure that the amount of violence that the Israeli army is illegally using is deterring some people from protesting. I don’t think it will deter me in the future, but we have to remember that I am under much less risk as I am an Israeli and this is an apartheid state. When I get shot in the head, and I get wounded relatively lightly – I have no permanent damage – this gets coverage in the papers and the electronic media. When a Palestinian just a few days ago, a youth from the village of Saffa, near Bil’in where I was shot, was shot was shot with a rubber bullet in his eye causing him to lose his eye, there was no coverage at all.

So yes, I think the violence is deterring people, but it will not deter people forever. I think people are becoming angrier and more aware of the situation, and I think that Israel better understand that if it will break the popular and essentially non-violent resistance, it will only encourage a more violent and brutal resistance, because you cannot expect people to just quietly accept their lives being taken away from them.

PC: Beyond physically injuring people, what about other kinds of military pressure? In villages like Bil’in and Budrus the military is coming in and going into Palestinian homes regularly.

JP: I think this is part of the same strategy. The Israeli army is using collective punishment, which is forbidden according to international law, to deter people from protesting, and I think this is a very short-sighted view of the conflict. Again, they are arresting people and going into villages on a regular basis. In Budrus and Bil’in the army has been going into the village at night, taking males between the ages of 10-50 out of their homes, photographing them from three sides and arresting people who they suspect of participating in demonstrations or of throwing stones. Generally it’s just harassment. They hope to break the people that way.

PC: What typically happens on the day of an actual protest ?

JP: Well, usually we gather in the center of the village and we go down to the land, some hundreds of people. Most of them are Palestinians, some are Israelis and international activists. And we go down to the land with the aim of blocking the bulldozers that are destroying the people’s land and separating them from their other land, their main source of income after four years of closure.

At that point, usually much before we reach the bulldozers, the army reacts with a lot of violence, using teargas, concussion grenades and rubber-coated metal bullets. At that point sometimes clashes begin with stone throwing. Sometimes we do manage to get to the bulldozers.

PC: Who actually organizes and calls for the protests ?

JP: The villagers, the people who are affected directly by the wall. The people who won’t be able to eat if the Wall is constructed.

PC: How frequently are protests occurring now and what are the reasons for the protests?

JP: Now it is almost one a day for the last month. And for the first time in a long time, it’s not only protests around the Wall. There’ve been protests against checkpoints, against military roads and against military bases lately.

Through the smokescreen of the disengagement plan, Israel is increasing the pressure and increasing the occupation in the West Bank, increasing its grip on the West Bank, and it’s effecting peoples’ lives, and people are more and more able to see that the talk about peace is merely talk, and that the Sharon government has no plan to implement it and to provide more freedom to the Palestinian people.

PC: Why do you as an Israeli choose to do this, and how do Palestinians respond to you?

JP: I choose to do it because I see it as my moral obligation. The occupation in general, and this Wall specifically is being constructed in my name without me wanting it. It is being constructed in my name even though I think it’s a horrible crime, and I see it as my obligation to try and stop it, to do everything I can do in order to stop it, and to say that the struggle for freedom, wherever it is, is my struggle as well, and until there will be freedom for Palestinians as well, there will be no freedom for anyone.

My reception has always been very warm and very welcoming by the Palestinian side. It has never been a problem for them that I am an Israeli. If anything, the opposite.

PC: How do you evaluate the effectiveness of the popular, non-violent resistance that has been going on ?

JP: I think that, partly because of the tactics and strategy of the PA, people have been discouraged from the popular movement or popular resistance lately. I think the only thing that can make it more effective again is if it will, once more, become more massive, if more people participate in it. In the last few months we are seeing people returning to popular resistance to the occupation, but still I feel it is not including enough people yet. I hope that people are able to see through the smokescreen of Sharon’s plan and of the government’s plan and that they try to resist it.

PC: The US press is reporting on the Gaza disengagement plan and the Israeli government plan to expand the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, as well as talking a lot about prospects for peace. What do you see happening on the ground ?

