The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

Removing the witnesses

Israel’s crackdown on international peace activists raises grave concerns.

Muna Hamzeh, Al-Ahram Weekly, 29 May – 4 June 2003

At a time when world attention is focussed on the Israeli government’s acceptance of the "the steps" set out in the roadmap and its complete rejection of the Palestinian right of return, the Israeli authorities have been escalating their crackdown on international peace activists and humanitarian organisations operating in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israeli forces arrested three peace activists, including two Americans, in Tulkarm refugee camp on Saturday as they attempted to leave the camp during an imposed curfew. Mike Johnson from Washington State, Matteo Bernal from Kentucky and Palestinian Ousama Kashou had been accompanying schoolchildren trying to return to their homes after Israeli troops clamped down a curfew and began conducting large scale house-to- house searches intended to root out the camp’s "terrorist infrastructure". The three are members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led group of Palestinian and international activists working to end the occupation.

The arrest of the ISM activists is seen as part of an alarming rise in the crackdown on international non-violent peace groups working to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian population. ISM and other non-violent peace groups have increasingly had their offices raided and their members either denied entry to Israel or detained and deported. Some have even fallen victim to Israeli gunfire.

In one case, an Israeli sniper shot Tom Hurndall, 22, a British ISM activist in the head on 10 April while he was protecting children in Rafah from Israeli gunfire. He remains in critical condition. Meanwhile, Brian Avery, 23, an American ISM activist remains in hospital in Haifa after Israeli forces shot him in the face in Jenin on 5 April. Avery has suffered extensive damage to his face and will require extensive reconstructive surgery. Both these shooting incidents came less than one month after ISM activist Rachel Corrie, 23, was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer during a house demolition in Rafah.

In addition to the latest arrests in Tulkarm, Israeli troops raided the offices of the ISM and the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement in Beit Sahour on 9 May, confiscating and destroying equipment and files and detaining three women, including two Americans and one Palestinian. While the Palestinian was later released, the two Americans were taken away for possible deportation.

Another group being targeted by Israel’s occupation forces is the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) in Hebron. Comprised mostly of American and British religious pacifists, CPT has been operating in Hebron since the early 1990s and has been mostly left alone by the Israeli army. The morning of 20 May proved this was no longer the case. For the second consecutive search within a few days, Israeli soldiers raided the CPT apartment in Hebron’s Old City, examined the passports and visas of the seven activists present, photographed the apartment and its occupants, and searched the contents of the filing cabinet.

The officer in charge then laid down some harsh new rules, informing the activists that they were barred from entering the H1 area of Hebron (under Palestinian control since Oslo, but reoccupied in 2002). CPT members were warned that any activist found in that area would face arrest and deportation. The activists were also strictly forbidden from going near Israeli settler enclaves, particularly in Old Hebron. But most devastating to the group has been the stern warning that CPT activists were no longer allowed to engage in "school patrol", the group’s most critical and needed activity.

Since Israeli forces clamped down an almost continuous curfew on Old Hebron in November 2002, Palestinian schoolchildren have been finding it increasingly difficult to attend school. Harassment by settlers and soldiers alike is commonplace, as is the likelihood of Israeli troops firing tear gas or bullets at children who attempt to go to school under curfew.

Through "school patrol", CPT activists accompany schoolchildren to and from school, offering some semblance of protection. Indeed, out of 2000 students enrolled in area schools, only 1400 are actually able to reach their schools on a given day, partially due to CPT’s "school patrol" activity. Now, even this minimal form of protection is to be denied.

To emphasise their threats of detention and deportation, Israeli troops arrested CPT member Greg Rollins on 17 May while he was monitoring the arrest of several Palestinians in Hebron. Rollins, a Canadian from British Columbia, is being held in a prison in Tel Aviv and threatened with deportation. His attorney, Jonathan Kuttab, is seeking an injunction from the Israeli High court to block deportation.

Meanwhile, the Israeli authorities earlier this month denied entry for the second time in a week to a group of European volunteers with Youth Action for Peace, the Youth Euro-Med programme of the European Commission. The incident marks the first time that the Israeli authorities have denied entry to a European voluntary service group since the launch of the Euro-Med programme, one of the regional programmes set up in the 1995 Barcelona Process to establish dialogue between young people from the 27 Euro-Mediterranean partners, including Israel.

The rising restrictions on international peace activists coincide with new regulations affecting international employees of non-governmental organisations operating in the Palestinian territories. Starting 14 April, foreigners employed by international NGOs have been required to receive a B1 working visa, which can only be obtained if the applicants can prove they are working 40 hours a week in Jerusalem (excluding East Jerusalem) and that they don’t work in the Palestinian territories. The new regulation coincides with new Israeli restrictions preventing foreigners, with the exception of those holding diplomatic passports, from entering or leaving the Gaza Strip.

The crackdown on international peace activists and NGO employees is expected to gravely impact an already deteriorating humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It is further seen as another extreme Israeli measure aimed at removing the witnesses who have damaged Israel’s image in the West by exposing the war crimes being committed in the territories on a daily basis.