RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - Young Western activists living with Palestinians to act as “human shields” against Israeli raids are debating how to minimize their risk of dying after suffering a sudden rash of casualties.
In March, an Israeli military bulldozer killed a 23-year-old American woman while demolishing a Gaza home alleged to belong to a Palestinian militant. A British man aged 21 and a 25-year-old American were shot and gravely wounded this month.
“The whole issue is under discussion. We have to find better ways of protecting ourselves,” Tom Wallace, spokesman for the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (ISM), told Reuters.
“Maybe we will have to (keep more distance) from areas near soldiers or where they are carrying out action in the refugee camp because this provokes them too much,” said Tom Dale, 18, a British ISM activist in the violence-torn Rafah area of Gaza.
“But we won’t leave these people. We will continue to work in the community. Most of the people who lived in houses Israel demolished were civilians and had nothing to do with terror.”
Dozens of ISM activists seek to confront Israeli troops and tanks that frequently storm into densely populated Palestinian towns to pursue militants waging an uprising since 2000.
The ISM believes incursions that often leave civilians dead or wounded and homes in ruins constitute an excessive use of force and “collective punishment” meant to cripple Palestinians’ quest for an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel sees the ISM as an idealistic dupe for militants who, sworn to destroy Israel itself, have shot dead and blown up scores of Israeli civilians in Israel and the territories.
It says ISM activists are recklessly endangering their lives by getting in the way of army security sweeps into towns where militants deliberately mingle with civilians to obtain cover.
DEATH BY BULLDOZER
The ISM’s activities came under the international spotlight on March 16 when U.S. college student Rachel Corrie was crushed to death while trying to stop an army bulldozer razing a dwelling in the Rafah refugee camp.
Comrades present said the bulldozer driver deliberately ran over her. The army said she was hit by a concrete slab that slid down a mound of earth she was standing behind and that the driver never saw her. It called her death “a tragic accident.”
A day later Israeli forces killed 11 Palestinians including a 4-year-old girl in further tank thrusts into Gaza.
The rising bloodshed prompted the State Department to urge Israel to respect the dignity of Palestinian civilians, the “vast majority of whom are not involved in terrorist violence.”
On April 5, ISM activist Brian Avery was shot in the face after running into the street in the West Bank city of Jenin to check an outbreak of gunfire. He had reconstructive surgery.
A week after that, Tom Hurndall from Britain was shot in the head while shepherding Palestinian children across a Rafah street under gunfire. He was declared brain dead while in Palestinian care before being transferred to an Israeli hospital.
ISM activists, most of whom are young Americans, have become a familiar and welcome sight for Palestinians in Rafah, a sprawl of wretched cinder-block warrens on the desert border with Egypt crammed with more than 100,000 people.
They have moved into homes thought to be on Israel’s demolition list, eat meals with their hosts and spend nights there in hopes of at least delaying the army demolition squads to enable families to remove their prized possessions.
ISM activists also confront troops at roadblocks to try to secure passage for Palestinian civilians held up for hours, ride in Palestinian ambulances in hopes of smoothing their way through checkpoints, and flout military curfews.
Aside from Rafah, ISM activists operate in the West Bank cities of Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm and Bethlehem — all of them occupied or surrounded and often raided by the Israeli army.
“Corrie’s death was a horrible incident but Hurndall’s injury was worse because it showed a trend in the Israeli army to target us,” said Dale. The army has denied deliberately shooting at foreign activists backing the Palestinians.
DOING THE JOB INHERENTLY UNSAFE
“Of course we don’t want to get hit. But we will continue to sleep in houses in danger of demolition and monitor Israeli violations of human rights,” said Rafael Cohen, a Briton.
Cohen, 37, said his Jewish heritage made no difference to his views. “It was my choice to live the life of the Palestinians. We are trying to prevent violent acts.
“I simply reject what the army is doing. It is destroying people’s lives. Most of the houses I stayed and slept in had holes in their walls.”
ISM members said the bloodying of their ranks, and Israel’s deportation of some volunteers on arrival at Tel Aviv airport, had not scared off new recruits to their cause.
Rafah residents who fear their houses are slated for demolition said they would be disappointed but understanding if ISM activists packed up in fright from mounting casualties.
“They are heroes. They did what some of us as Palestinians could not do,” said refugee Bassam Mohammad. “If they decided to leave I will not blame them but I don’t think they will.”
Palestinian officials say Israel has demolished around 700 houses in Rafah and damaged hundreds of others in hundreds of raids into the camp since the uprising broke out.
Israel says Palestinian militants continue to use houses in Rafah as camouflage for tunnels used to smuggle weapons in from nearby Egypt, and to stage attacks on army positions and Jewish settlements in southern Gaza.
Palestinians deny such accusations and describe the Israeli measures as collective punishment banned by international human rights conventions.
Rafah pharmacist Samir Nasralla said Corrie’s death gained a reprieve for his house against demolition by the army.
“I grieve for Rachel. She paid with her life trying to save my house. But I am afraid it is only a matter of time. I believe Rachel’s death delayed the demolition but did not cancel the possibility,” Nasralla said.
Palestinians have called Corrie a “hero” and described her death as “martyrdom,” a term generally used to describe Muslims killed in conflict with their enemies. Posters of Corrie have been hung above doors and inside stores and offices.