A 'tour of duty' with the ISM

Submitted by Janine on 5 September, 2004 - 9:02

"Harry Sands" joined the International Solidarity Movement in protests in the West Bank this summer. This is part of a diary of his experience

Early July
My fellow ISMers on training come from an incredible selection of countries, sexes, class, ages, religions and backgrounds. One minute I was discussing the upcoming election with a 22-year-old girl from New Orleans (she says fuck Bush, but fuck Kerry too), the next minute I am talking punk rock with a 40-year-old Glaswegian Geordie who used to roadie for the Angelic Upstarts. There are no dogmatic or overly political people at all.
Halfway through the first day it was announced that the wall had been declared illegal under international law and a cheer went up. This year the ISM is focusing on the wall and I will be taking a three-week hike along its proposed route from the 29 July.
After we had already decided which regions to go to it, was announced that the IDF [Israeli army] have given the Balata refugee camp in Nablus 48 hours to hand over a list of wanted men to them, or the army would invade.
Those who wanted to go to Nablus would have to leave early the next morning before the final training session, otherwise there would be no question of getting in.
It is no longer ISM policy to interfere in or even be present at military operations such as these. The army will burst into the camp, firing randomly at buildings, or “clashing” with stone throwers. The three ISMers that have been shot, were shot during military manoeuvres. The role now will be to try and protect the refugees from the worst of it once the army are in and the camp is occupied. My friends will not be hurt and will be able to carry out this role successfully.

I have now been in my assigned region of Tulkarm for two days. We visited what used to be the home of a man who, after seeing his two brothers shot in the street by the IDF, decided life wasn’t worth living and attacked a settlement, killing five before being killed himself.
A week after the attack the army arrived at the family home and ordered all 11 people living in the two-storey building into the street. Then they blew up the house with everything the family owned still inside. Even if they could afford to build the house again, the army would return to destroy it. They now live in the surrounding homes.
The word “martyr” for such people is a technical term, not my own opinion. One who dies in a deliberate suicide attack, bombing or otherwise, is a “martyr”. I have never read the story of a single “martyr” without there having been a close friend or family member (often many) killed very soon before their attack. I see those as the real martyrs: those who died unwillingly, and unknowingly provoked the conscious suicide attack.
We walked through the town to a block of housing that was bombed by F16s from the Israeli air force. There was no background to this story, no martyrs, no clear reprisals. Just a waste ground of rubble.
We kept walking up a hill to its summit and the town lay before us, a breathtaking view at night. The mosques — and there are many — have neon green strip lights, more associated with hedonistic nightclub decor than religion, on the pillars of their towers.

Monday 19 July
A small group of the Tulkarm ISM travelled to join a march to an olive grove north of Salfit that had been trashed by the IDF to make way for the wall. We had some speeches and planted some saplings that will hopefully grow to replace the butchered cadavers that haunt the clearing now.
The trees were not even in the path of the wall. We were marching up a dirt track, with the “security fence” — the precedent to the wall — about 100 metres to one side, and the olive trees on either side. If they succeed in building the wall it will be built on the path we were standing on, swallowing up even more land.
Roadblocks are everywhere in the occupied territories. They are mounds of rubble, very large rocks or purpose-built concrete blocks, placed across roads to prevent cars from passing. They are a very simple form of state harassment (if not terrorism). The blocks often prevent farmers getting tractors to their land, or villagers from driving to and from more remote cottages. Almost always there is an alternative route; the farmer carries his crop by hand, the water is bought from a different source at twice the cost, taxis park on both sides of the block (so passengers can get to their destination by catching a new taxi on the other side). The situation is intolerable, but people do not die in the streets, so the world does not notice.
On Friday over 29 ISMers travelled to the small village of Izbat At-Tabib for an action at the roadblock outside their town. The roadblock prevents them from joining the settler bypass road that would take them the quickest route to all of the nearby villages — but it was built by and for Israelis, it would seem. Izbat At-Tabib also suffers from threats on its houses.
They are in “area C”, which means they are in the total control of the occupying forces. If they want to build a house, they must apply for a permit with the Israelis. The population of the town has increased rapidly… so there has been a huge need to build houses there. How many permits to build have been granted? None. This has the interesting knock-on effect of meaning births in the town are not legally recognised; since 1969 there have been officially no children born in the town. The construction of the wall so far has taken 50% of the village’s agricultural land.

The situation in Nablus sounds very bad. One of the ISM group who went to Nablus, Henrik, was a classic example of Swedish humanity. On Saturday evening Henrik called Rebecca from Balata refugee camp in Nablus. He had been with the Palestinian medical relief agency when an army jeep drove into the camp. Stones were thrown at it. A soldier got out and pointed his gun at a man next to Henrik.
Henrik shouted “internationals — don’t shoot!”
The soldier shot the man in the legs, then shot him in the chest or face, an estimated 10 times. He is now dead.

