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International activists: a non-violent force


Even as the U.N. withdrew its staff from Ramallah, hundreds of international activists entered the West Bank city offering themselves as human shields for Palestinians anticipating an Israeli military assault. The attack began March 28 in retaliation for a suicide bombing that killed 22 Passover diners the day before.

At the start of the Easter weekend, foreign civilians provided protective accompaniment for Palestinian medics and doctors seeking access to the wounded within the compound of Palestinian president Yasser Arafat. But as Israeli forces fanned out into the city, engaging in house to house searches and raids on the Ramallah Hospital, the internationals began interposing themselves between soldiers and civilians in an attempt to stem atrocities. They have subsequently followed Israeli troop movement into the West Bank cities of Beit Jala and Bethlehem, continuing their nonviolent intervention wherever possible.

“I think if we lived in a sane world, we’d be writing songs and making movies about these people,” said Tom Saffold, U.S. coordinator for the International Solidarity Movement, a group of internationals who have twice joined Israeli and Palestinian peace activists in nonviolent protests.

As of April 2, 100 international activists have reportedly distributed themselves between Ramallah and Bethlehem. The group within the compound, comprised of civilians from France, Brazil, Canada, Belgium, Britain, Ireland, Germany and Israel stated April 1 that they would not leave until the siege is lifted. They appealed to their respective ambassadors to come and meet with Arafat who, along with reportedly 100 Palestinians, remains confined there.

“We are trying to create a human shield against an Israeli attempt to attack and kill President Arafat and his assistants,” said Israeli activist Netta Golan, speaking from the compound.

Israeli forces have declared Ramallah and Bethlehem closed military zones. Requests from consuls to meet with the foreign activists confined in the presidential compound have been denied.

Most of the internationals, who entered Ramallah on the morning of Holy Thursday, just hours before the Israeli assault, were European members of the Grassroots International for the Protection of the Palestinian People, according to The Guardian. The few Americans in the group included Adam Shapiro, who lives in Ramallah, and Karrin Wheeler of Pittsburgh, Pa.

The Guardian also reported that 200 Italians were turned back by Israeli troops at the Kalandiya roadblock just south of Ramallah.

Approximately 30 or 40 Americans arriving throughout the weekend were deployed to Bethlehem in anticipation of an invasion there.

Throughout Easter weekend, the internationals in Ramallah, communicating via mobile phones and terse e-mails, focused on maintaining medical access for the wounded. “The ambulances of the International Red Cross, Red Crescent and U.N. … are coming under fire and international civilians have been trying to act as human shields on board,” one e-mail reported.

They concentrated on the compound and were able to escort in five ambulances, three doctors and some medical supplies.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worchester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002