Israel is cracking down on the International Solidarity Movement, charging it is linked with terror. The activists say it’s their nonviolence that bothers the army, and they’re planning a huge new campaign.
The confrontation had seemed almost inevitable for months. And for a team of Israeli officials considering a clampdown on international activists disrupting IDF operations in Gaza, the suicide bombing of the Mike’s Place bar in Tel Aviv in late April, in which three people were killed, was the last straw.
For several weeks, top administrators from the Foreign and Interior Ministries, the police, and the defense establishment had already been meeting to frame new guidelines. Their work was prompted by a string of serious clashes with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), mainly in the Gaza town of Rafah, resulting in the death of at least one activist at army hands.
But now, say Israeli officials, things had taken a major shift for the worse. Their inquiries showed that the two suicide bombers involved in the Mike’s Place attack, both British nationals, had actually been hosted by ISM. "For us," says the Foreign Ministry’s Information Chief Gideon Meir, "that was the turning point." Defying army bulldozers was one thing; providing cover for suicide bombers to slip into the country quite another.
As told by the ISM, of course, the story is quite different. The group insists it is dedicated to nonviolent opposition to the occupation, and that Israel is tarring it with a terror link to avoid more embarrassing confrontations between soldiers and peaceful protesters. Whichever side is right, the consequent face-off with the ISM -- and the army’s new measures, introduced over the past month -- could cost Israel heavily on the international PR front.
Meeting the day after the bombing, Israeli officials decided to instruct border control officers at Ben-Gurion Airport and at land crossings from Jordan and Egypt to bar suspicious foreign activists from entering the country. Activists already in the territories who interfered with the army’s work would be deported; and all foreign nationals seeking to enter Gaza would have to sign a form swearing they were not members of the ISM, and absolving Israel of responsibility should they be killed or injured in what the army defines as a "war zone."
The ISM is the only organization specifically mentioned on the waiver form, and the army insists that the measures are not aimed against foreign activists as such. "We have nothing against the internationals," says a senior IDF officer. "But, as far as we are concerned, ISM is not an international organization or a peace organization. It’s a pro-Palestinian organization, set up by Palestinians, funded by Palestinians and linked to Palestinian terror."
To prove the terror link, the army points to a gathering in an ISM apartment in Rafah just five days before the Mike’s Place bombing. Among the participants were the two British bombers.
ISM organizers reject the charges. According to ISM activists in Rafah, the two were outsiders who had nothing to do with the group. They say ISM people ran into them by chance and invited them along.
The trouble with that explanation, say Israeli officials, is that when asked by the ISM itself what they were doing in Gaza, the bombers said they had come to do "some kind of alternative tourism."
And it happens that an organization called Alternative Tourism is the precursor of ISM. Both were founded in Beit Sahur near Bethlehem by Ghassan Andoni, a Christian Palestinian physics lecturer. Alternative Tourism began in 1994, when the peace process was at its height, and ISM in December 2000, soon after the eruption of the latest Palestinian intifada.
Andoni argues that the use of the phrase "some kind of alternative tourism" was simply coincidence and that the bombers had no links whatsoever to the Alternative Tourism Organization or to ISM. "Anyone could have been there. The question is how those people got into your country, moved through your borders and checkpoints, and got in and out of Gaza and committed a suicide attack. That’s not the responsibility of the ISM. It’s the responsibility of the Israeli intelligence services," he says.
Andoni contends that ISM’s basic philosophy is nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation. True, he says, this includes what he calls "direct action," deliberately getting in the way of Israeli troops when they carry out actions the ISM believes violate human rights; but there is never overt violence against the troops, and certainly no involvement in terror.
"If the Israeli army is engaged in activities that violate international law, like destroying homes, ISM activists try to stand in front of them and convince them that this is illegal and that they shouldn’t be doing it," Andoni explains. "ISM walked kids to school in times of curfew, and if Israel thinks preventing kids from going to classes is proper procedure, we want to remind them that there are limitations to the exploitation of power. But ISM doesn’t deliberately obstruct army operations when there are no human rights violations or collective punishments."
In confrontations with IDF forces over the past several weeks, one ISM activist, American Rachel Corrie, 26, was killed; another, Briton Tom Hurndall, 21, was shot in the head and declared brain dead; and a third, American Brian Avery, 24, was badly injured in the face. Corrie was run over by an army bulldozer, Hurndall caught in heavy fire and Avery hit by splintering stones when soldiers fired at his feet. The ISM says all this shows the IDF is deliberately targeting its activists to scare them off.
