Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Nazoraean Hypothesis on the Qur'anic Nasara

Most of us have undoubtedly seen the image of a gold letter "noon" on a black background, now common as a Facebook and Twitter photo showing solidarity with the expelled Christians of northern Iraq.  The significance is that prior to the expulsion of the Christians from Mosul, ISIS members spray-painted that letter on their houses to mark them.  The letter stands for "nasrani," plural "nasara," which is the Qur'an's term for "Christian."

Today Christians consider the term somewhat derogatory, and the most common Modern Standard Arabic word for Christian is "musihi," which means "person of the Messiah" the same way "Iraqi" means "person of Iraq."  However, at least for the first few centuries of Islam, "nasrani" was the only word in use, had no derogatory overtones we can detect, and was used by Christians and Muslims alike.

It has been a bit of a mystery, though, why that would become the Arabic term found in the Qur'an.  Given the significance of Syriac as a spoken and liturgical language in the Middle East on the even of Islam, we might expect instead a version of the Syriac "Kristyan."  While forms of nasrani/nasara do occur in other Middle Eastern languages, they mostly seem to follow on the Arabic usage chronologically.  The exceptions are when it is put into the mouths of persecutors in accounts apparently designed to parallel an account of persecution in Acts 24.

In an article in the 2002 Bulletin of the School for Oriental and African Studies entitled "Nasrani and hanif: studies on the religious vocabulary of Christianity ans Islam," Francois de Blois has offered a plausible hypothesis.  In late antiquity, there was a sect of Jewish Christians called the Nazoraeans who kept Jewish law and attended synagogue services, but also believed that Jesus was the Messiah.  De Blois argues that the Christians of west central Arabia, the environment of the Qur'an, could have been of this group, surviving longer in that remote area than they did in regions closer to the centers of ecclesiastical power.

The lack of data makes this necessarily a tentative hypothesis, but de Blois notes it does address two other mysteries of the Qur'an's view of Christians.  Several verses imply that Christians kept dietary laws, which Jewish Christians in fact did.  Second, the Qur'an recounts God the Father, Jesus, and Mary as the Christianity Trinity, rather than God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  Late Antique sources on the Nazoraeans show that at least some believed the Holy Spirit to be the same as the Virgin Mary, with the Trinity forming a sort of complete holy family which they venerated.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Qaboos's Health

Sultan Qaboos of Oman has recently spent time in Germany, time which Omani authorities say included medical testing.  Anonymous diplomatic sources, however, say that the 73-year-old Arab ruler, who with the fall of Muammar Qadhafi has been head of state longer than any other, has colon cancer.

The sultan's health matters in Oman, since his 44-year reign is associated with the "Renaissance" following the isolation and underdevelopment under his father.  (Qaboos's father, it should be noted, may have avoided development because it would have involved debt to Western powers, powers which have often used debt to impinge on Arab sovereignty.)  What's more, he has no clear heir, with no known male relatives closer than cousins.  A number of years ago he wrote the name of his preferred successor in a sealed envelope to be opened on the occasion of his death.  This name would then have to be confirmed by a special council.  Under the constitution, if no prince wins approval as sultan, the military would take over as a regency until there was consensus on a sultan.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Anti-Arab Sentiment in Kurdistan

Cathrin Schaer reports on rising anti-Arab sentiment in Iraqi Kurdistan:
These are just a sample of the kinds of comments that Iraqi Kurdish social media users have been posting online. Others added even more vitriol, reporting that relatives serving in the Iraqi military, who were fighting the Islamic State group, said they were shot at by ordinary Arabs in contested areas. They also said that the ordinary Arabs in contested areas were providing the extremists with intelligence.
The online anger against Arabs that started as random messages on social media has also evolved into online campaigning in some cases, with one group starting a Facebook page “for the expulsion of Arabs from Iraqi Kurdistan”. A group of Facebook campaigners also began to organise a demonstration against Arabs in Iraqi Kurdistan, even though Iraqi Kurdish authorities forbade it.
Two weekends ago, the UK-based website Middle East Eye reported on an impromptu demonstration held in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil. The mostly young men involved apparently set up checkpoints on the street to police anyone driving by, that they suspected was Arab. The protestors also tried to vandalise property they thought belonged to Arabs. Iraqi Kurdish security forces broke the protest up.
From the article as a whole, it sounds like a lot of this relates to ISIS's coasting on Sunni Arab grievances against the Maliki government in Baghdad. Many Sunni Arabs either work directly with ISIS, seeing it as the lesser evil, or are openly hostile to the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi army operating in their region even if they are neutral on or hostile to the ISIS against which that army is campaigning.  Where Kurds and Shi'ites see ISIS as the primary issue, an evil against which all must unite, the nuances of Sunni Arab views and experiences easily become lost.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Maliki Steps Down

