It was April 1, and Aisa Kiyosue and nearly 100 other activists from around the world were marching toward the Dehesha refugee camp in Beit Jala, northern Bethlehem, in an attempt to block it from an anticipated attack by the Israeli Army. They were in high spirits, clapping and singing songs of protest, when an Israeli tank appeared.
As the tank drew nearer, Kiyosue was apprehensive but optimistic. “I didn’t expect they would shoot at nonviolent protesters,” she says.
But they did. From the tank, an Israeli soldier fired a volley of warning shots at the feet of the marchers, and eight of the activists were hit by shrapnel. Kiyosue was one of them; she underwent surgery in Japan last month to remove metal fragments from her lower right leg.
A Ph.D. student at the University of Bradford in England, Kiyosue traveled to Bethlehem in response to a call from the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-led coalition of international, mainly American and European, nongovernmental organizations that works to prevent Israeli invasions into Palestinian territory by means of nonviolent direct action. Working in close cooperation with Grassroots International Protection for the Palestinian People (GIPP), another Palestinian-led umbrella organization of international groups, the ISM recently organized a mass protest campaign in the West Bank and Gaza of around 600 international activists, who stayed with Palestinians in their homes and villages to act as “human shields” and draw the world’s attention to Israel’s human rights violations in the territories.
The campaign, the third of its kind since December 2001, attracted the media spotlight when a contingent of 10 ISM activists slipped past Israeli troops May 2 to deliver food to Palestinians trapped in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the presence of another group of ISM members contributed to ending the one-month siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s presidential compound in Ramallah. Around 2,500 internationals have taken in part in this Palestinian-led nonviolent protest movement to date, and a fourth campaign is planned for later this month, in response to Israel’s continuing raids on Palestinian towns.
Sharing the same philosophy as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, the ISM and GIPP believe that violence is counterproductive because it hardens the heart of one’s opponent. They aim, instead, for a “conversion of the opponent” by using morally correct methods and demonstrating a lack of fear when threatened with attack.
It may be difficult to imagine from the frequent media reports of suicide bombings, but such nonviolent resistance is not new among the Palestinians. It has its roots in the methods adopted at the beginning of the first intifada, the mass Palestinian uprising that began in December 1987 in reaction to Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Well aware that aggressive tactics would invite harsher and harsher oppression from fully armed Israeli troops, Palestinians restricted their use of force to stone-throwing, a largely symbolic act of resistance.
However, as Israel stepped up its repressive measures in response to the intifada, carrying out mass arrests, house demolitions and collective sanctions such as closure of the territories, frustration grew, resistance leaders lost control of the movement and people resorted to more aggressive methods, such as the use of Molotov cocktails. In his book “Living the Intifada,” British researcher Andrew Rigby attributed the failure of the uprising to this escalation, pointing out the counterproductivity of such activity “in relation to the efforts to sway the hearts and minds of the other.”
Since the start of the second intifada in September 2000, Palestinian leaders committed to finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict have tried to promote nonviolent resistance by coordinating action among a variety of NGOs, many of which were organized during the first intifada to meet increased demands for medical treatment or to substitute for paralyzed community services.
They have also actively sought outside help, as the failure of the first intifada is partly attributed to the lack of international observers who could act as a moderating influence on the aggressive tactics of the Israeli Army. The ISM (formed in December 2000) and GIPP (formed in May 2001), the two main coordinating bodies, were set up as a result of these efforts. (The ISM recently became a GIPP member group.)
Kiyosue stresses the vital role internationals have to play in facilitating nonviolent actions, noting that while Palestinians do not usually join ISM-GIPP demonstrations and marches, they are placed deep inside a group of foreign activists for protection if they do.
“If Palestinians had been at the front (of our demonstration), they would have surely been shot in the head or heart,” she says.
Preparations for an action are elaborate. Outside volunteers receive one-and-a-half-days training before heading to refugee camps. This consists of a political update and practical methods for negotiating with soldiers. Without such training, demonstrators run the risk of provoking shootings by becoming aggressive.
Kiyosue says that she and the other members of her group had planned to raise their hands in the air to prove they had no intention of confronting the soldiers, and to say that they just wanted to go to the Dehesha camp. However, before they had time to put this plan into action, the shooting began.
The day the third ISM campaign began, March 29, coincided with the start of an Israeli intensive military operation in the West Bank and a suicide bombing carried out in West Jerusalem, the first suicide attack by a woman. As it turned out that she came from the Dehesha camp of Bethlehem, the whole town of mainly Christian residents was fearful of Israeli retaliation.
The next night, Kiyosue stayed at another refugee camp in Bethlehem to show solidarity with the Palestinians. “A Palestinian was trembling while serving coffee and tea. Others were nervously switching TV channels in an attempt to get any information (of Israeli military action) they could,” she recalled. Kiyosue herself was scared, realizing for the first time that she herself might die if the town was attacked. She kept all her belongings by her side so that she could escape, if necessary, with her Palestinian hosts at a moment’s notice.
The April 1 shootings took place in this tense atmosphere. After being taken to a hospital, Kiyosue returned to her hotel, and later that night was awakened by an earth-shattering roar — the sound of five tanks entering Bethlehem, marking the beginning of the town’s occupation, which lasted until May 10. (The Israeli Army invaded the town again on May 25, along with other West Bank towns and villages.)
Kiyosue’s interest in the Palestinian issue dates back to the first intifada period. Although the Palestinians seemed to her to be the most oppressed people in the world, ignored by international society, she felt that it would only be a matter of time before they won their freedom. When she saw the Israeli responses escalate and become more sophisticated during the second intifada, however, she realized she had been wrong. Wanting to see the situation herself, she visited the Azar camp in Bethlehem in December 2000, intending to take photographs so that she could show people what was happening in the occupied territories. On her return to Bradford, she gave lectures and organized workshops and slide shows. Her decision to place herself between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers came after careful consideration of what the most effective way of helping the Palestinians would be.
“I don’t think [nonviolence] is always the right tactic,” she says. “But we have no choice but to carry on because there is no alternative.”
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