Bearing witness

"The abuse that goes on is too much to bear,” says Huwaida Arraf, a University of Michigan graduate and former Roseville resident who now lives and works in the occupied West Bank of Israel, striving for a peaceful resolution to conflict in the Middle East.

A founder of the controversial International Solidarity Movement (ISM), Arraf sees people, places and struggles that most Americans see only on TV.

In phone conversations and e-mails, she tells of Palestinians striving for access to necessities most of us take for granted: medicine, education, even family members. Israeli soldiers restrict the movement of many Palestinians, making them wait at checkpoints for hours in the stifling desert heat, using handcuffs and guns to hold some of them captive.

ISM members attempt to intercede nonviolently to protect and support the Palestinians. They escort ambulances to hospitals, protest the demolition of Palestinian houses and literally stand between the villagers and the military — sometimes at considerable risk.

A number of ISM activists have been seriously wounded. One member was crushed by bulldozer while trying to block the demolition of a doctor’s home, which the Israeli army claimed was part of a gun-smuggling operation; the Israeli officials accepted the driver’s claim that he was unable to see the ISM member. Another activist is not expected to revive from a coma after being shot in the head while trying to pull a child out of the line of fire and to safety.

But what Arraf and the ISM call “peace activism” critics see as support of terrorists.

“We don’t consider them peace activists; we consider them pro-Palestinian activists,” says Bob Schwartz, the Chicago-based director of political and media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest. “They have knowingly or unknowingly aided and abetted terrorists.”

Schwartz cites two British suicide bombers who destroyed a pub in Tel Aviv on April 30, killing three people and injuring scores. The bombers, who allegedly posed as peace activists, shared tea with ISM members on the morning of their attack. The ISM says they did not know of the men’s plans.

Arraf said in a press conference shortly after that the Britons never made formal contact with the ISM. She said they “never registered to join us, and never attended our mandatory training and orientation. ... The ISM bears no responsibility in any way.”

But Schwartz says, “there have been other instances where people who were known terrorists” corresponded with the ISM.

In a document submitted to a judge recommending that bail be denied for eight ISM members arrested and deported last week, the Israeli government stated: “They should not be released from custody” based on “the recommendation of security personnel, according to which the organization ISM and its activists are perceived to be a security risk.”

The submission continues: “The goal of the ISM ... is to thwart the activity of the security forces in the territories and impede their work of preventing terrorism by confrontations with IDF [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers, barricading themselves in the homes of suicide terrorists to prevent their demolition, transport of Palestinians between various areas during periods of closure, and the like.”

But Arraf says, “Israel’s practice has been to label every Palestinian man, woman and child a potential terrorist.” As to the homes, she adds, “All the homes we’ve tried to defend are homes of innocent Palestinian civilians that fall victim to Israel’s brutal and illegal ... policies.”

As to ISM’s overall goals, she says, “We are not pro- or anti-anybody, but we are pro-freedom and anti-occupation.”

The Anti-Defamation League alleges: “On March 27, 2003, Israeli troops raided the ISM’s West Bank offices and captured a suspected member of the terrorist organization Islamic Jihad. The Israeli army said that Shadi Suqiyeh, who was hiding in the ISM’s Jenin office, is a senior member of Islamic Jihad who planned a number of foiled attacks on Israelis.” The ISM denies a relationship with this man beyond trying to protect him, like any other Palestinian, from attacks by the Israeli military.

Schwartz says that the ISM does not protest the Palestinian use of violence, but rather makes excuses for it, saying it is justified under the Israeli occupation. He added, “they put Israelis and Palestinians at risk, even their own people.”

Arraf and other ISM members have been arrested several times, often charged with being a “security threat” or working in a closed military zone.

Arraf’s stance against the Israeli occupation itself keeps her focused on supporting the Palestinians, especially because of her family ties to the Middle East.

Born to Palestinian parents who moved to the United States when she was young, Arraf, 27, is an American citizen. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a triple major in political science, Arabic studies, and Hebrew and Judaic studies. Her interest in conflict-resolution work took her to Jerusalem after graduation to work for Seeds of Peace, a group that works with youth to inspire dialogue about the Middle East conflicts.

She met her husband, Adam Shapiro, in Seeds of Peace. Shapiro, who is Jewish and from New York, went on to help found ISM with Arraf and some other activists. Their marriage generated headlines such as “A love under fire” in London’s Guardian, and their wedding at St. Joseph Catholic Chaldean Church in Troy was covered by the likes of CBS News as well as by local media.

Shapiro also made headlines last year during the Israeli siege of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s office in Ramallah. In defiance of Israeli troops, he entered Arafat’s compound to aid the injured and he remained trapped there for a day.

