In December 2001, about 35 women from Britain joined with a similar number of US citizens to fill the gap left by the irresponsible international community in the Occupied Territories.
This is the international community which seems to have no problem in getting millions of pounds and thousands of soldiers together to bomb the hell out of countries, but cannot deploy peacekeepers and human rights monitors to stop violence and terror when ordinary people call for it.
We went for two weeks to take part in nonviolent direct action against the illegal military occupation of Palestine, as part of the International Solidarity Movement, a group that works in co-operation with the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement in Bethlehem.
We did a die-in in front of a tank in Ramallah, saw some of the destruction and terror it had inflicted, and then went in to shake hands with Arafat and to try to encourage the nonviolent resistance movement. We spent a further four days in villages around Nablus which are under immense pressure.
The nearby illegal settlement, Ariel, continues to expropriate land, action which is backed by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) who have put up loads of mud, rock and cement roadblocks to prevent the Palestinians from getting their goods and produce in and out of the villages. We spent our time removing the roadblocks with pick-axes, spades and bare hands and then trying to keep them open with our presence.
We kept the road at Deir Istya open for a day and an ambulance was able to get in and out, along with food trucks, but as soon as we left, the IDF bulldozed more rocks and mud into place to block access once again. We were invited to stay as long as we could, but we had to go. Our work was frustratingly minimal but was a sign of solidarity and friendship and we have promised to return.
Providing a safety presence
We confronted military checkpoints several times, particularly at the Bethlehem check-point, adding our international safety presence to prevent Israeli violence, and joined in with joint Palestinian/Israeli peace movement demonstrations in Jerusalem.
But perhaps the most confrontational of our actions was the opening of the Surda checkpoint, where students going to Bir Zeit university are often arrested, humiliated and molested (I have since heard from a Professor at the university that 40 more students have been arrested on their way through).
Joining with several hundred French and Italian activists who lined the checkpoint to let people through, our British and US affinity groups managed to confront the IDF tanks and armoured personnel carriers, braving the tear gas and sound bombs, and preventing them from taking over the checkpoint for five hours.
If Palestinians had attempted this they would have been shot, but with the media present, and our total commitment to nonviolence, the Israeli military had to restrain themselves. Meanwhile, a group of local people cleared the military sand-bags, turned over the IDF gun-post at the checkpoint and burnt it amidst cheers of triumph.
Women's Peace Service
The two weeks we spent there were soon over and we were exhausted, not so much by the actions, but by the many encounters and personal stories of the daily suffering endured by Palestinians. We knew we should stay, but had to go home. We are hoping that more people will join the next two weeks of international actions in April through contacting the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement (details below).
Recognising the need for a longer term more permanent presence, some of us have initiated an International Women's Peace Service. We shall be inviting applicants to train and commit to three months per year and we will keep a permanent team in the West Bank for three years. This base will provide support for more internationals to be able to contribute their energies and presence at any time they are free to, and will provide a constant human rights monitoring and intervention team.