“I was a human shield”: An Israeli visits ISM in Rafah

I visited hell and I came back in one piece. It happened on the night between Thursday 20 March and Friday 21 March 2003, when I accompanied Joe and Laura, two 20-year old human rights activists, in acting as a human shield facing the IDF. When they asked me do I join in and I answered “yes”, I did not fully realize what I was getting myself into.

It was my first experience under fire: so close to death, so anonymous, my life so easily abandoned in somebody else’s hands. Never did I feel so weak, so defenceless. I did say “I am coming” and we set out.

It was 7.30 PM. we walked through the main street of Rafah, a town which is in fact just a big refugee camp. We walked in darkness, through ruins, pot-holes and puddles, torn bits of nylon and plastic, barbed wire and piles of rubbish. Here and there some stores were open. Groups of young boys were walking around us, shouting “Sa’lam Aleikum, Sa’lam Aleikum”.

Suddenly, one of them picked up a stone and threw it at us. It flew through the air and fell near us. Joe and Laura were not very disturbed. “We represent for them the American culture which they hate” said Laura. I vaguely knew that we were walking towards Rafah’s border with Egypt. We walked towards the last house in the last row of Rafah houses. The home of Muhammad Jamil Kushta.

At a certain stage, after ten minutes of fast walking in empty alleys, we went aside into a long and narrow alley at whose end I could see a big pillar. When we came near I could see it was a tall guard tower. When we came near the tower, Joe and Laura raised their hands high and signalled to me to do the same. I did as they asked and walked towards the IDF guard tower with my hands high above my head, walking quickly - but not too quickly - through the empty alley.

Our clothing was fluorescent orange, with silver strips to make it even more conspicuous in the night. Joe held a big megaphone in one hand and a big phosphorescent sheet in the other. Twenty metres from the tower we could see, even in the utter darkness, that we were facing a major fortification - an Israeli strong point at the exact border between Rafah and Egypt.

A few steps before the tower Laura abruptly pushed me into a small, dark entrance and whispered “Quick, it’s here”. I went over the doorstep, feeling the way with my foot, with the eyes gradually getting used to the sight of of high, dark corridor. Five steps, and my brow hit strongly against a concrete block.

Passing under it, I went up ten winding stairs at whose end was a door. A short ring and the door opened to reveal the smiling face of Muhammad Kushta. Standing in the door, smiling back, I felt relieved that the damned walking was over and that we got to somewhere looking like a hospitable house. I did not realize what kind of night was waiting for me. I had not the slightest idea.

Muhammad Jamil Kushta, whose house we have come to defend, opened the door to see two young human rights activists who had been spending the nights in his home for the past few weeks, plus a woman introducing herself as a “French journalist”. The French journalist was me, at that moment nobody knew I was actually an Israeli from Tel Aviv.

“Tfatdal, Tfatdal” he said as he opened the door, the greeting joined by his young wife Nora holding little Nancy in her hands. It was already a quarter past eight when we all sat down on the floor by the little heater when suddenly it started. A noise which to my ear sounded very very close, a rolling noise, an ear-shattering noise, a noise which sounded like hell. It was the first time that night that the house came under fire, and the first time for me to be under fire. I started shaking. My entire body was shaking. The noise was rolling by my ears like a series of giant fireballs. Shooting, shooting, shooting. I understood this is how an encounter with death looks like.

With the first burst Jamil moved his tea glass slightly. Up and down, up and down. Nora held Nancy tightly. Joe and Laura went to the baby Ibasan who slept in the corner and her brother the young Jamil and crouched over them. It lasted half an hour, and for an hour and half afterwards my body was till shaking. But I did not yet realize it was just the beginning. I watched Jamil without words and he said: “It goes on like this every night. For two and a half years”.

“What are they shooting at?” I asked.

“In the air” he shrugged.

“Why?”

“Out of fear” he said simply.

“They are also afraid, alone there in the dark. They are very young”.

“Why aren’t you taking your children elsewhere, away from here?” I asked after getting my voice under control.

“I have no money” he answered. “I have no money for another house, every penny I had was invested in these walls, and I got into debt even so”.

A Dangerous Game

It is not by chance that over the past few weeks, Laura and Joe are spending their nights in Jamil’s house. It is the last house in the row of houses fronting the Egyptian border. Some twenty metres from this house, perhaps less, the IDF built a high fortification, destroyed all houses to the right and left and stationed guns, tanks and mortars targetting the city.