In recent years, many people, most certainly including myself, have argued that Iraqi democracy is highly flawed because Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a sectarian strongman who cannot be trusted to respect the rule of law or perhaps even elections.  That makes this news significant:\
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said Thursday night that he had agreed to relinquish power, a move that came after days of crisis in which his deployment of extra security forces around the capital had raised worries of a military coup.
Mr. Maliki’s decision held out the prospect of a peaceful transition of power, based on democratic elections and without the guiding hand of American military forces, which would be a first in modern Iraq’s troubled history of kings, coups and dictatorships. 
His decision to step aside came after heavy pressure from the United States, which has deployed warplanes in Iraq to target Sunni Islamist militants and suggested that more military support would be forthcoming if Mr. Maliki was removed from power. Iran also played a decisive role in convincing Mr. Maliki that he could not stay in power...
Officials said that in days of negotiations over his future, Mr. Maliki was given assurances — although not in a formal agreement — that he would be protected from prosecution. He is also expected to take a post in a new government, and while the position of vice president has been discussed, the matter has not been settled. Mr. Maliki was also assured that members of his bloc — which won the most seats in April’s national elections — would be given their fair share of ministries and other positions.
I'm pondering whether these events in the current circumstances can really count as a "peaceful transfer of power" in the sense used to gauge the health of a democratic system.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Yezidi Pilgrimage

Several good accounts of the Yezidis have appeared in recent days, such as this one from the BBC.  I fear, though, that many miss an important dimension to Yezidi spirituality by focusing too much on beliefs.  The well-developed analytic theological traditions found in major world religions rely upon a literate elite of professional theologians that the Yazidis have simply never had.  The Yezidis don't even have a core sacred text, but instead a set of hymns passed down orally.

Historically, one can look at the Yezidis and see the imprint of Sufism on a substrate of ancient Iranian religious ideas that have long existed in the mountains and appeared in numerous religious movements throughout history.  Patricia Crone's The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran deals with this dimension of the region's history and includes coverage of the Yezidis.  Some of the vocabulary in Yezidism parallels that of the Baha'i Faith, founded in Iran in the 19th century.  The Sufi dimension was brought in the 12th century by Shaykh Adi b. Musafir, who was in many ways a mainstream Sunni.

Sufism is Islamic mysticism: the quest for direct experience of the divine involving the gradual perfection of the soul.  This is a key to understanding the role of pilgrimage in Yezidism.  God is unknowable, but created emanations or manifestations of himself so as to be known.  Melek Tawus is the highest such emanation, which is why he is sometimes called "God" and at other times referred to as an angel.  He is perhaps similar to the yazatas of Zoroastrianism, and I suspect the "ezid" term which lends the Kurdish sect its name is etymologically related.

Now, to Shaykh Adi: like many Sufis, he used strong language to describe his connection with God, and after his death, many people for whom he functioned as a holy man in life came to believe that he was God, having achieved a sort of oneness with the divine essence that is also a form of emanation.  Now I'm finally to pilgrimage, for one way Yezidis pursue the journey towards God is through pilgrimage to living holy men or sites associated with deceased ones.  Here we get to the intersection with what some regard as simply folk belief, as shrines can be associated with practical benefits like miraculous cures.

