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Middle East: Activists Oppose Israeli Military Actions, Seek To Dispel Stereotypes

By Kari Neumeyer

After a nearly six-week standoff at the Church of the Nativity, Israel sent 13 suspected Palestinian militants to Cyprus last week and transferred another 26 to the Gaza Strip. Several international activists, who joined the Palestinians and clergymen in the Bethlehem church a week earlier, refused to leave. Israeli forces detained the activists and sent them to the Ramle jail to await deportation. RFE/RL spoke to one of these activists and others who are trying to oppose Israeli military actions in the West Bank using nonviolent methods.

Prague, 17 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Erik Algers arrived in the Middle East from his native Sweden in late March, just days before Israel began military operations in the West Bank. For the next month, Algers joined members of a group called the International Solidarity Movement to show support for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through direct actions in protest of Israeli military incursions.

On 2 May, Algers marched through Manger Square in Bethlehem and entered the Church of the Nativity, along with nine other activists and two journalists. The activists brought food and medical supplies to the Palestinians -- many of them armed militants -- who had been holed up in the church for a month.

Algers spoke to RFE/RL from inside the church.

"There was no food when we came here, no food at all. And we brought only a little bit, just what we could carry," Algers said.

When the Palestinian militants finally left the church on 10 May, Algers and the others remained until they were detained by Israeli troops. They are currently being held in the Ramle detention center, where at least nine movement members were reported to have begun hunger strikes earlier this week to oppose their expected deportation.

Founded in 2000, the International Solidarity Movement's activities seem to have attracted wider attention in recent weeks. One of the group's leaders, Adam Shapiro, gained notoriety early last month for marching into Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound and reportedly having breakfast with the Palestinian leader.

Rather than spend nine days in a church with Palestinians labeled by Israel as terrorists, Algers said he expected to participate in activities such as symbolically rebuilding Palestinian homes or demolishing roadblocks.

Algers conceded that such actions do not have much of a lasting effect. Israeli forces tend to demolish the newly built homes and rebuild the roadblocks.

"[The actions are] acts of solidarity, but what [they] can achieve is [bringing] attention to the issues and hopefully a broader Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement," Algers said.

Expanding a peaceful Palestinian resistance movement is also the goal of Grassroots International Protection for Palestinians.

One of its organizers is Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, director of the Health, Development, Information, and Policy Institute in Ramallah. The grassroots group has for the past year hosted people from across Europe and the Americas who want to show solidarity with the Palestinians and better understand the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian supporters stay with Palestinian families and often participate in demonstrations with groups like the International Solidarity Movement.

Barghouthi said that by experiencing it first-hand, the visitors are better able to mobilize support for an end to Israeli occupation when they return home.

Barghouthi told RFE/RL that solidarity visits from international supporters help Palestinians feel less isolated, and give them an alternative to militant protests.

"It helps people of Palestine maintain their sanity and their belief in humanity, prevents them from being too radicalized and also, on the Israeli side, it is also good for them because struggling for peace will [save] Israeli lives, as well," Barghouthi said.

The peace activists condemn Palestinian militant attacks, such as suicide bombings. But Barghouthi said people who blame Palestinian militants for the violence in the region are confusing the symptom with the cause of the disease.

Fred Schlomka, the operations manager for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, told RFE/RL that some Israelis mistakenly assume that peace activists support Palestinian terrorism.

"We're often accused by Israelis of being traitors and supporting the Palestinian violence. But from where we're sitting here, the major violence in this country has been coming from the Israeli armed forces and not from the Palestinians," Schlomka said.

It was Israelis who founded Schlomka's group in 1997 to oppose the government's policy of demolishing Palestinian homes allegedly built without the proper permits. The committee tries to intervene in demolitions through acts of civil disobedience. Usually, Schlomka said, the activists stand in front of the bulldozers to delay them until the media arrive.

Schlomka said it is difficult to keep such protests nonviolent. "Any behavior on our part to stop violence usually results in more violence, so our activists are generally instructed to just become completely passive."

Gershon Baskin, the Israeli co-director of the Israeli/Palestinian Center for Research and Information, told RFE/RL that groups such as Schlomka's have no impact on Israeli public policy. He said that while their protests sometimes draw international attention, they receive little local media coverage.

Baskin agreed that the broad public image of these groups is poor. He said that, in general, Israelis view them as anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli. Still, Baskin said participation in the peace movement has increased among young people. He said that as Israeli and Palestinian violence has increased, there have been more demonstrations against it.

"As an Israeli, I would say, looking at that -- without judging if I agree with them or don't agree with them or what impact they have on public opinion or policy -- I think it would be a very sad commentary on Israel if those kinds of groups didn't exist," Baskin said.

An older organization, Peace Now, has since 1977 been campaigning for the return of land Israel won in the 1967 war. While the members of the International Solidarity Movement are considered Palestinian sympathizers, Baskin said Peace Now represents a different sector of society.

"Today, Peace Now represents in its position somewhere around 40 percent of the public. But groups like the Committee Against House Demolitions, or the Committee Against Torture, or Rabbis for Human Rights, they are very fringe -- very on the margins," Baskin said.

Peace Now spokeswoman Hagit Yaari told RFE/RL that ceding land to the Palestinians is the only way to stop violence on both sides. Yaari said Peace Now holds most of its rallies in Israeli cities because the government is the intended audience. Activists gather weekly for a vigil across from the prime minister's office in Jerusalem.

On 11 May, police estimated that 60,000 demonstrators gathered for a peace rally in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square.

"These messages are, I think, sinking into the Israeli population. Most of the people here are willing to give up the occupied territories, and most of the settlements, for peaceful living inside Israel in the [19]67 lines," Yaari said.

Yaari said that, although Israeli participation in the peace movement increased during the recent Israeli operations in the West Bank, there was a decline in activity during the first few months of the latest Palestinian uprising, which began in late September 2000. She said Israeli peace activists were in shock and felt betrayed by activists on the other side.

But she said the escalation of violence on both sides drove the group to continue to organize rallies.

Baskin, whose public-policy organization works with Israelis and Palestinians on a variety of programs, said both sides have found themselves in a difficult situation. He said a solution to the conflict can only come with the help of the international community, especially the United Nations and the United States.

"I think the peace movement both in Israel and in Palestine needs to put a lot more attention into what's happening in Washington and who controls American foreign policy, [and] how we can influence that," Baskin said.

But Baskin said these protest groups lack any influence on American foreign policy and the bottom line is that a solution to the Mideast crisis is ultimately going to have to originate in the White House.