|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
17 - 23 January 2002
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Diary of an occupationWhen the US blocked a Security Council resolution to send observers to Palestine, international civilians took matters into their own hands. Witnesses, chroniclers and sometimes human shields, they have done much to raise awareness in the West of the Israeli brutality Palestinians must endure every day. Fayza Hassan meets activist Leslie Whiting on her return from a land under siege
A dozen or so women had gathered in Samia Zeitoun's elegant and airy living room to hear the testimony of Leslie Whiting, a British woman who had taken part in the recent march for peace in Palestine. Activists? Hardly. Upper- class Egyptians, all are Western-educated, with polished American accents that tell of long sojourns in Seattle, Boston, Chicago or New York. They all have degrees from good universities and speak several foreign languages fluently, are or have been successful professionals, and generally represent a good sample of Egypt's best educated.
From top: members of ISM attacked by Israeli soldiers with tear gas during a demonstration (photo: AP); peace activists carrying a banner in the centre of Jerusalem (photo Reuters); tanks block access to Nablus; international activist waves Palestinian flag (photos: Leslie Whiting)
The coffee and biscuits forgotten, they were all recounting how the aftermath of 11 September had turned them against the US policy and made them feel at one with their Arab sisters. One woman confessed that she had never questioned her identity before the attack, and was quite comfortable to live astride two cultures. Now, however, the scales had tipped unmistakably and she felt one hundred per cent Arab. Even before that doomed day, the women had sympathised with the Palestinians and despised the way they had been robbed of their inalienable rights with the US's active help. Following 11 September, however, the campaign of terror Sharon mounted in Palestine had turned their stomachs. "How shameful of the US not to allow international observers," said one of the women, curling her lips in revulsion.
The United States and Israel are now alienating irremediably the very people who could have constituted a bridge between the Arab world and the West. "It just proves that they [the US administration] know full well what is going on there at the moment, and are consenting partners in the slaughter of Palestinians," said another participant. An American woman, sitting cross-legged on the sofa, nodded vigourously. She was the only non-Egyptian, apart from the speaker.
They talked for a while about Mustafa Barghouthi, whom the Israeli occupation forces had beaten, breaking his knee in the process, and shook their heads in wonderment. "And you say that non-violent resistance can be effective?" a voice asked. All eyes turned to the woman who had said little so far: the speaker we had come to hear.
Leslie Whiting, a British citizen, has lived in Egypt for over a decade, teaching English at the British Council and yoga in her spare time. Mortified by Western governments' indifference to Palestinian suffering, appalled at the bias shown by the Western media, she joined the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) that travelled to Palestine to see, and show the world, what ordinary Palestinians must face every day. "All our actions are based on non-violent civil disobedience, as exemplified by peace activists such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King," said Whiting.
The members of the group entered Palestine as tourists and gathered at a prearranged meeting place, where activists from the Palestine Centre for Rapprochement coached them. They were to tour the occupied territories in teams, staying with Palestinian villagers in their homes, and recording the brutality and harassment they would witness first-hand. Among the participants, Leslie pointed out, there were a number of elderly people who, throughout the whole campaign, placed their lives in jeopardy whenever they thought they could spare a younger life. Aged between 60 and 70, they walked for miles through rain and mud in the freezing weather, carried heavy bundles, stood or lay down in front of the Israeli tanks. They had been warned that they could be beaten up, and they were; that they might be shot at, and that too happened. With their younger companions, they were ready to sacrifice their lives in the name of what they considered the ultimate injustice. "They are making the innocent Arabs pay for the Holocaust over and over," whispered one of the women listening to Whiting's account.
Leslie Whiting kept a detailed record of the actions undertaken by the 60 participants -- mainly British and American citizens -- in this "International Solidarity Campaign, as a means of non- violent resistance to the brutal military occupation of Palestinian Territories." She also managed to take a number of photographs.
"We entered Ramallah on 19 December," Whiting recounted. The group assembled in the city centre with the banners they had prepared, bearing the words "The Occupation Kills." They marched through the centre of the city, past President Arafat's residence and the recently bombed Palestinian National Broadcasting Centre, to the area where Israeli soldiers had positioned a roadblock. They stood silently for about 10 minutes in front of the tanks and then lay down in the road -- a symbolic reenactment of the deaths the Israeli occupation has caused. "The soldiers fired live ammunition into the air in an attempt to scare us away, but no one moved. We delivered our message by loudspeaker and after about 15 or 20 minutes we rose and silently walked back," said Whiting.
