This past month hundreds of international observers responded to Palestinian calls for an international observer/protection force to protest the ongoing Israeli occupation and serve as witnesses to Israel’s military practices against the Palestinian people. Representatives of NGOs, churches, human rights groups, and concerned individuals from England, France, Italy, and the United States joined members of Palestinian civil society to launch a non-violent campaign to protect the Palestinian people.
The internationals, including several European Union parliamentarians, were repeatedly subjected to tear gas, physical assault, and arrest by Israeli forces at various checkpoints and during peaceful protest marches. Their mission, though virtually unreported in the U.S., brought hope to Palestinians and encouraged the still vibrant civil society to continue its struggle against the military aggression of occupation and its struggle to achieve internal political reforms vital for an independent and democratic Palestine.
The Role of the International Observer Force
The number of foreigners on the streets of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem in the last few weeks was not, unfortunately, due to seasonal festivities in the Holy Land, nor has Palestine become a new holiday destination for Europeans and Americans. Rather, hundreds of people of various nationalities-including Italians, French, Belgians, Americans, Dutch, and British-were responding to the call of Palestinian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for international observers.
For fifteen months now we have been waiting for an international observer/protection force to be sent to the Occupied Territories to provide some kind of security for Palestinians. Every time one of the 32 people prevented from receiving medical treatment died, we called for international observers to be located at checkpoints in an effort to prevent the same thing from happening again. As the Israeli army mercilessly shelled civilian neighborhoods, opened fire without provocation on children at demonstrations, confiscated land, destroyed tens of thousands of olive trees, and invaded areas under the Palestinian Authority (PA), we have called for an international protection force to be sent here. Unfortunately, to no avail.
The United Nations’ (UN) call for observers to be sent here was vetoed three times by countries aware that Israel was not in favor of the resolution. In the meantime 934 Palestinians have died, 26,000 people have been injured, and still the international community has dragged its feet.
Members of Palestine’s vibrant civil society took the initiative and, in coordination with foreign NGOs, churches and related institutions, aid agencies, solidarity groups, human rights activists, and concerned individuals decided to launch their own campaign for the protection of the Palestinian people. The objectives were simple, non-violent, and peaceful: to protect the Palestinian people through the presence of international civilians as a means of deterring Israeli army and settler aggression; to concretely express solidarity with the Palestinian people and with those who struggle in Israel for a just and sustainable peace; to report on the experience and to raise awareness in their respective countries about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; and to send a political signal to the international community and to the Israeli government demanding the deployment of a genuine international protection force, the implementation of the UN resolutions, and an end to the occupation.
The itinerary of the Grassroots International Protection for the Palestinian People (GIPP) activists, all of whom made the visit at their own expense, has been full: planting olive trees, attending lectures, visiting with grassroots organizations, and demonstrating. They were prevented from entering Gaza, and some were victims of Israeli military aggression, as a result of which one woman was hospitalized overnight.
An entirely peaceful demonstration in Ramallah in which thousands of Palestinians and around 400 GIPP delegates demonstrated was met with typical Israeli violence when troops opened fire on the march with tear gas, sound bombs, and rubber-coated steel bullets. And now, after tearing down the Israeli checkpoint separating Ramallah from Birzeit, the Israeli army has, in its typical petty, malicious, and vengeful manner, erected a new checkpoint closer to Ramallah, meaning Palestinians have to walk an extra kilometer uphill. The occupation is still here, the foreign delegates will leave in a few days, and the lives of Palestinians will no doubt continue to be difficult and quite miserable.
Results and Strategies
So what has the visit demonstrated? It has given Palestinians a huge morale boost by proving to them that there are people out there-despite the demonization of Palestinians in the international media-who care about their cause, are aware of the inherent justice of their struggle, and are concerned with what is happening to them. It has also destroyed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s efforts to isolate the Palestinians, to cast them in the “terrorist” mold, and to dehumanize them, enabling him to continue his war against the Palestinian civilian population. Moreover, their courage has been immeasurable in standing face to face with a ruthless army with no understanding of peaceful marches.
They have shown the world that justice will prevail through the power and sheer will of the people. Furthermore, not only did these people come, witness, and learn, they will now return to their homes, families, churches, political parties, social clubs, and workplaces to tell others what they saw and experienced while they were here, slowly breaking down the wall of silence shrouding the Palestinian cause. The delegates illustrated to the Palestinians the power of peaceful, non-violent resistance to the continuing military occupation, and have perhaps empowered them to use these these very methods to abort Israeli efforts to subjugate and dehumanize them. Equally remarkable is the dynamism shown by Palestinian civil society, illustrating that there is an alternative voice.
Reforming the Palestinian Authority
Last week 31 Palestinian intellectuals, human rights and democracy activists-all leading members of Palestinian civil society-published a petition demanding reform of PA. “The Palestinian public demands immediate internal reform which cannot be postponed or delayed, that will strengthen our struggle in the exceptional circumstances the Palestinians are living under. The reforms should be immediate,” the statement read.
The petition also called on the PA “to improve and fix official political institutions which have been weakened and paralyzed and to also ensure an independent justice system.” It went on to call for new elections to the parliament, a move that needs to be encouraged and is long overdue since elections have been postponed indefinitely since 1999. Others have criticized the lack of respect for the law and the lack of separation of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, in addition to criticism of the concentration of power in the hands of a few, and executive branch’s lack of accountability.
This is the same civil society that has mobilized and united to bring the heroic GIPP delegates here and this mobilization and outspokenness shows that there is a strong democratic political alternative in Palestine. This group of people believes that a democratic alternative is the only way to prevent a dangerous polarization between fundamentalism and autocracy that the future Palestinian political society appears to be facing.
It also confirms that Palestinians struggle not only for a state, but also for a free and democratic state. The overall significance of the presence of the GIPP delegates, as well as the recent petition, is of power and steadfastness. It is only through sustained steadfastness and survival in the face of the military aggression of occupation, and in calling for internal political reforms, that Palestinians can struggle to achieve freedom, justice, and democracy.
Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi is President of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees and Director of the Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute. This article was originally published on 8 January 2002 as Information Brief No. 84, from the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine.