Observing the Gaza protests in Amman on Friday

It’s a bit surreal standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowd of 1000s, many of whom are chanting in a language you don’t totally understand.  Such was my experience when I decided to buck most everyone’s advice and check out the protest in the balad (old city) on Friday January 9th.  The embassy had sent out an ominous sounding note that there was a heightened risk of American interests being targeted.  Call me jaded by years of “elevated risk” at the nations airports or maybe just convinced that I’m not much of an American interest.  I asked a few Jordanians I trusted and was advised where might be risky (near the Israeli embassy – “duh”, and in Wahidat a very Palestinian neighborhood).  To my surprise the Jordanians said I should have no trouble in the balad.  My Western friends thought otherwise – but who are you going to believe the locals or the foreigners?  (Warning: Blondies with blue eyes, embassy workers, those who have to speak out loud in English and anyone nervous about crowds should probably not attend.  Plus I have the trump card that I used to live in Gaza.  Just because I went to the protest doesn’t mean I recommend it to everyone or will necessarily go again.)

(Note: If you’re looking for pics, there is a large gallery at the end of the post.  Click on the thumbnails for the bigger image.  Click on the 2nd pic for an even bigger one.  Pics in the post do not enlarge but they should be repeated in the gallery.)

For starters

Jordanian riot police bloc the street as the protest march nears. (Friday Jan 09 2009)

Jordanian riot police block the street

It had been labeled the “Day of Rage” with protests planned all over the city.  Police outfitted in riot gear seemed ready for it to be an anger filled afternoon in the balad.  However the atmosphere on the street seemed fairly relaxed.  I could hear the chanting of the oncoming crowd echoing off buildings as I looked for a ground-level vantage point with a good “escape” route in case things got dicey.  Spectators were gathering and no one paid me any special attention as I stood waiting on the sidewalk near the alley with a red checkered keffiyeh wrapped around my neck.  It not only served to stave off an ever so slight chill in the shadow of the building, but also identified me as Jordan-friendly.  To truly blend I would have needed to sport the  black and white Palestinian version that many have been wearing lately.

I was struck by three things as the marchers reached my section of street:

  • How quickly the street filled up and the atmosphere of the placed changed.  There was definitely a psychological shift from “I am standing here with a few people minding my own business” to “I am part of a crowd and anything could happen.”
  • The number of youth, including very young children who were participating.
  • The handicap of knowing only a little Arabic
Protesters crowd the balad in Amman on Fri Jan 09 2009

Protesters crowd the balad in Amman on Fri Jan 09 2009

In the crowd

As the parade of flag waving protesters passed me in the street, the masses of people following along on the sidewalk swarmed around my location.  To keep my view of the street I had to step to the curb and within a minute there was nothing but a sea of people all around me.  Some were moving, others like myself were planted in one spot.  There was no jostling and people seemed to respect each other, allowing people to stay put or move as desired.  However, claustro- and agoraphobics beware!  Some people in the middle of the street were chanting slogans, but people near me were just watching and listening.  Many were holding up camera phones or cameras to record the moment.  A father with his children stood next to me.

Although everything remained peaceful, I sensed that my ability to move 100% as I pleased had now changed.  Group dynamics and psychology were in play.

Shortly a truck outfitted with a PA system halted near us.  I’m pretty sure it was a huge Saddam poster on one side.   Things got loud.  The men on the truck took turns rallying the crowd with various chants.  The 50 or so people immediately behind the truck raised their hands to punctuate their chant with fists or “V for victory” signs.   I was relieved that the people around me were not participating as I had hoped to speak as little as possible while at the protest.  My silence didn’t feel conspicuous.

Some shebaab burning Israeli "flags"

Some shebaab burning Israeli "flags"

However, there were two parts where the entire crowd got involved.  One was when a couple of shebaab (young guys) lit an Israeli flag replica on fire up on a roof.  It was kinda funny as it took several attempts to get the flag going.  Apparently flag burning is not as easy as one might think.  People around me were laughing and offering all sorts of advice such as, “You need more gas!”  After a few minutes it was ablaze and the whole crowd cheered.  At another point every  man, woman, and child on the street lifted aloft the victory sign.  My hand shot up too.   It seemed the prudent thing to do.

I realized pretty early on that my movement was at the whim of the crowd.  It’s a slightly unnerving feeling.  Later as the crowd was allowed to progress towards the municipality building and beyond, there were a handful of “Fast-breaks” that got the heart pumping as well.  By fast break I mean a number of people turned around and began running in the opposite direction yelling about tear gas.  I’m fairly certain the first four of these were just shebaab being shebaab as they were followed with laughter, and the older men in the crowd simply held their ground with skeptical eyebrows raised.

