The foreigners who brave Israeli bullets

One warm August day, Juliana Fredman, a US citizen from New York, prepared herself to be gassed and shot at by Israeli soldiers.

An injured activist is rushed from a protest near Tulkaram
An injured activist is rushed from a protest near Tulkaram

Along with about 60 other international activists and 200 local Palestinians, she joined a brazen daylight attempt to tear down part of Israel‘s apartheid wall in a West Bank village near Tulkaram, where hundreds of farmers have been denied access to their land.

That day, 28-year-old Fredman became one of the first casualties of steel-core rubber bullets, baptised with a bloody purple welt on her right forearm.

Seven other foreign nationals participating with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) – the activist group with the largest number of foreigners demonstrating in the Palestinian territories against Israel‘s occupation – went down with similar injuries along with two Tulkarem locals.


“I actually saw [the bullets] coming right at me,” Fredman says, gesturing in a spiral motion.


“But when you spend some time here and you see what Palestinians go through all the time, you can’t let yourself get freaked out about [getting hurt].”


Death and danger


Such self-assuredness in the face of danger comes just five months after US activist Rachel Corrie, an ISM volunteer, was crushed to death under the shovel of an Israeli bulldozer on 16 March.

Israel claimed the driver did not see her. Corrie was wearing a fluorescent orange jacket in broad daylight while attempting to block the demolition of a Palestinian home in Rafah, Gaza Strip.


Although her killing devastated the movement and the activist community worldwide – shattering the notion for some that foreign passports offer physical immunity here – the tragedy appears to have strengthened ISM’s resolve a half-year on. 

Colleagues carry an injured ISM activist near village of Anin

Colleagues carry an injured ISM
activist near village of Anin


Since then, the ranks of the Palestinian-led movement have swelled and the media are taking them more seriously. 

Its coordinators insist non-violent, direct-action protests – such as barrier demonstrations, roadblock removals and marches on checkpoints – are the most effective strategy to exposing the often brutal measures of the 36-year occupation.


ISM’s first fatality heralded a particularly bloody string of injuries to its activists less than 30 days after Corrie’s death.

More than two weeks later, Brian Avery, another American, had his left cheek nearly torn off after heavy-calibre fire was sprayed in his direction from an Israeli armored personnel carrier in Jenin.


Six days later on 11 April, a round fired from an Israeli military watchtower in Rafah pierced the skull of British volunteer Tom Hurndall. He remains in a coma with severe brain damage.


“What happened to the activists made me feel more compelled to come,” says Fredman, who works as a video editor in New York.

Diverse backgrounds

Other activists here this summer, whose diverse backgrounds  stretch from college-aged anarchists to senior members of clergy, expressed similar motivations.


“It didn’t deter me,” says Philip Tarbuck, 66, a grandfather and retired probation officer from Manchester, England. “I realised the Palestinian people were in larger danger and they needed our support.”


Hits to the ISM website during that fateful month peaked at more than five million, while incoming phone calls and inquiry emails jumped from around two to ten a day, according to ISM co-founder Huwaida Arraf. 

“I realised that the Palestinian people were in larger danger and they needed our support”

Philip Tarbuck,
British ISM activist


More than 1500 volunteers from around the world, have participated with the movement since it started more than two years ago, and Arraf expects that number to reach 2000 in the next few months.


About 15% to 20% of ISM activists are Jewish.


“The volunteers take what they’ve seen out here and report back to their communities and in turn recruit others; it’s a snowball effect,” Arraf explains.


“The tragedies reaffirmed our commitment to struggling against the occupation in the face of such lethal force. We were never under any false [impressions] that just because we’re nonviolent the Israeli military won’t use violence against us.”


Unfounded accusations


Israel insists Avery and Hurndall were caught in exchanges of gunfire with Palestinian militants. Eyewitnesses say no clashes occurred at either scene, arguing they wouldn’t have been there in the first place had there been any fighting.


Like Corrie, both victims were wearing brightly colored jackets while trying to assist the local population.


ISM has been repeatedly denounced by Israel as abetting what it calls terrorist activity.

“The volunteers take what they’ve seen out here and report back to their communities and in turn recruit others; it’s a snowball effect”

Huwaida Arraf,

co-founder, ISM


A Jerusalem Post article on 1 August quoted a senior security government source as saying the ISM receives funds from both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.


But Arraf vehemently denies any connection. And one unfounded allegation – that a pistol was found in an ISM office in Jenin -was officially retracted by the Israeli Army in March.


Others in the international community have praised the work of its volunteers. A Canadian member of parliament, recognising the efforts of Corrie, Avery and Hurndall, has nominated the movement for a 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.


Changing tactics


This summer marks a departure from the group’s activities last year.

Because of
Israel‘s massive Defensive Shield Operation in April 2002, volunteers were bogged down with humanitarian and relief work, ferrying food and medicine to Palestinian civilians trapped under curfew and escorting ambulances through checkpoints.


This year, ISM has staged mass demonstrations on their terms – at least 30 already against the apartheid wall alone, part of their Freedom Summer campaign. 


Israeli soldiers force back ISMmembers at a protest in Nablus

Israeli soldiers force back ISM
members at a protest in Nablus

The rash of injuries has no doubt weeded out some of the movement’s faint-hearted.

Still, many ISM volunteers report having doubts about just how far they would go, having deeply questioned the risk involved and the movement’s tactics. The spectre of Corrie’s death, it seems, still haunts.


“I’m not willing to go as far [in direct actions] as others have gone and I prefer not to get arrested,” says Mark, a 42-year-old library researcher from Canada who did not give his last name for fear of deportation. “I wouldn’t put myself in [any life-threatening] situations.”


But what some may perceive as recklessness is key to ISM’s strategy. Coordinators know that without media presence, a significant portion of their work largely goes unnoticed.


Audacious acts


That calls for pulling off some audacious acts, like spray painting New York City-style graffitti saying Made in Berlin on sections of Israel‘s roughly $2 million-per-kilometre wall in Qalqiliya as Israeli soldiers stand by bemused, cradling M-16s.


Yet, paradoxically, the more cameras are there, the less likely the Israeli occupying forces are to respond with lethal force, Arraf points out.


But no amount of coordination can handle situations that go awry.

At the Tulkaram wall demonstration, the Palestinian youth became caught up in revolutionary fervour and broke an apparent understanding not to unleash a hailstorm of stones.

They shattered the windows of an Israeli army jeep that pulled up on the demonstrators, while just missing some of the activists – who were forming line to shield the Palestinians supposedly cutting the wire mesh behind them.

“I asked myself, ‘Aren’t I more useful [to the Palestinian cause] alive than dead?’ Fear is still a factor”

German ISM activist


“I was trembling, I thought someone was going to get seriously hurt that day,” says Eva, a 25-year-old German musician who was filming the demonstration, arrested four days later at a West Bank sit-in.


“Before I came, I asked myself, ‘Aren’t I more useful [to the Palestinian cause] alive than dead?’ Fear is still a factor.”


Asked whether she believed it was just a matter of time before another foreign volunteer is killed, Arraf, the ISM co-founder, replied with slight indignance.


“[That] question is seeking to place more value on an international’s life than a Palestinian’s. That’s a reality of disturbing racism that we’re up against. The fact is, there are civilians being killed out here everyday.”

Source : Al Jazeera

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