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
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