Thursday 22 July
Yesterday was a great success. When we went to the two small villages to discuss roadblock removals they met us with totally positive and committed response.
The first town had two road blocks, the first about 150 metres from the last house of the village. They were made of very large rocks piled on top of each other. There would be little to do by hand — best to hire a bulldozer, get rid of the big bits and smooth it out later. This time it was clear why the roadblocks had been put in: the road led to the village’s olive and fig groves, but had been bisected by a settler bypass road. The settlers didn’t want any Palestinians using their road, even crossing their road on foot.
They used to get water driven in by truck from a nearby town. The truck journey was now impossible so, instead, the villagers have to buy water from an Israeli water company!
At the second village the action basically did itself and the IDF never turned up — we were well away from any bases where we were.
Afterwards we had a victory lap: we were hoisted onto the tractor that was using the road for the first time in four years to give the village kids a lift back.
There was no more space in the truck, so for the second time in the day I was clinging to the edge of the engine for dear life. The kids were screaming and singing, and everyone was smiling like Cherie Blair on Prozac.

All the active regional ISM groups in Palestine were asked to send people to a checkpoint action in Nablus…
During our organising meeting different people from the Tulkarm group started getting texts and calls from Pat and Phyllis, who had stayed behind. Six shebab (young boys from eight to about 24) were shot dead by Special Forces in the road outside our house. It now transpires that they were actually looking for only one of them. The five other kids just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The wanted man and one other were Al Aqsa fighters, so may well have been armed, but the others probably just had rocks or the clothes they stood up in. When I returned to Tulkarm days later, the town was shut up. The walls were plastered with pictures of the new martyrs, and I was puzzled as to why they all had guns in the pictures. Phyllis told me. Getting your picture taken in a studio with a gun is a rite of passage for all young men here. If they are killed, then the picture will be used in the posters by one or other organisation, generally Hamas. Even toddlers have their pictures taken in camouflage with guns twice their size.
This gives the completely false impression that all the martyrs were fighters and died fighting, but the truth is sadder still. They probably died unarmed, with their parents proclaiming vehemently that they were not involved with any group. Then a group comes to them and tells them what a wonderful brave man their son was, and the parents get sucked into the pride cycle — why not say their son was a fighter? That he died resisting, not as a victim?

Friday 13 August
There are now seven days of the march left.
One day we get to a checkpoint, between the village of Azzun Atmah and Beit Amin around 6pm. There were about 20 young men being detained here — their IDs had been taken at the checkpoint; they had to wait hours under what you might call “heavily armed supervision”. We then said that they should be released, and we would not leave until this happened. This really pissed the army off. We sat down in the road and chanted…
The commander turned up and said: “OK, you have had your protest. You have two minutes to leave. Leave now please.”
They moved the Palestinians being detained around the side off the hill so we couldn’t see them. About 10 minutes passed and nothing happened. Suddenly the soldiers jumped us — grabbing at people and trying to drag them away. Both my legs were grabbed by soldiers and I was dangling from the air, holding someone’s wrist. They arrested one of us — Karl.
We stayed put after the arrest, now demanding that Karl be released as well as the Palestinians. They gave us another two minutes but it never came. In the end the Palestinians were allowed to leave and given back their IDs. We decided that Karl was beyond our help now as he had been driven away in a jeep. He was released the next day.

My newly formed affinity group consisted of three Irish anarchists, a New York Jew in his 50s called Jed, three French women, and a Japanese guy who we called Mr T. Jed wanted to call the group a band name and wanted the Ramones. But I wanted something British. I thought maybe if I chose something Irish I’d swing support to my side. I only know one Irish punk band, so our group was called The Stiff Little Fingers. Other groups called themselves stuff like “freedom” in Arabic so it was funny when the organisers would shout stuff like “Stiff little fingers to the rear!”

One time when we turned the corner the jeeps that had gone through the crowd moments earlier were blocking our path. The soldiers stood in front of the jeeps, spaced out and ready to repel us. We linked arms two lines deep and marched towards them, myself on the front line. When our lines barged into them they pushed and shoved us back…
After a while I realised that the soldiers were targeting me in particular. As I came towards one soldier he pushed my chest hard, he started to slip back, so pushed under my chin, bending my head back on my neck. He was so aggressive, the secondary line moved round and pulled me out of his range. I joined the struggle from behind until I felt a strong hand grab at my neck; the soldier from the other end of the line had followed and was reaching over the front line to get at me. Then a new soldier, fatter than the first and stronger, grabbed at my collar.
A Palestinian guy three years older than me called Mahmoud smacked the soldier’s hand out of the way, which was incredibly dangerous for him to do. Later I was ushered to the back of the crowd. I could see the soldier who first went for me as he was a little way behind the tussle, and he was staring at me still. He started to make his way around the lines, possibly to get me. This was enough for Mahmoud and a local Palestinian man; they grabbed both my arms and ran me away, into a nearby house.

I said goodbye to Mahmoud today. He had to go back to his village. He took a bracelet off his wrist and put it round my own; I think his girlfriend gave it to him.
He said it was so I would not forget him or Palestine. For the first time I feel a bit guilty about my role as an international; we come here and share their struggle and their pain, but we can walk away from it, to our other selves that we left at home. This is their whole life.

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