By Tala A. Rahmeh, for MIFTAH
“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
– Robert F. Kennedy
In such a time, when the world is crashing from every direction and political and humanitarian corrections vary in definition, activism remains one of the few core-shaking features in the histories of different struggles. In many opinions, the power of people is the only path for salvation and the establishment of peace.
The case of the Palestinian struggle is extraordinary: Palestinians, with their bare hands, have stood in the face of one of the most powerful countries, which exceeded in its practices all inhumane measures history has known.
Activism, here in Palestine, is exercised in various ways, and the power of the people has grown and evolved unconditionally, making astonishing achievements along the way.
One of the new and powerful activism movements in Palestine and internationally is the International Solidarity Movement (ISM).Growing by day and making a significant change in the core of the Palestinian struggle, by viewing the real face of the conflict, and ISM is changing the lives of a lot of people on the other side of the world.
Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall are just a few names from the stream of Palestinian and international activists who work and subject themselves to daily danger under the wing of the ISM. These volunteers, who could have simply turned their heads and walked away from Palestinian suffering, instead made the choice of devoting themselves to ending the occupation and giving Palestinian people freedom and rights that have been stolen from them for so long.
ISM is a Palestinian-led movement of Palestinians and internationals who work together to raise awareness about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They endeavor to end the occupation and force Israel to abide by UN resolutions and international law using nonviolent direct action methods of resistance to challenge Israel’s illegal measures and acts.
The first campaign that started this movement took place in August 2001, when 50 foreign civilians, mainly from the United Kingdom and the United States, came to Palestine to witness the brutal acts practiced against Palestinian civilians by the state of Israel. After the campaign, all those eye-witnesses went back to their home countries and talked about that overwhelming experience.
The second campaign took place in December of that year, when 70 foreigners joined an anti-occupation call, in which they visited Palestinian villages and towns, where non-violent resistance was already gaining ground. Also, those internationals paid solidarity visits to Palestinian areas that were severely hit by Israel’s continuous tank and F16 raids.
When the third campaign was announced on March 29, 2002, the Israeli forces were reoccupying Ramallah and carrying out a military operation that was to include all Palestinian West Bank cities. This prolonged reoccupation operation, along with the imposition of unending curfews, drove hundreds of civilian foreigners to Palestine with the desire to participate in human aid, from delivering food and medical supplies to acting as human shields, in Palestinian cities, towns and refugee camps.
ISMers were the first to break the Israeli curfew and stand in the face of brutal acts and also document the abuse of human rights and international laws in addition to the violence the Palestinians were subjected to.
“A campaign against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and for a just and viable peace”
In their mission statement, the cofounders of ISM explain briefly the Palestinian problem, listing all the UN resolutions and international laws that illegalize the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, in addition to explaining American foreign policies towards the Palestinians and their traditional support for Israel.
As you read through, the ISMers describe the form of resistance here in Palestine, from demonstrations at checkpoints and road blocks, to being a human shield in Palestinian towns and refugee camps.
Lastly, ISM list their non-violence ground rules, including not using or carrying weapons to respecting all agreements concerning their actions.
ISMers believe in the significant role individuals can play to end the occupation, or at least bring attention to the world of the brutality being practiced against Palestinians.
“Remember the solidarity shown to Palestine here and everywhere… and remember also that there is a cause to which many people have committed themselves, difficulties and terrible obstacles notwithstanding. Why? Because it is a just cause, a noble ideal, a moral quest for equality and human rights.”
– Edward W. Said
There are two kinds of ideas, the kind that floats in people’s minds but does not shake their different struggles and remains silent, and the one that creates wings for itself and wanders around the universe of thoughts and make a tangible difference. Without the bravery of people like Huwaida Arraf, one of the cofounders of ISM, windows of hope would have never been opened.
To be able to touch the countless aspects of the ISM, I met with Huwaida Arraf, who introduced me generously to this group. While hearing her morals, ideas and thoughts, I understood a side of the ISM that I never even saw before in spite of my reading and observation.
