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L.A. Times: In West Bank, a risky quest for peace

Ruth Morris | Los Angeles Times

Activists’ use of human shields is questioned after two members are killed by Israeli forces.

TULKARM, West Bank – Wearing sandals and amber-colored earrings in a region where soldiers don bulletproof vests, Radhika Sainath stepped up to the driver’s side of an Israeli military jeep on the dilapidated outskirts of the West Bank and demanded an explanation for the armored personnel carriers roaring past.

“Why aren’t you in Israel?” asked the disbelieving soldier at the wheel. “You’re like a superman. You come to fix all of the world.”

“I’m hoping if I’m standing in front of Palestinians, you won’t shoot,” Sainath countered.

Halfway around the globe from the boat slips and glossy swells of her native Newport Beach, 24-year-old Sainath has signed on as a human shield with the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement – one of the most controversial and ill-fated activist groups patrolling the battle lines of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Dubbed terrorist sympathizers by some, martyrs by others, ISM has seen three of its volunteers killed or seriously wounded by Israeli security forces in just over a month. That turn of events has focused a harsh light on the group’s high-stakes brand of activism and raised some tough questions for organizers: When does gutsy activism cross the line into unwarranted risk? How can activists stay above the fray in communities where dangerous militants mingle with smiling civilians? In a world of heavy armor, how far is too far?

“I don’t know what too far is. I think we could all go a little further, frankly,” said Fred Schlomka of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, a group that works alongside ISM to block armored Israeli bulldozers from razing Palestinian homes.

Besides kneeling before hulking bulldozers, ISM volunteers ride along with Palestinian ambulance drivers to negotiate quick passage through Israeli checkpoints. They bust military curfews and try to be present when Palestinian youths are hurling stones at tanks. When they hear firefights at night, they go outside to bear witness.

To Palestinians, who see the Israeli army as abusive and trigger-happy, ISM’s losses have brought a degree of credibility and clout to the organization. To the Israeli security forces, pitched into a public relations quagmire, the group’s members are meddlesome and naive.

Schlomka’s group was particularly saddened by the death of ISM volunteer Rachel Corrie, 23, of Olympia, Wash. Corrie became the group’s first international “martyr” in late March when she tried to obstruct a mammoth D-9 bulldozer, used by Israel to clear anti-tank mines and demolish Palestinian homes along the Egyptian border.

Israeli security forces say that the bulldozer’s driver couldn’t see Corrie from his perch and that ISM acts provocatively by protecting structures used by terrorists to dig gunrunning tunnels. Witnesses charge that the driver purposefully buried her under a mound of gravel.

Kneeling before an armored Israeli bulldozer “is either foolhardy or extremely courageous,” Schlomka said. “I prefer to think of it as extremely courageous.”

A few weeks after Corrie died, ISM volunteer Brian Avery, 24, of Albuquerque, suffered a gunshot wound to the face while investigating a gun battle in the West Bank city of Jenin. ISM said an armored personnel carrier fired toward Avery and another member of the group while they stood in plain view, in reflective vests, hands above their heads.

Military sources said Israeli troops in the area that evening didn’t report the incident, although they did fire to disperse four youngsters who appeared to be building primitive bombs.

In the most recent violence to befall the group, British ISM activist Tom Hurndall was shot in the back of the head while shepherding a group of children to safety under sporadic fire from an Israeli observation tower. Israeli security forces are investigating the shooting; Hurndall remains on full life support in an Israeli hospital.

Throughout the bloodshed, Israeli critics have cast ISM’s foreign activists as a nuisance.

“They come into a war zone without experience. They don’t know how to behave, and they think that because they’re holding an international passport, nothing will happen to them,” said Sharon Feingold, spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces.

The Israeli army says its incursions into the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip are meant to root out terrorists before they reach Israeli streets. In the nearly 31 months since the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, began, hundreds of Israelis have died in suicide bombings and armed attacks.

“The split second a soldier hesitates to make sure he’s not shooting the wrong guy, he puts himself in danger,” Feingold added.

ISM’s defenders say the group’s run of misfortune is a reflection of hardhearted Israeli military tactics, not reckless activism. Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, “soldiers have had a license to do more and more severe things,” said David Nir, an Israeli activist with the group Taayush, which targets Israeli activities it considers discriminatory against Palestinians. “Once they’re used to one level of brutality, they can go on to the next.”

At ISM headquarters in the West Bank town of Beit Sahur, a poster of Rachel Corrie – blond hair tucked beneath a head scarf – adorns an outer wall lined with tattered and rain-stained posters, mostly of civilians killed during Israeli incursions into the Palestinian territories.

The group is “about being open to radical change and higher levels of danger,” said Ghassan Andoni, one of its founders. Small-framed and intense, Andoni said 40% of ISM’s foreign members register over the Internet, while others are referred by support groups working abroad.

ISM has 40 to 100 foreign volunteers rotating through at any given time, who are accompanied by Palestinian members, Andoni said.The group lightly screens foreign volunteers, and everybody undergoes a day and a half of training after arriving in the region.

“International participation was necessary to provide a level of protection. We’re talking about a scenario where pulling the trigger is easier than drinking water,” Andoni said.

Volunteers vary from pony-tailed bohemians to politically minded professionals to deeply religious conscience-raisers. Most come on three-month tourist visas, and all pay their own airfare. Accommodations are provided – usually a rollout mattress on a hard floor – and the group recommends bringing $200 to $300 a month to pay for pita sandwiches and phone cards. Alcohol is strictly forbidden.

Sainath, the Newport Beach volunteer, has sometimes stayed with olive farmers in villages outside Tulkarm.

“It’s not very comfortable,” she said. “But with what I’ve seen these people go through, I can’t complain.”

One recent training session for a batch of new volunteers was led by a veteran activist known as Starhawk, a frizzy-haired writer on feminist politics and pagan spirituality.

“Ground a little more. Put those roots down,” Starhawk told the recruits as she went from one to another pushing her fists into their chests and shoving them backward. Between plastic cups of dark, sugary tea, she also showed them how to protect a shoulder socket while being dragged across the floor and how to use their peripheral vision while maneuvering through volatile crowds.

Andoni admits the training is limited and says some volunteers have lost their composure during heated confrontations. But after a “painful” review of recent events, he concluded that ISM was not at fault in the shootings and standoffs that killed and injured the three members.

ISM first made headlines last spring, when its activists slipped past Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Ramallah and entered the headquarters of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as it was pounded by Israeli shells. Other volunteers entered the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and stayed through the end of a five-week standoff with Israeli troops.

The group’s most recent move that infuriated Israeli security forces occurred several weeks ago, when members stationed in Jenin took in a wanted Palestinian fleeing from Israeli troops. The two ISM volunteers accused of harboring the suspect later said that he had come into their office from the roof, frightened and dripping wet, and that they didn’t know he was being chased.

“I’m a mainstream American. I’m not an activist,” said Jennifer, who is one of the ISM volunteers accused of protecting the wanted man and who asked that only her first name be used.

Around the corner from where she spoke, Palestinian militants in black hoods discharged automatic rifles into the sky and waved Palestinian flags to commemorate the first anniversary of a deadly Israeli incursion into the Jenin refugee camp.

“There was a curfew. There was gunfire. Knowing that it’s dangerous for anyone to be in the street during curfew, we indicated he could stay,” said Jennifer. “Harboring a terrorist? It’s not even something I thought about.”

As far as ISM’s future is concerned, there doesn’t seem to be any immediate threat. Despite the controversy, risk and living conditions, new recruits are signing up at a record pace, Andoni said.