Hell’s Grannies



Sharon’s decision not to blast the Palestinians out of existence after last

week’s suicide bombings is, at first sight, mystifying. While jets blew up the

Palestinians’ police station in Ramallah and Israeli soldiers occupied their

East Jerusalem headquarters, these reprisals were far less bloody than most

people had predicted.

Several hypotheses have been advanced to explain this uncharacteristic

restraint. Sharon is seeking to keep faith with his more conciliatory foreign

minister, Shimon Peres. He is hoping to collect some moral credit, which he will

use to defend much fiercer intervention at a later date. The seizure of

Palestinian offices does more to hurt their cause than the murder of prominent

figures. All these explanations are plausible, but there is another possible

interpretation, overlooked by almost everyone. In killing Palestinians, Ariel

Sharon can no longer be sure that he is killing only Palestinians.


the past few weeks, foreign peace activists belonging to the International

Solidarity Movement have been arriving in Jerusalem and the West Bank, joining

demonstrations, staying in the homes of threatened Palestinians, turning

themselves into human shields between the Israeli army and its targets. A few

days ago they were joined by one of the most remarkable forces in British

politics, a group of mostly middle-aged or elderly campaigners called Women in

Black UK. These Hell’s Grannies have moved straight into the front line,

ensuring that the brutality with which the Palestinians are routinely treated

now has international repercussions: Israel can’t hurt local people without

hurting them too.


the past few nights, members of the solidarity movement have been sleeping in

the homes of Palestinians in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala. Eight hundred

and fifty homes here have been shelled by soldiers stationed in the neighbouring

Jewish settlement of Gilo, as the army seeks to expel the Palestinians in order

to expand Israel’s illegal plantation.


foreigners have been standing at army checkpoints, photographing soldiers when

they stop people trying to leave or enter their communities and recording the

names of those they arrest. The soldiers hate this scrutiny, but whenever the

monitors arrive at a checkpoint, there’s a marked reduction in the violence



Women in Black also helped to organise the demonstrations outside Orient House,

the Palestinian headquarters seized by Israel on Friday. They established the

physical and political space in which Palestinians could protest non-violently.

Arrested and beaten up with the local people, the women witnessed the torture of

Palestinian prisoners in the police station, which would otherwise have gone



short, these volunteer peacekeepers are seeking to do precisely what foreign

governments have promised but failed to do: to monitor and contest abuses of

human rights, to defuse violence, and to challenge Israel’s ethnic cleansing

programme. Their actions put us all to shame.


well as seeking to enforce peace, they are trying, hard as it is in the current

atmosphere, to broker it. They have been suggesting to their Palestinian hosts

some of the novel means by which injustice can be confronted without the use of

violence. They have plenty of experience to draw on.


of these Hell’s Grannies have been involved in the Trident Ploughshares campaign

which, over the past fortnight, has been running rings round the marines

guarding the nuclear submarines in Scotland. To the astonishment of the guards,

the protesters there have managed to evade the tightest security in the United

Kingdom, swimming into the docks in which the submarines are moored and

spray-painting the words "useless" and "illegal" on their sides. They have

launched canoes and home-made rafts into the paths of submarines trying to leave

their berths. They have cut through the razor wire and roamed around the base,

hoping to arrest its commander for crimes against humanity. A few days ago, they

blocked the main gates of the nuclear warhead depot, their arms embedded in

barrels of concrete, bringing work to a halt as the police tried to figure out

how to extract them.


years ago, three of these women climbed into the Trident programme’s floating

research laboratory on Loch Goil and, as a delightful new video commissioned by

the Quakers shows, threw all its computers into the sea. In Greenock court, they

were acquitted of criminal damage, after the sherriff accepted their defence

that the Trident programme infringes international law: rather than committing a

crime, they were preventing one. Soon afterwards, the women "borrowed" a police

boat from the Trident base in Coulport and drove it into the submarine docks at

Faslane. Among them was one of the women who were also found not guilty in 1996

after smashing up a Hawk aircraft bound for East Timor. The subsequent publicity

forced the government to stop exporting Hawks to Indonesia.

Though they’re acquitted as often as they’re convicted, Hell’s Grannies have

spent much of the past few years in jail. They take full responsibility for

their actions. If the police fail to spot them, they ring them up and ask to be

arrested. Their candour, clarity and humour have played well in court, but the

risks of this accountable campaigning are enormous. The prosecution began

yesterday of 17 British and American Greenpeace activists, who are being tried

on terrorism charges after peacefully occupying the Californian launch pad being

used for George Bush’s missile defence tests. In the Middle East such tactics

are likely to be still more dangerous, as Israeli soldiers have shown no

hesitation in killing protesters in cold blood. But, as Gandhi recognised, the

brutal treatment of non-violent campaigners can destroy the moral authority of

the oppressor, generating inexorable pressure for change.


Women in Black are clearly prepared not only to die for their cause, but also to

make what Dostoevesky correctly identified as a far greater sacrifice: to live

for their cause. They are ready to lose their homes, their comforts, their

liberty, to be vilified, beaten up and imprisoned. Their accountable actions

require a far greater courage than throwing bricks at the police.


importantly perhaps, these campaigners never cease to acknowledge the humanity

of their opponents. They seek not to threaten but to persuade. The results can

be astonishing. The MoD police who pulled the Trident swimmers out of the water

ferried them back to their camp, rather than arresting them, while massaging

their legs to stop cramp. When Angie Zelter, one of the co-ordinators of Women

in Black, was on remand for her attempts to demolish the British military

machine, she was visited in prison by a timber merchant whose business she had

once tried to shut down. He had, as a result of her campaign, stopped importing

mahogany stolen from indigenous reserves in Brazil, and started refashioning his

business along ethical lines, and now he needed her advice.


this is a long-winded way of saying something which, in the 21st Century, sounds

rather embarrassing: these people are my heroes. They confront us with our own

cowardice, our failure to match our convictions with action. We talk about it,

they do it. Hell’s Grannies are walking through fire. If they can, why can’t we


Around 400 of George Monbiot’s essays and articles are now online at





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