Arafat had initially refused to meet with the group, but changed his mind at the last minute and they were asked to stop by his residence. Leslie smiles at the recollection: "He greeted each of us, shaking hands with us one by one, congratulating us on our action. We had a one- hour audience with him." They were invited for lunch; although due to lack of time Arafat had not been able to arrange a formal repast, he treated them to pizza, sandwiches, fruit and drinks.
In the evening, the group met with Birzeit University students who had not been able to visit their families in Gaza during the Eid and Christmas vacation because of the closure. They stayed with Palestinian families overnight in the neighbouring village of Marda.
The three days from 20 to 22 December had been earmarked for roadblock removals. The villages targeted were Yasuf, Haris, Kefl Haris and Deir Istya. The protestors left Marda early in the morning and, after a bumpy minibus journey across rocky and muddy terrain, they left the vehicle amid some hills and proceeded on foot along the route that many Palestinians have to walk daily to get to work. "It was a treacherous half-hour climb through slippery mud, debris and boulders, worsened by heavy fog and desolate surroundings, looking like a war zone," Whiting recalled. This was Jelazoun, a refugee camp "active in resistance, where Friday prayers had often been followed by peaceful demonstrations and sometimes stone- throwing by boys. Now the Israelis have dug up the road to deny passage to and from their village and placed [the inhabitants] under siege."
The group's final destination was Salfit and the surrounding villages.
Salfit, with its 10,000 inhabitants, is normally a major centre providing essential services to many surrounding satellite communities. This village had been completely closed five days before the protestors' arrival, when the Israeli occupation forces had left, unexpectedly reentering the village at dawn and killing six people. They gunned down one of their victims in front of his wife and children. Another villager was shot and fell to the ground, whereupon the Israelis drove an APC over his head, transforming his body into a bloody mess. He was totally unrecognisable, said Leslie, who dwelt for a while on the spectacle of carnage.
My mind wandered to Robert Fisk's Pity the Nation, which I had been reading the previous night: "We knew that some kind of massacre had occurred when we saw the doctor in a bloodstained white coat standing in front of an old ambulance, with his arms outstretched in front of a small crowd," Fisk wrote after visiting the coastal village of Adloun in South Lebanon. "Behind him were two fire-blackened cars, riddled with bullets and cut open by rocket fire. From the first of these, Palestinians were tugging something heavy and soft out of the doors.
"The corpses were congealed together inside the car. One Palestinian youth with a rifle over his shoulder pulled on an arm that protruded from the door, setting his boots into a crack to heave the body out. There was a tearing sound and the arm came out, detached from the body. He stood there clutching the disembodied hand in disbelief.
"The women and children in the two cars were identifiable by the bright flowered orange traditional dress they wore, but their faces were unrecognizable. One had been beheaded. Another, a young girl, lay curled in the arms of an older woman in the backseat. Another Palestinian youth leaned inside the car and put his arm around her waist and pulled her gently, shyly, towards the door. She folded into his arms but as he pulled her clear of the door, her face slopped off onto the road and the young man dropped her and started to vomit." As I remembered the numerous massacres of Palestinians I had read about (Western television is especially bashful when it comes to airing these particular facts), the speaker was recounting the members' visit to the home of one of the victims of the Salfit attack:
"Joad Abdel-Latif Abdel-Rehim El-Dimis from Salfit fell to an Israeli soldier's bullet on 14 December. At around 2.30am he heard the approach of the Israeli forces and ran to his friend's house to warn him. (Joad was not on the wanted list but it seems that his friend may have been.) As he was knocking on the door soldiers asked him to stop and shot him in the chest. He was 26 years old, a graduate in education and psychology but had been unable to find work, and was married five months ago. His mother commented that 'they did not have the guts to confront us with their tanks and guns, so they cut off the power before they came in'."
Whiting paused to point out "that the closure of Salfit means that all the neighbouring villages are cut off of all services such hospital, fire brigade, etc."
On the way to Salfit, the activists passed Ariel, a luxurious hilltop colony of 16,000. When Sharon visited it, he announced that this was indeed the biblical Samaria. Obviously, the Israeli prime minister was deprived of the benefit of mulling over Thomas L Thomson's The Mythic Past; had he done so, it might have inspired him to temper his Biblical references somewhat. The area, explained Whiting, was confiscated Palestinian land, on which farmers had grown olives, wheat and barley. "Water for the settlement, including water for the Jewish swimming pools, is taken from the Palestinian villages, where villagers suffer from shortage of water, and we saw Wadi Kanaa, a scenic area of freshwater springs and major water source, now seriously polluted by sewage and industrial effluent from the settlement." Robbed of their livelihood, the Palestinians who lost their land have no other alternative but to work for Israelis who use them as cheap labourers.
