By Uri Ayalon
Originally published in Ha’aretz
I met M. last month at an Israeli-Palestinian encounter at Neve Shalom. It seemed that most of the Israelis who came to the weekend did so mostly out of curiosity. The Palestinian participants, however, most of whom were students from Nablus, had left at seven in the morning in order to arrive by the afternoon: They walked for hours and ran the risk of arrest just to have the chance to tell the Israelis their occupation stories, in the naive belief that anyone who heard them could no longer remain silent.
The next day, an Israel Defense Forces soldier driving an American-made bulldozer ran over American student Rachel Corrie, 23, who was an activist with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). For several years now, this movement has been trying to come to the aid of Palestinians in the territories by means of direct, non-violent action. Right after I heard the news on the radio about Corrie’s death, which occurred as she tried to prevent the demolition of a house in Rafah, I found the ISM’s Web site and embarked on my journey to Nablus. (Since Corrie’s death, two other ISM activists have been shot and badly wounded; one of them is in critical condition.)
It was a personal journey I was making as a friend of M., not as a journalist. The journey from Tel Aviv to Nablus included a one-night stopover in Jerusalem with a weekend of training in Beit Sahur, then passage through the Hawara checkpoint at the entrance to Nablus and finally a visit to the village of Yanoun. By Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, there is an especially cheap hostel that is used as a temporary base from which the movement’s activists are launched. Foreign journalists on their way to the territories and eager to be brought up to speed, newly arrived activists who’ve come straight from the airport or from Jordan, and veteran activists who want to take a time-out from the pressure of their dangerous activity in the territories all converge here.
In the morning, the hostel’s balcony is strewn with empty beer cans. In the territories, in deference to Muslim sensitivities, the activists are not permitted to drink alcohol, so the time-out in Jerusalem is also a chance for them to indulge that habit if they are so inclined.
When it’s OK to retreat
Because of the checkpoints on the way, you have to take three separate taxis to get to the hotel in Beit Sahur, where the weekly training workshop for new activists is held. Along the street, the walls are plastered with posters of the newest martyr: 12-year-old Christine Sa’ada of Bethlehem, who was killed the day before while riding in her parents’ car. A car carrying two Hamas activists was driving behind the family’s car, and the militants’ car was being followed by a vehicle carrying undercover agents from the Border Police, who shot the Hamas men to death. The young girl was also struck by the gunfire.
On the way to the hotel, we’re reminded to reset our watches: The Palestinian Authority has not yet announced the start of daylight savings’ time, and meanwhile some of the Arabs in East Jerusalem are also still living on Palestinian time. The volunteers from abroad don’t understand how there can be an hour’s time difference between two parts of such a small land, and the taxi driver explains: “Just because the Israeli government is switching to daylight savings’ time, this doesn’t have to obligate Palestine, too.”
The workshop that is supposed to prepare the activists for an extended stay in the territories lasts two days. It begins with a brief round of introductions and an attempt to define personal goals. The oldest volunteer is Jean, 76, who hails from Canada and has been an anti-nuclear activist since 1949 (all of the volunteers asked not to use their full names, to avoid possible harassment by the Israeli Border Police). Jean is well aware that even the stoniest soldier will have a hard time remaining firm at the sight of someone who resembles his beloved grandmother. Alison, a 36-year-old from London, works for a computer company. She came here for three months equipped with cameras and a portable computer in order to report to the British media. Twenty-four-old Jens took a three-week vacation from the window manufacturing plant where he works in Sweden so he could join a group of Swedish activists in the territories.
John, 50, a socialist from Canada, ignored the pleas of his wife and two daughters to stay home and came here “to be present at the heart of the struggle against imperialism.” H., who was formerly in the Marines and currently works as an airline pilot, came from Olympia, Washington, where Rachel Corrie was a student. His girlfriend had wanted to join the ISM activists in the territories and he worked hard to dissuade her, because he feared for her life. When she gave in to his persuasion and dropped the idea, he felt a need to come in her place.
Many Israeli soldiers have already grown accustomed to the presence of foreign activists in the alleyways of the refugee camps, on the streets of Palestinian towns and at the checkpoints. The Israeli government tries to make their entry into the country difficult; many are detained for long interrogations and many have been expelled. The activists learn from the experience, come back in groups, and have a cover story prepared ahead of time, that includes names, addresses and details about the purpose of their visit to the Holy Land. The Jews among them say they’re coming to visit relatives (the Passover holiday provides an excellent excuse for a family visit) and the others insist that, despite it all, this is the time to take a vacation in Eilat.
