Huwaida Arraf (left) and Thom Saffold (center) at a rally after afternoon prayers in Ramallah, Friday, April 26. The ISM acted as human shields as hundreds of Palestinians tried to demonstrate peacefully near the Presidential Compound, but were attacked by tear gas, concussion grenades and live fire. Photo by Dedrick Muhammad
Dispatches from the Front:
to Israel’s Occupation of Palestine
compiled by Thom Saffold
As readers of Agenda may know from earlier articles or from other news media, a group of international citizens known as the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) has been using the militant nonviolent direct action tactics of the Civil Rights Movement against the Israeli occupation forces in Palestine since August, 2001. I was one of the organizers of the first campaign, and just returned from two weeks as an ISM volunteer and organizer.
The next phase of our campaign of international resistance against Israel’s illegal and brutal occupation is Freedom Summer, a 54-day-long effort to put hundreds of ISM volunteers in villages and towns throughout the West Bank and Gaza to work with local Palestinians. In addition to giving protection for nonviolent protest, we will also act as human shields to keep them from being attacked by Israeli settlers as they work in their fields.
If anyone is interested in volunteering for two or more weeks during Freedom Summer, please contact me at 734-668-1549, or at email@example.com. More information is available at freepalestinecampaign.org, palsolidarity.org, and rapprochement.org.
The following dispatches detail the latest major action of the ISM as we go to press. They were compiled from reports from Huwaida Arraf, the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace (ccmep.org), the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement between People (www.rapprochement.org), and Jerusalem Independent Media Center (www.jerusalem.indymedia.org).
Thursday, May 2
At 5:45 PM Thursday, a group of 24 international activists slipped past Israeli Defense Force roadblocks to enter Bethlehem’s Manger Square. Led by ISM coordinator Huwaida Arraf, thirteen acted as decoys and drew many Israeli soldiers to them, making it possible for eleven others to enter the besieged Church of the Nativity. They brought as much food as possible to the 160 Palestinians remaining in the church, trapped for almost a month. The Israeli army has denied the Palestinians, besieged since April 1, 2002, sufficient amounts of food. Several of the Palestinians had been killed or gave up in previous days.
Israeli Defense Force troops caught and detained the other 13 activists.
It was actually the group’s second attempt in a week. On Sunday, April 28, another group of International Solidarity Movement volunteers, also led by Huwaida Arraf, carried food supplies to the main door of the Church, but were caught by soldiers when the people inside could not get to the door in time to open it for the ISM volunteers.
Kristen Schurr, of New York City, says the activists wanted to enter the church to deliver food to the trapped Palestinians, many of whom are sick and starving. They also wanted to call international attention to the fact that, while the Israeli government has restored some freedom of movement to Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat, the Israeli siege of the Church of the Nativity continues. She said the activists plan to remain in the church—one of the oldest and most important Christian shrines—until the Palestinians are allowed to leave without being arrested by the Israelis.
The effects of fierce fighting at the church were apparent when the activists entered, Schurr says. Fires are still burning, and the dead bodies of two Palestinians, killed by IDF gunfire that morning, remain in the church. However, the trapped Palestinians cheered the internationals when they entered. "People were excited, and happy to see us," says Schurr.
"When we got in we were given blankets and all the food and water are being equally shared," said Coloradan Larry Hales. "Unfortunately the situation inside is much worse than we anticipated. Most of the people are literally starving, having not eaten anything in the last five days, except for a few boiled leaves from a tree in the courtyard." Hales called upon Americans to pressure politicians and Catholic church leaders and call upon them to get food, medicine into the Church of the Nativity.
This action constitutes the latest in a series of successes by the ISM in defying the Israeli occupation and in demonstrating to the world that the international community takes a firm stance against the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. In light of the failure for the international community, namely the United States and the United Nations to act to help protect the Palestinian people and secure their universal rights, the ISM has had to operate on its own. Prior to this, the ISM has twice circumvented Israeli occupation forces to place activists inside of President Arafat’s compound in Ramallah.
The American news media and official Israeli sources have portrayed the stand-off as a hostage-taking situation, in which the clergy were being held as hostages by "Palestinian gunmen." The news media largely ignored ISM pleas to speak with the clergy inside, who said that most of the Palestinians were either completely innocent or had been trying to defend their neighborhoods against the Israeli incursion at the beginning of April.
Friday May 03, 5 AM
An account from one of the captured ISM "decoys".The 13 of us that were detained after the action have just been released for a few hours. We were 8 guys and 5 women. After over 7 hours of being detained and questioned by the Israeli military, we were finally hand-cuffed and escorted out of Bethlehem. At the Bethlehem checkpoint, the guys and girls were divided. The five of us women were pushed into the floor of a police jeep and our legs were bound. The Israeli police officers drove around for a while then stopped and pulled one girl out, Ida Fasten from Sweden, cut her loose and left her, in the middle of we don’t know where, by herself. We were horrified!
They had taken all of our phones and identification, and it was 2 AM. When I protested leaving a foreign woman out in the middle of unfamiliar territory in the middle of the night, with no phone and no ID, I was physically assaulted — slapped hard in the face by one of the officers. Both officers in the jeep refused to give us their names and badge numbers, despite repeated requests.
When we realized that the officers were going to leave each one of us in a different place, the four of us left in the jeep agreed on a meeting place. Four of us are now safe in a hotel in Jerusalem, but we still don’t know where Ida is. We don’t know what happened to the guys. Again, none of us have our phones. We were told to report to a certain location, 24 Hillel, at 9am—In 4 hours. I pray Ida is there and that the guys are also safe.
