It's hard to believe it's been a decade since I traveled to the West Bank and Gaza during Israel's 2002 invasion (dubbed "Operation Defensive Shield" in proper Orwellian style), but the calendar is adamant on that point. After I returned I wrote an account of my experiences there, and though an edited excerpt was published in the book Searching Jenin I've never published the essay in its entirety—despite my own good intentions and some requests from readers here. So ten years on, here it is, along with photos I and others took. It was written for a general audience so you may already be familiar with some of the background information, and in some cases events have overtaken the narrative, but I'm presenting it just as I wrote it at the time. Also, since each installment is fairly long and contains quite a few images I've broken them up so they won't appear in their entirety on the front page; just click the "Continue reading..." link at the bottom of each post to see the rest.
Without further ado, here's part 1, and when I've finished publishing the other parts I'll update this posting with links to them as well.
- Part 2: Ramallah
- Part 3: Jenin
- Part 4: Gaza City
- Part 5: Khan Younis, Rafah and Hebron
- Part 6: The Church of the Nativity
Taking Reponsibility: In the West Bank and Gaza
At the end of March 2002, the Israeli army launched a massive assault on the West Bank. Yasser Arafat's compound was put under siege and much of it was reduced to rubble. The Israel Defense Forces, or IDF—the misnomer by which the Israeli army is known—were systematically attacking city after city, refugee camp after refugee camp, throughout the Occupied Territories. The professed purpose was to stop terrorism, but reports coming from the Territories told of the wanton destruction of civilian infrastructure, the targeting of ambulances, the bulldozing of houses, the killing and wounding of civilians, the cold-blooded executions of Palestinian policemen.
I followed these horrifying events in the news with a rising sense of frustration, outrage and helplessness. This was an attack by one of the most powerful armies in the world against an almost completely defenseless civilian population. And how had Israel come to have such a powerful military? As an American citizen who follows foreign policy closely, I knew all too well: because of the infusion of $3 billion in military and economic aid each year from the United States, along with billions more in loan forgiveness, military support through the Pentagon budget, loan guarantees, and other financial incentives. The total amount of aid the US has given to Israel over the years is staggering—well over $90 billion, the bulk of which has been direct military aid. This is money provided directly by US taxpayers to the state of Israel, and it is used by Israel to finance its ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It was my money being used to destroy these cities and towns and terrorize these people, and I watched and read about what was happening with that fact always foremost in my thoughts.
The breaking point for me came when I saw the Israelis begin their assault on the Jenin refugee camp. Here was a group of 14,000 people who were already victims—refugees—under assault by the most advanced weaponry US money could buy. I felt sickened as I watched the images of a US-supplied Apache helicopter hovering over the camp, launching Hellfire missiles down into the crowded streets and strafing houses and cars with cannon fire, and read the accounts of bulldozers laying waste to the center of the camp, in some cases burying people alive beneath the rubble of their destroyed homes. The Israelis had closed Jenin to "outsiders" so that they could carry out their violence without any witnesses; they had gone so far as to bar the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations from entering the camp to help the people inside.
But one group had managed to place people inside the camp, to document the atrocities and report back to the outside world: the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a loose coalition of people dedicated to assisting the Palestinians in resisting the Israeli occupation. I heard the reports from ISM volunteers around the world who had picked up and left their homes to follow their consciences and put their bodies on the line in a struggle that was not their own. I watched as ISM volunteers marched into Arafat's compound, in between tanks and APCs (armored personnel carriers), with bullets flying over their heads, to act as human shields in order to protect the hundreds of Palestinians trapped inside. I was amazed at their bravery and inspired by their example. I realized then that I could do something to help, simply by going to the West Bank to witness, to document, and if necessary to put myself between the Israeli tanks and the Palestinian civilians. It was a difficult decision to make, but in the end the images coming out of the West Bank were too horrific for me to choose otherwise. I arrived in Israel on April 19th and began one of the most important experiences of my life.
My first stop was East Jerusalem, the gathering point for ISM volunteers (or just "internationals"). We were waiting for training before going out "into the field", and so we stayed in and around Jerusalem itself for the day. I went out to see the town with a group of new friends, expecting a relatively quiet day since Jerusalem itself was not part of the invasion; but I quickly learned that even in this seemingly calm place, the effects of the occupation were quite visible.
As I was walking back to the hotel with my friends, we saw a police van with blue lights flashing and Israeli flags flying. Four police (men and women) were standing at points around the van with their automatic weapons raised and aimed at a nicely dressed Palestinian man who looked to be in his 30's. I immediately took out my camera to get a picture, in case the worst happened and this man ended up like many others who've been similarly detained by the Israelis. My friends and I took up a position where we could witness what was happening. The police were shouting commands at the man, and he was holding his jacket open, apparently to let them see if he was wearing a bomb vest. He put his briefcase down on the sidewalk and began emptying some of the contents from it, moving slowly and deliberately. I watched the gun barrels—they appeared to be aimed directly at his head. I imagined, with a twist in my stomach, what would happen if he made any move that startled them. The tension in the air was palpable.