That is why Laura and Joe are sleeping over in Jamil’s home. This is the next house in line to be demolished. There is no way for Jamil and the human rights activists to know in advance when the army would come at this house with tanks or D-9 bulldozers - and it will be the job of Laura and Joe to try preventing the IDF from approaching the house.

Laura and Joe are members of ISM, International Solidarity Movement, a group of human rights activists who oppose the Israeli occupation through direct non-violent action. They are young, politically motivated university graduates - very extreme and determined pacifists. Their purpose is to prevent the army from harming civilians.

Every night, with the beginning of the curfew, they are spreading in Palestinian homes on the first row, which are exposed to shooting from the military positions . They wear phosphorescent clothing and megaphones. In the midst of firing, or in the face of IDF bulldozers, they emerge to call out in English the text of international conventions and block the soldiers when they come in, shoot, bomb or demolish homes.

Until a week ago it worked. They were calling out, warning, shouting, blocked the bulldozers with their bodies - and the army turned back. On Sunday, March 17, all bets were off. What happened found its way to the media of the entire world, caused a storm. A young woman, human rights activist, was killed by an IDF bulldozer which ran over her.

Her name was Rachel Corrie, she was 23 years old, and Joe Smith recorded her last moments. He saw her facing the bulldozer, as was her habit, trying to establish contact with the soldier driving it. A second later she was not visible any more. A cat and mouse game is how members of the human rights group call the dangerous game they are playing with the IDF D-9 bulldozers.

When a bulldozer approaches a house marked for destruction, they sit down in their phosphorescent clothing on the mound of earth carried on the giant bulldozer extended front, addressing by megaphone the soldier behind the windows of opaque, reinforced glass. Standing on the front of the bulldozer requires maintaining a very delicate balance, and there comes a moment when you can overturn and fall off.

Until the day Rachel was killed, the soldiers did not push things to far. They would always stop and turn back one minute before this could happen. But on that Sunday, the soldier driving the bulldozer did not stop at the critical moment, and Rachel was killed. Joe Smith’s photos document, stage by stage, Rachel’s folding into death.

Like a big strong bird which flies in the sky, gets a blow, squeezes itself and slowly falls down to become a small crumpled heap on the ground. Here is a photo of Rachel standing determined in front of the bulldozer, here she stands on the mound of earth. And here she disappears, she lies on the ground, her mouth open as if trying to say something, Alice crouches over her (later, Alice would quote what she said with her last strength: “My back is broken”), she draws in her two legs, the body lies like a lifeless sack. Rachel is dead.

After her death Rachel became a Shaheeda (martyr). From all over the world, media was called upon to interview the group of young people, which had numbered eight and is now reduced to seven. So it was that I also arrived there. A short phone call from my editor, a contact person at the Erez Checkpoint, a taxi, a Palestinian photographer from Gaza, and an emphatic instruction from the contact person: “Nobody must know that you are an Israeli. From now on, you are a French journalist - period”.

A bad death

I lived with the group for 24 hours. Crazy hours, very frightening, hours of fear and apprehension in which I felt at my nerve endings, a wildly beating heart and wet underwear. I understood what it means to live with death for 24 hours a day. A bad death. With guns, tanks and bulldozers targetting your home, your bedroom, your kitchen, your balcony, your living room. No way of defending yourself, nowhere to run to.

At midnight in Jamil’s home, facing the shooting tanks and feeling that these may really be my last moments, I decided to open my cards. I threw aside the instructions not to expose myself because of Hamas and Tanzim and all the others who may murder me at a moment’s notice. With a feeling of profound finality I suddenly said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I must tell you the truth. I am an Israeli journalist from Tel Aviv.

There was a moment’s silence, then Jamil smiled and started speaking in fluent Hebrew: “Welcome, Welcome, Ahalan Wa’sahalan [an Arabic greeting which became, part of colloquial Hebrew].”

“I lived for four years on Sokolov Street in Herzlia,” he continued, “I was the shawarma cutter in the Mifgash Ha’Sharon Restaurant. I have also worked on Abba Eban Street in Netanya and at the Hod Hotel in Herzlia Pituach. What I liked most was to eat cherry ice-cream at the Little Tel-Aviv Restaurant. Is it still open?”