At the workshop, once the introductions are complete, they start out by teaching the “basic terminology of Palestine.” The political correctness of ISM doesn’t recognize any such thing as a “separation fence” or a “security fence,” just an “apartheid fence.” One is not to speak of the Israel Defense Forces, but of “the occupation army” or simply “the Israeli army.” As in Palestinian society, a “shaheed” is anyone killed because of the occupation, and not necessarily a suicide bomber. Then they learn about the history of the region (a hundred years are covered in the space of one hour), the doctrine of non-violent resistance (as preached by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King), Palestinian culture (if you’re a man, don’t shake a woman’s hand, and if you’re gay, it’s better not to reveal it), the laws in the territories (touching a soldier is grounds for arrest) and how to deal with the media.
All of the lessons are accompanied by simulations, in which I get the chance to play a soldier at a checkpoint, a pregnant Palestinian woman, a hostile journalist and an international activist staying in a house slated for demolition. The most important rule: Don’t run – if you come under attack, it’s best to lie flat, because running away in the territories makes you a moving target, a dangerous suspect. There are just three situations in which it’s important to retreat: “when a gun battle develops between armed Palestinian forces and the army, when the locals ask you to go and when your God tells you that it’s dangerous.”
The Palestinians suffer more
The workshop leader is Starhawk, 51, a feminist and veteran peace activist from San Francisco who has published six books that combine spiritual guidance with preaching for social activism. “I grew up in a Zionist Jewish family and when I was 14, I spent the summer studying Hebrew in an ulpan in Israel,” she says. “When I got older, I started to realize that Israel is different than what I was taught. It pained me to realize that the big dream wasn’t real. I have the sense that to Israelis, Jewish lives are worth more, and I feel that in my activism here I am raising the price of blood and lowering the level of violence. So I believe that my presence in the territories also contributes to the security of my relatives in Israel.”
It seems that some of the activists see the trip to the territories as a kind of adventure vacation in the Holy Land.
“I’m aware that we have the privilege to be here without truly endangering ourselves. At least, that’s how it seemed before Rachel died. But it’s hard to call the activity we do here a vacation. We go for days without sleep, because by day we are helping the population break the closure and escorting kids to school and by night, we’re riding in ambulances. There have been times when I got to the end of the day and said, `I want to go home.’ I’ve witnessed so much violence, and it gets to you. It’s not a real vacation, but it’s truly a great privilege to come into people’s homes and to get to know this culture from so up close. Jews and Muslims have something in common, which is the culture of hospitality and a tremendous desire to feed you.”
As the war in Iraq loomed, rumors spread that Israel might exploit the opportunity to carry out a “transfer” of Palestinians, and so the flow of volunteers into the territories picked up speed. The increase in the number of activists – about 10 new ones were coming each week, led the movement to increase the frequency of its training workshops.
After two days of intensive lessons and training, the new recruits are posted to the various areas where ISM operates: H. the pilot and John the socialist are assigned to Tul Karm, where the residents are fighting against massive land expropriation for the sake of “apartheid fence.” The week they were in Tul Karm, the war in Iraq was at its height and the activists had a hard time interesting the world media in the “temporary transfer” of more than 1,000 men from the refugee camp.
Jens, the Swede, is sent to Jenin, where a number of his countrymen are already stationed. A few days after Rachel Corrie was killed, about 30 Israeli soldiers raided the movement’s offices in Jenin. The IDF Spokesperson initially accused the ISM members of giving shelter in their office to an armed Palestinian, but later retracted the charge and confirmed that though the man was indeed a suspect, he was unarmed.
Less than a week after he arrived in Jenin, Jens saw his colleague Brian Avery, a 24-year-old activist from the United States, get seriously wounded. “Brian wasn’t supposed to be here at all this weekend, but he got stuck in Jenin because of the curfew,” Jens says by telephone from Jenin. “We came to the city center because we heard shooting from there. A few weeks before, the Israeli army killed a 16-year-old boy who threw rocks and another 10-year-old boy was shot in the leg, and we wanted to prevent this from happening again. We were six internationals and we all put our hands up when we saw two Israeli tanks opposite us, that kept coming closer. It was toward evening, but it was still light out and Brian was wearing a bright-colored vest. I didn’t think at all that they’d start to shoot, because there were no Palestinians on this street.
“When we were about 50 meters from them, one of the tanks shot about 15 volleys, which isn’t a small amount, even against the Palestinians. The shooting was aimed at the ground and broken rocks and bullet fragments flew at us. After the shooting started, I heard someone yell. We ran to Brian, who was hit in the face, but the tanks kept coming closer and I was afraid they would shoot me, too. His whole face was bleeding. It was a horrible sight. He couldn’t talk but he moved a little so we saw that he was alive. We rode with him in the ambulance and stayed in Jenin for about an hour and a half until we got permission from the army to take him to an Israeli hospital. Now he can’t talk, because the bullet went through his tongue, but he’s conscious.”
