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INSIDE FOREIGN AFFAIRS

A drumbeat for peace
Group of 'internationals' confront Israeli forces over the occupation of West Bank, Gaza Strip

by Holger Jensen, International Editor

George Kochaniec Jr. © News
argument over olive trees

RAMALLA, West Bank -- His name is Daniel, he's 19 years old and he wants to be a chef.

"I like to cook," he confides.

Instead he's manning a machine gun atop an Israeli armored personnel carrier parked outside Yasser Arafat's headquarters.

"I don't want to be here," he says, "but our presence prevents terrorism."

Some would say it causes more terrorism, I reply. Palestinians bitterly resent the presence of Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, the capital of their would-be state, and vow to resist until Israel ends its 35-year-old occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"I live in Gilo," says Daniel. "The Arabs shoot at Gilo from Beit Jala all the time. So I have to fight for my country."

The reason Gilo comes under fire is that, to Palestinians, it represents a theft of their land. It is one of 10 Jewish neighborhoods that sprang up on the outskirts of East Jerusalem after Israel captured the Arab sector of the Holy City in 1967.

All this happened long before Daniel was born. His mother came from Canada, his father from Brooklyn and now they live in Gilo. Their son went straight from high school into the army to "protect them from terrorists" and he does so willingly and proudly.

What does Daniel think of the growing number of Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories because they think the occupation is unjust and actually makes Israel less secure?

"It's easy not to serve," he says, smiling. "All you do is go to jail for a month and then they let you out. But my father fought for this country and I have to do my share. I've finished one year and have two to go. After that I'll get on with my life."

An officer yells out the window of an apartment building whose Palestinian residents have been evicted to accommodate the Israeli troops. "My commander says you must go," says Daniel with a grin.

As we walk away, the unseen officer is still yelling, still chewing him out for talking to journalists. But Daniel waves a cheerful goodbye.

Not far away, a small group of "internationals" has gathered to protest the occupation. A Japanese monk beats a drum as other volunteers from the United States, Britain, Ireland, Canada, Italy and Israel set off hand-in-hand with Palestinian children to deliver messages of peace to the soldiers.

With flags of the various nations raised overhead, the marchers carry signs and the children paper airplanes saying: "Soldiers think! Don't serve a brutal occupation that expels, starves, humiliates and dominates an entire people."

The marchers are unarmed. There is none of the stone-throwing by Palestinian youths that occurs every Friday [link to related story -- An Unequal Confrontation]. But the Israeli troops do not allow them to get close. They fire stun grenades and tear gas that leaves everyone weeping and gasping and sends one old man into a dead faint.

The children throw their paper airplanes and run off. None comes even close to the soldiers. The internationals are stopped in their tracks and deliver their message verbally, by megaphone.

"Why are you firing on innocent civilians?" it booms. "We have a message for you, a message against the occupation, a message against violence. We are asking for freedom for the Palestinian people. You must respect human rights, respect freedom. Listen to your conscience and refuse to serve."

The leaders of this newly formed International Solidarity Movement are two young women who have successfully bridged the Arab-Israeli divide -- Huwaida Arraf, a 25-year-old Palestinian-American born in Roseville, Mich., and Neta Golan, a 30-year-old Jew born in Israel of Canadian parents.

Arraf is engaged to Adam Shapiro, a fellow activist who claims no religious affiliation but comes from a Jewish family in New York. Golan is married to a Palestinian. Both speak fluent Hebrew, Arabic and English.

Arraf studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and worked on a kibbutz before obtaining a degree with three majors -- Hebrew, political science and Judaic and Arabic studies -- from the University of Michigan. She returned to Israel with a nongovernmental organization devoted to conflict resolution, but swiftly became disillusioned when she saw how uneven the conflict really was.

Because her job did not allow partisanship, she quit the organization to engage in nonviolent resistance on behalf of the Palestinians. And though she says she has never attacked a policeman, she has been arrested three times for "attacking police officers," charges that were later dropped.

Golan studied Chinese medicine in Tel Aviv before becoming a human rights activist. Much to the dismay of her parents, who live in Israel and disapprove of her activities, she has been arrested more than 20 times for entering "closed areas" since the intifada began.

As an Israeli citizen, Golan is not allowed to enter Palestinian communities sealed off by the Israeli army.

Arraf and Golan decided to form ISM when they realized that the presence of foreigners sometimes helps to protect Palestinians from the more brutal aspects of what Israel says are necessary security measures to protect Israelis from suicide bombers, roadside ambushes and other shooting attacks.

Since then, the two women have faced down tanks while trying to tear down army roadblocks, monitored the behavior of soldiers at checkpoints, stayed with Arab families as human shields against shelling and staged peaceful protests against home demolitions.

