Direct action in Bethlehem

IssueJune - August 2002
Comment by A participant

The “International Solidarity Movement” (ISM) is a series of nonviolent solidarity events in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, undertaken by foreign peace activists, coordinated by the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement.

The campaign planned for this April was going to include helping farmers cultivate land under threat of Israeli seizure, removal of roadblocks, protests against checkpoints - attempts to halt the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Instead we found ourselves having to organise activities in the context of a new Israeli army aggression against the towns and refugee camps. After the suicide bombings on 27 and 28 March we knew that Bethlehem and its surrounding refugee camps would be invaded very soon.

Human shields

During the first few days in our headquarters at the Bethlehem Star Hotel, we received orientation and nonviolence training and the decision of what kind of actions to take was constantly with us - but before the Israeli army arrived we were in an information vacuum and were forced to wait.

After taking part in demonstrations in Bethlehem and nearby towns - in which several internationals were injured - most of us decided to begin living in the nearby refugee camps to act as human shields. From then on our role was largely passive, although attempts were made to take food to the besieged Church of the Nativity and escorting ambulances was also useful.

The current of action that we as ISM volunteers (and other similar movements such as Grassroots International Protection for Palestinian People) created meant that as the days went on and the situation became obviously desperate, more internationals arrived.

Spending most of my time in a refugee camp gave me little opportunity to appreciate the context of the situation. All I can say with authority is that the Israeli army has little care for the safety of Palestinian civilians. However, I can use my limited knowledge to cover a few issues related to ISM activities in Palestine.

Open questions

The nonviolence training was a contentious point for some, since the Christian Peacemaker Team members who gave it had certain conceptualisations of “leadership” that many of us didn't share. The rushed process of forming affinity groups was also difficult for some of us. Partly due to the intense pressure we were under, partly due to the fact that many of us had to deal with the accumulated baggage of years of activism together; some of the newer volunteers probably had an easier time as they were simply and randomly grouped together.

Neither did we begin to address the question as to what kind of support Yasser Arafat in Ramallah deserved, partly because we were so much of a diverse group; a vague “national liberation” ethos prevailed.

Arafat's role as Palestinian leader is not simple1 , but despite Sharon's bluster I thought it unlikely that he would kill him. However, there was massive civilian suffering in Ramallah due to the pressure that Sharon clumsily brought to bear on the Palestinian Authority leadership.

Dangers in "national narratives"

Jerusalem is only a few minutes away from Bethlehem, but the difference between their residents' lives is enormous. On the one hand you have a comfortable western society, its peace occasionally interrupted by the shatteringly murderous explosions of suicide bombings, on the other you have the life of an entire people ruled by the mailed military fist; vulnerable to poverty, humiliation, arbitrary arrest, injury and death at the hands of a stronger enemy.

The Israeli peace group Gush Shalom - Peace Bloc - has spoken of the existence of two “national narratives”, Palestinian and Israeli, both self-justifying, self-referential and refusing to acknowledge the other. Thus when news came out of the assault on Jenin the Palestinians we were staying with interpreted the Israeli armys actions as an assault on a population centre, and the results as a massacre. The Israeli public, on the other hand, generally saw this action as an anti-terrorist operation that resulted in a battle fierce enough to cause the deaths of Israeli soldiers. However, I would take issue with Gush Shalom's assertion about “national” narratives, and point out that all nationalisms are the enemies of their “own” people, being designed to justify a particular local elite.

With regards to cases such as the Jenin camp it is important to avoid playing the numbers game, the blame game. As though that, if it could be proved that one “side” had killed more, that one side had killed first, that this would show us a useful path of action. The temptation also exists to pursue bogus "objectivity" or "balance" by piling up stories of terror on both sides and this providing the cop out of supporting no one - plus, yet again, the false choice between two “sides”.

Tracing patterns of control

As far as I could see, this is not a war; there are no clear “sides”. In Palestine there is, rather, a highly developed military matrix of control - armed settlements commanding the hill tops; roadblocks preventing movement; militia groups, settlers and police - and now, with the re-invasion, snipers and armoured vehicles enforcing a curfew. We need to trace the sources of these patterns of control and domination that perpetuate this situation, and do so without mystifying either “side”.

My experiences in Bethlehem have given me no clear picture of a resolution of this conflict. I have, however, gained a powerful sense of what positive action by very few people can accomplish. This summer the ISM will be co-ordinating further campaigns, and the interest among European and US social movements that the events in Bethlehem and Ramallah have generated could mean that this civilian intervention will be an important force for change.