A tale from the frontline of Palestinian protest
I went to see Munib Masri in his Beirut hospital bed yesterday morning.
He is part of the Arab revolution, although he doesn't see it that way. He looked in pain – he was in pain – with a drip in his right arm, a fever, and the fearful wounds caused by an Israeli 5.56mm bullet that hit his arm. Yes, an Israeli bullet – because Munib was one of thousands of young and unarmed Palestinians and Lebanese who stood in their thousands in front of the Israeli army's live fire two weeks ago on the very border of the land they call "Palestine".
"I was angry, mad – I'd just seen a small child hit by the Israelis," Munib said to me. "I walked nearer the border fence. The Israelis were shooting so many people. When I got hit, I was paralysed. My legs gave way. Then I realised what had happened. My friends carried me away." I asked Munib if he thought he was part of the Arab Spring. No, he said, he was just protesting at the loss of his land. "I liked what happened to Egypt and Tunisia. I am glad I went to the Lebanese border, but I also regret it."
Which is not surprising. More than 100 unarmed protesters were wounded in the Palestinian-Lebanese demonstration to mark the 1948 expulsion and exodus of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in Mandate Palestine – six were killed – and among the youngest of those hit by bullets were two little girls. One was six, the other eight. More targets of Israel's "war on terror", I suppose, although the bullet that hit Munib, a 22-year old geology student at the American University of Beirut, did awful damage. It penetrated his side, cut through his kidney, hit his spleen and then broke up in his spine. I held the bullet in my hand yesterday, three sparkling pieces of brown metal that had shattered inside Munib's body. He is, of course, lucky to be alive.
And I guess lucky to be an American citizen, much good did it do him. The US embassy sent a female diplomat to see his parents at the hospital, Munib's mother Mouna told me. "I am devastated, sad, angry – and I don't wish this to happen to any Israeli mother. The American diplomats came here to the hospital and I explained the situation of Munib. I said: 'I would like you to give a message to your government – to put pressure on them to change their policies here. If this had happened to an Israeli mother, the world would have gone upside down.' But she said to me: 'I'm not here to discuss politics. We're here for social support, to evacuate you if you want, to help with payments.' I said that I don't need any of these things – I need you to explain the situation."
Any US diplomat is free to pass on a citizen's views to the American government but this woman's response was all too familiar. Munib, though an American, had been hit by the wrong sort of bullet. Not a Syrian bullet or an Egyptian bullet but an Israeli bullet, a bad kind to discuss, certainly the wrong kind to persuade an American diplomat to do anything about it. After all, when Benjamin Netanyahu gets 55 ovations in Congress – more than the average Baath party congress in Damascus – why should Munib's government care about him?
In reality, he has been to "Palestine" many times – Munib's family comes from Beit Jala and Bethlehem and he knows the West Bank well, though he told me he was concerned he might be arrested when he next returns. Being a Palestinian isn't easy, though, whichever side of the border you're on. Mouna Masri was enraged when her sister asked her husband to renew her residency in east Jerusalem. "The Israelis insisted that she must fly from London herself even though they knew she was having chemotherapy.
"I was in Palestine only two days before Munib was hurt, visiting my father-in-law in Nablus. I saw all the family and I was happy but I missed Munib very much and so I returned to Beirut. He was very excited about the march to the border. There were three or four buses taking students and faculty from the university here and he got up at 6.55 on the Sunday morning. At about 4pm, Munib's aunt Mai called and asked if there was any news and I began to feel uneasy. Then I had a call from my husband saying Munib had been wounded in the leg."
It was far worse. Munib lost so much blood that doctors at the Bent Jbeil hospital thought he would die. The United Nations peacekeepers in Lebanon – disastrously absent from the Maroun al-Ras section of the border during the five-hour demonstration – flew him by helicopter to Beirut. Many of those who travelled to the border with him had come from the refugee camps and – unlike Munib – had never visited the land from which their parents came. Indeed, in some cases, they had never even seen it.
Munib's aunt Mai described how many of those who had gone on the march and by bus to the frontier felt a breeze coming across the border from what is now Israel. "They breathed it in, like it was a kind of freedom," she said. There you have it.
Munib may not believe he is part of the Arab Spring but he is part of the Arab awakening. Even though he has a home in the West Bank, he decided to walk with the dispossessed whose homes lie inside what is now Israel. "There was a lack of fear," his Uncle Munzer said. "These people wanted dignity. And with dignity comes success." Which is what the people of Tunisia cried. And of Egypt. And of Yemen, and of Bahrain, and of Syria. I suspect that Obama, despite his cringing to Netanyahu, understands this. It was what, in his rather craven way, he was trying to warn the Israelis about. The Arab awakening embraces the Palestinians too.