In my mind, as well as many others, the first question that occurred was how ISM was first created and formed, what steps the cofounders took to leave such a large impact on the international scene, and how they motivated people from all around the world to take action.
Huwaida, with her simplicity and kind features, told me that at the beginning they were only four people who thought this whole issue through: two Palestinians, an American who later became her husband, Adam Shapiro, and herself, a Palestinian American, who believed that a significant change must be made on the dynamics and means of the Palestinian resistance.
“We were a small group of people who believed that we need to change the dynamics and means of Palestinians resistance.”
Arraf clarified a very important point regarding this aspect, which is the fact that Palestinians need a resource; ISMers knew the resources the Israeli military had, provided by international governments and their foreign policies, also the neglect Palestinians suffered from these same resources, so this small team faced their doubts and decided to go to the people.
“Let’s go to the people, lets get international civilians actively involved in the Palestinian’s struggle. We didn’t know if it’s going to really work at first, but it was an idea, it was an invitation, come join us! Come join us in directly resisting the occupation.”
Overall, the small group that first established this movement believed that an international presence is vital for the Palestinian struggle citing four main reasons.
Firstly, providing some kind of protective accompaniment for Palestinian people, whether resisting or simply living under this unbearable situation. According to Huwaida, an international presence raises the stakes “at least PR wise and diplomatically for Israel to use lethal forms of violence against internationals demonstrating,” because Israelis cannot ignore the rights of internationals similarly to the way they disregard Palestinian rights, since they have their respective governments protecting and looking out for them. This aspect basically provides a level of comfort for Palestinian civilians.
Secondly, reaching the mainstream media that has been broadcasting a very negative image of the Palestinian struggle through different international individuals.
“An Italian joining us can talk to his own media resources about the situation, a Brit can reach BBC, which gives more support to the voice of Palestinian people that we want freedom, and we need to change the context in which the Palestinian struggle is viewed.”
Huwaida stressed the very important point that the form in which ISM cofounders viewed the conflict “was not from a Palestinian-Israeli conflict context or Muslims against Jews. It shouldn’t even be viewed as absence of peace, it should be viewed as the absence of freedom of the people, and occupation should be ended to restore freedom, and that’s what we aim to have people understand.”
The third aspect is advocacy, which is basically broadcasting eyewitnesses’ information and reports to the biggest circle of people in order to deliver the truth and raise more awareness and involvement.
The fourth and most crucial is the morale of the Palestinian people, who are isolated by the occupation and abandoned by the international community. In this aspect the international role is showing those people that they are not alone in this conflict, but surrounded by people who understand and value the truth and come all the way to Palestine to try to make the change their governments failed to make. In that sense, ISM retains the hope in the souls of the Palestinian people and gives them the will to go on with their struggle.
“I always say that ISM open windows of hope for people to continue to believe in the power of people to change things, and I think that is very important, because some people reached a very desperate point, for some think we are going to die anyway.”
Of course, these four points seem to hold the ability to make a real change, but where is the impact of ISM on the international community, which is becoming weaker and more helpless towards our case by day? When I asked about the impact of the ISM on the ground, Huwaida helped me look at the big picture. A change cannot be made in a day, but takes time and effort to become tangible.
The ISM seem to focus on the individual power and capacity to change .When internationals leave Palestine they are equipped with eyewitness reports and every volunteer that comes here has a whole community and network behind her/him. Talking to those people is one of the most effective methods in which information about the situation here is transmitted and those same individuals try to gather people from all walks of life and organize gatherings to share their experience. For example, nowadays, there are ISMers touring around the United States, traveling from state to state raising awareness about Iraq in addition to the Palestinian issue.
Since the ISM is so diverse in its membership, whether politically, economically or socio-economically, it gives the ability to reach all sorts of people, from school students to high ranked politicians in the American Democratic Party, which includes a very active ISM member who was beaten by Israeli settlers.