One should appreciate, however, that the experience of being Yezidi is tied to the sacred history of the landscape of their homeland.  The central pilgrimage, required every year on the Festival of the Assembly in late September, is to Lalish, the sacred space of both Melek Tawus and Shaykh Adi.  (At last report ISIS was less than 20 miles from it.)  When removed from this sacred landscape, it strikes me that Yezidism itself must inevitably change.  I suspect this process has already begun with the growth of a Yezidi diaspora, and Philip Kreyenbroek, whose influential account of Yezidism I have referred to in writing this, has written a book specifically on the faith in Europe.

I am reminded of the Jews in the Roman Empire, especially after the destruction of the Temple that had been the center of Jewish life for a millennium give or take the Babylonian Exile.  Judaism changed in those days, with the law gaining elevated importance and the prominence of philosophical speculation with roots in the older wisdom literature.  If the Yezidis, too, become primarily a people in exile (despite some communities in Syria and Turkey), then Yezidism, too, will change.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Iran Moves Against Contraception

Iran's parliament has voted in favor of a ban on vasectomies as part of a widespread curtailment of contraception in the country:
Iran's parliament has voted to ban permanent forms of contraception, the state news agency IRNA reported, endorsing the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's call for measures to increase the population...
The bill, approved by 143 out of 231 members present in parliament, according to IRNA, also bans the advertising of birth control in a country where condoms had been widely available and family planning considered entirely normal.
The law now goes to the Guardian Council - a panel of theologians and jurists appointed by the Supreme Leader who examine whether legislation complies with Islam...
Iran's birth rate stands at 1.6 children per woman, lawmaker Ali Motahari said, according to IRNA. At that rate, the population of more than 75 million would fall to 31 million by 2094, and 47 percent of Iranians would be above the age of 60, said Mohamad Saleh Jokar, another lawmaker.
Iran's population doubled during the 1980's, which led to fears of over-population and moves to limit population growth during the 1990's.  That 1.6 children per woman today is well below a replacement rate of just over 2 children per woman. This explains the government's recent moves to increase fertility, moves which have included making the country the region's main center for fertility treatments.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Saddam Hussein and the Yezidis

Lately I've been both traveling and working through a complex part of my book manuscript, which means I haven't been thinking original thoughts about contemporary Middle Eastern events or passing on interesting scholarship about Middle Eastern history and culture.  I still read, though!  Here is some interesting information on Saddam Hussein's policy towards the Yezidis:
Ethnically, Yazidis are often identified as Kurds, the minority group that semi-autonomously governs a chunk of northeastern Iraq (most other Iraqis are ethnically Arab). Most Yazidis do consider themselves Kurds, according to Sebastian Maisel, a professor at Grand Valley State University who has conducted extensive fieldwork among Yazidis.
But Iraq's Ba'athist government disagreed. Beginning around 1975, they labeled them an Arab offshoot, according to Maisel, in order to "distance them from the Kurdish population." The Ba'athist government decreed that Yazidis were descendants of Yazid bin Mu'awiya, the ancient caliph whom Shia Muslims remember ruefully as the murderer of the (in their view) rightful Caliph Husayn bin'Ali after Muhammed's death. This would make the Yazidis ethnically Arab — it would also alienate them from Shia Muslims, who are the Iraqi majority, and perhaps make Yazidis more reliant on the Sunni Ba'athist government.
The goal, according to Maisel, was to separate the Yazidis from the Kurds, who wanted political autonomy, and make them loyal to Arab Iraq. But it did this in a truly heavy-handed and brutal way. During the '70s and '80s, Saddam Hussein forcefully relocated Yazidis from their traditional home near the Sinjar mountains to cinderblock villages in poorly-resourced areas, gave them Arabic names, and forced them to speak Arabic and not Kurdish.

