This is a first - for me and for the 47 IFPB delegations that have preceded us. Yesterday was our first day in the country and we were visiting Aida refugee camp here in Bethlehem. We'd just gotten our bus turned around in the narrow street that enters the camp, passing under the large key over the entryway to the camp. Anyway, we were getting off the bus, taking pictures of the graffiti on the walls of the community center, when we heard a loud "thud." I had seen two small (7-8-year-old) boys throwing stones at a dumpster on the street. I was thinking they were enjoying making such a loud clanking sound, right? So when I heard the thud, I thought they must have also had some fireworks. But then there was smoke and an acrid smell and then burning and coughing - burning eyes, nose, throat - trying to hold my breath. Remembering the videos of the demonstrations and the boys with their kufiyehs, wrapping the scarves over their noses and mouths, I pulled my shirt over my nose and mouth and breathed just a little. Till I was upstairs in the room with the windows closed and the door shut behind the group.
Some of our group - especially one of the leaders who was the last one in the building - got much more of the gas, but I was only uncomfortable for a few minutes. Then I wondered what in the world had happened? I didn't ever see them, but apparently there were three IDF soldiers up the street. Seeing the boys throwing the stones, they lobbed several tear gas canisters at the boys.
Maybe the boys were in a celebratory mood because of the 26 Palestinian prisoners who were released yesterday. All over the camp there were banners with 10-foot photos of three of the men - maybe the ones they knew?
So the soldiers apparently ran down toward the boys and threw the tear gas at the boys. And the soldiers were in Bethlehem because?
They wanted to make sure no one enjoyed the day? Bethlehem is in area A, Palestinian-administered West Bank. But the IDF has the jeeps and the AK-47s and the tear gas. Why? Because they could.
We had our tour of the camp - cut short because the soldiers were still out there when we came out of the building. No loitering for photos.
Tonight I'm wondering if the soldiers returned in the middle of the night and forced the whole family outside in the dark and then took the boys off in a jeep to the police station.