At 2 pm on Friday the ISM received word that Israeli military bulldozers were demolishing houses in Rafah town in the south of the Gaza Strip. The destruction is part of Israel’s “Apartheid Wall” policy towards the Occupied Territories. Whereby Palestinians communities will be sealed from the outside world by a massive series of walls, complete with towers from which military sharpshooters can monitor their activities. The section of the Wall under construction near Rafah stretches along the entire length of Gaza’s border with Egypt. To give the snipers in the wall’s towers clear fields of fire, the Israeli occupation forces in Gaza intend to demolish all the houses within 70 - 100 metres of the wall
As soon as they received word of the demolitions seven activists (3 US, 3 UK and 1 Dutch) left ISM Rafah headquarters in Gaza to resist them. The site of the demolitions was in an area of Rafah known of “Block O” that is overlooked by four of the wall’s towers including the infamous Saleh e-Deen Tower from which Israeli snipers have murdered several of Rafah’s residents. When they arrived the activists saw a row of six houses being systematically bulldozed by two Israeli military bulldozers guarded by a tank. They were unable to approach the bulldozers directly because of landmines but found an alternative route to the devastation, which bypassed the minefield.
As soon as the activists began to approach the bulldozers they were fired upon from the towers and the tanks which directed rifle and machine gun fire at the ground in front of them. Using their megaphone the activists announced that they were unarmed international peace activists and continued to advance. The tank and the soldiers in the towers continued to fire warning shots at them but the activists refused to submit to their intimidation and continued their approach.
As soon as the activists came under fire they phoned the ISM media office to alert me to the danger they were under and I immediately made an emergency call to the US consulate in Tel Aviv to inform them what was happening and request that they alert the headquarters of the Israeli occupying forces in the Gaza Strip that there were international peace activists (including 3 Americans) in Rafah Town that were coming under fire from Israeli troops and ask them to please exercise restraint (the standard ISM procedure in such circumstances).
After being put on hold several times. I had the following conversation with US consulate staff:
Diplomat: I’m sorry but its Shabbat and we can’t contact anyone in the Army because they’re all on holiday.
ISM: On holiday? Then what are they doing demolishing houses in Rafah and shooting and international volunteers for?
Diplomat: I’m sorry but we don’t have anyone we can contact in the Army.
ISM: Then phone the Department of Foreign Affairs and tell them to contact the Army. [The standard protocol under such circumstances.]
Diplomat: What are they doing in the area?
ISM: They’re trying to stop house… Can I speak to the consul please?
Diplomat: Please hold a minute….
Ingrid Barzel: How can I help you.
ISM: This is an emergency call about a group of International Peace Activists in Rafah Town that are being fired upon by Israeli troops. I’m phoning you because I want you to get in contact with the Army and advise them that there are American nationals in the area and ask them to please exercise restraint.
Ingrid Barzel: Please advise your people there to leave the area.
ISM: Look they’re in the area and they don’t intend to go anywhere. They’re trying to stop houses being demolished by military bulldozers.
Ingrid Barzel: We have a travel advisory against traveling to the Gaza Strip and if these people are there they are there illegally. [This is untrue to enter the Gaza Strip one has to have a special authorisation stamp in one’s passport and all the Rafah activists have one.]
ISM: What if one of them gets killed? Will you hide behind your excuses then?
Ingrid Barzel: They’re not excuses. It’s State Department procedure endorsed by the Secretary of State.
ISM: So what you’re saying is you take no responsibility for the welfare of your nationals dong peace work in the Gaza Strip even if this means one of them gets killed because of your inaction?
Ingrid Barzel: We do not accept any responsibility for anyone who ignores our travel advisories and illegally enters the Gaza Strip.
ISM; What is your name?
Ingrid Barzel: I’d be happy to give you my name. It’s Ingrid Barzel.
