My friend Amra Amra informed me that the Chicago Movement for Palestinian Rights were planning on commemorating the third year since the massacre on Gaza, which Israel dubbed as Operation Cast Lead, by releasing balloons with the name of each child killed attached- a total of 344. One of the coordinators asked if we could possibly emulate the same action in Palestine.
After some initial planning, we decided to take the balloons to the village of Nabi Saleh, as opposed to Qalandiya checkpoint, which separates the rest of the West Bank from Jerusalem. It was easier to coordinate with the villagers and a lot less hassle, especially on such short notice.
Friday morning came. Along with a handful of other friends/activists, we got the balloons and managed to stuff them all in the back of a ford (mini-bus). As we got closer to Nabi Saleh, I was sick with worry about what the soldiers manning the yellow gate at the entrance to the village would do once they saw the balloons. I was scared they would open the back door and let the balloons fly away. I reached behind me and gripped the strings tightly. From experience, I know their maliciousness knows no mercy. We decided on a story: We were going to Beit Rima (the village just after Nabi Saleh) for a kid's birthday party. I nicknamed it, Operation Susu's Birthday.
It was such a ridiculous situation. Ridiculous that we should be holding our breath just because of some balloons, ridiculous that these young soldiers had the power to do anything to us, ridiculous in that we were sitting uncomfortably with the balloons batting our faces, necks and shoulders, threatening to engulf us. This is occupation, when the gravity and tension weigh up against the absurdities and unnecessities, creating a split personality-one full of apprehension and anger, the other just seconds away from a good dose of hysterical hyena laughing.
Thankfully, nothing happened. They demanded to see the ID of the driver and the person sitting in the passenger seat. They opened the door and peered at each and every one of us. One soldier said, "Balloon?" but we ignored him. Then we passed. We all breathed audibly. We jumped out of the ford and walked through the village with the balloons. Kids outside in the cold morning were exclaiming, "I want a balloon!" We told them to come find us just before the protest started, still a few hours away. We went to one of the welcoming houses, and downstairs inside a room we got busy with work. We cut the papers with the names of the children of Gaza killed into strips, hole-punched them, and tied them to each balloon string. There were a lot of pictures taken, kids were careful not to be overly exuberant, and we had a great time. The kids asked what the strips of paper were, and we told them about the commemoration of the Gaza massacre.
One medic, a regular in Nabi Saleh who's well-known by the villagers, took a stab at black humor. "So when you all get killed," he told the children in the room, "We'll remember your names by flying some balloons."
"Don't joke about this kind of stuff," I snapped. The kids however wanted to know more.
"Is Mustafa's name tied to one of the balloons?" 7 year old Rand asked, referring to Mustafa Tamimi, the young man killed after an Israeli soldier fired a tear gas canister directly at his face a few weeks ago.
"Mustafa was 28 years old," the medic replied. "Did he look like a kid to you?"
We talked about what was the best way to include the balloons in the protest. Should we have the kids go down the road in front of the soldiers before the demonstration began? The soldiers wouldn't fire tear gas at them, right? Of course they would. We've all witnessed it more than once. The army fires tear gas at children singing and chanting. The parents shook their heads. It's safer if the kids were with the protest crowd; that way at least there will be people to protect and shield them once the Israeli occupation forces intensified their sadistic suppression of the villagers' basic rights.
We decided to visit another favorite house of ours in the village. As we were making our way down the road we watched powerless, meters away, as two Israeli jeeps came hurtling up the road, before it kidnapped two international activists who were taking pictures of the village and of where Mustafa had fell.
Protest time: Amra and I got the balloons, and I gave one to a kid so he could entice the other ones to come our way. They came running. They were so enthusiastic. It was perfect timing, as the demo passed by and swept them along. We went down the street chanting. We turned the bend and continued to where the soldiers with their jeeps and skunk truck were waiting for us. The kids were interspersed in the crowd, some in the front, most in the middle. We waited for the sky to rain tear gas. A few canisters were fired (a few being abnormal; usually dozens are fired from the onset). Instead, the skunk truck rumbled forward, its nozzle spraying that nasty stuff. We all ran back, and I noticed all the kids had scampered, using their common sense. Their ages were between 14 to 5 years old.
We didn't get to release the balloons all at the same time like planned, but it didn't matter. I realized how silly this part of the idea was. The soldiers don't differentiate between child, man, or woman. Getting the children together in a group to release the balloons at the same time in front of the soldiers was indeed a powerful and symbolic image, yet owing to the aggressive reality on the ground, it was not a feasible idea. It was impossible to replicate an identical event amidst the IOF, dodging tear gas canisters fired at our bodies, and running away from the skunk water. Still, the most important thing was that we got our message across, and that the kids had a blast.
That's about how far the balloons went..the demo was ugly with a lot of tear gas, multiple arrests, skunk water sprayed numerously, and a couple of violent house raids which terrified the children inside. Sometimes I'd look up, chest constricting, and see the clouds of tear gas hanging over our heads, other times it would be clumps of balloons floating away. It made me think of ten year old Ahmad Mousa from Nilin, shot and murdered by Israel in 2008. It made me think of 5 year old Jana singing Bombing Gas to the tune of Jingle Bells.
We don't teach our children to hate.