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Bringing Non-Violence to the West Bank

As the Israeli Army intensifies its iron-fisted advance in the Palestinian territories and the bloody battle rages on, a strange calm has fallen on Yasir Arafat's compound. Just last week the prime target of the Israeli offensive, it now sits in the eye of the storm. Why?

"Because we entered," says Samir Alassi, a Belgian citizen.

The shelling stopped last Sunday, when he and 40 other concerned foreigners marched peacefully on the compound, past tanks and gunfire, and into the buildings where Arafat and his last hold-outs sit holed up in Ramallah.

In a test of non-violent tactics and strategies of international intervention, European and American civilians are serving as human shields for the last outpost of the Palestinian Authority.

"(The Israelis) were very surprised about our group coming in the streets very peacefully," says Alassi, talking from the compound Wednesday on a cell phone that cuts off every five minutes. "And the only thing they could do was just move their tanks around. I remember some soldiers of the Israeli Army started to shoot on the ground and also above our heads, but they didn't shoot at us, so we just went through and we entered the compound."

Their arrival lifted the spirits of those inside. "People were just waiting for their deaths," says Alassi, whose father is Palestinian. "But since we are here, there are no attacks on the building and the Palestinian people here can sleep. They can stop being worried about being killed the next hour." The calm set in, and the waiting began.

Alassi, 25, works with a group called Grassroots International Protection for the Palestinian People. But a couple dozen foreigners willing to dodge bullets to provide a buffer isn't his idea of "international protection."

"We should not be here," he repeats several times. "There should be an international protection force here to protect the Palestinian people." Disappointed in their countries' inaction, the internationals took on the tanks themselves.

With little else to do in the large, makeshift dormitory, which houses 150 to 200 people, they talk of what to do next, what will come next, and what, in the end, is the role of the internationals. They eat little, and only women are allowed a glass of scarce water. They have not been able to wash for days.

Arafat comes by occasionally to check on things. He teaches the 20-year-old soldiers, who have never seen such combat, how to blockade the windows with tables. One day he came offering a box of chocolates he had received as a gift. And, in nightly meetings with the entire compound crew, he often tells stories of his younger days -- of a battle in Egypt in the 1960s, for example, when most a regiment of engineers he belonged to was killed.

While Alassi and the others wait in Arafat's compound, Kate Rafael of Berkeley, Calif., waits in a refugee camp several miles away, hoping also that the presence of an American will mitigate violence if the expected Israeli raids take place.

In a nighttime interview from the camp at Aida, Rafael, a member of the pacifist group Women in Black, says that everyone in the house is huddled under blankets because there is not enough gas for heating. Food is running short. And because the towns and camps are ringed by tanks, the internationalists are barricaded in.

Like those in Arafat's compound, the volunteers in Rafael's group discuss what to do. Should they stay in one place so the Israelis can get them all at once and not rampage from house to house? Should they stay scattered among their host families so the search will take more time and they will be on the scene for a longer period? "Go back with your host families, the troops will go house to house anyway," the Palestinian group leaders say, so they do.

It's difficult to get things done. Rafael's group tried today to arrange a trip to Manger Square to bring medical aid to the wounded inside the besieged Church of the Nativity. "But the ambulance drivers wouldn't go because it wasn't safe, and the nuns we wanted to escort us said they were too old and couldn't walk that far," she reports. "The American consulate had appeared willing to help us, but then they called and said there was a 'credible threat' that the Americans who went to Manger Square would be kidnapped." Labeling this 'Israeli propaganda,' Rafael scoffed, "As if people are going to come out in front of tanks and grab us?"

Rafael, 42, describes her odyssey from the Bay Area to this devastated town in the war-torn West Bank. Last week, she traveled with about 20 American activists to Israel as part of an April campaign organized by the International Solidarity Movement, a coalition of Palestinian and international activist. Rafael had intended, perhaps naively, to teach protesters and join them in staging guerilla theatre on the streets, helping to tear down unoccupied road blocks between Israel and the West Bank and plant olive trees. But some who joined her were skeptical: "People from Palestine and Jewish-Arab coexistence groups told me that these techniques don't work when you are facing tanks."

She found out all too soon what the doubters meant. "All hell broke loose" last weekend, she said, when Palestinian suicide bombers and Israeli soldiers killed and maimed more and more civilians in an escalation of deadly violence. Realizing that her teaching mission was no longer useful, she evaded Israeli check points to get to the West Bank. "You wouldn't believe the armed camp that I saw set up outside of the Bethlehem check point," Rafael says, evidently startled by the sight. "It was so formidable: green tanks, green uniforms, giant tents -- like a military headquarters from the movies."

She joined a march from Bethlehem to Beit Jala, two miles away. But along the way, as the marchers rounded a curve, two Israeli armored personnel carriers blocked the road. As with Alassi, the soldiers fired into the air and into the ground, in between rounds pointing weapons at the marchers. "The shots were not aimed at us," she emphasizes. "If they had wanted to kill the internationalists, we would be dead." But the bullets ricocheted and seven people suffered minor injuries.

The marchers were forced back to Bethlehem, where they met and decided to become human shields. Rafael was assigned to stay in a home in Aida, a town that was ravaged last month in the wake of a Palestinian suicide bombing. "The families told us how the Israelis mowed people down, and kids were showing us pictures of dead relatives," she said. "People here are afraid that will happen again."

Half a world away in Marin County, Calif., 53-year-old Alison Weir, former newspaper editor and founder of a group called If Americans Knew, is organizing another wave of Americans to join Alassi and Rafael next week. "About one-third of U.S. foreign aid goes to this small, rather well-off country of Israel," Weir says. "It's my tax dollars that are helping create this situation." Asked about Palestinian suicide bombers, she says, "All deaths are tragic, it's tragic that Israelis are dying as well." She adds, "Of course, they would rather be fighting with F-16s and tanks, but they don't have them."

Weir, who spent a month last year in the West Bank, wonders why more Palestinians "aren't blowing up." She says she was shocked by the extent of the devastation and the severity of the apartheid dividing Israeli from Palestinian. "Super-highways are built with American money and Israelis confiscated the land, but the roads are for Jews only," she argues. "License tags are color-coded, ID tags are color-coded and labeled by religion. Even Bishop Tutu said it may be worse than South Africa was, and he should know."

She and her colleagues are screening the two dozen people who have answered her call for volunteers and making certain that they understand the risks they may face. She hopes for more press attention to the human shields. "There has been non-violent protest in Israel, but it was never reported and therefore not effective. If more Americans go, there will be more reporting."

Eve Pell and Will Evans write for the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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