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Into the war zone with a trusty white flag

Editor’s note: Chicagoans Jeff Guntzel and Kathy Kelly, co-coordinators of Voices in the Wilderness, along with Catholic Workers Scott Schaeffer-Duffy (Worcester, Mass.), Audrey Stewart (Ithaca, N.Y.), and Grace Ritter (Ithaca, N.Y.), visited Israel April 8 to April 24 to participate in nonviolent challenges to Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Upon arrival, they joined members of the International Solidarity Movement in Ramallah and eventually traveled to the Jenin camp. NCR began exploring alternatives to violence in its April 26 “Paths to Peace” supplement. We promised that we would continue the discussion both through readers’ letters and through our continued reporting on the issue. The following, diary excerpts from Kelly and Guntzel, is a firsthand account of being part of an international nonviolent force inserting itself into a violent circumstance.

Guntzel: Thousands of refugees filled the villages surrounding Jenin. They stayed in homes, schools and mosques. Listening to their stories, we began to piece together what had happened in the Jenin refugee camp.

The Israeli Army invaded the camp with brutal momentum [April 2]. After three days fighting fierce resistance, the Israeli Army called in the bulldozers and literally carved a path to the center of the camp, where the resistance fighters were refusing to give themselves up, and began their task of turning homes to rubble.

After two days of collecting stories, we decided to make our way to Jenin.

Our group of five was taken by car to Route 66, the main road into Jenin City. First we headed in the opposite direction, towards the Salem checkpoint, where all the men we had interviewed had been taken for detention and interrogation. On our way to the checkpoint, which divides Israel from the West Bank, we passed the petrol station where the Israelis were daily releasing the men and boys of Jenin Camp who had been detained during the invasion. In and around the petrol station we saw dozens of blindfolds and clipped plastic hand ties mixed with shells from big and little guns.

As we approached the petrol station (a few hundred yards from the checkpoint and a dozen or so kilometers from Jenin) an army jeep pulled up and ordered us to stop. Soon there were two jeeps and a police car. After warning of the dangers ahead, soldiers ordered us to turn back. We thanked the young men for their concern and told them it was our intention to press on and see for ourselves what was going on. We were not persuasive, and now the soldiers and the police were telling us that the entire area was a “closed military zone” and that they were under orders to stop us and turn us around. Grace, Audrey and Kathy sat down. The policeman threw his hands in the air. He faced a dilemma inasmuch as the rules required them to summon a woman police officer to remove women. He couldn’t do a thing. Scott and I remained standing and were taken to an army jeep and driven to the checkpoint where we were questioned and told we would be deported and banned from entering Israel for five years if we were caught in the West Bank again.

An Israeli soldier had spent an hour trying to reason with “the three nice girls,” who had sat down in the roadside, refusing to budge. “Really, I prefer your way to our way,” he said, “but believe me we have no choice at this point.” Eventually, the soldier, a reservist who normally worked as a computer programmer, pulled out water and bread from his jeep, handed it to the women, warned of the dangers ahead and drove off.

“Gee,” said Audrey. “I’ve been arrested for sitting down lots of times, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen nonviolence work.”

Meanwhile, Scott and I were driven a few kilometers from the checkpoint by two grumpy police officers. They tried to make small talk in the car. The effort was fruitless.

Predictable lines

Kelly: Soldiers stopped us at regular intervals. “What? What are you doing here? Where are you going? It’s very dangerous. You should go back.”

We persisted until, rounding a final bend, we saw a huge encampment filled with soldiers, tanks, armored personnel carriers and tents. By this time, seasoned in dialogues with soldiers, we exchanged the predictable lines. We agreed it was risky for all involved, but we disagreed about whether or not they had a choice. Scott appealed to religious beliefs. I suggested that it was in the soldier’s best interests to let unarmed pacifists show that nonviolent methods could make a positive difference.

A commander was called. He reiterated that there was no possibility for us to go forward. We agreed together that we should just walk on. At that point, one soldier said, “Look, why don’t you just go back 100 meters and walk through those fields?”