Rains of ammunition, bullets came down on us on that one single night. A single night, for me. The shooting went on continuously from 1.30 to 4.15, near the first light. Only then it calmed down.

My teeth did not stop chattering. “It’s verrry near” was the only thing I managed to say for four consecutive hours. Jamil and Nora, with their three babies, tried to calm me.

“The soldiers know us, they know we’re clear. You hear it so close, because they are shooting at the wall near us”.

“So they never hit your house itself?” I ask him with an enormous burst of hope.

“Oh, sometimes they do. Look at the bullet holes”. I raise my head and look to the sides. The ceiling is fool of holes, the side walls are cut up. So is the kitchen wall near the tap, near the table, in the toilet, one centimetre from the children’s beds. Some of the holes have been filled up. Every night, once the shooting ends, Jamil closes the bullet holes with white cement. The walls are patchwork, and if you dare approach the window you can see that Jamil and Nora’s home is surrounded by ruins on all sides.

Everybody escaped, only he remained because of having no money to take his family away from here. The bullets are whistling and Jamil makes for his family salad and omelettes and bakes pita bread on a traditional tabun oven. The bullets whistle and we are eating. With a good appetite.

We bend down whenever the shooting seems to come closer. It is incredible what human beings can get used to, I think. A week ago, Jamil took up a big black marking pen and wrote on a piece of cardboard: “Soldiers, don’t shoot please. There are sleeping children here”.

He wrote in big Hebrew letters, and Rachel Corrie had climbed on the building’s outer wall to hang it. Now Rachel’s face appears on a Palestinian martyr’s poster which hangs on the living room window. Jamil smiles sadly and tells me and my chattering teeth and my clenched hands and my widely beating heart: “What can we do? When Allah decides our time has come to die, we die. It is all in Allah’s hands.” It does not reassure me.

A stranger among us

24 hours I had lived in the ruined and beleaguered city of Rafah. “Rafah Camp”, as both inhabitants and internationals call it. Most of the time, the people which I met did not know I was Israeli. It is important to note this, because the words I heard and the conversations I conducted were not part of an Israeli- Palestinian ping pong.

Nobody tried to accuse me, to convince me or to make me understand something which I did not understand before. As far as they were concerned, I was a European journalist. During these 24 hours I did things which could be described as taking a terrible, irresponsible risk, unfitting for a person my age.

Still, I am glad I did it. I feel now that I am not the same person which I was before entering Rafah. A person can grow considerably older in just 24 hours. Now I also understand better the fascination war has for many men. No other human experience, however ecstatic, can make so much adrenalin flow through your veins.

But I was mostly concerned trying to understand how it is to live there for more than one day.

My trek had began in Tel-Aviv at 8.30 AM, with the nice friendly taxi driver Yehuda Gubali offering me water and a chewing gum as I got in. He was curious to know what I was looking for at the godforsaken Erez Checkpoint, on such a nice morning. I told him the truth: I was on my way to meet the ISM people.

“Oh, I read in the paper about that girl who was killed, what’s her name, and let me tell you the truth, I was glad she was killed. Who is that little busybody from America to come and interfere in our affairs? Standing on the bulldozer, really! no wonder she was run over. Let these people learn a lesson. Is this their country?”

The sky was grey when I crossed alone the border crossing at Erez, after signing the Army Spokesman’s document stating that I take full responsibility for my decision to cross and absolving the army from any responsibility for what may happen to me on the other side. I crossed past the last bunker, waved back to the soldiers, and stood near the rolls of barbed wire to wait for my Palestinian escort, Talal Abu Rahma.

Abu Rahma took the photo which symbolizes the current Intifada more than any other: the death of the child Muhammad Al-Dura in the arms of his father, during the exchange of fire between Israeli soldiers and armed Palestinians.

Nowadays, Abu Rahma is a very busy man who lives in Gaza and works for foreign networks. He is my official guide, and the first thing he says is: “From this moment, not a single Hebrew word. Even the photographer must not know that you are Israeli. From this moment you are a French journalist”.

With these words in mind I get into a car heading for Rafah Camp, an hour and half drive from Gaza. We race along the broken Gaza coastal road, in the direction of Khan Yuneis and Rafah. “You see these hotels and restaurants? Once they were all merry, full of life. Now everything is neglected, broken, abandoned”.

