ISM: Report from May 5th Press Conference in Jerusalem

Original AP caption: Huwaida Arraf, left, and Raphael Cohen, members of the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group that sends volunteers to serve as buffers between Israeli troops and Palestinian civilians, talk to members of the media during a press conference in Jerusalem, Monday May 5, 2003. The foreign activists acknowledged Monday that they had tea with the two Britons later involved in a Tel Aviv suicide bombing. The activists said they had no clue of their guests’ violent plans, but the encounter made Israel even more determined to keep the foreign volunteers out of the West Bank and Gaza. (AP Photo/Chryssa Panoussiadou).

The following text is from a press conference held by the International Solidarity Movement in Jerusalem on 5 May 2003.

Recently the International Solidarity Movement has been the focus of a lot of attention and misinformation; attention that we’ve been trying to get for a long time engaging in Palestinian nonviolent resistance. However, usually what we hear from journalists is “call us if there is blood.”

The International Solidarity Movement is a Palestinian-led movement committed to resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land using nonviolent, direct action methods and principles. This international coalition was founded to support and strengthen the Palestinian nonviolent resistance by providing the Palestinian people with a resource, international protection and a voice with which to resist, nonviolently, an overwhelming military occupation force. The occupation forces have shown little reservation in using brutal force against Palestinian civilians, and the Israeli government has shown little willingness toward ending its 36-year military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and its devastating Apartheid-like system of oppression, which daily robs Palestinians of the right to life and liberty.

The initial campaign of the ISM was in August of 2001 at which time over 50 civilians from various countries came to the Occupied Palestinian Territories to engage in a coordinated campaign of nonviolent direct-action against occupation forces and policies. Since that time we’ve had over 1000 civilians from all over the world come join us. Many of our volunteers come from the United States and the United Kingdom, though we have a good number of volunteers also from Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Sweden, among others. The age range of the volunteers is vast, with the average age being over 30. A number of volunteers have been over the age of 50 and we’ve even had people in their seventies join us. The religious and socio-economic backgrounds are varied, with approximately 15-20% of our volunteers being Jewish. Israelis have also joined in this struggle with the ISM, and have faced the same violence from soldiers and settlers.

While the primary purpose of the ISM has been to engage in and support the Palestinian unarmed, civilian-based freedom struggle against occupation, as the aggression of the Israeli military against Palestinian civilians has increased, the ISM has had to take up a role in providing humanitarian assistance and protection by using their status as internationals to escort doctors, ambulances, schoolchildren and other civilians to work, hospital and school.

The ISM believes that in order to end the violence in Israel and Pa lestine, the Israeli occupation - the root of the violence - must end. To that end we are mobilizing nonviolently.

Over the course of the past year and a half, the Israeli military and government has used various tactics in efforts to delegitimize our message. Some of you in the media have repeated or suggested the accusations yourselves: that we are “young and naive”, that we are “trouble-makers”, that we are “pro-Palestinian”. As I’ve noted above, the ISM is diverse in age and make up. We’re Palestinian-led, but not pro-Palestinian. We’re not pro or against any group. We are pro freedom and against occupation and injustice.

On March 16, 2003, the first international ISM volunteer was killed when she was run over by an Israeli-driven, American-made bulldozer in Rafah while she was trying to protect the house of a Palestinian doctor from demolition. Rachel Corrie was clearly identifiable in a florescent orange jacket with reflector stripes. Four days later, American volunteer Eric was hit 4 times with rubber-coated steel bullets, though he too was clearly identifiable in a bright yellow vest and he was not standing in the line of Israeli fire at Palestinian children throwing stones. Two weeks later, American volunteer, Brian Avery, was shot in the face with a high caliber bullet in Jenin. He was also wearing a florescent jacket with reflector stripes and was clearly unarmed in an empty street, with his hands in the air, when he was shot by an Israeli soldier from an APC. Only 6 days later on April 11, British volunteer Tom Hurndall was shot in the back of the head from an Israeli military guard tower, while he was escorting Palestinian children out of the line of Israeli fire. Tom now lies comatose at Saroka Hospital in Beersheva, without much hope of survival. Instead of the media asking questions of Israeli authorities as to why these civilians were targeted, why they were hit in the head, or questioning the legitimacy of the Israeli army killing civilians, the media has instead helped blame the victims for their victimization through its reporting.

Instead of taking responsibility for its actions and the lives of these international volunteers, the Israeli military has attempted to skirt the issue of its responsibility for the protection of civilians by spreading untruths and engaging in character slander. The same disregard for human life that has been applied to the Palestinians, is now being applied to international civilians.

The ISM activists are NOT human shields. The term human shield is a specific reference to civilians used by military or armed personnel for protection. The ISM DOES NOT do this. On the contrary, documented reports of the Israeli Army engaging in this very behavior are available from all human rights organizations, including B’Tselem, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others. We request that the press cease using this terminology as it is false, and instead refer to the ISM activists as accompaniment for Palestinian civilians, or as interposing themselves to prevent war crimes (such as the targeting of civilians demolishing civilian homes, etc. - all crimes of war according to international law).

