Israel went on high alert this morning in anticipation of demonstrations inside and around the borders of the Jewish state. (Security wall shown above surrounds Rachel’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site, and Bilal bin Rabah mosque for Muslims, inside Bethlehem.)
Today is “Land Day,” when Palestinians commemorate the day in 1976 when six Arab citizens of Israel were killed protesting Israel’s confiscation of Arab lands.
When I drove into Bethlehem this morning, the place was all quiet – as usual on a Friday – but there were large numbers of Palestinian security forces out on the street.
They milled around on street corners between the city center and the main Israeli-controlled checkpoint that leads into south Jerusalem. That checkpoint was the destination of today’s protest march.
Marchers gathered a few blocks down the street from the checkpoint and then they set off around noon. The crowd was about 100 to 150 people. As far as I could tell, they were Palestinians from Bethlehem and international activists.
The protest did not make it very far down the road. A couple dozen Palestinian police in riot gear ran ahead of the marchers and then lined up across the road to block the way to the checkpoint. It was a stand-off.
There was some grumbling about the police being collaborators with Israel.
There were impromptu speeches calling for calm and order.
One guy said the plan was still to proceed to the checkpoint to confront the Israelis and he hoped that his brothers in uniform would not try to prevent this from happening.
The mood did stay calm during the stand-off, which lasted around 40 minutes.
There was chanting. Some of which was critical of the police.
At prayer time, a few dozen men lined up to kneel and pray. As soon as the prayers ended, the crowd lunged toward the line of cops.
It was not clear to me what the police were ordered to do. But they were clearly outnumbered. And they did not appear to be in any mood for a fight with demonstrators.
After about 15 seconds of pushing and shoving, the protesters broke past the police line and headed straight for the checkpoint.
The Israelis, by this time, had closed the huge steel gate. The concrete walls alongside this particular crossing point are several meters high.
So the fortified guard tower became the target of a steady barrage of rocks. The Israeli military posted this video from the scene, showing what looks like a molotov cocktail the guard tower.
A few demonstrators I spoke with expressed frustration about the rock throwing. They said this march was supposed to be non-violent, because that is the best way to fight for Palestinian rights and oppose the Israeli occupation. But they said controlling the youth is simply impossible during these situations.
When I left Bethlehem this afternoon, the rocks were still flying. But Israeli soldiers had not responded with any tear gas, water cannon or rubber bullets.
It was nothing close to the kind of violent clashes that took place today at the Qalandiya checkpoint, to the north of Jerusalem and on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Ramallah.
One Palestinian demonstrator was also reportedly killed in Gaza. Here is another wrap-up of today’s demonstrations.