At the “Abu Huly” checkpoint, near the Gush Katif Israeli settlements, we stop. We wait for the soldiers’ permission to proceed. Abu Rahame is an intensive person, i.e. nervous. He lights one cigarette with another. This IDF checkpoint must not be crossed by a car with less than three persons in. On both sides there are children waiting at the roadside. They take one shekel from drivers who take them in their car to fill up the required number, then on the other side they get another shekel from another driver to go the other way. This is their way of of surviving this collapsed economy.

We wait. “Sometimes you have to wait here for three days. Depends on the situation”. But this time, we get the permission after half an hour. We go through a beautiful, neglected road, lined by ancient eucalyptus trees.

And then we are at Rafah Camp. A big, ruined place. You can hardly call this place, with 140,000 people, a city. Palestinians are unanimous that it is “the poorest, most miserable, most damaged place of all: 250 inhabitants killed in the Intifada, more than 400 houses destroyed. Half of those killed were children.”

When I enter the apartment used by “The Internationals” I start feeling that here, especially, I should not identify myself as Israeli. Israeliness, for these young people, represents the worst evil they know: demolition of homes, brutal killings, bulldozers, shooting, tanks, humiliations, hunger and poverty.

The young people in the room are not quick to communicate with the French journalist which they think they are meeting. They are tired of the media, they have not yet completely come to terms with the death of their friend, they are not eager to answer questions and they don’t particularly care that I have only two hours. I watch the nervously tapping foot of my escort.

“Come back for me tomorrow” I suddenly ask him. After a short debate, in which I promise to take very much care of myself, he bids me goodbye with a disapproving look on his face. Joe Smith, the only member of the groups really willing to talk to me, offers to go together to the internet cafe a few steps away, and on the way he tells me how he had come to join the ISM.

Seeping fear

Smith is a 21-year old guy from Kansas City. While in high school he read a book about peace activists and became enthusiastic with the idea. In a political science course he met with Prof. Steve Naber, read Marx and realized his status as a white male, with privileges at the top of the pyramid. He went to Slovakia, joined anti-globalisation groups and decided that what he most wants to do with his life is to devote it to the weak, to those who don’t have the privileges he has. Especially, he wants to challenge the dictatorship of the strong which is enforced by his own government, which is how he got to the Rafah group.

While talking we get to the Internet cafe in the city center, where I meet Muhammad who does not want to tell the French journalist his full name “because there is very much trouble around here”, but who insists that I sit by him and read from the screen his online diary and look at the photos he had placed at www.rafah.vze.com.

Muhammad is 18, he has a delicate face and studies English in the university. I decide to gamble and suggest to him to be my interpreter and escort in Rafah.I leave Joe behind the computer and walk with Muhammad through Salah A-Dn Street, Rafah’s main street. I notice a bit of discomfort in Muhammad’s look and ask him what is the matter.

“You better buy a keffiya and cover your hair. That way, you will be less conspicuous, and people will feel that you identify with their suffering. I immediately take his advice. We stop at the first stall, buy a keffiya, stop a taxi, haggle a bit and agree upon 50 shekels for half an hour and start going around the city.

Already on the first moment he asks if I am the foreign journalist who had come to visit the internationals. Rumors spread swiftly here. The driver tells me that it was him who had taken Rachel Corrie to her death on that fateful morning.

The first site Muhammad chooses to show me is at Block G on the northern edge of the city, where 400 houses had been destroyed. As we come near, inhabitants living in tents warn us not to come close to the tanks with their guns directed at us.

“When they see something moving they shoot”, a woman on a donkey warns Muhammad. The rest of the way we do half crawling among the ruins, through the narrow alleys, careful not to raise our heads. The tanks are some 200 metres away, their guns at the ready.

It is important to Muhammad to show me the site of the mass house demolition. He had photographed house after house and entered the houses into his Internet site, which is daily visited by 900 people from all over the world. Row after row of destroyed houses, with personal belongings scattered and strewn around. Dolls, furniture, bicyles, books. We crawl through the alleys to avoid the threatening guns of tanks.

“They can shoot at any moment, just at any suspicious movement” he says and leads further in. The fear comes crawling up my feet and legs.