With regards to getting rid of the ISM

On April 16, Army Chief of Staff, Lt. General Moshe Yaalon announced that he had given the order to “take the ISM out”, claiming that we “injure [the] freedom of action” of his troops. The Israeli military “freedom of action” includes military invasions and sieges of Palestinian civilian areas and flagrant abuses of basic rights and humanitarian law. It includes continuing to fire on innocent Palestinian men, women and children and continuing to hold a civilian population hostage to military terror.

But getting rid of the ISM and other attempts to break the phenomena of international solidarity and nonviolent resistance is not a new policy for the Israeli military and government. The statement by Lt. Gen Moshe Yaalon was made before the tragic attack in Tel Aviv and we’ve noticed this policy in effect since at least April of 2002. From April 2002 until August of 2002 the Israeli government has deported approximately 50 ISM volunteers. Since April of 2002, the Israeli Ministry of Interior has denied hundreds of human rights or aid workers and others suspected of being “peace activists” or “Palestinian sympathizers” entry into the country. Therefore, the suggestion that the two Britons accused of carrying out an attack in Tel Aviv posed as “peace activists” or members of the ISM to get into the country, is highly suspicious. For doing so would have ensured that they would’ve been turned away by Israeli officials, not let in.

The ISM views it reprehensible that Israeli officials are exaggerating the connection of these two attackers to ISM to serve its own interests. There is in fact NO connection to be made. The two Britons, Omar Khan Sharif and Asif Hanif never made contact with the ISM, never registered to join us and never attended our mandatory training and orientation. To talk about the incident in which the ISM team and the two crossed paths in Gaza, is Raphael Cohen from our Rafah team.

Raphael Cohen

Shortly before noon on Friday, the 25th of April, about 15 people came to the ISM apartment in Rafah, the Gaza Strip. They were in three groups: 4 British citizens from London who were looking to prepare a summer camp in Gaza in conjunction with local Palestinians from Rafah; three Italians and two Britons. The last two have been accused of perpetrating the attack in Tel Aviv early last Wednesday morning.

Our group of 5 offered all of them tea. I asked them general questions like who they were? were they with any group? and what they were doing in Rafah? The two accused Britons answered that they weren’t with any particular organization but that they came with “alternative tourism”. I’ve seen reports that suggest the two came with the Alternative Tourism Group. I only heard them say “alternative tourism”. We stayed in the apartment for approximately 15 minutes, before we went down to the place where Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli Occupation Force bulldozer on March 16. Owing to the presence and approach of an Israeli army tank, we were only able to spend a few minutes at the site where Rachel was killed. We placed a flower on the place in the dirt where Rachel was run over.

Our ISM group then went to the house of Dr. Samir Nasrallah, the house that Rachel died defending, while everybody else, including the group that had visited us, went their own way.

I’ve been in Rafah for the past 4 weeks. In that time one British journalist, cameraman James Miller, has been killed by the Israelis and one British ISM volunteer Tom Hurndall is brain dead after being shot in the head by an Israeli sniper. I can recall at least six Palestinians who have been killed. I have personally visited eight people in hospital shot by the IOF, many tens more I could not visit. There have been two large Israeli incursions involving 60 and 20 military vehic les respectively. I felt the explosions which blew up civilian houses. The night James Miller was killed, an ISM colleague and I were shot at from a tank, likely the very same one used to kill James, at 30m distance. The shots were extremely close and forced us both to throw ourselves to the ground and crawl away through the dirt. There did not seem to be any justification for the Israeli tank fire. The Israeli military was in a civilian area full of people and homes, and there was no Palestinian resistance.

In sum I have experienced unjustifiable Israeli army terrorization for the last month. Perhaps you can see it has taken a toll.

Huwaida Arraf

While we absolutely do not support in any way the attack by the two Britons in Tel Aviv, or any other targeting and killing of civilians - Palestinian or Israeli - we believe that significant fault for the Tel Aviv attack lies the Israeli security apparatus - which clearly failed its own citizens. The ISM bears no responsibility in anyway, as there was absolutely no connection between these two men and the ISM. Furthermore we believe that Israeli security can be greatly enhanced by Israel declaring an immediate end to the occupation, withdrawing its forces from the Occupied Territories, and complying with UN resolutions and international law.

The ISM has no plans to leave the Palestinian areas nor to reduce our actions or our efforts. The declaration by Israeli officials that we are to be detained and ta ken out is not only a concern to us, but should be a concern for the international community and humanity. Our volunteers have been instrumental in documenting and sometimes preventing grave human rights abuses against Palestinian civilians. This effort by the Israeli government is seen as nothing short of a further attempt to shield from the international community the brutality of the daily Israeli military actions against the Palestinian people. The international volunteers are guests of the Palestinian people and seeing as they are all from countries with diplomatic relations with Israel, unwarranted detentions, arrests and deportations will be ta ken up at the diplomatic level. We will consider any ISM volunteer detained or arrested while in the West Bank or Gaza, as “disappeared” as human rights activists and opposition figures were considered in Chile, Argentina and many other places suffering under military rule.

Our actions and efforts are supported and often joined by many Israelis. What is to happen to them? Some of them are here with us today:

A copy of this press statement has been sent to our diplomatic representatives in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and we will follow up with our embassies to ensure our safety and protection according to international law.

Thank you. We will open up for questions.