In Huwaida’s opinion, this kind of activism is very important because it helps fix the bad image the media is producing in this conflict and struggle.
”This kind of activism is very important because even if the mainstream media isn’t viewing the picture we want it to view, there are no better reporters than those people and activists who lived through the experience itself and are reporting back to their communities and leaders.”
More importantly, ISMers are constantly trying to create novel methods to gain the public’s attention, which for the most part are unaware on a political level, as opposed to presenting them with dry political facts, which might not be intriguing or endearing enough for them to want to take action.
“In order for an average American to know how hard the situation is for Palestinians, we want them to know, but we also need them to act. Therefore, you need to handle the issue from another perspective. Like telling them the amount of money that the U.S. government gives the Israeli government in order to buy weapons, and why this money isn’t being used to provide Americans with better health care or better education and class rooms for their children?”
Regarding those members, I asked Huwaida about the process of selection, and whether there were any preferences or preservations .The answer was easier than I thought: ISM welcomes any individual regardless of their different backgrounds, ethnicities, religion or race, as long as they are willing to work under the ISM wing, including working for the same purpose and goal.
The ISM goal is focused on one basic point, establishing freedom for Palestinian people under the UN resolutions and international law, including UN Resolution 194 that guarantees the right of return.
Concerning the means in which this goal is reached, ISM is considered a non-violent direct action movement, this follows from one of its main beliefs that non-violent action is one of the most effective forms of resisting the occupier or oppressor.
Yet this method of struggle is not new for Palestinian people, it has been practiced in Palestinian cities and towns since the beginning of the Israeli occupation.
“They did not invent the idea; they didn’t bring it to Palestine. It has been there all along, the thing is, they showed effectively how it can work.” Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a prominent Palestinian politician, said in an article about the International Solidarity Movement.
Regarding Israeli activists, Arraf said that ISM opens the door for any participation within their principles and does not discriminate at all, but Israeli participation might not be acceptable to communities that suffered heavy losses from the Israeli occupation. It might be too much to take for some, so basically this involvement depends on the targeted community.
Since the ISM is considered an international resistance movement, I couldn’t help but wonder about the depth of its impact on Palestinian society. A lot of its members already belong to resistance movements, and Palestinian people have always been involved in defying the Israeli occupation by all means and ways, still, the ISM received lots of attention from Palestinians.
When I asked Arraf this question, her instant answer was “it’s a Palestinian lead movement of Palestinians and internationals working together to end the occupation.”
In that form, ISM members work directly with representatives and coordinators from every local community in creating effective means of resistance.
Creating effective means of resistance is one of the many projects ISM focuses on in their attempt to restore freedom and human rights back to the Palestinian people.
Although ISM is a Palestinian movement, it grew internationally much faster than it grew locally in Palestine.
“Because of a lot of historical, psychological and other problems that we have as a result of the occupation and the fact that people lost much faith in media.”
Despite these reasons, Huwaida blamed ISM.
“It’s also our fault because we are the activists who started it and we were not interested much in the logistics. We are not even an organization, we are a movement and in fact we did not focus on the organizational aspects. So, we did not spend a lot of time talking or distributing brochures or even doing local media interviews.”
The knowledge of this movement started to grow in Palestine, as it got struck with major events like deportations, arrests and assaults of ISM members. Palestinian people started thinking about the reason that drives these foreigners to come here and fight for a cause that is not relevant to their backgrounds or home countries.
Huwaida vividly recalls that when ISM members broke into the Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah and the church of Nativity in Bethlehem during Israel’s “Defensive Shield Operation” in 2002, a lot of Palestinian people learned more about this movement through international news and broadcasting channels and started seeking more information.
ISMers are trying now to fix their previous mistakes by doing more public exposure, meeting with leaders and taking the opportunities to speak in the media. As a result, Palestinian participation increased, and now widely known members of Palestinian political factions and community leaders are taking part in this movement.