Have you asked yourself if this is a price that you’re willing to pay for the objective that brought you here?
“I don’t want to suffer like that, even for the loftiest goal in the world, but I feel now that my presence here is maybe more important than what I thought when I first got here. I’m still in shock. I can’t understand why they fired. They didn’t have any reason to.”
All of the activists who were present at the incident are furious over the IDF Spokesperson’s version of the event, which says that exchanges of gunfire were taking place there with armed Palestinians and that the soldiers did not discern the ISM activists. At the end of our conversation, Jens asks that I quote him on one more thing: “It’s clear to me that what I’m going through here, and what happened to Brian, are nothing compared to what the Palestinians go through every day.” At the workshop in Beit Sahur, they taught us to insert this sentence into every interview with the media.
Stuck at the checkpoint
The volunteers pay their own airfare and for the costs of their stay. In the Rafah sector in Gaza, which is considered the cheapest of all (only one shekel for a serving of falafel), no more volunteers are needed at the moment. Several of the activists who witnessed Rachel Corrie’s death left the area afterward, and the organization quickly sent reinforcements to buttress its representation there. Last Friday in Rafah, British ISM volunteer Thomas Hurndall was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper and he is considered brain dead
After the workshop, Alison and I travel to Nablus, along with Starhawk, whose Israeli friend Neta Golan has been living there for almost a year. Golan, who married a Palestinian resident of Nablus, is due to give birth any day and Starhawk wants to be there to help her. There are currently about 10 activists in Nablus, including two who are staying all the time in a house that is slated for demolition and do not take part in the organization’s daily activity.
At the Hawara checkpoint at the entrance to Nablus, two soldiers stand and check the slow stream of cars wishing to enter the city, and about a hundred Palestinians wait quietly for hours in a line that doesn’t move. After about half an hour, I realized that if we didn’t sidestep the line and ask the soldier to let us pass, we’d be standing at the checkpoint until dark. After we passed through, I overheard the soldier, a blue-eyed conscript, shout at the Palestinians: “What is this, a whorehouse? I’ll blow your brains out if you move.” He found the Hebrew-speaker among them and demanded that he translate for the others. When the “interpreter” hesitated, the solder aimed his rifle at their heads to get his message across.
On the way to the Jasmine Hotel downtown, where an urgent meeting of ISM activists was being held, I am asked to conceal my nationality and to pretend to be a Greek journalist instead. It seems that due to a misunderstanding at the organization, I entered Nablus in violation of a decision not to permit Israelis to join in the volunteers’ activity in the territories. Despite their basic openness and desire to accept everyone’s help, the activists are not willing, or not able, to guarantee my safety. “It’s a difficult situation in Nablus,” they explain. “Not all the people there can make the distinction between soldiers and Israelis who want to help.”
All of the activists have gathered to discuss my presence in the city. All decisions in the organization are made by unanimous agreement, which promises a very long discussion where I’m concerned. One of the main activists in the city is actually an Israeli citizen – Neta Golan, who famously managed to penetrate the encircled Muqata compound in Ramallah last year. In addition to her pregnancy, she also has to contend with questioning and a trial: Israelis are forbidden to enter Area A without permission from the IDF. The fact that her husband is a Nablus resident does not exempt her from the prohibition.
Golan was Rachel Corrie’s instructor in the Beit Sahur workshop when Corrie arrived in Israel three months ago. “All the people who were there near the bulldozer say there’s no doubt that the soldier hurt her deliberately. It’s hard for Israelis to believe that another Israeli would do a thing like that. It was hard for me, too. A year ago, I was told that a child had been killed by the IDF on his way to the grocery store in the Balata refugee camp. I remember saying to myself, `That’s murder, but surely he must have thrown a rock on the way to the store.’ I had to justify it to myself. A few months ago, this defensive barrier I had finally broke down.”
She suddenly halts her story midstream when the waiter approaches. “I don’t want to scare him with our Hebrew,” she explains. Golan speaks fluent Arabic and a lot of people in town think she’s an “international” (one of the international activists). “I imagine that something in you dies or is extinguished when you’re in the situations that the soldiers are in. I see kids at the beginning of their service who you can still talk to, and then I see what happens to them after a few months. When I stand at a checkpoint for half an hour, I want to explode, and the soldiers stand there all day. It’s even worse for the driver of the bulldozer whose job it is to raze families’ homes. In Rafah, they don’t make any prior announcement about the demolition. The demolition order is the fact that the row in houses in front of you has been taken down. It’s not like here in the West Bank. The soldiers have no contact at all with the people. I see this process, how people put up walls and convince themselves that the people around them are animals.”
