Internationals on the Front Lines
April 7, Ramallah
As the Israeli army continues the second week of its military reoccupation of the Palestinian-controlled towns of the West Bank, a group of internationals is playing a role of solidarity and protection in the occupied areas. Some 500 activists affiliated with the umbrella group Grassroots International Protection for the Palestinian People are now in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, some of them risking their lives.
"We are helping with the ambulances," says 50-year-old physics professor Alberto Clarizia from Naples. "The Red Cross, it is a shame. It is really incapable of doing anything. If there is any area where there are soldiers, they say it is impossible, and they turn back."
Clarizia and other Italians, French, Belgians, Americans and even one Israeli ride with local Red Crescent ambulances to deliver food and medicine to Palestinians in Ramallah, where the residents have been under curfew, some without electricity and tens of thousands without water, since the start of the Israeli incursion.
"We stay with the driver, and when we get stopped, we show our foreign passport and then we are allowed through," relates Clarizia. He stood in solidarity with Palestinian families who were forced to bury their dead temporarily in a parking lot, until they can travel to the cemetery. "That was really difficult to watch," he says, clearly moved.
Some fifty of the internationals made world headlines on March 31, when they marched with Palestinian doctors through the Israeli military cordon around Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's compound and into the two rooms where Arafat and his advisers have been holed up. CNN correspondent Michael Holmes jumped into the group, saying that a soldier looked at him and then shrugged as the group walked through an entrance that had been the scene of fighting only minutes earlier. Warning shots were fired by Israeli troops, but no other action was taken.
A buoyed Arafat met the group and gave interviews in person for the first time in two days. When several activists, including Frenchman José Bové, the now-infamous challenger of McDonald's, tried to leave the compound, they were arrested and deported. Other members of the group remain inside with Arafat, without water and with dwindling food, but as a considerable barrier for anyone planning to eject the Palestinian leader. That, they say, is exactly what they want.
The activist presence on the ground here is a culmination of months of involvement, in which internationals and Palestinians have worked together to demonstrate against the thirty-five-year-long Israeli military occupation. One of the spearheading members is European Union parliamentarian Luisa Morgantini, who told the Palestine Report that the goal is education as much as solidarity. "We know that when we open a roadblock, the Israeli soldiers will come and close it again. But we were there and we take this back to our own countries and try to put pressure back home."
The relationship is not without difficulties. Often the activists work closely with Israeli groups that have agendas seen as problematic by Palestinians. In addition, Palestinians sometimes feel that the activists want to teach them how to resist, how to be "nonviolent." While there has been a lively discussion over the tactics used in this intifada, many Palestinians feel that nonviolence was tried and failed in the first uprising. Others simply think it won't work against the full force of the Israeli army. In any case, almost all Palestinians say that resisting the occupation using any method is their right, while outside activists may prefer nonviolent methods. Morgantini notes that humility in activism is important. "Everyone in the world asks of the Palestinians who are the most oppressed to be perfect. I don't ask that," she says.
In these times of crisis, however, there is overwhelming appreciation for the activists, who work at considerable cost and risk to themselves. A mounting number have been turned back at the Israeli airport. "What we are hearing, even from the Israeli interior minister, is that they will deport all the activists. This is against any resolution, any charter, any convention. It is absolutely something out of this world to deport an activist who is trying to be useful to the Palestinian people," says Farshid Nourai of the Italian Association for Peace. In Bethlehem, a half-dozen activists were injured by Israeli tank fire. American activist Adam Shapiro, who spent time in Arafat's compound, has been attacked in the US media and his parents have been threatened.
At Ramallah's Sheikh Zayed Hospital, Khaled, a personal bodyguard of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat who prefers not to give his full name, recuperates, happy to be alive and that the Israeli advance into the compound last Sunday left him with only a leg injury. After being wounded, he went through a six-hour ordeal in Israeli custody and interrogation before he was allowed treatment at the hospital, negotiated by the Red Cross.
That same afternoon, however, he calls, sounding nervous. "The Israelis are entering the hospital," he reports. "I will talk to you later." But the Israeli army never searched that hospital, despite turning others upside down. A group of Italians, Khaled relates happily and with some wonder, stood in front of the hospital with the Palestinian staff and the tanks were turned away.