On another level, before reading in depth about this movement, I had this notion that ISM was a humanitarian movement because of the part it was taking in aiding the Palestinian communities, but Huwaida clarified this point for me.
ISM is a political movement that focuses on changing the political context. It is not involved in humanitarian aid, such as distributing food, but that does not eliminate the role it played in alleviating the humanitarian crisis.
“We do not consider ourselves a humanitarian organization. That doesn’t mean we don’t work on humanitarian issues. We certainly do, and the occupation is a humanitarian issue.”
That role was portrayed clearly in the humanitarian crisis of the Israeli invasion and reoccupation of the West Bank in April 2002, when the ISM shifted its political role to a humanitarian one to help end this catastrophe. Also, ISM members see it as a message to the world that basic human needs are being cut off from Palestinian cities and towns.
“When you take a step against the occupation you have to speak up and report on what’s happening especially on the humanitarian crisis the occupation has created.”
ISMers worked closely with different medical teams in Palestine that were trying to respond to the humanitarian problem, but were being attacked. ISM joined them in resisting these attacks. In addition they defied the Israeli occupation and refused to leave areas that the Israel army was attacking (which were declared “closed military zones” to prevent the media from reporting what was happening).
“Its easier for people to relate to a humanitarian situation rather than cut and dry political positions, but the position of the Palestinian struggle is humanitarian in itself and it’s about people who have been denied freedom for so long. In that sense we work, but its important to know that we are a political movement.”
In a bounce back to the Palestinian harsh reality on the ground, and the fact that regardless of the movement or means of action, making a tangible difference on the ground remains quite hard. I asked Huwaida whether these activists are aware of the extent in which they can make a change or contribute.
“At least we are showing them that we are not silent, we are showing those soldiers that we will not stand still. Now, how do the internationals fit into that? Internationals help us in delivering our message to the world and show the globe the illegality and viciousness of Israeli acts.”
Arraf related this issue to the actions taken by Palestinians regarding the Wall. Different people and communities try to prove to the world that this Israeli measure is not for the sake of “security” as they claim, so internationals help reveal the truth to their communities.
Peace under fire; Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall
In a series of attacks that shocked the world, Rachel Corrie, Tom Hurndall and Brain Avery, three ISM activists, where targeted by the Israeli army while fighting for justice using nothing but their bare hands.
Rachel Corrie, 23, was a student at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She died Sunday, March 16, 2003, in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, while trying to stop an Israeli bulldozer from tearing down a Palestinian physician’s home. She fell in front of the machine, which ran over her and then backed up, witnesses said.
Tom Hurndall, 22, died in January having spent nine months in a coma after being shot in the head while trying to help Palestinian children at a military checkpoint in Gaza.
On April 5th, 2003, Israeli troops shot activist Brian Avery in Jenin. The 24-year-old American citizen from Albuquerque, New Mexico, experienced serious wounds to his face after Israeli troops shot at him with heavy machine gunfire from an armored personnel carrier.
After these tragic killings, I personally wondered if doom was the fate of this blooming movement, especially after being obviously targeted by the Israeli military. Surprisingly, knowledge about this movement grew larger and wider and people became more interested in seeking ways to participate.
“Actually there was much more interest in the movement at that point and the inquiries of people asking how to come and how to get involved increased. These events did not affect the numbers negatively; at least that’s what we saw.”
Yet these killings imposed a series of vital questions. Can they go on or not? Were these killings really targeted and what was their purpose?
“Killing ISM members was the most serious measure Israel practiced against our movement, but not the first effort made by Israel to try to de-legitimize or break this phenomenon of solidarity movement.”
According to Huwaida’s testimony, Israel’s first attempt to wreck this movement was through talking negatively about them in the media, describing them as “naïve people seeking trouble.” These attempts evolved to reach deporting internationals, arresting them then escalated to firing at them directly.