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Thursday, August 07, 2014

Najaf Takes Christian Refugees

Najaf, the holy city in southern Iraq where the country's Shi'ite clerical establishment and highest-prestige religious institutions are based, is officially taking in Christian refugees from the north:
"On Aug. 3, the Najaf provincial council announced “its complete readiness to receive displaced Christian families who have left their villages and homes in Mosul.” The council affirmed that “appropriate housing will be provided. Also, the Imam Ali Holy Shrine in Najaf and Imam Hussein Holy Shrine in Karbala are ready to host Christian families, and indeed competent committees are being formed in the two holy cities."
"Al-Monitor learned from an official of the Red Crescent that the province “has until now received more than 17,000 displaced, the majority of whom are sheltered in Hussainiyat [congregation halls for Shiite commemoration ceremonies], mosques, and other religious buildings. They are receiving support from humanitarian institutions affiliated [with] the Shiite authority, the Imam Ali Shrine and the people of Najaf.” Al-Monitor met with two displaced Christian families who affirmed that they were receiving services and aid, as other displaced are.
"It is important to note that the two holy cities of Najaf and Karbala were dominant Christian centers for centuries, where the ruins of old churches are located, some of which date back to the second century. In fact, until mid-20th century, some Christian and Jewish families were still living in the two cities, without being subjected to any kind of persecution or discrimination.
 The flow of Christians into the two cities, if it continues, and their potential settling there, will revive Iraqi plurality, which has been decaying in the last years.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Nasser Home and Museum

It has been noted quite a bit that Egypt under Sisi has been experiencing a revival of Nasserist nostalgia.  Next year Nasser's home will open as a historic site:
Egypt's Culture Ministry has just announced a plan to open up Nasser's residence with a museum by 2015. Minister Gaber Asfour said it will present the "formation of our national history," something President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently invoked by claiming the "January 25, 2011, and June 30, 2013, revolutions are continuations of the revolution of July 23, 1952..."
Since Mohammed Morsi's overthrow on July 3, 2013, state-sponsored cultural emblems have been increasingly commonplace. From pro-army songs like "Teslam al-Ayadi" (Blessed are the Hands) to a gauche monument honoring the security forces on the site of the Rabia al-Adawiya massacre, the state has attempted to enshrine its place in public culture in a way arguably not seen since Nasser's time.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Suez Canal II

Egypt has announced plans to dig a second Suez Canal:
Egypt plans to build a new Suez Canal alongside the existing 145-year-old historic waterway in a multibillion dollar project aimed at expanding trade along the fastest shipping route between Europe and Asia.
The new channel, part of a larger project to expand Suez port and shipping facilities, aims to raise Egypt’s international profile and establish it as a major trade hub...
Egypt has planned for years to develop 76,000 square km around the canal to attract more ships and generate more income.

Mr El Sisi said the new canal was an unannounced part of that project, which Egypt invited 14 consortia to bid for in January.

Reuters reported on Sunday that Egypt had chosen a consortium including global engineering firm Dar Al Handasah, as well as the Egyptian army, to develop the area.

A promotional video played at the launch event suggested the project would cut waiting times for vessels and allow ships to pass each other on the canal.
Egypt has some history in recent decades of grand projects that don't pan out, and it remains to be seen if this will more closely resemble Nasser's Aswan High Dam or Mubarak's second Nile valley.  If you read the full article, however, you'll notice that the military gets to be in charge of it, thus adding to their economic empire.

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Sunday, August 03, 2014

"Let Not the Believers Take for Friends Unbelievers"

The title of this post is a common translation of Quran 3:28, and indicative of how one often sees translated a couple of verses in Sura 5, as well.  It is often used by anti-Islamic writers to argue for a unique hostility of Islam toward other religions.  The problem is that "friend" is a very bad translation for the Arabic term "wali," which is used by the verses in question, and I would argue so bad as to be both wrong and misleading.

"Wali" can occasionally mean friend in Modern Standard Arabic, but it is uncontroversial to say that words change meanings over time, often as societies themselves change.  In English, "awful" no longer means that one is "full of awe," and there was not a word for "election" until people had the idea for them.  "Sadiq," the most common MSA word for "friend," does occur in Qur'an 26:101, where everyone seems to translate it that way, as well.

In 7th century Arabic, however, a "wali" was a member of one's "'aqila."  An "'aqila" was a group of people who were responsible for each other's actions in Arabian customary law.  This was usually the blood relatives on one's father's side, but could include others adopted into a sort of virtual family.  If in 7th-century Arabia I killed someone, my 'aqila would be responsible, either subject to vengeance from the victim's 'aqila or paying them blood money.

