They Shoot Activists, Don't They?

In the past month, three international peace activists have been wounded or killed by the Israeli Army. They were all affiliated with the International Solidarity Movement, a loose network of international activists who are trained in and dedicated to non-violent tactics to defend Palestinian civilians from Israeli aggression.

They were wounded while acting as "human shields" -- essentially putting their bodies between Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) or armed settlers and unarmed Palestinians, or physically blocking bulldozers bent on destroying water wells, olive groves, and the homes of family members of suicide bombers.

Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old from Olympia, Wash., was crushed to death on Mar. 16 while trying to block an Israeli bulldozer from demolishing a Palestinian physician's house where she had been staying. Brian Avery, a 24-year-old from New Mexico, was shot in the face by an Israeli tank in Jenin on Apr. 5 as he and another ISM volunteer were investigating the sound of gunfire near a refugee camp. He survived, but the left side of his face has essentially been blown away. Then on Apr. 10, 21-year-old Thomas "Tab" Hurndall of London, was shot in the head in Rafah as he escorted a Palestinian child across a road under a hail of Israeli gunfire. Hurndall was declared brain-dead by hospital officials later that day. As of this writing, he is still on life-support.

Activists, international observers, and the families of the victims are asking whether the Israeli Army is intentionally targeting members of a group that has foiled and embarrassed the IDF in the past.

"These are clearly not accidents," said Nils, an ISM volunteer in Israel who asked that his last name not be used out of fear of reprisal. Some, like Nils, are suspicious of the circumstances surrounding each of the three cases. Hurndall was shot in the head. Avery had his hands raised above his head to indicate he was unarmed when he was shot. Corrie made eye contact with the driver and was shouting through a bullhorn, and yet the driver not only crushed her under the bulldozer's blade, but actually reversed back over her after the initial collision. (The official report by the IDF refutes that version and says Corrie was not visible to the driver, and was struck by a piece of concrete moved by the machine, not the machine itself.)

The Israeli army has cleared the bulldozer driver of wrongdoing in Corrie's death and pinned the blame instead on Corrie, who it said was engaged in "illegal, irresponsible, and dangerous" behavior. Corrie's parents have asked the State Department to investigate further. Hurndall's father has traveled to Israel to demand a full investigation of his son's shooting, and plans to pressure the British embassy to open an investigation.

Revenge or Tragic Coincidence?

Whether these incidents really are about a vendetta, the ISM -- a rag-tag group of college-age idealists -- has succeeded in getting under Israel's skin. Last summer, ISM volunteers from Europe, Israel, and America sneaked past an Israeli roadblock into Yasser Arafat's compound and the Church of the Nativity as Israeli tanks surrounded both in an extremely tense stand-off. Inside were both Palestinian civilians seeking safe haven and armed radicals holed up against the IDF.

Before the ISM arrived, the IDF had repeatedly shelled Arafat's compound, killing three Palestinian civilians inside, and tensions at the church were reaching a breaking point. Upon their arrival, ISM co-founder and Israeli Jew Neta Golan informed the Israeli government of the presence of international observers inside the compound. If the IDF shelled the complex or the church, it would risk killing unarmed Jews, Americans, and Europeans, inviting international rebuke and outrage. The shelling ended. A situation that not a few observers expected to end violently was resolved through negotiation.

But the incident clearly frustrated the right-wing Israeli power elite, Golan says. They had been outsmarted and humiliated by a bunch of kids. Now, with the world's attention on Iraq, some suspect Israel is settling an old score. "They want us out of the way, and they think they can do it without attracting international attention at the moment," said an ISM volunteer who asked not to be named. "It's open season."

Hurndall's mother Joycelyn told the London Telegraph that she believes Tom was deliberately targeted for being active with ISM: "Tom was wearing a bright orange jacket. Apparently the watchtower housing the soldier who shot him wasn't too far away, either. We are worried that he may have been deliberately targeted, otherwise it seems inexplicable." ISM volunteers are never armed; they refuse the defend or ally themselves with groups of Palestinians who are engaging in violence (even stone-throwing); and with their bright orange jackets and vests and their bullhorns, they are easily identifiable to IDF soldiers. All volunteers go through an extensive training in non-violent philosophy and tactics, drawn from the writings and examples of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

Brave vs. Naive

Since Corrie's death, there has been a spirited debate on op-ed pages and on the Internet about non-violent resistance, and whether ISM's young volunteers are naïve to believe that wandering unarmed into a war zone won't exact its price. Defenders of the ISM have taken to comparing a widely published photo of Corrie standing in front of the bulldozer to the famous image of the lone Chinese student standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Were they both brave, or both stupid? Neither stopped the violence: The Chinese Army eventually swept into Tiananmen, killing students and jailing the young man who had challenged the tank; the Israeli bulldozer did eventually level the house Corrie had tried to defend and many more in the same neighborhood. Does that mean they failed or that their failure should make them less courageous in the eyes of history?

Neta Golan, an Israeli Jew turned Buddhist who co-founded ISM and was one of the first to volunteer as a human shield, defends the group's tactics and explains how its volunteers, through a thorough study of non-violence, can reach a psychological point at which they can accept the risk of their own deaths. "Martin Luther King said the only life worth living is one you're willing to give up for what you believe," she says. "You have to be willing to sacrifice your life for a better future. It's not something I aspire to, but it is something I accept. That is my choice. I prefer to be killed than be violent."

The sudden upswing in violence is unlikely to cause the ISM to change its tactics or back off at all. Nils says,"Our tactics are purely non-violent, and they will remain that way. The better question is, when with the Israeli Army be changing its tactics?" And although a few volunteers have left Israel and the occupied territories in the wake of their friends' deaths, "more are coming to join us now than," Nils said. "Before we had about 10 new volunteers arriving each week. Now it's more like 20. If the Israeli Army thinks it can stop us with violence, it won't succeed."

Brooke Shelby Biggs is a freelance journalist based in san Francisco. Her new book, "Brave Hearts, Rebel Spirits: A Spiritual Activists' Handbook" (Anita Roddick Books, 2003) features a chapter on Neta Golan and the International Solidarity Movement.


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