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Stopped in Ramallah, they talk with a soldier

Editor’s note: The following are excerpts of an account of a day in the West Bank city of Ramallah with part of the international contingent that arrived in the war zone intent on maintaining a nonviolent presence. The excerpts were edited in places for style.


We left for Ramallah yesterday morning. In order to enter the city, our little group had to avoid the Israeli checkpoint by walking (and sometimes running) through the brush just south of the checkpoint. Once we were safely inside the military zone, a taxi driver with whom we had made advance arrangements drove us about a mile into Ramallah and stopped. He would not go any further for fear of Israeli snipers who were situated in many of the city’s tall buildings. A Red Crescent ambulance driver offered to take us to the Sheik Zayed hospital where we had arranged to meet two organizers with the International Solidarity Movement, Huwaida Araf and her fiancé, Adam Shapiro. We had heard that tanks and troops surrounding the hospital might block our passage.

Sheik Zayed hospital was the site of a mass grave dug several days earlier in the parking lot as a temporary burial ground for 29 Palestinians, including one American citizen. The morgue at the hospital was full, and there was nowhere else to put the bodies.

Coming down a steep hill about three miles from the hospital, we spotted a tank and an armored personnel carrier, an APC. These days, in Ramallah, the only vehicles on the streets are tanks, APCs and ambulances (I guess you could also count the mangled cars peppering the roadside). Suddenly a soldier appeared. He crouched on one knee, aimed his M-16 directly at us and fixed his eye to his gun’s sight. We stopped. The driver began slowly backing up the hill and several more soldiers appeared, some of them taking aim and some motioning us to come closer. We all held our passports up to let them know there were internationals in the car. Israeli troops had been harassing, arresting and even shooting ambulance drivers since the start of the invasion. We had no idea what to expect. When we got to the soldiers at the bottom of the hill we stopped again. Eight M-16s and a tank were aimed at us. The soldier directly to my right looked tired and scared. That scared me.

Our driver was ordered out of the car and asked a few questions in Arabic. Then we were ordered out, with all of our bags. We laid our bags out on the ground and opened them. After a not-so-thorough search several soldiers asked us a few questions while others encircled us. The soldier who at first struck me as tired and scared now just looked cautiously curious.

“Why are you here?” he asked, not quite meeting our eyes.

“We came to bring medicine and food to people under curfew,” said one member of our group.

“Don’t you know there are terrorists here? It is dangerous,” he replied. “Do you think you can bring peace?”

“We don’t know,” we said, almost in unison.

Then Kathy Kelly, co-founder of the group Voices in the Wilderness stepped in. “We are here because we know that our government pays for much of what is going on here and we feel a responsibility to intervene nonviolently in this terrible situation,” she said.

“We did not ask for this. It is the Palestinian leadership, bad leaders, they are responsible for this,” replied the soldier.

“But over half of the people here are children,” Kelly said, “and children can’t be bad leaders, they can only be children!”

“I know there are children here,” he replied solemnly, looking off into the distance, “but there are also terrorists. You cannot drive to the hospital.”

“Then we will walk,” replied Greg, another member of our group, who began walking toward the tank and APC that partially blocked our path.

“Stop! You cannot walk either,” said the soldier, who then paused and looked around. Directly in front of us was a soldier on one knee, holding each of us briefly in his crosshairs, one person at a time.

“Don’t you understand that you make the terrorists happy when you come here to help them?” the soldier continued.

“We are here to help the innocent people in Ramallah who are being terrorized and killed every day,” Kelly said.

“We do not kill innocent people.”

“We read Ha’aretz [an Israeli paper, printed in Hebrew and English] every day and we know innocent people are being killed,” Kelly said.

“Do you think I like this?” the soldier said. “I don’t want to be here.”

At that moment there was an enormous explosion and sustained machine-gun fire. It was coming from directly behind us, and it was very loud. Two members of our group stepped away to smoke, and the others drifted back toward the ambulance. Kelly and I remained with the soldier.

“Do you know what Arafat wants? He wants murder. Why do you want to help a murderer?” the soldier asked.

“Maybe there is another way to look at our presence here,” I said. “We are here operating beneath the level of the leaders who we believe do not want real peace. I think you and I have more in common than you have with Sharon or than I have with Arafat, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, I agree.”

“So let us go to the hospital,” Kelly responded.

Silence. Then the soldier spoke again. “You know, it is not just the Palestinians who are suffering.”

“We want a just peace for both sides,” we responded. “We want an end to all of the violence.”

“It is too late,” the soldier insisted. “There can be no peace now.”

“It is difficult to see a way out, but … ”

“Why don’t you work on behalf of the Jews? Why can’t you be objective?”

At that moment, another soldier came up to us and began speaking in Hebrew. Then we were told we could get back into the ambulance and push ahead toward the hospital.

Jeff Guntzel is a member of Voices in the Wilderness, a group advocating nonviolence that has worked for years to overturn the economic sanctions against Iraq. He lives in Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 2002