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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 May, 2003, 09:25 GMT 10:25 UK
Peace activists caught up in Mid-East conflict
By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News Online

Reports that two Britons suspected of having mounted a suicide operation in Israel had tried to associate with peace activists in Gaza to disguise their activities have highlighted the difficulties of campaigners operating in the Middle East.

The two are said to have attended a meeting of The International Solidarity Movement (ISM), although the ISM is reported to have said they did not have any knowledge of their intent.

A memorial was held this week in the Gaza Strip
Rachel Corrie, an ISM activist, was killed in the Gaza Strip
Peace activist Camilla Leyland, who has just returned to London from the occupied Palestinian territories, said she feared the Israeli Government would use the newspaper reports as part of a campaign to crack down on the ISM's activities.

The ISM is the most active group organising volunteers to act as "human shields" in the Palestinian territories. It says it works with Palestinians facing "harsh punishment from Israeli forces".

It was founded a few years ago by a group of Palestinians and Israelis, and its activities have included joining protests to block construction of a "security fence" around parts of the West Bank, as well as standing in the way of Palestinian homes being destroyed by the army.

The organisation gained attention early last year when Israeli troops invaded West Bank towns to root out militants after a series of suicide bombings.

'Dangerously naive'

During the operation, foreign campaigners managed to slip past Israeli soldiers into two besieged hotspots - Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

They say they are committed to non-violent resistance in order to face violence, citing Gandhi as a role model.

But the Israeli Government views them as troublemakers, who ignore the fact that restrictions placed on Palestinians' lives are intended to keep out the suicide bombers.

Home destroyed in the Khan Younis refugee camp
Many Palestinian homes have been destroyed by the Israeli army
"We see them as dangerously naive - their activity is irresponsible and puts not only their own lives but those of Israeli soldiers and others in danger," a government spokesman told BBC News Online.

In the past few months, a number of ISM volunteers have been shot or wounded by Israeli troops. In March, American ISM volunteer, Rachel Corrie, was crushed to death by an Israeli armoured bulldozer.

A Briton and an American have also been shot and seriously wounded by Israeli forces in Palestinian areas. Israeli officials have expressed regret, but blamed the activists for putting themselves in harm's way.

"They operate in restricted military areas and ignore our warnings for them to leave," the Israeli Government spokesman said. "The army has been lenient with them and the result has been dangerous and tragic."

Historical precedent

The spokesman confirmed that the government was now going to take a "firmer stand".

"We will do what every law-abiding country does with those whose activities are viewed as disruptive, such as those of anti-global campaigners. They will be firmly escorted to the airport and deported."

The ISM says it sends hundreds of unpaid peace activists to the occupied territories every year. Some have already been detained and deported.

Dr Nancy Snow, a political scientist at California State University, who studies social movements, says the group is facing dangerous challenges from both Israelis and Palestinians.

If we are not welcome, it is first and foremost because we are witnesses of the atrocities carried out by the Israeli army
Tom Wallace, ISM
"They are caught betwixt and between: they are committed to non-violent action, but there are competing narratives of violent and non-violent resistance against Israel," she told BBC News Online.

"Some Palestinians use violence against Israel - Israel in turn uses violence against the Palestinians."

Dr Snow says there is a firm historical precedent for governments to tolerate such groups for a period of time and, then when they become too uncomfortable with their activities, to use issues of national security to get rid of them.

"When something terrible happens, during the clean-up operation the government could try to suggest guilt by association. There needn't been any direct connection between the group and any national security issues, just a suggestion would be enough."

She says the fact that the government appears to want to get rid of the activists could suggest they were making "some strides in their non-violent resistance."

The ISM agrees. "If we are not welcome, it is first and foremost because we are witnesses of the atrocities carried out by the Israeli army," ISM spokesman Tom Wallace said on Friday.

'They can't stop us'

According to reports in the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, senior military and foreign ministry officials met this week to discuss means of expelling the activists.

The government accuses the group of associating with "terrorists". A few weeks ago, the army says it went into an apartment used by the group in Jenin and found an alleged member of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad.

"We have come to learn that it's evident that the so-called peace activists are pro-Palestinian and have been involved with terrorists," the Israeli Government official said.

But the ISM says that it had never knowingly had associations with Palestinians affiliated with militant, political or religious groups.

The Israeli Government has also accused the group of inciting riots, a charge also denied by the organisation.

So committed to their mission are ISM volunteers that they say they will be undaunted by Israel's threats to stop them getting into the country.

"At the end of the day they can't stop us going into the occupied territories," activist Mortaza Sahidzada said.

Israel and the Palestinians



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