The army retorts that by their provocative actions ISM activists put themselves and others in danger in a war zone. "There is no other country in the world that would have allowed these people so much scope, and in the end Israel gets blamed," complains a senior IDF officer who has been closely observing the ISM. He says the activists are divided up into three categories: human shields, witnesses and spokespeople. "It’s almost like a paramilitary organization," he charges. "The human shields obstruct IDF work, while the witnesses and spokespeople give a deliberately distorted picture of what is going on."
The officer also accuses the ISM of deliberately protecting Palestinian terrorists. In late March, he says, an American ISM activist, Susan Barclay, 26, tried to prevent soldiers from entering the organization’s Jenin offices where a wanted Islamic Jihad terrorist, Shadi Sukia, had sought refuge.
The Foreign Ministry’s Meir points to another indication of ISM hostility toward Israel: Precise instructions on its website on how to hoodwink Israeli border officials. "… you have to have a really good story about why you are coming, and must not mention anything about ISM or knowing, liking or planning to visit Palestinians," the website advises. "You must play it as though your visit is for other Israel-based reasons, like tourism, religion, visiting an Israeli friend, etc. So do a little research and put together a story... For example, if you say you are visiting a friend in Jerusalem, you should have the name and phone number of a real Israeli person…"
SINCE THE MIKE’S PLACE bombing, Israel has deported two ISM activists, Britons Alice Coy, 27, and Nick Durie 19, and arrested several others, some of whom are still facing possible deportation orders. The accusations range from unauthorized presence in a closed military area to protecting Palestinians who had thrown Molotov cocktails.
The state, though, has not always been able to make the charges stick in court. For example, in the mid-May deportation case of Charlotte Carson, from Northern Ireland, and Radikha Sainath, of the United States, police suddenly dropped the charges against the two women an hour before the scheduled hearing. The state had claimed they were protecting Palestinians who’d set an army jeep alight; they said they were protecting an innocent family the army was harassing. Their Israeli lawyer, Shamai Leibowitz, told The Report he is now suing the government for 17,000 shekels ($3,700) damages on Sainath’s behalf.
In another deportation case still pending, Kristin (Flo) Razowsky, a 28-year-old American who was arrested during a raid on the ISM’s Beit Sahur offices on May 9, told The Report she had been offered a deal to leave of her own free will by June 1, on condition she didn’t reenter the Palestinian territories until then. She refused.
For the ISM, the showdown with the Israeli authorities could prove a public relations bonanza. On May 13, the group distributed a statement at the United Nations claiming it had come under "direct attack by the Israeli government and army" because it "exposes the brutality of Israeli occupation," and Israel did not want witnesses. Amnesty International took a similar view, saying it was concerned that "one aim of these new and drastic restrictions is to prevent outside monitoring and scrutiny of the conduct of the Israeli army." The army insists it has nothing to hide. "It’s not the witnessing we oppose, but obstructing the IDF and aiding and abetting the terrorist campaign against us," the senior officer retorts.
Still, the PR battle will not be easy for Israel, and Shinui MK Chen Reshef believes the authorities have got it wrong. In mid-May, he submitted a motion for the Knesset agenda on the waiver document and the plans to expel ISM activists, arguing that "the damage caused by the activities of the ISM is negligible compared to the PR damage we cause by expelling them."
Reshef adds that among the various Palestinian groups, he prefers the nonviolent ISM to radicals like the Hamas. "The ISM is not the organization on which I would focus all my attention," he snipes.
Moreover, it is not clear how effective the waiver document will prove. Amnesty International says it is "categorically opposed to any attempt to get people to sign away their rights," and its personnel have embarrassed the Israeli authorities by refusing to sign. Lawyer Leibowitz says he doubts whether the document has any legal validity: "By international law, the State of Israel is responsible for what happens in the occupied territories, and it has a special obligation to safeguard the lives and property of human rights activists like the ISM." Andoni agrees and says he will recommend that ISM activists sign the document, though they will be falsely declaring they are not members of ISM, if that’s what it takes to get into Gaza.
The bottom line: Andoni says the government’s new measure won’t stop ISM activists from flooding into Israel and the territories. ISM is planning a massive new campaign, called "Freedom Summer," starting July 1. Last summer 500 activists came. This year the organization is hoping for a thousand. Andoni says they will focus on checkpoints, roadblocks and the separation fence now under construction between the West Bank and Israel; in short, all curtailments of Palestinian freedoms.
The army, however, is in no mood for more potentially lethal cat-and-mouse games. "We are facing a new wave of terror and a new international terror threat. We will have to deal with it, because no one else will," the senior army officer says sternly.
So if the road map to Israeli-Palestinian peace doesn’t move forward, changing the situation on the ground soon, a new chapter in the Israel-ISM showdown could make for a long, hot summer.