The colonies are connected to each other by well maintained, settler-only roads, an essential element of this apartheid-style system. Another striking feature of the countryside are the former Palestinian olive groves, with trees sawn off to stumps by Jewish settlers, a job they prefer to undertake at night, under police protection. Furthermore, the settlers regularly attack farmers who tend their land, forcing them to stay away from the fields.
Palestinians who once produced their own food, therefore, are now forced to buy it from Israel at prohibitive prices. Transporting the food back to the Palestinian villages is a logistical nightmare because of the roadblocks. All supplies must be unloaded at the roadblock and crates carried over by hand then reloaded onto another truck. The problem is compounded on roads where there is more than one roadblock. Similarly, all electricity must be purchased from Israel.
Gazans, Whiting noted, tried to build their own power station but Apache helicopters promptly bombed it. They also tried to dig their own wells, but the Israeli authorities have ruled that all water must be bought from Israel, "under a general policy to crush any attempt at self-sufficiency," she commented angrily. This is just one example typical of life in the villages all over the West Bank.
The group spoke to a taxi driver from Yasuf who tries to transport people from village to village but is always stopped and given fines and tickets "for being an Arab." Sometimes, he told them, soldiers order all the passengers out of the taxi and then burst all the tyres. "He told us that he bought the taxi new, before the Intifada, and is obliged to repay the loan. He should stay in the village, but defies orders and comes to work daily. He says he doesn't care if he lives or dies," recounted Leslie.
Over three successive days, then, the group worked in teams, often in dismal weather, ankle- deep in slippery mud and pouring rain, the icy wind howling around them. They used picks and shovels to shift the roadblocks: huge boulders, earth and debris. At first they worked alone, then Palestinians joined them. One day, after three or four hours of hard work, they managed to level a space large enough for a vehicle to pass. "By this time, a crowd had gathered and the first vehicle, after a few mishaps with the mud, was able to pass amid joyous shouts and cheering," Whiting recounted. Suddenly, however, Israeli soldiers arrived and began questioning them. The activists formed a chain in front of the block and began talking to the soldiers so that work could continue. Their stratagem paid off, and after a while the soldiers left them alone. This particular roadblock remained open for two days, until the army bulldozed it back into place.
At the Kefl Haris roadblock, near the settlers' petrol station, several settlers halted their cars to yell abuse at the protestors through the window. They ignored them and continued to work, shoveling stones and lifting rocks out of the way. Soldiers and police were present, looking on. "Suddenly," recalled Whiting, "two enormous settlers came running around the corner, yelling abuse, and kicking, punching and lashing out in all directions. They assaulted two of our team, but fortunately the police intervened. It took several police and soldiers to restrain them, but they acted effectively and handcuffed them and dragged them away." The protestors were shaken by the violence but no one was seriously hurt, so they kept digging. A little later another settler arrived and began preaching, citing religious texts to support his view. This one, they could simply ignore. "Of course," said Whiting, "our action was more symbolic than effective; most road blocks were bulldozed back into place within a day or two but a point had been made.
On 23 December, the ISM members headed for the city of Nablus, which had been completely sealed and declared "closed military zone" a few days before the group's arrival. "We had a lengthy journey, which required us to get off the bus, walk about one kilometre carrying our baggage, take minibuses and walk again over about three kilometres of hillside and tracks. When we neared the city we saw a huge Israeli tank blocking the road completely. We marched slowly up to the tank, waving our Palestinian flags and one group surrounded the tank while the second acted as observers. The soldiers reacted by revving their engines loudly and swiveling the barrel of the gun atop the tank. It was a scare tactic," commented Leslie, smiling at the memory. The demonstrators were not impressed and stood their ground. After a few minutes the soldiers became more nervous and began manoeuvring the tank but again to no avail, for the protestors did not disperse. Instead, they began slowly moving towards the tank. To everyone's surprise, the tank started to back up. The group continued to inch their way forward until they had succeeded in forcing the tank back up the hill and out of the way. The demonstrators formed a chain across the access road, opening it. Immediately, Palestinian drivers who had been waiting for hours at the roadblock seized the opportunity and drove through.
