The Americans of the Middle East

News & Politics

After a long and dreary winter, it is an utterly perfect, sunny spring Thursday. It is April, and I should be out in the garden, or down by the lake, or doing something to soak up the idyllic glory of springtime.

Instead, I am on the phone, talking with a New Yorker (and former co-worker) named Kristen Schurr. Outside my window, kids are playing. Outside Kristen's, it is a war zone, and the children are shot at every day.

It is life in a Palestinian refugee camp. Hers happens to be Al-Azzeh, outside Bethlehem. It's been a bad week.

"The first night I was here, just crossing the alley in front of the apartment, I was shot at," she says matter-of-factly. "They showed me how to duck and run." She's used her new skills regularly in the past few days. "Just today, I went into a little shop inside of camp, we got shot at."

During our conversations last week, Schurr practiced the maneuver, pausing during a sentence as she scurried across some alley; there's a sniper tower in the adjacent Israeli settlement, and the Israeli army has also taken over all of Bethlehem's tallest buildings. At times, as with my other conversations with people in the area, I could hear the gunshots and 18 mm shells over the phone.

Is she brave? Reckless? Stupid? Why on earth would someone choose to go into such a place? Especially now? Is it a martyr complex? An all-time bad vacation story for the grandkids?

Schurr, 33, is working for her doctorate at the New School in Manhattan -- specifically, studying the Middle East. It's the culmination of years of activist interest in the Palestinian tragedy: "The 1987 intifada politicized me in the first place, I started reading about it in high school. That's what I've studied, and now I'm working on my PhD." Why did this, of all the world's issues, stand out to her, even in high school? "I dunno, just the absolute injustice of it, the complete humiliation by the Israelis ... sanctioned and paid for by the U.S., it's just one of the world's great injustices. There's just no two ways about it. It's so cut and dry."

Kristen's mother, Bonnie, lives in Seattle; her daughter's vacation plans surprised her. "I knew that she was a political activist in New York, but I wasn't sure what they did, until I found out she was going to the West Bank." Bonnie Schurr admits that she and her family have mixed feelings due to concerns about Kristen's safety: "I want her to be safe, and then as time goes on [during the last week] and I see that she's so strong, I hear the resolve in her voice, and I admire her greatly ... I'm just absolutely astounded at the courage. They have guns pointed at them, people yelling at them, and they just keep walking, they keep holding up their peace signs. Just about the only thing they have to protect them is their international citizenship ... She's just incredibly strong and brave."

Schurr is in Palestine for two plus weeks as one of a few hundred delegates for the current tour of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). It's the third such tour for the ISM, recently organized by the Center for Rapproachment, a Palestinian NGO based in Bethlehem. Along with other "internationals" from Europe, Asia, and North America, the activists' professed intent was to be foreign, nonviolent witnesses to the occupation -- human cameras, doing the work U.S. media mostly won't, who could show their solidarity with the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people through their presence, through protests, through house rebuildings and olive tree plantings, and then return home to tell their stories and nurture their new friendships.

This particular delegation knew it was walking into a tense situation. One cannot fly into Palestine; the only airport, in Gaza, has been bombed out by Israel. To get to Bethlehem, and Al-Azzeh, Schurr says, "I had to fly into Israel, and then sneak past a checkpoint." She's talking on the Israeli cell phone she rented at the airport; Palestine doesn't have those, either.

And now, cities like Bethlehem have almost nothing -- their infrastructure and many of their buildings destroyed. Shortly after Schurr's arrival, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 26 Israelis at Passover, and things got a lot worse. The internationals' desire to agitate for peace became an opportunity to become human shields as war erupted in front of them, a one-sided war on the streets of cities already under military occupation for 35 years.

Schurr does not spend much time worrying about the fears ordinary Israelis have about suicide bombs. "Palestinians are forced to live in unimaginable conditions," Schurr says. "Just to cross the street they have to duck and run, that's life here. There are no schools here, people aren't able to work, we have two or three days' worth of food left inside the camp. Israel has been continually attacking Palestinians and putting them in a humiliating position where they're supposed to beg for the most basic human rights."

