The International Solidarity Movement’s second Freedom Summer has begun, and much has changed since our last: the war on Iraq, which focused all eyes on the region; the much-hyped road map; full-blown construction on what Palestinians have come to call the Apartheid Wall. Sadly, though, much remains the same: the continuing deterioration of the lives of Palestinians, with poverty and health crises in a crescendo.
The ISM itself is in a far more precarious position. This year, volunteers signed up knowing that one ISMer was killed, that others have been shot, expelled or detained. They knew that the ISM headquarters was raided in May, that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) instituted new regulations barring the ISM from entering Gaza. They knew that the military sought to smear the ISM by claiming it has links to terrorists. And still people from all over the world have come, in record numbers, to volunteer.
The ISM was founded a few months into the current intifada to engage in nonviolent action against the Israeli occupation. The idea, inspired by the Freedom Rides of the American civil rights movement, was that international civilians could provide a resource for the Palestinian nonviolent struggle-and that their eyewitness accounts of the occupation could affect political debate back home. With internationals mixed in with Palestinian civilians at protests, we believed that Israeli soldiers would be more reluctant to use lethal force. These efforts worked, at least at first. Not that violence was eliminated-tear gas, sound grenades and rubber bullets were still used against Palestinians. But mostly, live ammunition was avoided around internationals, and rubber bullets weren’t fired at head or chest level. Last August, for example, I joined 200 Palestinians in a peaceful march near Nablus to break the curfew there. With forty internationals in the crowd, the IDF relied on tear gas and sound grenades, firing only a few rubber bullets into the air. When one soldier fired a rubber bullet lower, into the crowd, I saw one of his superiors grab his gun and berate him. The message was clear: Israeli soldiers respected the lives of international civilians more than Palestinian lives. We, unlike the Palestinians, had governments that could hold Israel accountable-or so we thought.
Then in March, Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah. In early April, Brian Avery was shot in the face in Jenin by patrolling Israeli troops. Less than a week later Tom Hurndall was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper in Rafah. All three had taken precautions, identifying themselves as international observers to IDF soldiers, wearing fluorescent orange vests. They had put themselves in danger only to the extent that all Palestinian civilian areas were in the path of a deepening Israeli military occupation. In the four months since Rachel’s death, more than 200 Palestinians have been killed, most of them noncombatants, in Israeli attacks.