The handicap of not understanding

ammanprotest015

A truck outfitted with a PA system, and guys leading chants

I understood the Israeli flag on fire and the pictures of Saddam Hussein (understand is a loose term) but couldn’t understand most of the banners or chanting.   I figured that the crowd with the hammer and sickle flags and the pictures of Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez were part of some sort of communist party.  And  I got that the people with the banner displaying a big red heart and the word Gaza probably love Gaza.  Beyond that it was all a bit fuzzy.  The chant/rant-wagon was catchy though, and after about 10 or 15 minutes of listening I think I might have been able to chime in.  I’m pretty sure 1/2 of the chanting was saying very good things about Gaza and Palestine (and maybe Venezuela), but the other 1/2 was putting down Israel, America, Egypt, and France.  Pretty much in that order of frequency.  Needless to say I quietly snapped pics and took videos.

People seemed angry, but not out of control.  No one directed any anger towards me.  Why would they?   I was just another soul quietly showing my support.  Friends who looked at my pics have commented, “Wow that looks scary.”  Was it?  Not really.  I saw a few locals that I knew and they smiled from afar or greeted me warmly.  Overall, I am sure it would have been better to understand more of what was being said but I got the message very clearly that people are upset with innocents being killed and at the political machines unwilling or unable to do more to stop it.

Would you bring your kids?

2 guys wave to a little girl wearing traditional garb and sporting a Palestinian flag scarf.

A little girl wearing traditional garb and sporting a Palestinian flag scarf flashed the Victory sign to onlookers.

The day before (Thursday) there had been a children’s demonstration for families.  Mothers, fathers and kids marched to the Unicef headquarters to ask for stronger actions against Israel due to the number of kids that have been killed.  Before leaving for Friday’s protest I had joked with my wife and a couple of friends that I should bring the kids along.  To my surprise they would not have been out of place.   There were a number of youth out on Friday.  The youngest (maybe 5 or 6 years old – I even saw some babies) seemed to be accompanied by parents or older siblings.  Many were decked out in patriotic gear, sporting keffiyeh’s or Palestine scarves.  One held a “blood stained” doll aloft.  A couple of youngsters wore black masks.  On the one hand kinda freaky.  But on the other hand  think about how often we dress our kids in camouflage or drape them in patriotic clothing on the Fourth of July.  To Americans dressing in the Stars and Stripes and camo are symbols of hope, freedom, and courage.   I wonder if that kind of gear would play differently in other parts of the world.  And maybe kids wearing keffiyehs and Palestinian flags isn’t as ominous as we might think. I have a bad feeling that Western pundits might spin children marching like this as teaching them to hate.  From where I stood it seemed more like teaching them to speak out.  We haven’t told our 6-year old son what’s going on in Gaza yet so as not to needlessly worry him, but the vast majority of kids here have heard loud and clear that children are dying in a war just a few hundred miles away.

A less than perfect ending

I’m not sure how many were in the crowd.  Thousands I am sure, but how many exactly I have no idea.  The police released the crowd to march and we progressed towards the Amman municipality building and beyond.  The crowd stretched across four lanes of traffic.  There were cars trying to pass, but they were completely stopped.  Near the chant/rant-wagon and the flag carriers the crowd was noisy, but for the most part people walked quietly or in conversation with their friends.  It wasn’t until we reached the big intersection at the end of Ras-al-Ain where the road splits off towards Jabal Amman and 3rd Circle on the right and Abdoun on the left that the police finally stopped the crowd again.   We had walked about a mile.  The crowd had been thinning for awhile and once it was stopped many more turned around and walked away.  When the Communist Party flagbearers started backtracking I figured things were pretty much over and wondered if I should leave to.  However, a vocal crowd of hundreds remained at the police line so  I joined a dozen or so people gathered on the terrace of a large office building a safe distance away.

My view of the final few minutes of the protest.

My view of the final few minutes of the protest.

We were about 20 feet above street level and on the other side of a walled off parking lot full of red trucks.  Chanting protesters still choked off one of Amman’s busiest thoroughfares connecting the Old City with affluent western Amman.  The crowd mostly consisted of shebaab now.  There was a small street that intersected the main thoroughfare near the police line. It ran up the hill to the left and was beginning to fill with spectators.  Traffic began to back up on the other side of the riot police.

I was wondering what would happen. Were the police waiting to let the protesters continue marching as they had before?  Would they send the protesters around to the other side of Ras-al-Ain to march back towards the balad?  How long would they let them stand there chanting?  My answer came about 10-minutes later in the form of a fast-break of 25 or so shebaab yelling about tear gas.  I saw none, but it was obvious that police were trying to disperse the crowd and meeting with some resistance.  To my surprise rocks began to hail down from the side street on the hill and even from the crowd.