We don’t know whether we face arrest or deportation; what we do know is that the presence of the international civilians now inside the Church of the Nativity is probably a lifesaver. We brought in food and are offering international presence as protection for the civilians inside the church from the indiscriminate shooting of the Israeli Army. We are international civilians upholding international law. Please contact your governments and ask them to do the same.
Dedrick Muhammad, an activist from Harlem and ISM volunteer, at a demonstration in Ramallah, April 26. Photo by Thom Saffold
Saturday, May 4, 2002—8:00 PM
The following is a transcript of a telephone conversation between the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace and one of its members, Larry Hales, who entered the Church of the Nativity on Thursday. Larry is a 25-year-old African American and recent Army veteran.
CCMEP: Larry! How are you?
Larry Hales: We’re doing good! Our spirits are up. Our spirits had been down; they killed a man today.
CCMEP: A Palestinian man?
LH: Yeah. He was hanging some clothes up to dry that he had washed (the water here comes from a well), and they shot him in the back—from the side.
CCMEP: So he was outside of the church?
CCMEP: Have you been able to get the body out?
LH: Yeah, we got him out. They patched him up, made him comfortable. It took forty-five minutes to get him out. You could kind of tell that he was going to die because he started turning really, really pale. It was crazy. He was really brave, he didn’t make a sound.
CCMEP: Did the internationals take him out?
LM: The monks here—the priests—they took him out. These guys are really something.
CCMEP: How is everybody in there? How are the internationals?
LM: We keep it light—we joke with people. We try to keep it as light as possible. Even the Palestinian guys, they don’t walk around with sour faces. They laugh, we joke with the ones who speak English.
CCMEP: How is the food situation?
LM: Well, there is no food. We ate the last of it today. (Muffled voices). Oh, I guess there’s something, a little bit of something. Most of it is light—like there are grape leaves, so people cook the grape leaves.
CCMEP: How are everyone’s spirits?
LM: We feel really good, we just wish that from the start we had told someone that we were going to be distributing food. We couldn’t bring all that much because we paid for it ourselves.
CCMEP: Have you been able to contact anyone from the outside, other internationals or organizations?
LH: There are a couple people who didn’t get arrested—they contacted us. They’re hanging around in Bethlehem. We’ve been talking to a lot of media.
CCMEP: What are people’s speculations about what’s going to happen?
LH: A far as I know, it’s coming to a close. I guess Sharon is going to the States, and I guess one of his bargaining chips is that he’s going to pull out of here, so I’m thinking tonight or early tomorrow morning. I think within a matter of hours, actually.
CCMEP: What are the internationals planning on doing then?
LH: We’re going to wait behind, we’re not going to go out with the other people.
CCMEP: Are you getting any sleep?
LH: Yeah, they’re actually letting us sleep in the place where Jesus was supposedly born!
CCMEP: Are there any messages you want to send back home?
LH: Just tell everybody thank you for helping me get here, and for taking care of my girlfriend.
CCMEP: Anything else you want to say?
LH: Most of the people in here are civilians. They were people who were defending their homes. What they are fighting for is just—their cause is just. They’re not a bunch of suicide bombers, they were just defending their homes. I’m really disappointed and mad at the same time. It’s just not fair.
Saturday, May 4, 12:45 PM
A Palestinian, Khalaf Najajrah, was killed by an Israeli sniper in the church—a bullet in the lung. Attempts to treat him were in vain. Mary said if they had an IV set and first aid drugs, they could have saved him.
Mary also received a call from a Ha’aretz Israeli newspaper journalist, and Mary said they are prisoners of the Israeli army and not held hostage by Palestinians. In fact, the "Palestinian gunmen" were kind to them, and were worried about internationals’ lives more than their own.
If people, schools, associations could arrange for direct public communications/conferences with people in the church, to have a clearer idea about what is going on, better in the morning because there is a lot of disturbance to mobile phone communications by Israelis, that would probably awake the remaining of those who still ask themselves: whose fault is it what happens in the holiest Christian place?
Sunday, May 5, 9 AM
We just received a phone call from James Hanna, an American ISM who was at Ben Gurion Airport in the process of being deported. James had spent two days working in the Aida refugee camp with Mary Kelly (Irish ISM). James was one of the decoy group who were arrested with the others, and Mary was one of the ones who entered the Church. James was only able to speak a few words because the police were pushing him to finish the phone call. So we don’t know if he is alone or with the other four who were with him in the jail.
Sunday, May 05. 10:01 AM
We need people to begin contacting their respective embassies/ consulates in order to protest the ongoing treatment of detainees by the Israeli govt. Detainees are being denied legal consul and are not being told what their ultimate fate is or when it will be carried out. Currently the men are being held at an illegal settlement in Hebron. Huwaida, Jo, and Trever are refusing food and water in protest of this illegal treatment. You all know that if this was happening to citizens of a western country in any other country in the region it would be cause for massive protest, but since Israel is doing it there seems to be apathy on the part of our respective governments. Anything you can do, from calling, emailing, showing up in front of the locations, etc. will be helpful in pressuring these governments to do something and take action to resolve the situation in a positive manner.
Sunday May 05, 12:13 AM
This morning the Israelis conceded to demands for food and cigarettes to be taken in to Nativity Church, however this has only been a PR exercise for them. Firstly, 42 cooked food portions were offered. This was nowhere near enough and was refused on this basis. After more negotiation, 1 box was brought in containing some tinned foods, lentils and 200 cigarettes. The quantity of food will feed less than 10 people. Those inside feel that they were forced into accepting this derisory amount as a gesture to bolster public opinion of the Israelis. Demands for food, medicine and medical assistance have been ignored until now, and this delivery is no more than a PR exercise in light of negotiations to end the siege.R
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