“Sounds good. So long!” we said, nervous that he was bluffing. For the next two hours, white flag held high, we plowed through onion fields, then wheat fields, tripping over string, stumbling over ridges, but confidant that we’d reach Jenin before the sun went down. Spotting three children playing in the distance, we determined to head toward them, fairly certain that children wouldn’t be out playing in front of snipers.

When we reached the street where the children were playing, we began asking if there were any hotels open. Adilah understood our broken Arabic and led us to the school where she and her family were among 800 refugees from Jenin camp sharing space in chaotic halls and rooms of a four-story building. We ducked out of the bedlam into a crowded but relatively orderly office where we met Dr. Jamil, who had been expecting us.

He was glad to see us. He is a general practitioner but also a public health administrator. He and a local dentist have worked night and day, aided by a sturdy crew of young Palestinian Medical Relief Committee volunteers, to coordinate distribution of food, water, medicine and blankets, to run a 24-hour clinic, to organize clean-up and to preserve some semblance of order in the center. We pieced together more of Dr. Jamil’s story. He emphasized that the city had gone for 18 days without electricity, that this center was one of the few places, tonight, where electricity worked. Dr. Jamil’s eyes widened as he said, “I am asked again and again, how many have died? I try my best to tell what I know, but the truth is no one knows. It will take time.” He shrugged, but it was not the gesture of someone who is giving up.

The next morning, we headed off, with our trusty white flag, to enter the camp.

Hobbling to the hospital

Guntzel: Soldiers had repeatedly told us that women and children had all left the camp before the attacks, but within minutes of entering the camp I was called over to a window at the edge of the rubble. An old woman was inside, paralyzed below the waist and suffering from asthma. Andreas, a Swedish man whom we had met inside the camp, and I convinced the family to let us carry her to the hospital. It was too much of a risk for them, and the hospital was only three blocks away. They consented and passed the old woman, screaming, through the window. We hobbled awkwardly over the rubble, carrying the terrified old woman over demolished homes and to a road full of soldiers.

Though the Israeli government had been telling the world that its army was tending to the wounded and the dead inside the camp, the soldiers just watched us, dumbfounded. We set the woman in the road between two groupings of soldiers and sent Kathy off for a stretcher. I heard breaking glass to my left and looked over and then up where I spotted a soldier peeking through the window of a third story apartment. I held up my hand and yelled to the soldier, not knowing if he was a sniper, that we were American citizens (the Swede did not appreciate this) and we would be moving soon on our way to the hospital with the old woman. “Please don’t shoot,” I finished.

He didn’t shoot, and he wasn’t a sniper. He was a soldier ransacking somebody’s home. He continued smashing things and throwing glasses and china from the window as we carefully loaded the old woman onto the stretcher and walked her to the hospital.

Grim tasks

Kelly: April 17, we entered the Jenin camp for a third time. Most of the homes at the edge of the camp were somewhat intact, although doors, windows and walls are badly damaged by shelling. Each home that we entered was ransacked. Drawers, desks and closets were emptied. Refrigerators were turned over, light fixtures pulled out of the walls, clothing torn. The damage we saw corroborated stories women told us earlier that morning about Israeli soldiers entering their homes with large dogs that sniffed at the children as neighbors fled from explosions, snipers, fires and the nightmare chases of bulldozers.

As we climbed higher, entering the demolished center of the camp where the Israeli Army flattened close to 100 housing units, we heard snipers shooting at a small group of men who had come to pull bodies from the rubble. Covered with dust and sweat, and seemingly oblivious to the gunshots, the men, all residents from the camp, pursued the grim task. With pickaxes and shovels, they dug a mass grave and eventually filled it with four bodies pulled out of the rubble, including that of a small child. Little boys stood still, silently watching.

We thought again of the soldiers’ assurance that there were no children in the camp, wondering if now that lie might become true. The concerned frowns on the little boys’ faces belonged to hardened old men. One boy, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, helped carry his father’s corpse to the mass grave.