"The occupation is the root of the conflict," said Arraf. "It breeds violence and more violence. I do not condone Palestinian violence, but I understand it. When they are hit with missiles and bombs, their only way of fighting back is to make themselves (as) bombs.

"That does not mean they're all terrorists. Most of the Palestinians killed so far have been unarmed civilians. But the Israeli government has succeeded in labeling every Palestinian man, woman and child a terrorist, which makes Palestinian blood very cheap.

"The Israelis still think twice about harming internationals. I'm sorry to have to say this but the blood of foreigners is not as cheap as Palestinian blood. So our presence here protects the Palestinians and shows them there are still some people in this world who care what happens to them."

So what did today's little demonstration accomplish except another tear gas barrage?

"By itself it was meaningless," said Golan, "but the cumulative total helps widen the cracks in the Israeli consensus."

The cracks are certainly apparent.

Every day more army reservists add their names to a list of officers refusing to serve "for the purpose of occupying, deporting, destroying, blockading, killing and starving an entire people." The list had 52 names when first published last Sunday. It has grown to 170 and attracted more than 1,000 letters of support on the refuseniks' Web site.

Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz calls it a "rebellion." Soldiers who want to protest should do so "outside the army," he said, "in legitimate ways a democratic country allows. There is no place for disobedience in the army of a democratic country engaged in combat."

But Knesset member Naomi Chazan of the leftist Meretz Party says it's a "crisis of conscience" among soldiers who have no qualms about defending Israel from external threats but object to enforcing what they regard as an illegal occupation.

"There is an unending aggregation of illegal orders that turn the mere fact of serving at a checkpoint into something impossible or illegal," she said. "It's preferable for those who don't want to obey illegal orders not to go to the checkpoint at all."

As this is being written, 22 Israeli peace groups are organizing buses to bring demonstrators from all over the country to a Saturday rally in Tel Aviv.

"The occupation is killing us all," says their flier. "The Sharon government is perpetrating terrible acts over which the black flag of illegality flies. Continued occupation is drowning us in rivers of blood, Israelis and Palestinians alike. Continued occupation leads to loss of hope, to despair on both sides.

"Stop the 'liquidations' which lead to suicide bombings! Stop the killing and bereavement! Stop the closures and siege! Stop the uprooting of olive trees and orchards! And stop the silence! For those who keep silent at such a time are accomplices. Those who do not raise their voice in protest bear part of the responsibility for the mutual destruction."

It is signed by Bat Shalom, Coalition of Women for Peace, Du Siach, Gush Shalom, HaCampus Lo Shotek of Tel-Aviv University, the Israeli Committtee Against House Demolitions, Kol Aher BaGalil, Kvisa Sh'hora: Lesbians and Gay Men Against the Occupation, the Left Forum of Haifa University, MachsomWatch, Meretz Youth, the Monitoring Committee of the Arab Population in Israel, NELED, New Profile, Noga, TANDI, Ta'ayush, WILPF, Women and Mothers for Peace, Women in Black and Yesh Gvul.

Ta'ayush, composed of both Palestinian and Israeli peace activists, recently sent a delegation to visit Arafat in Ramallah. Rabbis for Peace is planting olive trees to replace Palestinian groves destroyed by the Israeli army. And Peace Now has just released a statement saying: "The occupation undermines and corrupts the foundations of Israel as a state and as a society."

On the Palestinian side, the Holy Land Trust preaches nonviolence in Bethlehem, the Rapprochement Center of Beit Sahour urges what its name implies, and a number of prominent West Bankers in the Palestinian Peace Coalition meet regularly with their Israeli counterparts in the Israeli Peace Coalition to hammer out plans for joint initiatives.

Arafat's representative in Jerusalem, Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, also has delighted Israelis with some overtures of his own.

He shocked many Palestinians recently by saying Arafat made a mistake in demanding a "right of return" for Palestinian refugees. And he told the German magazine Der Spiegel it would be better for a future Palestinian state to be demilitarized.

"Weapons can in no way help find the solution," he said. "We don't need arms. A Palestinian state should be demilitarized -- not because that's what Israel demands, but in our own interest."

Gaza, more crowded than the West Bank, more poverty stricken and more radicalized by the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas, nevertheless has four peace groups -- the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights and the Al-Adameer Human Rights Group.

There is no shortage of peace groups on either side. There are so many of them, in fact, one wonders why there is no peace.

February 8, 2002

Send your questions to international editor Holger Jensen, who will answer one each day. E-mail: hjens@aol.com


Copyright © 2002 The E.W. Scripps Co. All Rights Reserved.

Reprinted by USAGOLD with permission of Mr. Jensen. No further reproduction without permission.

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