The verses of the Qur'an and similar stipulations in the hadith and the Constitution of Medina have nothing to do with whom you can hang out with when you go to region's weekly market.  They are about whom you take responsibility for in this way, an injunction that Muslims, or at least those Muslims who converted as individuals rather than as part of an entire tribe, form a legal community of mutual aid and protection amidst Arabia's tribal feuding.

There is another angle to this.  In the Constitution of Medina, it was forbidden to seek vengeance against a Muslim on behalf of a non-Muslim.  If memory serves, laws of vengeance also did not apply within an 'aqila, only between 'aqilas.  As Michael Lecker has pointed out, this, again in the context of Arabian customary law, was a means of ending Arabia's tribal feuds with the spread of Islam, as it meant that any individual who had been killed in the past was a non-Muslim on behalf of whom one could not take vengeance on the rapidly increasing numbers of new converts.

This understanding of "wali" would not long survive outside the society of whose moral world it was a part.  By the 8th century and the imperial caliphate, the core meaning of the word came to be something like "guarantor" or "agent."  It is still used that way in Islamic law.  Presumably beneath the social level of the written texts the 7th-century meaning also drifted into the "friend" it can mean in Modern Standard Arabic, though as I said, that really is neither the most common meaning or the most common word for friend.  I suspect it comes up in translations because it is easier to understand in contemporary English than the alternatives.  That does not, however, make it right.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Lebanon's Water Problems

I have some ideas for posts, but am caught up in other matters right now.  Here is an account of Lebanon's water shortage:
Rains were scarce last winter. While the annual average in recent decades was above 800 mm, this year it was around 400 mm, making it one of the worst rainfall seasons in the last sixty years...
As Nadim Farajalla, Research Director of IFI’s Climate Change and Environment in the Arab World Programme, explains, the country’s inability to store water efficiently, water pollution and its misuse both in agriculture and for domestic purposes, have put great pressure on the resource...
The drought is also exacerbating tensions between host communities and Syrian refugees.
The rural municipality of Barouk, for example, whose springs and river supply water to big areas in Lebanon, today can count on only 30 percent of the usual quantity of water available. However, consumption needs have risen by around 25 percent as a result of the presence of 2,000 refugees and Barouk’s deputy mayor Dr. Marwan Mahmoud explains that this has generated complaints against newcomers.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

ISIS and "Friends"

Way back when ISIS seized Mosul, I emphasized how it was dependent on alliances with other Sunni militants and that the fraying of such alliances could be the key to its downfall.  Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel has more analysis along those lines:
Most of the Sunni groups have insisted that they are in control of key areas and facilities and have pushed back ISIS where necessary. For example, the Islamic Army of Iraq prevented ISIS from entering Dulu’iya after they took control of it due to ideological differences between the movements (al-Arabiya [Dubai], June 11). Al-Maliki has tried to manipulate Sunni tribal anxiety by encouraging Arab tribal leaders in northern areas to fight ISIS (BasNews [Erbil], July 8). There have been skirmishes between these tribes and ISIS militants but for any real impact on the ground Sunnis must turn against ISIS in much greater numbers.
What is clear, however, is the increasing tension between former the Ba’ath party, JRTN factions and ISIS. These groups have already been involved in deadly clashes in the Kirkuk area with reports of JRTN assassination campaigns against ISIS leaders in the Diyala region (al-Sumaria [Baghdad], June 22; Shafaq News [Erbil] July 9). There are other reports of generalized clashes between tribal forces and ISIS in Mosul, Salahuddin and in other areas (al-Mustakbal [Baghdad], July 12; al-Estiqama [Baghdad], July 11). 
With so many groups and varying end games, the danger of Sunni infighting can only grow. Furthermore, the more Sunni groups in the field, the more difficult it becomes to establish a negotiating partner. Sunni tribes have to find a solution to ISIS, but are more likely to deal with that problem when al-Maliki is removed from power and a Sunni region is endorsed under an agreement. Either way, Sunni tribes have learned their lesson from the disappointments of the first Awakening initiative and Sunni support to expel ISIS or offer Baghdad any respite will not come cheap this time around. 
This comes at the end of a careful overview of the major armed forces in the anti-Maliki coalition.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Some Medieval Travelers on Jonah and Mosul