Our blood is worth more
Rachel Corrie’s death and the shooting of the two activists since then appears to have undermined the presumption upon which ISM’s activity was built – the belief that the soldiers would not dare to harm foreign civilians. “It was obvious to me that it would happen sometime,” says Neta Golan. “The occupation operates on two parallel value systems, but this can’t continue forever. We’re clearly exploiting the fact that our blood is somehow worth more, but it doesn’t seem like this can continue. The main difference is that when the violence is directed at Israelis or at an American woman, you suddenly hear about it. That’s the whole difference.”
A Palestinian activist enters the room and says that there has been a terror attack in Netanya. In Nablus, this means an immediate trip to the market in case the suicide bomber was a local resident or set out from the city, in which case the populace can expect an extended curfew. When M. and I arrive at the market, it’s already crowded. I met M., a 25-year-old lawyer, that weekend in Neve Shalom and we’ve been corresponding frequently by e-mail ever since. The alleyways here in the casbah of Nablus, which is M.’s hometown, look like a copy of those in Jerusalem’s Old City. Several of the houses, including some that were more than 1,000 years old, were destroyed during Operation Defensive Shield.
Before the present intifada erupted, the Palestinian Authority planned wide-scale renovations for the city and hoped to make it a bigger tourist attraction. Nowadays, the walls are adorned with posters of the shaheeds. Across from the big bakery is a large poster of Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein, both in uniform and saluting. In the afternoon, several thousand young people gather in the city’s main square to mark Land Day and to show their solidarity with the Iraqi people.
“I haven’t slept for a week. I’ve been watching television all night,” the taxi driver tells us on the way back to the Hawara checkpoint. His two daughters live in Baghdad. “A few years ago, I went to Baghdad to have my daughter treat me – she’s a dentist with her own clinic. Who knows what will be left of Baghdad? Who knows what will be left of my grandchildren?”
M. says that since the start of the war, things have actually been quiet in Nablus. “For three weeks now, there has only been a curfew at night. Every day, you see a tank passing through the city, but we’re used to that and there’s no trouble. This week, we’re marking a full year of closure. There was a period when we had 160 days in a row of curfew. The last time I left Nablus was for that meeting in Neve Shalom, and the next time I leave will also be for a meeting with Jews. I haven’t seen my fiance in a year. She lives in Jerusalem and we chat with each other a lot on the Internet. I tried for a long time to find a way to meet her, but I finally gave up. And now I’m just praying that the situation will improve so that I’ll be able to see her again.”
M. asks Alison, who came from London to spend three weeks in Nablus, how she feels now that Rachel Corrie has been killed. “I knew there were risks before I came and before the bulldozer ran her over,” she answers. “I asked myself what the chances are that I will die and how I feel about that. Rachel died for the sake of another people, not for the sake of her own people, and therefore I feel as if she died for the sake of justice.”
Alison, a devout Catholic, says she didn’t used to be a political activist. “It’s funny, but it was actually the Israelis that made me want to try to help the Palestinians. I was in Israel for work and the Israelis I was working with started explaining to me that `the Arabs are like animals.’ This racism made me start asking questions about the conflict, which I didn’t know anything about before then. The questions led me to feel the urgent need to act.”
Are you a Jew?
Before darkness falls, I am asked by the ISM consensus to leave town. A friend of M.’s calls to say that the rumor that there is an Israeli in the city is spreading and that I ought to leave as soon as possible. At the Hawara checkpoint, I again go to the front of a line of about 200 Palestinians who are trying to leave the city before the night curfew goes into effect. From Nablus, I travel to the small village of Yanoun, which was briefly in the media spotlight about five months ago when eight families left their homes due to harassment and threats by settlers.
The trip from Nablus to Yanoun takes about 15 minutes in normal times, but in the territories, normal times are a bygone concept. The road is blocked and the trip by indirect routes takes two and a half hours in a Palestinian taxi. Here, too, there is no refuge from checkpoints. Four Border Police soldiers, who have built a makeshift checkpoint on a side road, stop the taxi. One of the soldiers aims his rifle at my head. The taxi driver explains to him that I’m an “international.” I’m compelled to admit that I’m actually an Israeli.
The soldier, a Druze, keeps his gun pointed at my head. “Are you a Jew?” he shouts at me. Even my blue identity card could not spare me the humiliation of having all the contents of my bag spilled on the back seat of the taxi. Afterward, the driver, Sa’id, scolds me for having lied to him about my name and nationality, and for having forced him to speak English the whole time when he can speak a much more fluent Hebrew. He worked in Israel for many years and is ready to give up the dream of a Palestinian state if things could return to how they were before the intifada.
By the way, Neta Golan had her baby. Her daughter is named Nawal, a word that means “a deeply-held wish come true.”