Apr '02

Witness From Bethlehem:
Non-Violent Kentucky Activists Hit a War Zone
by Paul McDonald

[Views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are divergent and complex. This is but one. Readers are invited to voice their own.—Eds.]

On March 27, Carla Wallace and four other peace activists left Louisville with the express intention of joining other Internationals, Israelis, and Palestinians in demonstrating for a non-violent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their agenda included the planting of olive trees in Palestinian orchards, but actual events were strikingly different. On April 1, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, responding to a suicide bombing in Haifa that killed 16 people, declared Israel to be at war and called Yasser Arafat the "enemy of the entire free world." Israeli tanks were dispatched into the West Bank. Four members of the Kentucky delegation were staying at a hotel just 200 yards away from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; two others, with a family in the Al-Aiyda refugee camp. Wallace, a peace activist and local civil-rights advocate for over twenty years, was interviewed five days after her return, and here gives her account of a non-violent campaign in the face of a military one.—PMC.]

. . .

PMC: Was there an element of "ahimsa" in your delegation's trip to the West Bank? [ahimsa, the Gandhian doctrine of non-violence.]

CW: Oh, very much so. The International Solidarity Movement that was hosting us has a commitment to non-violent direct action. It's Palestinian led, with Israeli Peace Activists and Internationals. They have been hosting an International presence for many years now. [palsolidarity.org]

We had training in non-violence, which I've had before. I've actually trained other people in non-violence over the years. But it was a really good training in terms of what we were there about, which was not provoking anybody, and not doing harm or injury to anybody. We were to be a peace presence in the midst of a very serious conflict. Now, I have to say that when we headed over there, although we knew the task of non-violent peace action was not without risk, we did not anticipate the escalation of military intervention.

PMC: Was your visit specifically timed to put you in the middle of the Israeli military operation?

CW: Oh, no. The last military incursion of the occupied areas and the city of Bethlehem happened in early March and was over, I think, by March 8th. I don't think people anticipated that this level of military intervention would happen so soon afterward. We were going at a time when Arab leaders were having a summit to discuss peace, and all kinds of international diplomacy was going on. But when we landed in Tel-Aviv it was clear that tensions were rising.

We held our palms face up, chanting,
"No to occupation. Peace now."

PMC: With that in mind, what are your particular rules of engagement when your intention is to not do any harm and to be a peace presence? I understand at one point you were fired on…

CW: Well, two things happened early on that gave us a wake-up call. The very first day that we were in Jerusalem we heard that there was a peace march to a building called the Orient House, which had been the seat of the Palestine Authority in East Jerusalem. The Orient House had been taken over by the Israeli Military in the past incursion and they were still holding it. As we marched to the Orient House, we held our palms face up and we were chanting, "No to occupation. Peace now." And we weren't in front of that building two minutes before the border patrol charged the crowd on horseback and started swinging these long black batons. Just beating people over the head—broke a guy's nose, smashed an old guy's face. People tried to maintain calm, but everyone was so taken aback that they began running, trying to get away, and the police were running after us and beating people. There was no warning that they were going to charge the crowd.

Then when we got to Bethlehem the level of tension increased. We were marching to one of the refugee camps called Beit Jala, which was one of the first areas invaded in the Bethlehem area. We understood that people were scared and that tanks were blocking access. We had just finished our training, which included how to engage in a positive way in case Israeli soldiers confront us or in case we ran into any settlers who might be militant. We decided to not even chant. The march would be silent and we would just walk with our palms open and not carry anything.

PMC: What's the reasoning behind the open palms?

CW: To show there's nothing in our hands and to have kind of an open stance. You have to be careful if you're close to a soldier not to do that [display open palms] at waist level because they may think you're going to grab something. We didn't want them to be afraid, agitated or intimidated in any way. There were about 200 of us [Internationals] and we got to where a tank was at the mouth of the refugee camp. We were walking slowly, not saying anything, and he [an Israeli soldier in the tank] started firing. At first people thought the shots were sound bombs used to break up rallies. But they weren't. About four people down from me, a woman turned and I saw this hole in her belly. She had a surprised look on her face and just crumbled over. Suddenly, other people were injured. There's a question as to whether the soldiers were firing at the ground and people were wounded by shrapnel or whether we were directly fired on. But in any case it was live ammunition and it came from the soldier in the tank.

PC: What happened to the woman who was hit? Was she killed?

CW: No, she was not killed. She's still in a Jerusalem hospital with tubes in her stomach. There were five other people injured. Some head wounds, some leg and some arm wounds. Everyone shot was an International.

PMC: The people fired on were part of the International presence and not Israeli or Palestinian?

"All right, they're shooting [at] the press;
they may be getting ready to kill someone."

CW: Yes. We all started walking backward very slowly, our palms up with the tank coming at us. He shot at us a couple more times and we just kept walking backward until we got far enough away where we could turn and walk back to the hotel and take care of the people who had been injured.

