The

Public First Program

with

Shane Elson

 

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+61-3-5134 8556

+61-4-1349 7828

November 2006 # 4

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Sands

The world is a weird and wonderful place. Separated by race, religion, politics, sexuality and moral codes, the human race is as mixed as the colour of the sands on a beach. Each grain is a unique and individual expression of the forces that shaped it. Yet, together the billions of grains provide a barrier to the encroachment of the sea onto the land.

People are like the grains of sand. Each one individually shaped by the forces that act to enable his or her life. Each one separated from the other but together forming a vast beach that is both a place to find rest – on the calm days - and a place to see the forces of nature at work on the rough days.

Tuesday was, for me a rough day. Taking up an offer to visit Bethlehem in the occupied territories I travelled there by bus and taxi. My journey was both boring and exciting. Strange yet familiar. Far too tiresome, yet at the same time to exhilarating to find slumber.

The shared bus and taxi made it impossible to find isolation. The conversations swirling around me were both foreign and familiar. The raised voice, the shared laugh, the kind word to point me in the right direction all went to make the journey both an experience to be remembered and one that was not much different from the thousands of others I’ve taken.

Arriving in Bethlehem I was met by a taxi driver who got me to my drop off point where my local hosts picked me up. Arriving at their office, I found a warm welcome and hot coffee. Everything seemed normal, neat and nice. But it didn’t take long for that to change.

A phone call came in informing the journalists that the Israeli army had taken siege of the central area of the town next to Manger Square – the very place the taxi driver had offered to show me around. My hosts asked if I wanted to go along with them to report on it. “Sure. Why not.” Was my halfhearted reply. The car was readied, the cameras and the recorders were collected and off we went.

Arriving at Manger Square was surreal. Our drop off point was a block away and life here in the street went on. The vendors and the shops were plying their trades. The residents were going to and fro. Life seemed normal. Except for the traffic. There was an urgency in the tooting of the horns and the shouts of the drivers. That something was up was evident but not in an excitable way.

The Square was full of people, mainly men and boys. Diagonally across the Square to my left was the centre of attention. Boys, school age boys, were gathered, throwing stones at the soldiers who had surrounded the house at the end of the Square. The soldiers returned fire with live ammunition, concussion grenades and tear gas. My hosts almost ambled across the square. “Stay close and don’t let me lose you.” Was the only instruction I received.

Then suddenly everyone was running and we joined in. I was later to learn that in the occupied territories, if you see a group of Palestinians running then what ever it is they are running from you don’t want to stay round and face. We ran and jumped the low wall at the end of the Square we had entered from. Heads down, then the all clear. We walked back to the other side and entered a building. Up and onto the roof we went. The door was locked and a coded knock and a word or two in Arabic, saw us gain entry. “Keep your head down and stay behind the water tanks.” I was told.

After a few minutes, it was obvious that no cameraman was willing to be shot to get a few frames of vision for the nightly news. So down we all went, across the Square to where we had come in and then into taxis to take us through the back streets to where we could see the house that was under siege.

We drove past heavily armoured jeeps and then out of the taxi, walking through back yards. We emerged in the alley where the press corps had gathered. Less than 25 metres away the jeeps were parked and the sound of gunfire resonated through the narrow alley. We could hear the concussion grenades exploding somewhere in a street to our right. Then puffs of smoke as the soldiers fired into the wall of the apartment block next to the house. Laser sights were trained on us from the soldiers at the top of the alley. “They’re just trying to intimidate us. There are too many of us. They won’t shoot. Don’t worry. You’re safe.”

Time passed. Jeeps and armoured vehicles came and went. Soldiers barked orders and then a man emerged from behind the jeeps parked just up the ally and to our right. He entered the building the “terrorist” was supposed to be holed up in. He was the man’s brother. He went in and came out. Then the accused’s father was told to go in. He did the same. We could see him moving from room to room and then up to the roof, lifting the tops of water tanks and storage bins. Nothing. He too came back and disappeared behind the jeeps and armoured personnel carriers.

A little while later 16 people came out of the house and the apartment block next door. All but two were women and children. The two men were forced to strip and turn around, exposing their manhoods to the women and children. Guns trained on them all the time, the families too disappeared behind the vehicles.

We waited. We could hear shouts and the crying of children. A long while later an old woman was allowed to come out and get water from the journalists. A token gesture to show that the Israeli killing machine does have a soul? I don’t know. “The house is dirty. Women and children have fainted.” She told us. They are treating us like animals.” The laser sights play on her back and our chests. She takes the water and leaves.

Time passes and a phone call comes through saying the wanted man is not in the house and has appeared on the local TV saying “Fuck the Israeli army.” His statement is one I hear repeated again and again. We leave and go to the hospital were the ten young men and one reporter who have been shot are being treated. We find the ambulance parked outside with dark, semi-dried pools of blood on its floor. We go inside and see the young man with a chunk of his right arm missing and another shot through the leg. We don’t see the head and chest wounds two others have suffered.

We are kicked out of the hospital and decide there is no more action today. We part, like sands on the beach washed around by the tidal forces of nature. Each journalist returning to their office to file their reports and edit their video and sound. We leave too. Like sands on the beach, once the waves have passed, life returns to normal in the birthplace of Christ. Yet each grain of sand is moving together forming an unmistakable beach attempting to stop the tide of terror that has already engulfed so many.

The pictures and more detail on this event are available at www.shane.araustralia.org/pictures.htm

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