Wasting no time, the protestors walked up to the tank and posted two signs on its sides. One simply read: "Return to sender," while the other was a poster featuring the picture of a young Palestinian, Diab El-Sarawi, whom the Israelis had killed on 20 December. The group had visited the victim's family, who explained that Diab had arrived home in a happy mood because he had heard that the Israeli forces had pulled out earlier that day. Suddenly he heard shooting and climbed to his terrace to see what was happening. As he appeared, he was shot three times in the head and shoulders. His wife, nine months pregnant, ran up the stairs to find him bleeding profusely and screamed for help from the neighbours. By the time they arrived, he was dead. The wife has shrapnel in her wrist, neck and stomach, but cannot be operated on before delivery. There are five children in the family apart from the one on the way. Diab's wife was doubly grief-stricken when she saw the incident reported on Israeli television as the shooting of a "Palestinian terrorist" who was "planning an attack."
About ten minutes elapsed before the arrival of another Israeli military vehicle, which allowed the tank to beat a hasty retreat around the corner. The soldiers proceeded to rip off the offending placards.
from far top: removing roadblock; smoothing the ground; Palestinian car able to pass; Whiting. Not only an activist and a yoga teacher, she is an artist too. She sold a number of her paintings and sent the proceeds of the sale to the Palestinian Children's Relief Fund in the US. The fund doubled the donation and Whiting was able to organise the purchase of an electric wheelchair for Atef Makoussi, paralysed from the waist down when an Israeli soldier shot him. The bullet shattered his spine
On their way to visit the governor of Nablus in his office, the group passed a bombed-out police station where 12 Palestinian officers had lost their lives. They also went past the remains of a factory manufacturing office furniture, which had been bombed by Israeli F-16s, under the pretext that the factory was producing weapons.
Salfit, 25 December: Israeli forces had invaded this town brutally, and the protestors saw the remains of a house that had been bombed and then bulldozed to the ground in the middle of the night. Somehow, the family had managed to escape without injury. No one knew why the attack had been so vindictive, or why the soldiers had singled out this particular house. Apache helicopters had also demolished the police station, while missiles reduced the nearby military intelligence office to rubble. At a small emergency clinic constructed to serve serious cases unable to travel past checkpoints to reach a proper hospital, Leslie and her companions spoke to Dr Naim Sabra, the director and surgeon. The clinic, which features a total of five doctors and four beds, must now serve the 60,000 inhabitants of Salfit and its satellite villages, as well as a large portion of the population of north Nablus. Dr Sabra described the difficulties he and his medical staff must overcome to reach the hospital. They have only two ambulances for the entire region, including northwest Ramallah; there is a great shortage of medical supplies; the lab is almost empty; and there is no heating in the hospital. During the invasion of Salfit, a total blackout was imposed and doctors were not allowed to go into the streets. Wounded people were therefore left to die.
This, however, was not the first attack on Salfit and its environs. Several months ago, Issa Naif Souf, in his mid-30s, married, and the father of one child, was at home in a village near Salfit. His brother's children were playing in the olive grove near their home when Issa heard that soldiers were approaching and lobbing tear gas bombs into the village. Issa ran out to bring the children in. He had gotten hold of two of them and was calling to the third when the soldiers opened fire on him. A bullet passed through his lung and exploded in his spinal cord. He fell, and the soldiers came up and began kicking him, shouting "get up, get up." He tried, but had no sensation in his legs. He shouted for his friends. When they appeared the soldiers, pointed their gun at him. He remembers begging them to be human; then he passed out. He is permanently paralysed from the waist down, and still has nine pieces of bullet in his spinal cord. Issa was a sports teacher.
On 26 December, a French delegation joined the group and together they attempted to visit Gaza. After waiting almost two hours at the checkpoint, the Israeli authorities allowed the French delegation through. "Shortly after, one of the officials came to us [the International Solidarity Campaign members] and told us that the Palestinians are firing mortars and we should run for cover and leave for our own security." Though they heard sporadic shooting, there were no sounds resembling mortar shells and they felt suspicious. After a while, the Israelis brought the French group back. It was then decided that they would attempt to walk through the checkpoint anyway, disobeying the orders to leave. So a group of about 60 marched through. They had walked about 200m when the Israeli soldiers descended upon them; although the activists were non-violent, and clearly unarmed, "they fired live ammunition into the air, punched, body- slammed and wrestled to the ground some people in the front line indiscriminately (there were several elderly women in the front). We immediately sat down, but the rough treatment did not end, and the commander yelled at us: 'If you don't go back we're going to shoot you all'."
