Nabi Saleh: A day in a “closed military zone”

July 7, 2012 Nabi Saleh

The Israeli Army sometimes makes it very difficult for a documentary filmmaker in the West Bank not to take sides. Yesterday my DP, producer and I were heading to Nabi Saleh to do a shoot. Nabi Saleh has become well known for its weekly demonstrations, one of several towns around the West Bank that protest every Friday. As we approached the village, the IDF stopped us. Entry to the town is prohibited because it’s a “closed military zone.” It’s a phrase that’s heard often around the West Bank, a sort of generic, legal-sounding justificatin the IDF used liberally.

There’s more than one way into Nabi Saleh. We first tried the closest alternate route, over a highway guard rail and up the steep, rocky hill that leads to the village. We didn’t make it far before the same soldiers came over in jeeps and stopped us again.

Fortunately, there’s a third way. It’s a bit circuitous — it involves driving down the highway about 10 miles to a nearby village (half Muslim, half Christina, famous for its wine) and then taking a small road up through extensive olive groves and then into Nabi Saleh, via the back way. The Israeli Army is great at being a pain in the neck, but their effectiveness in sealing off CMZs is dubious! On the way in, we picked up a young boy hitch hiking. He told us he goes to Nabi Saleh protests once every two weeks or so — to throw rocks.

The shoot in Nabi Saleh followed one of our main character, Mohammad Tamimi. DP Tal Pesses — tall, energetic, extremely talented — tracked Mohammad every step of the way during the demo. I followed behind, but as the demonstrators clashed with the Israelis, I took in a deep inhalation of tear gas, and was not feeling to great for about three minutes. When I recovered, Tal and Mohammad had run to another skirmish.

We followed Mohammad back to his house, to film him as he posted photos to his Facebook page, Tamimi Press. Mohammad is Nabi Saleh’s social-network-in-chief, and yesterday he was also filling in as Tamimi Press photographer. We then sat down to a huge Palestinian lunch, joined by Mohammad’s father, Ataalah. We then set up to shoot an interview with Mohammad, but had gotten through only three or four questions when word came that Ataalah had just been arrested. Mohammad’s mother ran out of the house carrying Ataalah’s ID. We all squeezed into a car, raced down to the hill where the skirmish between the protesters and the soldiers was still going on. Mohammad’s mother got out of the car and started walking down the road, into no man’s land. There was a big military truck park at the bottom of the road — it was actually the “skunk water” truck, which is like an armored tanker truck that users a fire hose to spray powerful jets of foul smelling water. We watched from a distance as mom spoke with the soldier in the truck, then walked to different groups of soliders.

At one point, the skunk water truck started firing up the road at us, so we ran off the road, getting a foul misting of the vile liquid. There were about five of us standing there — observer, not demonstrator. For some reason, the soldiers fire about five or six tear gas grenades at us, probably just for fun. We ran to get away from it. IDF, strike two.

Mohammad’s mother finally came back up the hill. She had no idea when Ataalah would be released — it could be in an hour or two, it could be days. We went back to the house. As it turns out, Ataalah was released that evening. Video taken of the arrest shows that he was doing absolutely nothing when he was detained — just walking along. A squad of about four soldiers, who had come into the village, saw him and headed right for him. He wasn’t roughed up or cuffed.

Yesterday’s work comes at the end of what has been a productive week or so of shooting. Last Tuesday we filmed a huge orthodox wedding where Rabbi Menachem Fruman, another one of our main subjects, was officiating. Thursday we filmd Ahmed Attoun, an Isalmist Palestinian legislator who was exiled from Jerusalem earlier this year.