It was then that the the first can of tear gas was shot.  The crowd scattered pretty quickly.  Lots of bark, but fortunately little bite.  Another canister was shot towards the retreating crowd for good measure.  As it skittered down the street past our safe vantage point many yards away I got a small whiff – not pleasant to say the least.  My left eye watered and stung for a good 15 minutes afterward.

Moral of the story: always head home when you see the Commies packing up their flags.

Final Word

My taxi driver and I talked about the protests this morning on the way to take my son to school.  He told me that most of the protests in the city were peaceful.  He hadn’t heard that tear gas had been used in the balad, but knew that it had been used near the Israeli embassy where apparently protesters were the most aggressive.  He told me that he and his brother had taken their children to the march to UNICEF headquarters the day before.  Then he said something that really caught my attention.

He said that even though people march here in Jordan and across the Middle East people are still dying every day in Gaza.  Almost 800, maybe more now.

He then told me about 4 children that had been trapped in a house with their dead mother for days with no food or water.  Later I read the report that the International Red Cross is accusing Israel of breaking international law over this specific incident.  Apparently the Israeli army blocked aid workers from entering the area to look for casualties.  Once the volunteers did get to the house they found the 4 children and 12 corpses in the house.  While the children were being rescued the Army continued to order volunteers out of the area.

Honestly, to me the “Day of Rage” in Gaza seemed to be a little more like the “Day of Being Really Upset.”  But as long as stories like these keep coming out of Gaza the protests will continue and the anger  will grow.  Unfortunately rage is like a fire that smolders quietly for a long time only to burst into flames once it’s too late to put out.

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First thoughts on Gaza protests in Amman

It was a beautifult day in Amman today.  Sunny skies with just a few clouds.  Temperature hovering around 50 degrees F.  A good day for a protest.

A nice day in Amman, despite clouds of war over Gaza

A nice day in Amman, despite clouds of war over Gaza

Some were calling today a day of “Rage” and westerners were warned to stay home.  Protests were called for throughout the city to speak out against the situation in Gaza.  I tend to blend in very well, so went down to the ballad to see what I could see.  (Please note: I am not reccommending that others do this, just simply telling you what I did.)  The protest march lasted a little over an hour and made it’s way from Al-Husseini Mosque in the old city past the Amman municipality and ended near Ras-al-ain and the intersection going towards third circle and also Abdoun.

When I got downtown I stopped in a shop that I frequent and asked the workers about the situation and if I would have any troubles.  They assured me that I wouldn’t saying people don’t like the American government but love Americans.  Even so I was stuck in a riot in Jerusalem once back in the late 90s, so kept towards the edges of the crowd near definite “escape” routes and stood near some older men with children, thinking that they were less likely to take unnecessary risks.  I saw a few faces of locals I knew.  They flashed me smiles and mouthed greetings to me.  That set me a little more at ease as well.

I have more to say later, I just wanted to post an initial pic and give my first gut reaction.  I was sturck that people are genuinely upset and are looking for a way to vent their frustrations while showing solidarity with the people in Gaza.  As I snapped pics and looked at them on the way back I realized that a picture is worth a 1000 words, but that a picture with no explanation could speak 1000 wrong words.  The protest was very peaceful, but I could put 2 or 3 pics up here with no explanation and pundits of all stripes could spin the situation in several different directions.  Once again that I was reminded that sound bites and even visual bites cannot do complex situations justice.

Here’s one pic.  I promise more later.  I need to spend some time with my family and collect my thoughts for a more intensive writing session later.

Protestors peacefully march from Al-Husseini Mosque towards the Amman Municipality building on Fri Jan 09 2009

Protestors peacefully march from Al-Husseini Mosque towards the Amman Municipality building on Fri Jan 09 2009

Jordanians rally in support of Gaza

Here are a few way in which Jordanians have expressed their support of those suffering in Gaza:

  • Food and clothing drive – update: MommaBean reports that 25-30 tons were collected at the 7iber/Action Committee/Aramex aid drive near Cozmo the other day.  7iber also reports along with pictures of the sorting effort at the Aramex warehouse.
  • Blood drives
  • Sending a military plan to pick up 40 wounded from Egypt, however due to problems in Egypt they only retrieved 8
  • Businessmen raised 520,000 JD ($738,400) to provide humanitarian assistance, most of it will be administered by the Jordanian government’s official humanitarian arm which has been authorized to provide aid in Gaza.
  • Doctors and nurses staged sit-ins to protest the wounding of Palestinian doctors and medics in the line of duty
  • 50 Doctors have volunteered to go to Gaza to provide medical assistance if authorized to do so.
  • Thousands have participated in predominately peaceful protests.
    • One protest was apparently controlled by tear gas as police stood firm to prevent protesters getting too close to the Israeli embassy here in Amman.
    • 30,000 protesters gathered in a sports stadium.  Many chanted for the repeal of Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel
    • An Arab friend gave me an important vocab lesson – masireh (peaceful protest) vs. muDHahareh (riot).  So far the protests we have heard of here have been in the first category.
    • I’ve been itching to go to one of the protests, but have been warned by a handful of local friends to be careful (not just at the protests, but in general) as anti-American sentiments are on the rise.  I blend in well enough if I don’t open my mouth. But how likely is that?  I must say however, that we have kept to our usual routines and really have to seek out information on the unrest.

I have had several conversations  with locals over the past week about the situation in Gaza.  The same things usually come out:

  • Outrage over the civilian deaths in Gaza, especially the children.  Latest estimates place deaths around 400, about 10% of which have been kids.  I can’t emphasize enough how much this is upsetting to people here.  It’s not just a sound bite on the evening news.  It’s not just collateral damage that can be justified by some larger goal.  People are really upset about this.  And the question of what about Israeli casualties does not fly – only 4 or 5 reported so far and I don’t think any of them have been kids.
  • Questions about what Israel is really hoping to accomplish.  How will this end in peace when so many lives are being shattered?
  • Questions about why the US backs Israel seemingly carte blanche.
  • Anger towards George W. Bush.
  • I haven’t heard much about this on the street, but in the press there are growing questions about Obama’s ability to step into this mess in a helpful way.  His selection of staunch Israel supporter Rahm Emmanuel has fueled these concerns.

It’s a bit surreal.  A couple of weeks ago I relished the questions “Min wayn?” or “Ayya baladak?”  (Where are you from?  What is your country?)  These used to seem like great conversation starters.   But now I flinch a little internally, and have a few handy things to say in my back pocket if the conversation turns towards anything negative.  People are usually surprised to find out that I have actually lived in Gaza and that helps salvage conversation.  A lot of taxi drivers have been listening to the news more this week.  A number of times George W. Bush has come on condemning the Hamas rocket attacks as acts of terror.  This is usually not received favorably, not so much because people support Hamas, but because they can’t understand why the one (mostly ineffective) attack is classified as an act of terror and the other (much deadlier) is a justified act of war.

I guess I wonder too.  How many more civilians have to die?

Responding in English would be difficult enough, let alone in Arabic.

Just a taste of what I’ve been wrestling with.

Breaking News . . .

As I sit here typing, I just recieved news that ground troops have entered Gaza.  Officially to focus on the Hamas rocket positions.  We shall see.  Ominously, Iranian officials have warned that a land invasion will be a huge mistake on the part of Israel.  Hamas has apparently said that the Israeli army is walking into their planned trap.  (AP report here)  I wonder what stories will be told when dawn breaks 7 or 8 hours from now.  It’s going to be a very restless night in Gaza.

Please pray and act for peace.

Jordan Collects Aid for Gaza

Street approaching the donation drop-off and Cozmo supermarket blocked with traffic

Street approaching the donation drop-off and Cozmo supermarket blocked with traffic

Humanitarian Aid Collected in Jordan

Cars jammed the street leading up to the Gaza relief drop-off point neat Cozmo in Amman, Jordan Tuesday night.  Bumper-to-bumper traffic barely crept along, prompting some Good Samaritans to hop out and carry their boxes of food, clothes, and blankets the final dozens of meters.  Police were on hand, including some in riot gear, but everything was peaceful as the pile of donated goods grew and grew.  A line of volunteers passed donations along a human chain to fill waiting delivery trucks.  Inside the store it was obvious who was shopping for Gaza.  Both Jordanians and ex-pats were pulling stacks of canned goods and large sacks of rice off the shelves and filling carts.  Store employees were giving directions to some shoppers, advising them on what could and could not be included in the shipments.