A Palestinian shopkeeper behind us was talking to a friend and said, "He's probably a lawyer." His jaw was set as he watched. It looked plausible to me too—the "suspect" was dressed like a professional. After a minute or so with the man standing there with his briefcase emptied, his hands raised, and his head in the gun sights, the police apparently decided he wasn't the next suicide bomber and let him begin collecting his things. After he'd gotten everything together he walked over to the police van to talk with the officers—maybe they'd taken his documentation and he was getting it back, I thought.
Collected now, the man started to walk away across the street. He didn't look at us, and he didn't look at anyone else either. He looked straight ahead. I could only imagine what he might be feeling, what anyone would feel in that situation...fear? Anger? Humiliation? Resignation? Some of all of them, I'm sure. He was guilty of being Palestinian while carrying a briefcase—a quite possibly fatal offense here. The shopkeeper shook his head and said just what I had been thinking: "This happens to us every day."
That evening, we received a brief training in the basics of what tactics we could expect when we confronted the Israeli military or police (for example, tear gas, concussion grenades, or live fire), and how to deal with each one. The most important lessons were also the simplest: don't ever run, and don't use violence of any kind—physical or even verbal. The first "action" we would be joining was a protest march that had been called for the next day in Bethlehem; this would be a sort of starter action to get us used to nonviolent confrontations with the IDF and the Israeli police. But as it turned out it would be two weeks before I finally reached Bethlehem, and then under far different circumstances than I could have imagined.
The morning of the march, the ISM coordinators received word from Palestinian sources that the IDF may be planning a raid to put a final end to their siege of Arafat's compound. With so many people gathered in such a small area and so much firepower, the possibility of a bloodbath seemed high. The ISM had already placed about 20 internationals inside the compound in a previous action, but the feeling was that we needed to draw media attention to the compound and also try to get more people inside. Arafat's compound was surrounded by Israeli tanks, APCs, jeeps, and troops, and so it was almost certain that we would encounter heavy resistance as we tried to enter.
As always, the choice of whether or not to participate was up to each person, but there was no need for a choice—we all knew that there was nothing more important we could be doing at this time, and we all wanted to go. I was especially inspired by a group of three men who had just arrived from Britain that morning. When we came downstairs they were sitting in the hotel lobby with their bags, still jetlagged and dead tired, but as soon as we told them what the Israelis may be planning at the compound and what we were planning to do to prevent it, they immediately jumped up and volunteered to join in the action. Wild horses couldn't have kept them away. My faith in humanity shot up a few notches.
We boarded vans in Jerusalem and headed to Ramallah. The town was under curfew, so the drivers took the side roads to the outskirts of town and dropped us off. Already we could see the evidence of the invasion, as an APC pulled up over a ridge ahead of us. We hiked a short way to another van and headed off to the Ramallah hospital. As we drove into town, we could see the evidence of the destruction that the daily incursions of Israeli tanks had wrought: buildings destroyed or with large sections of walls shaved off, tread marks in all the streets, demolished cars crumpled like soda cans. The reality of where I was began to sink in.
At the hospital, we met up with other internationals who had come to participate in the action as well, and began discussing the plan. We would form into two groups, one intending to go inside the compound and the other acting as a diversion for the Israeli forces. The diversionary group would go to the main entrance of the compound, and the main group would go to the rear entrance, timed so as to arrive slightly after the diversionary group. There were a little over ten people in each of the groups.
I was in the diversionary group. We waited for the moment of departure with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation, and when it finally came we set off through the streets of Ramallah toward the compound. It was raining and the streets had turned to mud, but I hardly noticed—my mind was completely focused on the action. We walked past shattered homes and destroyed cars. The Israelis apparently considered any car on the streets to be fair game for their tanks, and not only that, but they also considered them to be building blocks for their barricades: as we approached the 24-hour curfew zone around the compound we saw large piles of rubble, often with one or more crushed cars stacked on top of or around them. We climbed over the rubble and around the cars, watchful for any sign of the Israeli military. There was broken glass everywhere, often inches thick, just as we'd seen throughout Ramallah; I was glad I'd worn hiking boots.
As we neared the road leading to the main entrance of the compound a military jeep pulled up at the far end of the road. We stopped for a moment, trying to decide if we should head off across the grass, but instead we quickened our pace toward the road and the compound. We decided that if the jeep tried to block our path we would fan out around it and continue on. The jeep came toward us, but rather than following us or attempting to block us it turned down the road from which we'd come. I could see Israeli soldiers in the back, talking on the radio—doubtless informing someone that we were on our way. It was certain now that we'd have company when we arrived.