In the center of the camp, Hitan, age 20, and Noor, age 16, dug through the debris with their bare hands to retrieve some few belongings. Hitan found a favorite jacket, torn and covered with dust. She fingered the pockets, then set it aside. Noor laughed as she unearthed a matching pair of shoes. Then Hitan saw the edge of a textbook, and the sisters began vigorously digging and tugging until they pulled out five battered and unusable books. Noor held up her public health textbook. Hitan clutched The History of Islamic Civilization. “You see these girls, they are laughing and seem playful,” said Mohammed, speaking in Spanish. “It is, you know, a coping mechanism. How else can they manage what they feel?” Hitan stood and pointed emphatically at the small hole she and Noor had dug. “You know,” she exclaimed, “underneath here, there are four televisions and two computers! All gone. Finished.”

We asked Mohammed, a man who had been speaking with us, if he knew a man sorting through a huge mound of rubble next to where we stood. “He is my cousin. That was our home. He wants to find his passport or his children’s documents.” Mohammed’s cousin then sat down on top of the heap that was once his home, holding his head in his hands. An army surveillance plane flew overhead. “We are clear,” said Mohammed. “We are not animals. We are people with hearts and blood, just like you. I want the life for my family. What force do we have here? Is this a force?” He pointed to the wreckage all around us. “Do we have the atomic bomb? Do we have anthrax?”

As we walked away, we spotted a human bone and stepped gingerly around it. Thawra, a young medical relief volunteer and a resident of the camp, dipped down to pick up a veil lying on the ground, then paused a moment and placed it over the bone.

The next week, Audrey and I returned to Jenin, thinking that by then international relief groups would already be there to organize rescue and relief work but that we could at least visit with people with whom we’d met during our first stay. Upon arrival, our friend Caoihme Butterly, an Irish activist, told us a litany of woes facing residents of the Jenin camp. The anticipated waves of humanitarian helpers were nowhere to be found.

Water was contaminated by rotting corpses and sewage, fights had broken out over dwindling food supplies, and most of the 800 refugees staying at the school just outside the camp had left because no food was available there. An UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Association] worker told us that Israelis wouldn’t allow his team to remove unexploded ordnance from the camp, and so they were instead burying any grenades or explosive devices they discovered. UNICEF was distributing chlorine in parts of the camp, along with leaflets telling children not to play with unexploded ordnance. They’d also held “fun day” for the kids, offering finger-paints to children who daubed figures of the sun, moon, and stars on their cheeks. These are children who risk gastroenteritis, dehydration, malnourishment, children traumatized by weeks of shelling, sniping and home demolition, children uncertain whether some of their loved ones are dead or alive, children who have witnessed burials of their neighbors and relatives in mass graves. Is finger-paint the best that the international community can offer?

Human Chain

Crossing the checkpoint outside of Taybeh, as we made our way back to East Jerusalem, we came across a mound of clothing and bedding that looked like an obnoxious drop-off at a Catholic Worker shelter. Children explained to us that neighboring villagers had heaved the clothes and blankets over the checkpoint in hopes that people on the other side could deliver it to needy refugees from the Jenin Camp. But each time the children tried to retrieve the goods, soldiers above sniped at them. We swiftly formed a human chain to move the supplies down the hillside, but in minutes two Israeli soldiers were screaming at us. “Don’t you know you’re aiding terrorists?” We looked at the 8- to 10-year-old kids further down the hill and said we’d take our chances. Dr. Bill Thomson, a professor from the University of Michigan, began a heated debate with a particularly abrasive Israeli soldier. He responded to her shouted commands with soft-spoken questions, and as the argument ensued we realized that it would buy time to continue shifting the supplies downhill. At one point, I asked her, “If he were your professor, would you speak to him in this way? Or is it because you’re carrying a gun that you use harsh words?” “O.K.,” she said, “I’ll put the gun down. Come over here.”

Moving away from the larger group, the two had a reasonable conversation. The young soldier honestly believed that the destruction of Jenin Camp was largely due to an explosives lab set up by resistance fighters. Bill pointed out that if the resistance actually had that much firepower, the dynamics between Israel and Palestine might be considerably altered. It was a small gain for refugees of the Jenin camp. In this case, dialogue replaced near hysteria, and the pile of sweaters, baby clothes, pillows and light mats had disappeared.

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002