One of the problems was that the military was targeting the press and anyone who seemed to be medically oriented. The week we were there, there were a number of attacks on ambulances. It got to the point where the ambulances couldn't even move through the streets. The press had helmets and full body flak jackets and marked themselves with white duct tape thinking that would identify them and provide protection. Well, that only made them a target and they were scrambling to get away. One woman from either the BBC or CNN International was broadcasting live and screaming, "We're trying to get in the van and they're shooting at us!" You can hear the shooting and she's trying to drag her colleague in so that he doesn't get shot and the van is moving. It was that kind of panic.

One of our leadership said, "All right, they're shooting [at] the press; they may be getting ready to kill someone," because, in the past when the press is not there, the level of brutality is higher.

PMC: Isn't firing on medical vehicles a violation of the Geneva Convention?

CW: Absolutely. But there were so many violations. The ambulances couldn't move. The injured people in the refugee camps couldn't get to the hospitals. The Red Cross was prohibited was treating the wounded by the Israeli Military.

PMC: What do you think was the Israeli military's purpose in this action?

CW: Their official position was that they were searching for people that were responsible for the suicide bombings. But what we saw was an attack on a civilian population. A couple of us ended up spending every night with a family in the Al-Aiyda Refugee Camp outside of Bethlehem. Under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority has been given limited autonomy to run the general day-to-day life of the occupied territories. They make sure schools are open, garbage is collected, there's proper medical care, etc. It was very clear to me that the target of the military incursion was to decimate the Palestinian Authority so that they cannot serve the basic needs of the people. For instance, they bombed a girl's school in the previous incursion. They wouldn't allow garbage collection. If the police here were looking for a gang member or someone who did a terrible action in the community, you don't cordon off entire neighborhoods, subject them to tanks coming through their house, shoot at them, cut off their medical care, cut off their food and invade their homes because you're looking for one person! It was clear to me that they were trying to undermine the morale of the people and destroy the leadership they have.

Places where the army knew Internationals
were staying were not hit nearly as hard.

PMC: Are the Internationals considered something of a shield for the Palestinians?

CW: Yes. We found that many families in the refugee camp wanted some Internationals to stay with them because they would feel safer. Each person had to decide if they were willing to do that. Several from our group did. That first night, sitting with those folks hearing the shooting and the tanks come in, I had moments when I wasn't sure if I was going to come home. But the civilian population told us that the places where the army knew Internationals were staying were not hit nearly as hard as other refugee camps like Jenin and Nablus. In Bethlehem they had surveillance planes going over so we knew that they knew what houses we were staying in. We would sleep in our clothes with our passports in our hands so that if the Israeli military came through the door—because in past incursions and in this one they have come in and started shooting —we would gather with the family, sit with them on the floor holding up our passports and hope that would give the family some shred of protection.

PMC: I've seen several news reports about peace marches with members of the Palestinian Authority and Israeli Parliament—

CW: Yes! There were 20,000 people at a rally in Tel-Aviv on Saturday [04/06]! We were really excited to hear about that because that's inside Israeli territory. One of the demonstrations that we joined while we were in Jerusalem were the Women in Black who are mostly Israeli women who for years have been demonstrating close to where Sharon's administrative offices are in support of peace and an end to the occupation. [igc.org/balkans/wib] They were wonderful. For years and years they have been saying, "How can we build a state that we feel good about such as the state of Israel if we're doing this to another people?"

PMC: In your view is there any justification, the operative word being "justification," for the suicide bombings?

CW: I don't think there's any justification. I'm a non-violent peace activist and I don't believe in violence as a way to address any of the problems. So, I don't justify suicide bombings by any means. I put myself in the place of an Israeli parent who wonders "Is my kid going to go to the wrong coffee shop tonight?" What I do have is more of an understanding that the occupation will continue to produce young people desperate enough, feeling so much hopelessness and abandonment, that they decide this is the only way that they can respond.

When we were in the refugee camp, we saw so many children that were traumatized by the violence. Three members of the family we stayed with had bullet wounds. Everyone had lost either a friend or another family member. The Palestinian Authority along with grass roots organizations and centers in the camp had programs where they were trying to help these children. On the first day we were there, a young man who was one of the leaders of a center said to us, "You know, by the time our children are five or six years old, they've lost an uncle or a sister or they've seen their family home bulldozed. They either begin on the path of revenge or retribution or they try to be children. Our job is to help them try to be children." I heard that over and over again from the adult Palestinians. "How can we help our children have hope so they don't turn to violence and seek revenge?" These kids have an awareness from such an early age. They pass by houses that have huge holes because the tanks pass right through the buildings. I really believe that if we all have a mutual interest in stopping the suicide bombings, we have to begin with a discussion of ending the occupation, because it's an ongoing violence to the Palestinian people that's only going to create more angry young people.

More and more Israeli soldiers are refusing
to fight and kill in the Occupied Territories.

PMC: What was the feeling of the Israeli people you had contact with not only about the suicide bombings but also about the Palestinian people?

CW: More and more Israelis are saying, "…there is no way that we are going to get anywhere unless the occupation is over." They know that. There's an Israeli Peace Website called Gush Shalom and that is a long-standing progressive peace activist group. [gush-shalom.org] They have excellent material for challenging the occupation and they've really been in the lead of the effort.

