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Wednesday, 29 August, 2001, 02:21 GMT 03:21 UK
Unofficial observers keep watch in Mid-East
Peace activists in Beit Jala
Foreign activists have staged non-violent protests
By BBC News Online's Fiona Symon

The Palestinian Authority failed in its recent bid to persuade the international community to send observers to the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel strongly objected to the Palestinian call for observers, saying they would create a shield for Palestinians to operate behind and make it impossible for Israel to respond.

But a growing band of unofficial observers from Europe and the United States have begun to fill the vacuum by placing themselves between the warring parties.


We knew the unbearable situation the Palestinians were in and heard their cries

Israeli activist Nata Golem
Heidi Arraf, a US citizen, was one of 10 peace activists who entered an area of occupied Beit Jala, near Jerusalem, on Tuesday to visit 45 children trapped in an orphanage.

"We went with a delegation of religious figures and negotiated with the Israeli soldiers in front of five tanks, so that eventually we were able to go in and calm the children and take them food."

Ms Arraf says there are around 200 "internationals" active in the West Bank and Gaza, many of whom work for non-governmental organisations.

Their numbers were recently boosted by around 50 visiting activists from the US, Britain, France and Italy who responded to a call to support two weeks of action.

Foreign groups participating included the International Solidarity Movement, a US-based church group called Christian Peacemakers Teams and Women in Black, a UK-based group.

'Itineraries'

George Rishmawi, who runs an organisation called the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement Between People, used to be a travel agent with an office in Beit Jala.

Sabra survivor
The groups will mark the massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila

When the numbers of tourists dwindled at the start of the intifada, he decided to put his skills to a different use.

He was involved in helping with travel arrangements and organising "itineraries" for the international peace activists.

He works in co-ordination with the Palestinian authorities to organise non-violent actions aimed at making the lives of Palestinians more bearable.

Among their most successful operations, he says, was organising a football match for Palestinian children on a pitch that Israel had placed off limits to because of its proximity to an Israeli settlement.

Other acts have been the collective dismantling of Israeli roadblocks and co-ordinating the non-violent demonstrations against Israel's occupation of Orient House - the Palestinian Authority's unofficial headquarters in Jerusalem.

Think twice

The groups are planning a campaign at the end of September to help Palestinian farmers reach their olive groves to harvest their crop.

They are also organising events in September to commemorate the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, says Mr Rishmawi.


[Palestinians] take comfort when they see individuals doing something and at least feel that they're not alone

US activist Heidi Arraf

The aim is to draw international attention to the Palestinian issue, mobilise international support and provide protection to the Palestinians.

Although their numbers are still small, the Israeli army has recently expressed concern at the presence of foreign nationals in the West Bank and Gaza during military operations, says Ms Arraf.

"If it causes them to think twice, that's good", she says.

Nata Golem, an Israeli peace activist who works alongside Ms Arraf, says she is one of around 2,000 Israeli left-wing activists sympathetic to the Palestinians' plight.

Unlike many Israelis who supported the peace movement but were baffled when it collapsed, they had strong contacts with people in the Palestinian areas and were aware of the situation on the ground, she says.

"We knew the unbearable situation the Palestinians were in and heard their cries and so we weren't surprised when the intifada happened."

She says that at the beginning of the intifada, she helped organise a month-long vigil, which was largely ignored by the Israeli press.

Not always welcome

But now, for the first time, the Israeli media is beginning to take notice and to view the peace activists in a more positive light.

Mr Rishmawi says the groups are not always welcomed by local Palestinians.

Israeli roadblock at Netzarim Junction in Gaza
Activists are involved in the dismantling of Israeli roadblocks

"We make sure that we are invited in by the local people first, and sometimes they say no to our action because they are frightened of Israeli reprisals. At other times they have told us to concentrate our efforts on Jerusalem."

But Ms Arraf says the Palestinians are mostly appreciative.

"Among Palestinians there is a strong sense of having been abandoned by the international community. They take comfort when they see individuals doing something and at least feel that they're not alone."

She is hopeful that the numbers of activists will increase to 1,000 or more as the groups improve their contacts with churches, mosques and other sympathetic groups.

"We started small but we're growing, and as the movement grows, people go back and tell others about their experiences."

See also:

28 Aug 01 | Middle East
US calls on Israel to withdraw
28 Aug 01 | Middle East
Thousands attend Mustafa funeral
28 Aug 01 | Middle East
Palestinian shock turns to outrage
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