ISM: Right, now I know how useless you are I’ll never phone you again. I also got in touch with the British consulate who said they’d phone me back but seem to have got in touch with the Gaza military headquarters and the Dutch consulate which was on holiday and had an answering machine operating.
Meanwhile the ISM activists had reached the building that the bulldozers were demolishing while the tank and the towers had fired warning shots at them every step of the way. Two of the activists then stepped into the partially destroyed building preventing the bulldozers from any further destruction while the tank fired its machine gun over their heads. The bulldozer then retreated but then the tank rolled forward to within three feet of them and an uneasy stalemate followed until the tanks backed away. Then the bulldozer came forward again as the other five activists rushed to join their companions in the building and the tank resumed firing its machine gun.
This time the bulldozer didn’t stop and five of the activists were able to scramble away while two others became trapped by the bulldozer in a corner of the building. When the bulldozer found its path blocked by rumble and backed off before resuming its advance the two were able to get away and stand on some barrels next to the building to photograph and film the destruction but the bulldozer then began ramming the barrels.
By this time the tank had begun firing its machine gun at some nearby houses which the activists knew were inhabited by families so the activists went to stand between the tank and the houses so that the tank was unable to continue terrorising the people in the houses although it resumed firing its machine gun at the feet of the activists.
At this point a member of the Palestinian resistance seems to have thrown a pipe bomb at one of the bulldozers. This development increased the risk to the activists because there was now a danger that they would be caught in a fire fight between the Israeli occupation forces and the Palestinian resistance so they retreated to a nearby house to watch and film the demolition. They were joined in the building by two old women who were the owners of the houses that were being destroyed who wept at the sight. When the bulldozers finished their demolitions of the block of six houses they withdrew with the tank.
When they had gone, the community who lived in the neighbourhood rushed out to the site of the wreckage to help its former residents salvage what they could from what had once been their homes. Among the items they retrieved were a bicycle, a water tank, and electrical cord and some planks of wood. After 20 minutes of searching the rubble the soldiers in the towers began firing at them, forcing them to abandon the wreckage. A man told one of the activists that this was the pattern of such salvage operations: the sentinels generally give the people about half an hour to retrieve what they can before firing on them.
At 3.50 pm, just as the Rafah crisis was drawing to a close, 12 ISM activists based in Rafah were trying to deliver chocolates to the Abu Sanfar house in East Nablus which the Israeli army of occupation had been using as a firing position for forty days while detaining the three families resident in the house in two of its rooms.
When the activists approached the house they were confronted by Israeli soldiers commanded by Ariel Ze’ev who is known by Palestinians and ISM activists living in Nablus to be an insane sadist. Ariel and his men quickly became violent toward the activists and then, at 4.10 pm, seized Hussein Khalili, a Palestinian member of the ISM, and dragged him back to the house before firing warning shots at the activists, forcing them to fall back.
Immediately, the activists phoned the ISM Media Centre to alert me of their situation and I immediately called the Hamoked and Gush Shalom human rights organisations (the ISM’s allies in the struggle against the occupation) and Denis Brenstein of Flashpoints Radio in the USA before drafting an email to our supporters informing them of what had happened. Through our combined efforts we were able to alert people around the world of Hussein’s plight and issue a joint appeal for them to phone the District Coordination Office of the Israeli Army in the Nablus area to demand Hussein’s immediate release.
Meanwhile, an Israeli member of the ISM and another activist returned to the Abu Sanfar house to negotiate Hussein’s release. When Ariel realised that one of the activists was an Israeli Jew he became furious and promised that he would make Hussein suffer more because of her and that he would arrest a Palestinian every time he saw her. He also said that he would hold him for two weeks if necessary “as revenge” for what she had done.
He then went into the house and took Hussein into he garden of the Abu Sanfar house where his men bound his hands behind his back forced him to kneel on the rocky ground in the rain while Ariel Ze’ev kicked him in the back.
Hussein was forced to kneel in the rain for what he estimates were forty five minutes. Eventually, Ariel went inside and a new group of soldiers released his hands and took him under shelter where they verbally insulted him and told him that the only good Arab was a dead Arab and that he was just a fucking peacemaker. They also told him that the Israeli activist was a whore for helping the Palestinians and that what she had done made her no longer Israeli and that she should be kicked out to the country. When Hussein protested that the activists had only come to the house to comfort the children the soldier said that they did not care and that they were in Nablus to kill all the Arabs.
“Even the women and children?” Hussein enquired.
“Yes!” they replied. “They throw petrol bombs and stones at us and threaten our lives so we will kill them too!”
While Hussein was being abused, the Nablus area DCO was being inundated with phone calls. We have no way of knowing exactly how many people phoned in to demand his release but ISM activists watching the Abu Sanfar house saw an Israeli lieutenant-colonel arrive in a hummer soon after the phone-in campaign started. He told the activists that he had made a decision that Hussein would be held in the house until 10 pm and then released.
Shortly thereafter I began receiving calls from people from around the world asking what more they could do. I said all that they could do was to forward the email to their everyone in their address book. One man told me that he had already emailed it to over 200 people. A woman asked me if she should contact the US consulate in Tel Aviv but I told her it would be futile since they no longer accept responsibility for their own nationals in the ISM.
At 8.50 pm Hussein Khalili was set free. He told his captors that he was afraid to go out into the streets in the dark because there were tanks and soldiers on the streets who might shoot him if they saw him but was told that all the soldiers in the area had been warned about him and that he would be safe. He then made his way across the road to a neighbouring house where he was given tea and water and used the phone to phone his companions in Nablus who came over to take him home.
As soon as I received word of his release I alerted his wife and then sent out an email to our supporters informing them of the success of our phone in campaign. Even so the Nablus area DCO continued to be flooded with phone calls until mid way through the following morning. Two supporters have informed me that as soon as she got through the officer on duty said: “Hussein Khalili has been released before they could even state the reason for their calls.
On February 14 2002 the ISM’s mission in Occupied Palestine came as close as it has ever come to collapse. Though its international activists have often encountered a level of hostility from their missions in Israel which are expected to protect them, this is the first time a consulate has stated explicitly that it will take no responsibility whatsoever for the welfare of its nationals performing peace work in the Occupied Territories.
Had Ariel Ze’ev made good on his threat to hold Hussein for two weeks and had the ISM proved powerless to protect one of our own from such arbitrary abuse, it would have proven to both the Palestinians and their occupiers that we are now an irrelevant movement.
Yet thanks to the efforts of our supporters throughout the world we were able to confound Ariel’s threats and secure Hussein’s release and safe passage in less than four hours. Though many activists made their calls to the DCO after Hussein’s release, they should not feel that their calls were wasted. This marks the first time the ISM and its allies have organised a phone-in campaign on such a large scale at such short notice and with such an effect.
Throughout Occupied Palestine but particularly in the Nablus area, ISM activists have come under increasing pressure from the Israeli occupying forces in an effort to intimidate them into ineffectiveness through threats and low-level violence. We believe that this is part of an Israeli plan to step up its campaign of terror against the people of Palestine once the US commences its invasion of Iraq.
The remarkable effectiveness of the campaign to free Hussein Khalili on Friday has demonstrated to the architects of this terror that the ISM can no longer be considered as only a handful of brave activists scattered throughout the Occupied Territories but has now matured into a truly global movement capable of mobilising a very large number of people around the world in defence of Palestinian human rights.
Thank-you to everyone who participated in the phone in. Thank-you for your messages of support. And thank-you for forwarding the emails to your friends. We’ve still got a long way to go before Palestine becomes a free country but, because of your efforts, ISM activists working in places like Rafah and Nablus can continue their work in the knowledge that they are not alone, even if their governments have now renounced their responsibility to protect them.