Shapiro has since been deported from Israel due to his activism. He has been slammed in the New York Post as “the Jewish Taliban” and written about admiringly in places such as the left-leaning Jewish magazine Tikkun.

ISM began as a result of determination on the part of Arraf, Shapiro and the other co-founders to stop what they see as repression of Palestianians and violence against them. “Seeing it every day, I couldn’t just ignore it,” says Arraf.

She says she witnessed one demonstration in which Israeli soldiers responded to Palestinian protesters with tanks and guns, firing more than 100 bullets.

“I was watching and believing that the popular demonstration wasn’t working,” she says. So she began “trying to find a resource that is not armed, that is the power of the people.”

She says the Israeli military’s control of transportation and movement of the populace creates “a sense of isolation, and we wanted to break that by having people from all over the world come and say ‘We see you, we’re with you.’” Her goal was to form an organization that would work for “justice for all people and equal rights for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.”

Arraf says ISM, which is in its second year, has volunteers of all ages and ethnicities.

“It’s definitely emotionally draining to be here,” she says, alluding to conflicts she deals with daily.

She tells of trying to reason with soldiers manning a checkpoint, only to be arrested “for obstructing the work of soldiers.” Arraf and a friend were trying to get into Nablus, a city that offers many facilities and resources that are not widely available in other West Bank villages. Lines of people had been waiting for hours. Arraf says there are more than 100 such checkpoints throughout the West Bank, but that few journalists venture into these regions to report on what occurs there.

Arraf noticed two young men who were in custody, squatting with their hands cuffed behind their backs. They were trying to get to the hospital in Nablus, but had been detained for three hours. One of them was sick and had an especially bad back problem, and his mother was trying to show the soldiers his X-rays, pleading with them to let him go. Arraf says that when she asked the soldier why he wouldn’t let the men go, he refused to answer but instead tightened the men’s cuffs.

Arraf says she called HaMoked, a human rights organization in Jerusalem, for help.

HaMoked “often turns in complaints of abuses to the Military Coordinating Office,” Arraf says. Her friend, a medic, noted that the cuffs were cutting off the men’s circulation. Eventually they were loosened.

Another man at the checkpoint was trying to get to Nablus because his father had passed away there, Arraf says. There was pushing and yelling, and, she claims, a soldier put a gun to the man’s head. Another said to him, “The only thing you’re going to see is a jail cell, not your father.” Arraf says she attempted to reason with the soldier, asking, “Why can’t you treat them like human beings?” She claims the soldier replied, ... “‘I’m not a human being, I’m a beast, and I want to kill him.’ … So I waited there, and I kept trying to start a discussion about treating people with respect. Every time I try to cross a checkpoint, it’s a similar [situation].”

She made more calls to HaMoked to report what was happening at the checkpoint. The soldiers told her repeatedly to leave the area, Arraf says, since it was a closed military zone, but she refused. She says the soldiers were annoyed with her, perhaps because their superiors were responding to calls from HaMoked.

After Arraf and her friend had been at the checkpoint for almost five hours, a police vehicle arrived, and an officer arrested Arraf. Her friend was allowed to leave. The police released Arraf from a settlement station seven hours later.

“It’s really an issue of occupation and terrorism of occupation,” Arraf says of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

“You can’t talk about peace if you ignore the root cause of the violence. Unless you address and work on ending — unconditionally ending — the occupation, then we can’t talk about it [peace].”

Arraf is well aware of what outsiders, especially Americans, think about the conflict.

“What seems to get out there is that Palestinians are terrorists,” she says. “Last week, over a dozen Palestinians were killed. You wouldn’t hear about it.”

Every aspect of Palestinian life “is controlled,” she says “People get frustrated and some turn themselves into human bombs.”

While Arraf witnesses the frustration of the Palestinian people and sees some resort to violence, she also finds them inspiring.

“If you can imagine waiting hours at a checkpoint and not being allowed in, and getting up the next day to try again because you have to go see your children, you have to get an education … and you can still laugh at the end of the day.”

Their persistence inspires Arraf to continue working. This summer ISM started a campaign called Freedom Summer, “to focus on the Palestinian freedom of rights movement, to highlight and to bring it to the forefront,” she explains.

ISM expects to have about 200 volunteers work to dissuade the Israeli government from constructing a wall around several West Bank villages. Arraf says it would be 25 feet high and 120 miles long and would separate many farmers from their land.

They will continue their resistance to the Israeli military in hopes of moving the process toward a resolution.

“You get a sense of empowerment from people working here and joining together for one cause,” Arraf says. “In the end, justice will win because there are too many good people out there.”

Carolyn LaFave is a Metro Times editorial intern. E-mail [email protected]
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