"This camp is made of stone buildings with narrow alleyways. There's no room to build out, so they build up, generations of families living on top of one another. The Israeli military comes in sometimes and rounds up men and disappears them. Sometimes some of them come home, sometimes not." Last Saturday, Schurr accompanied home a Bethlehem man who had been playing in his yard with his children; Israeli troops came in, arrested him, and, she says, beat him and denied him his medications while in jail. When he was released, several miles from his home, Schurr went to walk back with him, so that he wouldn't be shot on the way if manatajawol, or curfew, were suddenly declared. It is one of the first Arabic words the internationals learn.

"It's not safe to sleep at night, so we sleep in the early light hours," Schurr explains. "We get shot at in the night, and have to run from one room to another. With the U.S. weapons, they have night vision, they have access to weapons that can ... I don't know how to say it.

"The way the camp is set out is like this maze, and people having to scurry around, scurry scurry scurry, like animal experimentation ... Just passing from the door of the apartment to the stairway, inside the house, we get shot at through the door. All the windows have bags of sand stacked one on top of another inside. This is how they live their life. This is constant."

Schurr was also in an incident last week in which Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers, in their American-made tanks, attacked a group of activists as it tried to deliver food and medical aid; the soldiers then destroyed the aid. (No food or medical supplies were being allowed into the besieged cities and camps.) The bullets fired at the group hit the ground in front of them and ricocheted into the crowd; Schurr is convinced that had the front row been Palestinians, rather than foreigners, the soldiers would not have aimed at the ground.

Jackie Wolf agrees. Wolf, 52, from Lopez Island, Washington, describes herself as "a human rights activist for about 20 years." Unlike Schurr, she was active in a number of issues -- South Africa, Central America, and the like -- in the 1980s, and was then drawn to the Palestinian cause during the first intifada. She traveled to Palestine in 1989, on a two week tour, and wound up staying for seven months. Today, she's back, among the nonviolent activists shot at in a separate incident by the IDF, with eight seriously wounded. Jackie was grazed by a bullet fragment and only slightly injured.

"There's no doubt that the presence of internationals here has made a huge difference,' Wolf says. "It's unbelievable; there's still a lot of brutality going on, but they aren't as willing to be as brutal when we're around, although they did fire on us, when we did the march to Beit Jala ... It was really a walk more than a march; we walked into Beit Jala, which is sort of a small area within Bethlehem, and we walked within about 10 feet of the tanks, which are American -- everything is American -- and they just started rolling at us, and they opened fire.

"They used bullets that are called dumdum bullets, and when they hit, whatever they hit, there are fragments everywhere, and they shot at the cameramen. That's their main tactic is to shoot at the journalists. They shot at the wall next to the cameraman. He got hit with several pretty big fragments. He moved back toward us, a few other people and I went to him to see if he was OK, so they fired at us, I got hit with some fragments ... and then the tanks pushed us back down the road.

"That was our one attempt at a march."

Wolf is, seemingly perversely, glad she's there. "It means so much to the people here to have some of us willing to go through this with them, especially people from America, because America is responsible for so much of this, it's paying for the whole thing. If they have one word to people in the U.S., it's to stop it."

Of her own wound, Wolf says it "hurt like hell." But she's staying put for now.

Some internationals have left -- not expecting to be dropped into the midst of a war zone, not prepared for the terror of it. Some have been expelled, including a large delegation of Americans and other internationals led by Frenchman Jose Bove, best known for taking a bulldozer to a McDonald's and campaigning against genetically modified foods. Other outside activists are now trying to get into the West Bank, with mixed success. Some are long-time advocates for Palestine; some, especially those outside the U.S., are simply responding to the horrors they're seeing on the news; some are seemingly professional left-leaning activists, drawn to whichever crisis and cause is in the news.