We finally reached the entrance to the compound. As we turned the corner and entered, we saw an Israeli Merkava tank guarding the entrance, about 50 feet away from us. When we came into view it roared to life—literally. The tank did not move toward us, but the engine revved ferociously, and smoke billowed out the side. The turret swung back and forth across our ranks, sending a message that we all immediately understood. I felt acutely the force of the tank and the contrast to our own complete vulnerability. We began walking slowly, and we took out white strips of cloth that we had brought from the hospital and put our hands in the air, to make it clear that we were no threat and that our intentions were only peaceful. One of our group was a Scottish member of Parliament named Lloyd Quinan, and he had brought a full-size Scottish flag attached to a makeshift pole; he unfurled it proudly and carried it through the compound gate.
I felt anxiety and fear as I looked at the tank and thought about what it could do to us with a single shell—but the fear was momentary, passing quickly away. In its place I felt a sense of mission, and an instinctive knowledge that what I was doing was right and worthwhile. I took strength from the people around me, all of them willing to take this risk with me. I was also aware that as Americans and Europeans we had a measure of protection from the Israeli army, because if they were to injure or kill us there would be a potentially serious political price to pay; if Palestinians had tried anything like this, in exactly the same way and with exactly the same methods, they would surely have been shot as soon as they neared the compound. Our protection came largely from our identity, and this was the underlying racism that gave us the latitude to do what we were doing. In addition, the ISM understood the importance of having the international media along so that if there were an incident, it would be documented. We had an Italian reporter with our group, and there was a larger contingent of media with the other group.
We crossed the 50 feet to the tank slowly, hands in the air, smelling the acrid smoke from the tank's engine as it continued to rev. To get to the compound itself we had to round the corner where the tank was parked, passing within feet of it. I was on the side closest to the tank, and as I passed it my face was no more than two feet away from the barrel. I stared into it and I thought about the soldiers inside; what were they thinking? They were in charge of this massively powerful weapon, but it was effectively powerless against us.
In a moment we had rounded the corner and left it behind. As we did so Israeli troops poured out of the building, yelling at us, "Go back! We will shoot!" They began firing their machine guns into the air to frighten us. Someone in our group called out "Concussion grenade!", and we all put our hands over our ears as it came sailing toward us, then dodged away as it exploded at our feet. Our few hours of training were already proving useful. We could see the door now, just another dozen yards away. There was a barricade made of stone from the demolished sections of the compound, barbed wire, and more crushed cars; we began to climb over it as more concussion grenades sailed toward us. The door was only a few yards away now and those of us in the front could have easily entered the building if we had wanted to—but our purpose was to act as a diversion, not to get inside the compound.
At this point there were maybe 15-20 Israeli soldiers pouring out of another door, running toward us and trying to block the way. They began shoving the people in front and grabbing things out of their hands: one person had a cell phone taken and thrown behind the troops, and another lost a video camera. The soldiers grabbed Lloyd's flag and hurled it to the ground, and I could see the fire in his eyes as he demanded it back; you do not take a Scotsman's flag away from him. Ultimately the Israelis were the ones with the M-16 rifles, and we were the ones with nothing but pieces of white cloth, so we just continued backing away, leaving behind the flag, the cell phone, the camera, and the compound. A short, stocky officer was leading the soldiers now, and he was nearly apoplectic; his face was so red I thought his head was going to pop. He was screaming at us to leave, and when we asked him to calm down he only screamed "Shut up! Get out!" over and over, pushing, shoving and slapping anyone within reach.
The IDF soldiers were just a few feet behind us, shoving us occasionally, following the officer's lead. After two shoves in the back I turned around to see who had been pushing me, and I was face to face with an Israeli soldier who appeared to be barely eighteen. I looked him directly in the eyes and said in a calm voice, "I'm a person, just like you. Please don't push me." To my amazement he looked down, as if he was ashamed of what he had done—and he did not push me again. It was a powerful lesson for me: it made me realize how a uniform and a gun can transform a thinking person into a cog, someone willing to throw aside their own humanity. I had been able to reach the person behind this uniform, if only for a moment, and it made me hopeful.
We passed through the gate of the compound, and the Israelis did not follow us any further—though the little red-faced officer vindictively continued throwing concussion grenades at us as we left, injuring one woman in our party. Two people supported her as she limped down the road. We heard gunfire coming from the other side of the compound, and we knew that the other group had reached the back entrance. When we tried to phone them we couldn't get through, and as we headed back toward the hospital we could only hope they were ok. As we were walking down the muddy street (the blacktop had been destroyed and churned up by Israeli heavy equipment), a Palestinian woman came out of her home near the compound, defying the curfew and risking Israeli sniper fire to wave at us. I smiled both outwardly and inwardly, and I felt a sense of complete exhilaration: we had made it through.