Finally, when we come closer and closer to the tanks and the ruins become deeper and deeper, I lift my voice: “Enough!”. Muhammad yields to the French journalist, and we get into the taxi and move on.

The next destination is the al-Ubur Airfield which had been destroyed by F-16 airplanes, then the ruined house beside which Rachel Corrie was killed, then a small hospital whose two ambulances are running around constantly. Most things we watch from a distance of no less than 100 metres “since shooting can start at any moment”.

After two hours I insist on calling a halt. We enter a small restaurant and order large pita bread with humous, tehina and coca cola, all for four and a half shekels [About one dollar, less than half the Tel-Aviv price].

“Where do you live?” I ask. “I moved with my parents to a different house. Two months ago they destroyed our home. I came from the university and found everything ruined. The computer, the books, the notebooks, my study materials. Nothing was left. They came and destroyed everything at a moment’s notice, did not give any chance of taking things out. We were just thrown into the street. Me, my father, my mother, my three brothers, my grandfather. And believe me” he says to the French journalist “they had no reason. We are just an ordinary family, not involved in anything. They just destroyed our life in one hour”.

I look at Muhammad talking. Only now, after I saw the 400 destroyed houses, do I really understand his grief. Muhammad leads me back to the internationals’ flat just as they are about to go pay a coalescence visit to the familes of people killed on the same day as Rachel. To my surprise, they don’t object to my joining them.

The seven of us squeeze ourselves into a single taxi, and we go the water tower at the edge of the city. One of the group’s duties is to guard the water and electricity workers who repair the water pipes or electricity wires damaged in the shooting.

While they do their work Joe, Laura, Alice and Gordon form a circle around them, to defend them from the soldiers’ shots.

A faceless enemy

In the bereaved families’ houses, where I sat with the others on the floor, drank bitter coffee and ate dates, I hardly ever heard the word “Israelis”. Even the word “soldiers” was only rarely used. What the Palestinians usually say is simply “they”. This is not by chance. During the 30 hours that I lived there I never saw a flesh-and-blood Israeli soldier.

From the Palestinian point of view the enemy has no face, no body, no human form. The enemy is hidden behind giant D-9 bulldozers, monsters as big as a house themselves, at whose top there are squares of opaque reinforced glass. The enemy is hidden behind bunkers, guard towers, metal tanks.

The enemy has no face, no expressions which could be interpreted. The enemy is hidden behind tons of khaki-coloured steel. Massive steel, frightening, belching fire without warning. For the man in the street the enemy is virtual, sophisticated, unhuman, inaccesible.

And facing this enemy are the Palestinians I see waliking in the dirty streets. Many with torn cloths, some barefooted, neglected, manifestly poor. You can see the traces of sorrow, apprehension., suffering, inadequate food. At 45 they look old.

They walk from one side of the city to the other, seeking some kind of a job. Man walk in groups, hither and fro. They have no jobs and nowhere to go. They live squeezed - men, women and children - in narrow houses and small pieces of land. On the way back from the condolences visit, we encounter a massive group of marching men.

At the front a car with enormous louspeakers, blaring music and ten masked young men holding swords and calling out slogans against the Iraq War. “A demonstration, a demonstration” the internationals call out, stopping the taxi and joining right in among the fiery men. Willy-nilly, the French journalist also walks with the march, keeping constant eye-contact with the three women of the group - Laura, Alice and Carol.

There are no Palestinian women to be seen. It is one of these demonstrations which look very frightening on TV. Guys with black rags covering their eyes, blaring loudspeakers, swords and knives between teeth. The direct human contact, at close range, diminishes the drama. I look at the fiery men and toy with imagining how they would have reacted if they knew that there is an Israeli identity card right there in my pocket. In their sweating faces I can see how young and desperate they are, looking for action.

Alice, Laura and Carol join the heated chanting of slogans against the Americans and Israelis, taking out a large colour poster, with the face of Rachel in her role as a martyr. Alice, a 26-year old Londoner, takes up the megaphone and delivers a fiery speech on what Rachel had done for the Palestinians and how she was killed. Alice speaks in English and the Palestinian men listen in admiration.

