In April of 2002, Adam Shapiro found himself inside Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s besieged compound in Ramallah in the Occupied Territories. He had succeeded where all of the media networks desperate for news of the situation inside the compound had failed, and in the process given them an irresistable story. The press had found their scoop in this young, daring Jewish American who, having sneaked past the Israeli Army, was relating the wrongs being committed by them as their military might ripped holes through the compound’s walls.
Not only was Shapiro Jewish, he was engaged to Huweida Arraf, a Palestinian-American who shared his distaste for the Israeli occupation. She is also one of the co-founders of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led movement of Palestinian and international activists and grassroots community organizations working together for unarmed, civilian-based, direct action against the occupation. That April in 2002 was Shapiro’s introduction to the spotlight, and he has not stepped outside its glare since.
Deported from Israel after the siege and currently a doctoral candidate at the American University in Washington DC, Shapiro and Arraf arrived in Beirut last night to give a series of talks and interviews aimed at shedding further light on the dire situation in Palestine. The pair will be speaking Monday at the American University of Beirut, before an audience already familiar with the Palestinian perspective of the conflict, and of the collaborative efforts of Palestinians and international activists in monitoring, and stopping, Israeli violence against the Palestinian people.
“My interest in the Middle East really began as a result of the first Gulf War in 1991,” Shapiro explained in an e-mail interview from Washington before arriving in Lebanon. Attending university at the time, Shapiro was inundated with what he described as “un-dynamic” images of the region and its people. Acutely aware that the splices of footage broadcast on television did not reflect the reality of war’s brutality (“smart bombs,” as he knew, belie their name) and the degree to which Iraqi people and their culture changed as a result, Shapiro enrolled in courses to learn more about the region and the people under attack.
“While I was aware of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I was really not that interested in it,” he admits. “I was more interested in the rest of the Arab world.” Pursuing this interest, Shapiro earned a master’s degree in Arab studies and journeyed to Yemen to experience life in an Arab society. “I finally began to get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when I began working for an American organization called Seeds of Peace,” he says of the group dedicated to promoting dialogue between youth from conflict regions including the Middle East. “I was sent to Jerusalem to work on the ground (and) it was there that I saw first-hand what the occupation was and what it did to the Palestinian people,” he says.
With the advent of the intifada in September 2000, Shapiro witnessed the unprovoked killing of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli Army. “One of my friends, Asel Asleh, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was killed in civilian protests against the occupation,” he remembers. “I realized that I could not stand by and watch. As someone who was an American but understood and experienced life in the Arab world, I could not be silent, especially as American-made weapons and the American government gave such overwhelming support to the Israelis.”
As a Jew, Shapiro’s condemnation of Israeli tactics are extremely awkward for many. “I realize that my background does mean something to many people and challenges the stereotype that exists,” he says, referring to the overwhelming belief that all Jewish people support Israel without question. “In fact, this is not true, and it is important for all people, Jews included, to stand up for freedom for all men and women, and for all of us to resist oppression everywhere.”
At the same time, many do not support Shapiro’s stance. Although invited to speak at colleges and community centers throughout the United States, Shapiro has never been invited to address a Jewish group. “I have been attacked by the Jewish community,” he says, “and my family has received death threats.” However, Shapiro said this will not stop him from telling the stories of occupation. “I have seen all the abuses of the occupation,” he says, “from the littlest things like soldiers pointing guns at small kids on a daily basis to the targeting and killing of civilians. I have seen kids who have had their heads partially blown off and women shot in the face.” The suffering heaped upon the Palestinian people on account of the Israeli occupation and its violence impelled Shapiro to join the International Solidarity Movement, where he met Assaf.
In its international character and through its tactic of direct action, the ISM has proved a force to be reckoned with, although not without extreme loss. And their efforts have led to a nomination for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. “We have international activists of all ages from all over the world coming to the Palestinian territories to live with Palestinians and to serve as a resource for Palestinian civilian resistance,” Shapiro explains. “We have served to join Palestinians in demonstrations and protests,” he says, referring to street protests as well as the protest alongside Arafat while his compound was under siege. “We have removed checkpoints and roadblocks,” he says. “We have even blocked tanks and bulldozers from destroying homes,” a practice that received much attention after the death of ISM activist Rachel Corrie, who knelt in the path of an oncoming bulldozer only to be crushed to death when it ran her over.
“Recently, Israeli forces have killed and injured some ISM activists and raided our offices and arrested others,” Shapiro continues. “This is because Israel sees the ISM as a threat. We are telling the world what is really happening and we are listened to because we are Europeans and Americans.” The case in the US certainly supports this point of view. Certainly, the American television media and its viewers pay more heed to a non-Arab voice than that of an Arab, perhaps because they are judged as less biased. “So it is important when a white American woman in her 50s, for instance, talks about living under siege in a Palestinian home with a big family under curfew for days at a time,” Shapiro says. “All of a sudden this is not something that happens to other people far away. It happens to someone you know and who looks like you,” he adds.
In Lebanon until June 5, Shapiro and Assaf will discuss the work of the ISM on the ground, from the beginning of the movement in April 2001 to the present day, including recent crackdowns on the ISM’s activities. Suspected ISM activists now entering Israel are asked to sign a waiver saying the Israeli Army is not responsible for their safety.
“We will explain the ways in which the ISM is a resource to Palestinians,” Shapiro says, referring to the ISM’s ability to protect Palestinians from Israeli aggression and tell their tale by speaking out at home about the circumstances of the occupation. “Additionally, we will talk about the latest developments, especially the apartheid wall being built and what the ISM will do this summer,” referring to the ISM’s strategy for bringing the wall down. “And of course, we will talk about the ‘road map,’” he adds, “and why it is completely off the mark.”
Adam Shapiro and Huweida Arraf will be speaking at AUB’s West Hall at 6pm Monday, June 2, and at 9pm at Masrah al-Madina Tuesday, June 3 after a screening of the film “Jeremy Hardy versus the Israeli Army”.