Naksa Day, 11 am. Tensions are already palpable near the Qalandiya checkpoint. IDF soldiers equipped with crowd dispersal means are confronted by dozens of Palestinians including a small group of youngsters with gas masks and Palestinian flags.
Two tall European-loking girls suddenly emerge from the crowd and approach the photographers standing in between the parties. Behind them, and unknown to the two, two Palestinians emerge and hurl bottles full of foul-smelling material at the soldiers and escape. The soldiers respond by firing shock grenades. The conflict begins.
This is just one example of the presence of new players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent years. Foreign solidarity activists can be found in Qalandiya, Bilin, Nabi Saleh and virtually any other site where Palestinians and security forces clash.
“Our organization, which started as small group about a decade ago, has become an all-out phenomenon in which solidarity movements from around the world take part,” Netta Golan, one of the founders of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) says.
“Before we started, the IDF would use live ammunition to disperse demonstrations. Our presence has brought on the use of non-lethal means since they know that we, as well as Israeli activists, are among the protestors.”
Golan, an Israeli woman residing in Ramallah, claims this is an ISM victory which “allows protestors to resist without killing or being killed.”
Israel, on its part, tries to trace the activists before they arrive in Israel and prevents them entering the country by arresting and deporting them. The activists plan on fighting this policy by staging an event at the Ben Gurion Airport next month. Many solidarity activists, hoping to embarrass the Israeli government, plan on arriving in Israel.
The activists, mainly Europeans and Americans, usually stay in the Palestinian Authority and Gaza for several months and are then replaced by others. It is estimated that some 1,500-3,000 can be found in the West Bank and Gaza at any given time. However, despite their proclaimed no-violence policy, it appears the activists are well aware of the friction their actions cause.
They have been known to cling to soldiers on the field in an attempt to stop them firing tear gas or rubber bullets. “We train our activists not to respond even if violence is used against them,” Golan says. “We believe in passive resistance, but are also aware that non-violent resistance has an element of escalation in it. We didn’t invent this, Martin Luther King and Gandhi were also chastised as provocateurs.”
She is aware of the image some of the activists have as those seeking cheap thrills. “There are activists with very strong and negative feelings about Israel caused by the occupation. They feel badly over what they see going on in Gaza,” Golan explains.
“They may be against the killing of people on both sides, but do not buy into the issue of violent resistance justifying a siege. One could debate this on a ‘chicken or the egg’ level but as long as there is oppression there will be resistance. And a violent one too.”
The radical activists, sometimes referred to as anarchists, will use any measure. They can be seen fanning protests and calling soldiers “fascists” and “Nazis.”
Anna, a British ISM activist currently residing in Nablus, says that they are prohibited from cursing the soldiers or trying to humiliate them. “We know that if we humiliate the soldiers, the frustration will eventually be directed at the Palestinians,” she says.
A regular at weekly protests in Nabi Saleh and Bilin, Anna does not criticize the Palestinians even when their demonstrations turn violent. “Our goal is to be present in protests to have less violence by the army,” she says. “We don’t judge the Palestinians for the way they choose to protest.”
Such statements are in line with the ISM’s one-dimensional world view which angers many Israelis.
Anna, however, remains resolute. “There are days I think a solution will ultimately emerge. We won’t be here on the day the oppression ends. People will stop resisting once they have hope and a future. Until then, we plan on being here.”
Elior Levy is Ynet’s Palestinian affairs correspondent
June 9, 2011