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Two sides, one goal

Palestinian, Israeli tour Bay Area to support non-violent resistance to military occupation

By Katherine Corcoran

Originally published in the Mercury News

Ayed Morrar, 43, a Palestinian, puts his arm on the back of Jonathan Pollak, 23, an Israeli, and says, “He’s like my son.”

The two are touring the Bay Area through Wednesday, when they will address a Stanford University class on the Israeli-Arab conflict, as part of a national speaking campaign on what they call the little-known, non-violent resistance movement in the Palestinian territories.

Pollak is fasting in solidarity with Morrar, who is observing Ramadan. They are staying in homes and attending fundraisers sponsored by Arab-American and Jewish families. Still, their integrated, peaceful resistance against Israel’s military occupation and the barrier it is erecting in the West Bank gets scant attention in the United States and the rest of the world, they say.

“We have to show people the real situation there to win the occupation, because the propaganda shows us as criminals,” Morrar said last week, sitting in the Los Altos living room of Lisa Nessan, who is Jewish. “We are against violence from any side, against killing by Israelis and Palestinians.”

Their tour, which started in New York and goes to Seattle, Minneapolis, Detroit and other major cities from here, is sponsored by the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group that recruits and trains international observers and activists to protest in the Palestinian territories. The group gained world headlines when American protester Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003, and British student Tom Hurndall was shot in 2004 by an Israeli soldier, who was later convicted of manslaughter.

But like anything having to do with the Middle East conflict, claims to non-violence or peace get drowned out in a din of competing voices and events. Last week marked another bloody string of violence, with Israeli troops targeting Islamic Jihad militants, who killed five Israelis in a revenge suicide attack.

Critics say the International Solidarity Movement is not really about peace. They cite writings by its leaders that acknowledge a place for armed resistance in liberation movements.

“They don’t pick up guns or throw bombs. But they don’t oppose those who do, either,” said Yitzhak Santis, director of the Middle East Project at the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco. “It’s propaganda. They want well-intentioned, good-meaning people to support them. But what goes on on the ground is something quite different.”

Complicated story

Still, Morrar, a government worker who must clear two checkpoints to get to work in Ramallah, and Pollak, a graphic artist from Tel Aviv and an activist since his teens, are part of a growing number of opponents to the Israeli occupation. They want to tell their side of a complicated story in the United States, a steadfast supporter of Israel in foreign policy, and a place where many charge the news accounts are biased toward Israel.

“It’s time we voice opposition to policies that are being carried out in our name,” said Pollak, referring to Israelis who are against the occupation.

Their current focus is the wall Israel is building in the West Bank, which in parts veers from the agreed-upon border and cuts into Palestinian territories, separating villagers from their jobs and farmland. Supporters of the wall say it has cut violence against Israelis by 90 percent.

The wall, which has been ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice in the Hague, has sparked a peace movement that had difficulty finding a place amid the almost ever-present bullets and bombings.

Condemning violence

“We need everyone, children, women, old people to join the struggle. With all the violence, they couldn’t get out there,” said Morrar, adding that his and Pollak’s group in the Palestinian territories, Popular Committees to Resist the Wall, condemns all violence, including armed resistance. “The military struggle has no role for the people.”

In talks in Bay Area churches, universities and labor halls, Morrar and Pollak show footage of women in abayas at the wall, shouting peace slogans through bullhorns, and international protesters spraying peace signs on military vehicles — all being hit by Israeli soldiers with tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets.

Morrar doesn’t deny that non-violent demonstrations draw members of Hamas and Fatah, political parties with militant arms. But he says his group doesn’t refuse any protesters, as long as they follow the rules of peaceful resistance.

“If we refuse them, they will go to the violent way,” said Morrar, who has been jailed five times, once for six years in the 1990s, and bears a long, deep scar from a gunshot wound on his upper arm. “To struggle does not mean to kill. To kill is to lose your humanity.”