People in Jordan donating and loading a truck with relief aid for Gaza

People in Jordan donating and loading a truck with relief aid for Gaza

Humanitarian Aid Boat Rammed by Israeli’s

As I dropped off a meager donation I wondered if anyone would ever benefit from it.  Both the Israelis and Egyptians have been notorious for not allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza – even during the ceasefire.  What about now, during what Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak described as “all out war” ?  Just this week a civilian boat carrying humanitarian aid from Cyprus to Gaza was shot at and rammed by an Israeli military vessel.  The AP reported that, “Israel’s navy on Tuesday turned back a boat of pro-Palestinian protesters who had hoped to enter Gaza to demonstrate against the Israeli blockade.”  The Reuters article that accompanied the photo below gave a different story, “Cyprus state radio said the Cypriot government would seek explanations from Israel over the incident. The vessel was carrying medical aid donated by Cyprus and there were at least three Cypriots on board, including a parliamentarian.”  The boat was apparently escorted by a Lebanese naval vessel to the port of Tyre.  Hmmm . . . now Lebanon is involved.

Free Gaza aid boat that was rammed by an Israeli military vessel (Reuters photo)

Free Gaza aid boat that was rammed by an Israeli military vessel (Reuters photo)

Will this shipment of aid from Jordan ever make it?  Let’s pray it does.  And when it does, let’s pray it goes to help those who really need it.

Gazan Family Mourns the Loss of 5 Daughters

Like the Balousha family of Jabalia refugee camp who lost 5 of their daughters this week when an Israeli bomb destroyed a mosque and several surrounding buildings in the crowded camp, including the  Balousha’s three-room cinder block house (Guardian UK article here).  The girls were sleeping in one of the rooms and had no chance.  They were ages 17, 15, 13, 8, and 4.   Their mother and father lay sleeping with the families two youngest in the next room.  All were injured, but survived as did one other sister who miraculously was pulled from the ruins of the room where her 5 sisters had died.  Can you even imagine?  Innocent victims of a sickening conflict that has potential to engulf the entire region.

Funeral procession for 5 girls who dies in one family as a result of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza (Guardian UK photo)

Funeral procession for 5 girls who died in one family as a result of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza (Guardian UK photo)

How will this end?  The current conflict is not simply a sound bite on the 5 o’clock news.  It doesn’t just fill a space between the first weather forecast and the local sports scores.  It’s been fomenting for centuries and is unlikely to subside anytime soon.  All the major political players will at least pay lip service to trying to fix things.  There will be lots of posturing and statements made in the world press.  But the most important ones will not come from politicians or generals.  I wonder if anyone will pay attention to the anguished statements of men like Anwar Balousha who is described here:

…He was pale and still suffering from serious injuries to his head, his shoulder and his hands. But like many other patients in Gaza he had been made to leave an overcrowded hospital to make way for the dying. Yesterday his house was a pile of rubble: collapsed walls and the occasional piece of furniture exposed to the sky. He spoke bitterly of his daughters’ deaths. “We are civilians. I don’t belong to any faction, I don’t support Fatah or Hamas, I’m just a Palestinian. They are punishing us all, civilians and militants. What is the guilt of the civilian?” Like many men in Gaza, Anwar has no job, and like all in the camp he relies on food handouts from the UN and other charity support to survive.

And still the Balousha family, and those like them will mourn the lives shattered because politicians and power-men couldn’t put down their egoes and their weapons.

Ways Folks in Jordan can help Gaza

I guess most of the people who read my blog are stateside, but I know there are a few people reading on this side of the pond too.  A variety of people have been organizing ways for people in Jordan to be of some assistance, including blood, food, and clothing drives.  Canned goods (no meat products, or anything likely to leak) and clothing (esp. jackets and blankets) canned be dropped off:

Tuesday, Dec 30th

6:30-8:30 PM

Near Cozmo (7th circle)

More details on this and other ways to help can be found over at Black Iris or at 7iber.

The bombardment of Gaza continued last night with more civilian targets being hit.  One such target was the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG).  I took a tour there back in the late 90s.  Dr. Akram Habeeb is a Fullbright scholar and professor of American literature at  IUG.  Today he gave his first hand account of the nightmare in Gaza:

Why would Israel bomb a university?  Israel did not only target my university last night.  It also bombed mosques, pharmacies and homes.  In Jabaliya refugee camp Israeli bombs killed four little girls, sisters from the Balousha family.  In Rafah they killed three brothers, aged 6, 12 and 14.  They also killed a mother, along with her one-year-old child from the Kishko family in Gaza City.

His full account (and others) can be found at electronic intifada.

According to the Israeli military this assault is far from over.  In it’s fourth day the attacks have claimed the lives of at least 360 Palestinians (39 children) and injured over 1,600.  Hamas rocket fire has accounted for 4 Israeli deaths in the same time period.  Defense Minister Ehud Barak described the operation as “all-out war” and a Deputy Defense minister said that the operation could last for weeks.  Ground troops are prepared to be sent in  (article here).

If you are able to donate some food or clothes or blood that would be great!  If not, please continue to pray for peace. Prayer is not a last resort, but the foundation for any lasting peace!