“Like in one incident in Jenin, a soldier shot one of our members in the leg. It wasn’t a fatal injury, but it was definitely to scare her off, so they started pushing it, until an Israeli tank drove over Rachel, killing her.”
Although the reason behind these attempts is obvious, Arraf confirms that they are not sure if Rachel’s killing was deliberate, or a direct order given to the tank driver.
“In the testimonies of the ISMers who were there, they confirmed that the tank saw Rachel. Now, we are not sure if it was a direct order telling the driver to go ahead and kill her, but there was a complete Israeli denial to this murder and attempts to blame it on Rachel by labeling her as a naïve troublemaker.”
Israeli allegations evoked part of the international community to pose questions such as , what was Rachel doing in Gaza, or in an area where a house was being demolished, especially since Israel always presents explanations for its illegal actions against Palestinians?
“I don’t think Israel suffered much PR wise, the tank driver was not punished and he was back to work in two days, and this sent a message to the Israeli soldiers that’s it ok if your finger is loose on the trigger. You’re not going to face any repercussions and blames and claims can always be presented even if the victims were internationals.”
Three weeks later, Brian Avery, was shot in the face by a burst of machine gunfire from an Israeli armored personnel carrier.
When he was shot, Brian was wearing a fluorescent red vest with a reflective white cross on its back and front, identifying him as an international medic.
”He was visible, unarmed, wearing a bright florescent jacket, had his hands up in the air, certainly identified as an international.”
Six days later, Tom Hurndall was shot dead! He too was wearing a florescent jacket and clearly identified as an international.
“I think this was at the very least negligence on behalf of the Israeli army, and as part of an over all impunity by how the Israeli army operates and endangers civilians. Not only internationals, but Palestinians and this infuriates people, obviously ISM members.”
At that point, the ISM had to reevaluate their work, especially regarding the amount of protection they can offer to those internationals, and if this kind of protective accompaniment should be replaced with a safer method. According to Huwaida, more inquires were being submitted and larger groups of people started learning more and coming to Palestine.
“These killings opened the eyes of many people to what is really going on, and I don’t feel we suffered in numbers. It was infuriating, but numbers kept increasing.”
Regardless of these facts, Huwaida says she was overwhelmed and felt partly responsible.
“But still with every injury and death you feel a personal responsibility for it. You did not pull the trigger or drive that tank, but these are people you motivated to take action who are paying their lives.”
Although Huwaida stressed that people are never guaranteed that this form of resistance is safer than resisting violently, internationals might be privileged, but they are still in a war zone.
“Maybe it’s even more dangerous because in a sense you are depending on the rational and the humane side of the Israeli soldiers as well as the humane side of the international community.”
Despite all these negative images and feelings, Huwaida as well as ISM activists were strongly persistent as well as ISM activists to continue their fight for freedom.
“Personally, obviously it’s a tremendous loss, at the same time, this will not stop us and we will continue to take action and they will not scare us off, they can’t.”
Being an ISM activist and coming to Palestine means an inevitable life change. Reading about the Palestinian struggle and plight or looking at it from the outside can never convey the real picture on the ground, and the amount of Israeli brutality practiced against Palestinians.
“I think when internationals get here their whole image of the situation changes, mostly because of the human contacts they establish with local people here and the impact these contacts leave in their lives afterwards.”
“They managed to help in mobilization and in diverting tactics from armed or military struggle to more popular non-violent struggle. They have been very effective in that sense.”
– Hanan Ashrawi
Regardless of the pace in which ISM spread, they have managed to draw a different map for the struggle, and they succeeded in opening the eyes of the world to the necessity of peace in Palestine, to save more Palestinians from a doomed future.
Apart from all political statements and goals, one has to realize that the Palestinian struggle at its core a just cause. Otherwise, these internationals that could have simply walked away would not be seen here today, putting their lives on the line in order to establish freedom.
Such a movement is evidence of the strength and humanity of all Palestinian people, who are winning simply by staying on this land and digging life out the shadow of death that the Israelis are spreading every day.