While some internationals have left, more have not. San Francisco area college teacher Rich Wood, for example. When I talked with him on Sunday, the ISM delegation was mostly cooling its heels, and he was frustrated: "There's really very little we can do here, that's the problem. People here are scared to go outside the door. The last few days we haven't been able to do anything." He was also here the last time around. "It's extremely different from the last intifada. This is armed. Last time it was mass actions. Now, there are hundreds of armed [Palestinian] fighters in every city, it's a very different feeling."

A Seattle resident, Jake Mundy, has in the past spent a lot of time travelling in North Africa. He also went on the ISM's delegation; it is his first trip to the region, and an abrupt introduction to its realities. Mundy spent much of last week either at the Al-Azzeh camp or the Bethlehem Star Hotel. Along with Kristen and five others, he wrote a statement pointedly declining the U.S. Embassy's offer of evacuation: "The U.S. consulate's offer is an indication to the danger we are in. We hope the United States' commitment to our safety extends to that of the Palestinian people."

As reinforcements join the internationals, their stated purpose, while there, is to witness, to act as human shields, and to tell the world what is happening on the ground, away from the ministerial briefings and White House declarations. "I'm documenting this trip so much," Schurr says, "Just to get reality into peoples' heads. Any time I don't have my recorder going or my camera, there's something I miss. But sometimes if I whip something out of my pocket I'll get shot by an Israeli soldier."

For all of their activities, they are targeted by an Israeli army determined to keep the details of its work quiet; their survival is no assured thing. But their presence, they feel, helps increase the chances of survival for a mostly secular civilian population that largely only wants the violence, and the occupation, to end. But it's also impossible to miss the sense, from all of the activists that I talked with, that both the sense of community and the adrenaline rush of war were also powerful lures.

"I've been befriended by all the little girls in the camp," says Schurr. "They call my name and get me to run around with them. It's kind of amazing that people's life goes on in this way.

"There's so much despair but there's also this laughter that's as prevalent as the despair is. And [there's] this incredible brightness in peoples' eyes. They look at each other when the shelling is over and the eye contact here is amazing, and people start laughing. It's like, what else are you gonna do?"

"It's getting harder to be clear about it the longer I'm here. When I was in New York and Seattle this was a really political situation, but being here now it's becomes very personal. I have a family here now, I have friends here now, I'm called a daughter, a sister. It's harder to face the reality of the situation. People I'm living with, they say this is no life, that their children won't be able to live."

As she says this, I am wondering whether Kristen's "not being clear" any longer, and now taking this "cut and dry" issue personally, has led her to greater insight, or whether it is a symptom of how easy it is to get sucked into the rage that provides seemingly endless fuel for all sides in this conflict.

"She could really have just about anything she wants in life," says Kristen's mother, Bonnie, "and this is what she chooses: to get in there and help people, and change the world for the better."

Near the end of a long conversation, I ask Kristen what she will do when she returns to the United States. She starts into a well-practiced recital of the work that is needed to end U.S. support of the Israeli occupation, but stops:

"I could have answered that question before I left, but now that I'm here ... I don't know. I don't know that I want to come back."

And, softly, on the phone from Bethlehem: "The stars are out tonight."

Outside, in my big American city, it's a warm and sunny day. There's a helicopter overhead. It's a traffic copter. But what if it weren't? What if it were an F-16, or some gunship, hovering over a highway only the occupiers were allowed on, spitting fire or bullets at us? What if it were impossible to step outside without dodging bullets? What if, my health conditions notwithstanding, I could expect to be rounded up, arrested, jailed, and beaten every now and then, just for my age, gender, and race, just so I knew who was boss? What if I couldn't get electricity, or water, or medical care, or food, let alone a job or a future for my children? What if my whole city were in the same situation? For 35 years? And what if the rest of the world was doing nothing about it?

Or what if my country, the size and population of Massachusetts, a country founded in genocide, hated by its neighbors, unique in the world, felt itself under siege, not knowing whether the next trip to a pizza parlor or mall would end in fiery death? And we had the military might to punish all who lived where the attackers did?

Would we be acting any differently from either side?

Geov Parrish writes for numerous publications, including, In These Times, and the Seattle Weekly, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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