Bring on the ‘human shields’

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To make up for the international community’s failure to send a protection force, or even monitors, to the occupied Palestinian territories, foreign human rights activists are volunteering to shield Palestinian civilians from Israeli abuse and military action. Private citizens are doing the job their governments have refused to undertake.

A group of 40 fresh volunteers from the US and Europe arrived yesterday. Heidi Arraf, spokeswoman of the International Solidarity Movement, told this correspondent that the volunteers will receive training so they can take part alongside Palestinians in a campaign to lift the siege and end the blockade of Palestinian towns and villages. Arraf, who comes from Detroit, Michigan, said that volunteers will participate in mass actions designed to open roads, demolish earthworks and fill trenches around Palestinian population centres.

Volunteers will also accompany Palestinian farmers to their fields so they can harvest their crops without Israeli army and settler harassment.

Earlier arrivals and locally based volunteers continue to spend nights in repeatedly shelled Palestinian homes in the village of Beit Jala adjacent to Bethlehem. Arraf said that as long as Israeli tanks menaced Beit Jala an average of 30 “human shields” were deployed, two to a house, every night.

At present eight deploy, one in each home. The volunteers maintain secrecy about their positions so the Israeli army does not know exactly where they are, forcing gunners to curb random fire. While this policy puts the volunteers at considerable risk, it also restrains the Israelis who, Arraf said: “Do not want a public relations disaster on their hands.”

Taking part in the Beit Jala “human shield” endeavour were 18 US Anglican Church members who returned home on Sunday. Ronald Forthofer, 57, from Longmount, Colorado, was in this group. He explained why they had come: “We believe that we who are protected in America should experience and live in the same way that Palestinians are living.” Brenda Holliday, 60, from Orange County, California, said that no part of the house where she stayed was safe. “If children live under this kind of oppression… a vicious cycle will be repeated. The child who was oppressed will become the adult doing the oppressing.” At a news conference last week the volunteers called on the international community to intervene “to cease active support of Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people.” Volunteers include members of other Christian denominations as well as European, Japanese and Israeli peace activists.

Neta Golan, one of two Israeli women acting as “human shields,” has been staying in the village for the past few weeks. “I am living with a family in which a five-year-old boy lost a hand from Israeli fire a few weeks ago.” She said that activists “are not deluded into believing” that they can prevent Israeli shooting. “We aren’t here to provide cover for Palestinian snipers but for the civilians who are hit by Israeli fire,” she stated. In her view most Palestinian firing at the nearby Israeli settlement of Gilo is ineffectual and Israeli responses are “exaggerated.”

One of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) sponsoring the campaign is the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement in Beit Sahour, next to Beit Jala. The centre’s offices have been repeatedly shelled, Arraf observed. In addition to the volunteers coming from abroad, there are 200 locally resident foreign activists participating in the “human shield” campaign, most of them based in the area with international and local NGOs.

Israeli defence ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror called the group’s deployment in Beit Jala a provocation and expressed his opinion that participants are anti-Israeli.

While middle-aged US citizens put their lives on the line in Beit Jala, on the roads and in the fields of the occupied West Bank, Washington continues to dither over the sending of “observers” to monitor flash points in the escalating Israeli war of attrition.

According to a report published in The Guardian last Friday, the Bush administration “is secretly drawing up detailed plans.. resurrecting an idea that seems to have been killed off by Israeli objections two weeks ago.” It would appear, however, that the administration has been put off, once again, by the flat rejection of monitors by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The administration’s resolve has also been weakened by divisions within its own ranks. This was exposed by last week’s statement by Vice President Dick Cheney justifying Israel’s policy of assassinating alleged Palestinian activists. It is clear that Cheney disagrees with Secretary of State Colin Powell who opposes Israel’s liquidation policy. A statement by the White House issued on August 3rd said that the US remained opposed to Israel’s targeted assassinations of suspected Palestinian militants.

But the administration has done nothing to force Israel to desist from its murderous tactics. Instead, this week the Israeli army loosened its rules of engagement, giving Israeli soldiers and hit squads a freer hand in dealing with Palestinians resisting the occupation.

Bring on the “human shields.”

Mr. Michael Jansen contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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