Today ISIS destroyed the Mosque of Jonah in Mosul, which some articles suggest contained his tomb.  Here is what the tenth century Muslim traveler al-Maqdisi (sometimes al-Muqaddasi) reported about the prophet and Mosul (in Basil Collins' translation):
In the countryside near Mosul are the Mosque of Jonah, and other places associated with his name.  Close to ancient Nineveh is a place known as Hill of Repentance atop which is a mosque, and residences for the devout.  It was built by Jamila, daughter of Nasir al-Dawla, and she settled a considerable bequest on it.  It is said that seven visits to it equal a Pilgrimage to Mecca; it is visited on Thursday nights.  It is the place whither the people of Jonah went when they were convinced of impending chastisement.  Half a farsakh from this place is the Spring of Jonah.  Outside the town of Balad is a spring out of which it is claimed Jonas emerged: healing of leprosy is its waters.  Here is a mosque in his name, and also the place of the gourd plant.
I don't know the geography in question, but I think the destroyed mosque is a much-renovated version of the one endowed by Jamila, a princess of the 10th century Hamdanid dynasty whose territory roughly parallels that ruled by ISIS now, with Aleppo and a chunk of southeastern Turkey as important additions.  In the Qur'an, a gourd grew to cover Jonah (Arabic "Yunus") after the whale spit him out.  Here is Ibn Jubayr in the 1100s (Roland Broadhurst translation):
Among the benefits God has especially conferred on this town is that about a mile to the east of it, across the Tigris, is the Hill of Penitence.  It is the hill on which stood Jonah with his people and prayed with them until God relieved them of their distress.  Near to this hill, also about a mile away, is the blessed spring named after him.  It is said that en enjoined his people to purify themselves in it and to take thought of repentance, and that then they ascended the hill praying.  On the hill is a large edifice which acts as an asylum for the needy with many chambers, rooms, and ablution and drinking chambers, all approached by one door.  In the middle of this door is a pavilion over which hangs a curtain, and below this is bolted a blessed door, wholly inlaid.  It is related that this is the place where Jonah stood and that the mihrab of this pavilion was the chamber in which he worshipped.  Around the pavilion are candles, thick as the trunks of palm-trees.  Men go out to this asylum every Friday night and there devote themselves to God's worship.

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Laylat al-Qadr Protest

Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power, the night when Muslims believe Muhammad had his first revelation, saw the West Bank's largest protest in years:
At least three Palestinians were killed and more than 100 wounded in clashes with Israeli security forces in the West Bank and East Jerusalem late Thursday night, as thousands of Palestinians marched from Ramallah to the Qalandia checkpoint, which separates Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The protest was the largest in the West Bank in years – according to some Palestinian activists, the largest in decades – and quickly spread to East Jerusalem, where police were said to be clashing with protesters in the Old City, Silwan, and other neighborhoods. Protests were also reported in Nablus and Bethlehem.

According to Haaretz reporter Amira Hass, Palestinian ambulances, blaring their horns, were streaming in the opposite direction of the march, evacuating protesters wounded by Israeli fire at the checkpoint.
The West Bank has had other protests:
He was speaking at a demonstration on Wednesday organized by the Ramallah municipal authorities. Hundreds of Palestinians carried 600 mock coffins wrapped in Palestinian flags through the city and laid them in front of the United Nations headquarters, labeled with the names and ages of Gaza’s dead.
At a main junction, a huge screen ran a loop of pictures of death and destruction from Gaza. In a bustling street near Manara Square where crowds were shopping for Ramadan, a souvenir store selling music CDs and Palestinian paraphernalia was blasting out Hamas songs and doing a brisk trade in kaffiyehs, the traditional black-and-white checkered head scarf that has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance, going for about $4 apiece.

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