One thing that's really exciting to me in terms of non-violent action is that more and more Israeli soldiers are refusing to fight and kill in the Occupied Territories. They're saying, "It's one thing to defend my country but the Occupied Territories are not my country." You mentioned the Geneva Convention. The occupation and settlements are illegal under the Geneva Convention. The denial of legal representation to Palestinian prisoners is illegal under the Geneva Convention, as are the Israeli settlers in the West Bank who make up twenty percent of the population, yet take eighty percent of the drinking water.

PMC: Does Arafat have any control?

CW: Unfortunately, right now they have him holed up and under siege in his office, which, for the Palestinian people, is a horrendously provoking, and humiliating thing that only serves to create more anger. Everybody thought he was going to be killed. I don't know if it was reported here, but we heard through the media that an open mike caught Sharon speaking to one of his generals. The general asked, "If I get a chance, should I kill him?" and Sharon said, "Yes." If there was any dissension [within the Palestinian camp] about Arafat's leadership, and there has been, it had melted away by what happened. Whatever the world thinks, Yasser Arafat is the chosen leader of the Palestinian people. The unity around him has solidified since this invasion and what he's been through.

But there are two million Palestinians in the Occupied Territory and the vast majority of them are looking for a peaceful way out of this and hoping desperately that the world community will pay attention. One of the things that was the most moving and heartbreaking to me was that person after person was so shocked that we were Americans and were there to be with them. They said, "We thought the world had forgotten us. We felt so alone."

The U.S. was blocking the option to
have UN Peacekeepers in the region.

One of the reasons I went was because I was outraged that the United States was blocking, at the United Nations level, the option to have UN Peacekeepers in the region. Israel didn't want them either. Now, I'm not saying that would solve the problem, but we seem so ready to intervene in other situations and here we were not allowing the UN Peacekeepers to come in. Why are we afraid of having observers in the area? The Palestinians were desperately pleading to the world community, "Please have UN Observers come in. Please have Peacekeepers come in." So for me, the fact that the US was blocking it said a lot about our commitment to peace.

PMC: At one point you were given the option to evacuate and you chose not to leave. Then a few days later, you chose to come home. What was your motivation for staying and then leaving later?

CW: It was hard enough to even conceive of leaving the family we were staying with knowing that they would be more vulnerable when we left and knowing that they were going to be facing an escalation of violence. The idea of leaving under protection of the U.S. Government, the very government that was arming Israel with the bullets that were being shot at us, seemed totally unconscionable. We could not accept leaving these people behind in that way. When we did decide to leave, it was because the curfew had lifted for four hours and we knew that if we didn't try to get out then, we weren't sure when we would be able to get out. And the Palestinian people said to us, "We can't share our story with the United States because the media has such a slant on things. There are no people who come to stay with us who know what our lives are like. Please go back and tell people what our lives are like." They didn't tell us to argue the politics or anything, just please tell them what their lives are like. So we knew we had to come back here if we were going to do what we were supposed to do, which was to bring the dialogue back to our community.

The soldiers were a long New York block away from us.

Angelyn and I got out five minutes before the curfew came down. [Wallace traveled with Angelyn Rudd, another activist from Louisville who stayed with the refugee family.] We were running through the streets of Bethlehem with our suitcases. She and I met up with a tank that had its gun pointed at us. That was another moment where I wasn't sure what was going to happen.

PMC: Did you think you were going to be killed?

CW: Yeah. Partly because of the behavior we had witnessed. The soldiers were a long New York block away from us. They were ducking down, running back and forth, getting into position… You know, I have a spirituality, a God of my own understanding, and we were standing there praying.

PMC: Had you ever been in a war zone before?

CW: I've never been in that kind of situation before. The closest I've come was when I was traveling with another non-violent group called "Witness for Peace" that focuses on peacemaking in Latin America. I went to Colombia to areas that were controlled by right-wing paramilitary groups. But in terms of guns firing, tanks, looking out the window and seeing a bomb drop out of an Apache helicopter, no. I'd never been in that kind of situation before.

PMC: One final question: What is your vision of peace and justice for both peoples?

CW: My vision is an Israeli State and a Palestinian State side by side. I support the concept of a shared governance in Jerusalem which is such a special city. But it has to start with a conversation about ending the occupation. Because when I think about wanting the violence to end for my Israeli brothers and sisters, it was so clear that if we don't start with a conversation about ending the occupation, the violence is going to continue. There's no such thing as benign occupation.

This is not a radical position. Bush is saying end the occupation but he's not putting any teeth into it. In 1956 Israel had occupied Gaza and parts of the West Bank and Eisenhower said to get out and pull back the military incursion or the US would impose diplomatic and economic sanctions. Israel was out in 24 hours.

Occupation is by its very nature violent and has to be maintained with force. When there's violence and something maintained with force, there's going to be people who resist in violent ways and the violence continues.

The Louisville delegation maintains a website, theimamfactor.com.

(Paul McDonald is a regular contributor to the magazine [see Masthead.] He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.)