They are of all ages, all religions, all united by a commitment to the work of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), which mobilises international activists to witness, record and protest against Israeli human rights abuses.
Andrew Rouse, a doctor from Birmingham says: “My biggest fear is that I will be wounded or maimed and not be able to contribute to society anymore.”
So why go? “Because I’ve assessed the risks and feel that I’m prepared to take them, and unless the Palestinians are given some international support, they’ll soon be just a page in history,” Rouse adds.
Of the 200 or so ISM activists who will risk their lives in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip this autumn, it is estimated that about 50 will come from the British Isles. The orientation session in Pimlico is a chance for them to learn about the ISM.
Since the movement began two years ago, a quarter of its volunteers have constantly travelled there from this part of the world.
Some of the most animated discussion at the orientation session flickers around the issue of what to do if asked to burn a British or Israeli flag at a protest where the media are present.
“I’d hope I wouldn’t be put in that position, but I might do,” an Irish activist ventures awkwardly. “It might screw up relations with a lot of people.”
Most of the group though is opposed to flag burning. The next topic on the agenda is how to react if a person preparing to carry out a bombing attack, is pointed out in the street.
Throughout, the group members discuss their concerns with candour, insight and – where possible – humour.
Harvest with Palestinians
ISM activists reason with soldiers
Crucially, new recruits learn about the Olive Harvest Campaign that will run from 5 October to 20 November.
During this time, international activists will help Palestinian farmers harvest their olives where they are threatened by the Israeli settlers, soldiers or the Apartheid Wall Israel is erecting on Palestinian land.
“This olive harvest is maybe more important than any before because more and more land and water supplies are being confiscated every day,” says Leon, 31, who has recently returned from the West Bank.
“Every year, the groves get smaller and their fruitfulness is reduced. This time next year, if there are none left to farm, the farmers will have no option but to leave – and they will have nowhere to go.”
Such humanitarian concerns have prompted thousands of young activists to literally put their lives on the line in support of the Palestinian cause. But the struggle to re-adjust to their former lives afterwards inevitably receives less attention.
“Unless the Palestinians are given some international support, they’ll soon be just a page in history.”
Andrew Rouse, a doctor from Birmingham and ISM activist
“For a lot of people, coming back from Palestine is more difficult than going there,” says Rachel, 27, who works with an education charity. “Some experience depression or feelings of powerlessness.”
Because of this, the ISM now provides post-trip support, including counselling, to help activists deal with the trauma and pain they may have experienced or witnessed.
The other side of the coin is that many activists say they find a sense of meaning and purpose to their work in the occupied Palestinian territories that is simply not on offer back home.
“Some people do get addicted to the intensity and extraordinariness of it,” the writer Nicholas Blincoe tells the group. “Life afterwards can feel very ordinary.”
Before he left Jerusalem, Leon bought a jar of Arabic coffee. “When I came home, if I was ever feeling a bit miserable, I would just sniff the coffee and then I would feel better,” he says.
Seconds away from death …
For Rachel, who describes herself as ‘Jewish by birth’, the value of her time in the occupied Palestinian territories was in being able to see the results of her actions.
“I’d been politically active for 10 years and you can’t really measure how effective writing to your MP or going to a demonstration is,” she says.
“But by going to places like Tulkaram and ambulance-riding [to prevent the Israeli army from firing on the wounded] it was the one time in my life where I could see that I was achieving something useful and tangible. It opened up a new world for me.”
Of course, the death of [US citizen] Rachel Corrie and the fatal wounding of Tom Hurndall, who remains in a coma after being shot in the head by Israeli soldiers, continue to cast a shadow over the ISM’s tactical discussions.
The group’s original idea – to protect Palestinians by acting as ‘human shields’ – has declined along with the value that the Israeli army appears to place on international activists’ lives.
The dangers of travelling to the West Bank and Gaza will continue as long as the occupation does. But Rachel says that activists do not need to risk their lives to be effective: “Bearing witness has been a key part of our work from the very beginning.”
Interestingly, calls for a new approach to a final settlement are increasing in London’s activist circles at the same time as the security situation in the Middle East is deteriorating.
A new movement
About 200 activists will risk their
At a recent conference in the School of Oriental and African Studies, about 80% of speakers reportedly called for a one state solution to the Palestinian question.
“We need to rethink our strategy,” says Mortaza Sahibzada, a respected ISM veteran. “There has to be a big change in the way we campaign in the future.”
“The expulsion (of Arafat) will be a clear indication that Israel won’t allow any form of Palestinian autonomy, or even leadership. We need to move towards winning human rights – and the vote – for Palestinians within a unified state.”
Mortaza’s argument – that a two state solution is no longer viable because of the facts on the ground, created by Israel in the West Bank – is gaining currency in dissident Jewish circles too.
A recent speaking tour by the Israeli ‘new historian’ Ilan Pappe galvanised London activists with calls for a new global civil rights movement to unite dissident Jews and Muslims around demands for a joint right of return and franchise.
After all, they say, it is easier for Zionists to win sympathy for a fight against terrorism than against democracy.
In the meantime though, this year’s olive harvest will again take place in the shadow of the gun and activists will continue making the leap from Pimlico to Jericho.