The Israelis seized cameras, breaking several and tearing out the films. The group remained seated, and soon their buses were driven up to the site. People were lifted bodily and shoved into the vehicle. Two French people were arrested and two of Leslie's group sustained injuries. The buses were escorted out by military vehicles and the drivers instructed not to stop until they reached their destination.
The next day, members of the group took up positions as international checkpoint observers in Surda. "Initially, we spent most of our time helping elderly and sick people with heavy luggage up the steep hill." The soldiers were visibly annoyed by their presence, but they managed to help avert a potentially lethal incident. A Palestinian truck driver understood that the soldiers had waved him through when in fact they had ordered him to go back. As he proceeded through the checkpoint live ammunition was fired in the air, the truck stopped and the driver pulled out and slammed against the side. A member of the peace team intervened and managed to defuse the situation.
Many members of the ISM also belong the Women in Black movement, and the two groups gathered in Jerusalem on 28 December to march from Paris Square to Jaffa Gate, where a large audience of Israeli Jews opposed to the occupation had come to hear speeches and listen to an outdoor concert while the army filmed them from atop walls of the Old City. In the afternoon, some members helped with the "Remember the Innocents" rally held in Bethlehem's Manger Square by the Holyland Trust.
On the 29th, over 100 international civilians served as an "international protection force" at Surda checkpoint (on the road from Ramallah to Birzeit University) to allow Palestinians safe passage to and from school and work. The military checkpoint set up at occupied Surda is the site of daily harassment, said Whiting. "Since Palestinian cars are not allowed to pass, thousands of Palestinians, old and young, are forced to walk uphill for over a kilometre. The ID cards of young men are often confiscated and their owners forced to wait, sometimes for hours, in obedient positions behind barbed wire." Israeli soldiers attacked the group with tear gas and concussion bombs, again despite the clearly non-violent nature of their protest. The soldiers pushed, kicked and shoved members of the group and generally acted aggressively. More than once, they pretended to target the unarmed activists with their guns but the protestors held firm. As a result, the road remained opened all day and Palestinians were allowed to pass without harassment.
Whiting had left the West Bank on 28 December, heading for Hebron. The plan for 30 December was to observe conditions in this city, where a handful of settlers have made life impossible for the inhabitants. Another project was to take part in educational activities with children there.
At around 8am, the activists arrived by bus at a checkpoint about 15km from Hebron. They were held for about half an hour, whereupon a closed military zone was declared for no clear reason and the buses were forbidden to go any further while other traffic was waved through. Around 200 Italians and 60 French citizens, members of other peace organisations, joined the members of the ISM. Negotiations with the soldiers at the checkpoint were unsuccessful, but when some of the campaigners attempted to board a minibus to return to Jerusalem, where they wanted to attend a religious meeting, armed settlers threatened the bus driver and they did not persist, fearing for the man's safety. The leader of the Italian delegation, European MP Luisa Morgantini, continued to negotiate with the army for a couple of hours but was finally turned down. They eventually had to return to Jerusalem without visiting Hebron. "The short and as usual inaccurate report in the Jerusalem Post the next day failed to mention the presence of US citizens amongst us; it seems imperative that Israeli Jews should not find out that their policies in Palestine are opposed by many Americans and many Jews of the Diaspora. However, the Arab press gave extensive and accurate coverage of the events every day," wrote one participant after being turned back at the Hebron checkpoint.
On 31 December, for the first time, the religious leaders of Jerusalem and Bethlehem agreed to head a march from Bethlehem to Jerusalem together, in protest against the restrictions the Israelis have placed on freedom of worship at holy sites. For many years, Muslim and Christian Palestinian residents of Bethlehem and other West Bank towns have been unable to go to their churches and mosques in Jerusalem because their passes do not permit them to cross the checkpoint.
A great procession headed by the patriarchs of the main churches and Muslim sheikhs followed by nearly 2,000 Palestinians and 300 foreign visitors marched toward the checkpoint, but were held up by a barrage of army jeeps and soldiers closing the road. They would not allow free passage to the worshippers; nor did they relent after negotiations with the religious leaders. Prayer meetings were therefore held at the checkpoint by each of the many faiths represented before the procession returned to Bethlehem.
As Whiting concluded her account, the women sat in silence. Although all knew about the abuse the Israeli army inflicts routinely on the Palestinians, some were weeping, devastated by this first-person testimony. The gathering dispersed slowly, each of us wondering what we could do -- beyond listening, and spreading the word.
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