I feel that Alice is the stongest woman in the group. She is young, charismatic and determined. I had to watch my chance for ten hours before she consented to peel off her tough exterior, soften a bit her Jeanne d’Arc image and exchange some words with me. Alice, who prefers not to mention her family name, grew up in London. After highschool she studied computer programming, had a nice job and rented a good appartment.

“I lived a bourgois life and I found that it leads nowhere. Going to an expensive restaurant with a new boyfriend, and on the way passing homeless people sleeping on the pavement. I started to be interested in how the strong exploit the weak, and for a time I went to work in a factory. Afterwards I became more and more political. I started to give an account to myself for everything I did, what did I eat, what entertainment did I enjoy, what does it mean to live in a capitalist society. I went to demonstrate in Prague and got arrested. I put my courage to the test, until I finally trained myself to come here. Here it is the most difficult. What is most interesting to me is to analyse the tactics of force used by the strong against the weak. Only here, when I help the Palestinians to face the Israelis, do I feel that my life has a meaning.”

We walked for 20 minutes with the stormy march, then we moved aside and started shopping for the evening: preserved meat, noodles, rice, sugar, cookies and tea. The group is financed by contributions and lives as a commune. Every spent Shekel is carefully noted down.

Nowhere to escape

At 6:00PM, a last team meeting ahead of the night. The small commune is conducted by strict rules. Every morning at 8.30 they meet at the appartment after having spent the night at threatened Palestinians homes. They discuss the experiences of the past night, hear from Palestinian friends on developments on the ground, and divide tasks for the coming day.

They stand as human shields at electricity installations and water wells, collect testimonies, and take footage on small video cameras. They face the hostile lumps of steel with their megaphones and try to establish dialogue with the soldiers inside. These seven people are taking up an enormous load in this chaos. But who is to take care of these young people themselves, who sleep two hours per night and had not yet time to come to terms with having intimately witnessed Rachel’s death?

They spare themselves nothing. They had insisted on wiping the blood from Rachel’s face, touching her broken back, taking the body to the morgue with their own hands, wrap it with shrouds, and accomapny it in the ambulance to Tel-Aiv, sharply debating with the soldiers who stopped them for hot hours at the checkpoint despite the fumes which started to arise from the body.

The mother role is played by Carol Moskovitz, who joined the group with her husband Gordon a week ago. Carol is 61 and Gordon seems a bit younger. They are artists, they live in Canada, and have been travelling the world for the past three months. When they heard of what happened to Rachel they decided to cut their trip short and come to offer their help.

Since Sunday, they act like parents to the younger members of the group: preparing tea, asking questions, trying to address the shock and disbelief which Rachel left behind. Carol and Gordon have three daughters in Canada. An hour ago Carol got a phone call from her eldest, 30 years old, with warm greetings for Mother’s Day. Carol and Gordon conceal from their daughters the fact that they are in Rafah Camp. They don’t want to make their children and grandchildren worry.

It was at 7.30 that I went with Laura and Joe to stay the night in the house of Muhammad Jamil Kushta, the first house fronting the IDF position on the Egyptian border, an ill-fated house.

There, in Jamil’s house under the ceaseless shooting, guns, missilies, rockets and only the devil knows what else, for four consecutive hours, truly feeling that these might be my last moments, I gambled and revealed my identtity as an Israeli from Tel-Aviv.

Then I said that my own sons might be among the soldiers shooting at us, not knowing that I was there in the house they were shooting at, or it might be one of my sons’ friends who had visited my home. And that was the moment we started to look at each other and laugh. Three babies, two Americans, a Palestinian couple and an Israeli woman all sitting around a big bowl of salad, with bullets whistling through the air, we started to laugh.

A laughter of despair, of apprehension, of relief at the human closeness which we suddenly found. I knew that with some luck I would get through the night and run for my life, but Jamil and Nora had no escape, that they were doomed to raise their three babies under live fire.

And then Laura opened her mouth to reveal that she was Jewish too, and rather an observant Jewess too. And it turned out that the fiery Alice, the group’s “Jeanne d’Arc”, the Israel-hater, was Jewish too.

“And the soldiers” said Jamil “they too are just 20-year old children who have to stand out there, alone in the dark, shaking, within the cold steel”.

We all agreed: life is short and human beings are silly creatures.

This article first appeared in Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv’s weekend supplement on 28 March 2003. Translation by the Gush Shalom team. Reprinted with permission.