JP: They are building a new settlement in the area between Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem, as they are doing in many other places. I think it should be considered a new settlement. It’s an Israeli whitewash calling it an extension of the settlement.

I see the disengagement not as a plan for pulling out and not as a plan with prospects for peace. I see it as a plan for furthering the control of the Israeli government in the Occupied Territories. It will offer no real freedom to the Palestinians, even in Gaza. The Palestinian economy is completely controlled by Israel, and disengagement includes in it basically no real sovereignty to Gaza. Borders will be completely shut, and Israel will control all the passages from Gaza to the outside world.

Other than that, it is clear to anyone who has eyes in his head that the Israeli government is only implementing the disengagement in order to whitewash all of its activities in the West Bank. While talking of peace and how the Palestinians are not following their commitments, Israel is continuing to construct the Wall in a path that would take 7% of the West Bank, which would leave 7% of the West Bank on the Israeli side. And the 7% is a deceptive figure. The 7% does not include the route of the planned Wall that would cut into Ariel and Qedumim, which would annex 1% – 2% more of the West Bank as well. Further, it is a dry figure that doesn’t convey the creation of harsh movement restrictions, as the planned route cuts deep into the West Bank. Other than that, in places where the Wall has been moved, Israel is now planning on building new walls to “protect” settler roads. That is the case in Hebron and with road 443 from Jerusalem to Modi’in. Basically, Wall sections that have been cancelled or disqualified by the Supreme Court are now being built as separate walls or separate “means of protection” for the roads. So it enhances the role of these roads as restrictions on Palestinian movement.

Settlements are being expanded. The military presence in the West Bank continues and checkpoints are still standing. No real freedom is provided to the Palestinians. It’s merely a tool for Israel to maintain its presence and control in the West Bank while reducing the international pressure.

The biggest joke is that this was even admitted by Sharon’s consultant Dov Weisglass in an interview in Haaretz.

PC: Some people are saying that with all of the settlement construction, and the construction of the Wall and the new plan for Maaleh Adumim, that it is really the end of any hopes for a two state solution, and that what is happening is creating an apartheid situation for Palestinians. What do you think of this analysis ? Where do you see things heading ?

JP: I was never a great supporter of the two state solution. I never thought it had a great chance to begin with because of the power relations between Israel and its economy, and the Palestinian entity. After almost 40 years of occupation, the Palestinian economy is completely dependent on the Israeli economy. And we’ve seen with Oslo that the two state solution is being used by Israel to use the Palestinian Authority as a neighborhood bully to do the dirty work instead of Israel – to maintain a quiet, hidden occupation, while relieving the pressure from the international community and still being in control of everything that happens, offering no real option of sovereignty or freedom to the Palestinian people. And we’ve seen in Oslo and we see it now, that the PA is fully cooperating with it. Their strategy is not one of liberation, it is one based in a state that doesn’t exist.

It seems that now we are heading towards a continuation of the current situation – which is apartheid, which is Palestinians living under apartheid. I think that people need to understand that nothing generally has changed much. It’s just a continuation of the same situation of the last forty years. It’s building up of it. It’s maintaining it. It’s enforcing it.

1. The Jerusalem Post, Fence protester wounded by tear gas grenade, Margot Dudkevitch

An Israeli protester was lightly wounded on Sunday afternoon, when a tear gas grenade thrown by soldiers to disperse Israeli and Palestinian security fence protesters near Ba’alin close to Maccabim hit a rock showering demonstrators with splinters.

2. Ha’aretz Daily, Fence Protester hit in the head by teargas canister, Tamara Traubman

Pollack said that he, too, was leaving – going toward the village, away from the fence construction site – when he suddenly heard a shot. “I turned around, toward the firing, and saw a gas canister flying toward me,” he said. The canister hit him in the head, causing a deep cut that split his head to the bone and required stitches. He lost consciousness for a few seconds and suffered heavy bleeding and dizziness…

In response, the IDF said: “We exercise judgment with regard to every demonstration. Usually, we let them demonstrate, but this time, there were disturbances of the peace. The force fired a gas grenade that hit a rock and Jonathan Pollack’s head was sprayed.”