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By Charles Lam
Photo by Mohammed A'AthbaThis week, we'll be talking with one of our courageous local youths stationed in harm's way in the Middle East. Unlike the other young Americans the nation is saluting, she's out there without body armor, weapons, air support or even the support of most of her fellow Americans. Editorialists here instead dismiss her and her compatriots as naive and meddlesome —impediments to order and peace. Meanwhile, unarmed, she is daily confronting forces our nation spends $2 billion per year to arm.
For the past five months, Newport Beach's Radhika Sainath has been one of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteers who act as witnesses and human shields in the occupied territories, interposing themselves between Israeli forces and Palestinian civilians. The theory is that their presence makes Israelis less inclined to shoot at or mistreat civilians, since it's bad PR to shoot unarmed Americans and Brits.
That theory has been shot to holes in recent weeks. On March 16, 23-year-old Rachel Corrie of Olympia, Washington, was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer as she stood between it and a Palestinian family's home. Since then, American Brian Avery and Brit Tom Hurndall were both shot in the head by Israeli army forces, both, according to the ISM, while shielding children from gunfire. (At this writing, Hurndall remains in critical condition.) In America, these casualties received scant attention in the media and didn't even pique the curiosity of the Bush administration—which, by contrast, went to war with Iraq merely on the claimed possibility that it might endanger U.S. citizens.
"But these idiots put themselves in harm's way and are working against American interests," those of you of the fuming sort may be fuming. Let's ask Sainath—whose Spyglass Hill upbringing offered decidedly more security and comfort than her current environs—why she's there.
"There is a moral and ethical responsibility to support basic human rights and to resist indignity," she said via cell phone from the refugee town of Tulkarem, which sits near the Israeli border in the West Bank. "I felt a responsibility as an American to come here because our tax dollars fund this occupation. I personally would feel responsible if I didn't come here to try to do what I could to ease the violence and work to end the occupation any way I could."
This isn't her first brush with unsafe surroundings. The 24-year-old Corona del Mar High School and University of San Diego grad also spent time as a human-rights worker in Chiapas, Mexico. She believes the West Bank is safer than Gaza, where her fellow ISM members were killed or shot. Even so, she has seen Israelis shoot Palestinians, tear-gas school kids, bulldoze or ransack homes, and delay ambulances while patients lie dying in them. The ISM casualties of recent weeks, she said, "have made us begin to rethink our strategies on direct action. Here in Tulkarem, I know, at least by sight, a lot of the commanders and the border policemen that operate here, so it's a little easier to judge when the soldiers are going to be very aggressive or not. But what happened has reminded us that just because we hold American or British passports, we're not immune to being killed."
She and her fellows are volunteers with the Red Crescent (the Muslim Red Cross) and ride with ambulance drivers, resulting in fewer delays at checkpoints. They escort children to school to try to de-escalate confrontations with the occupying troops. They accompany protests of the "Security Fence" the Israelis are building, which Palestinians instead call the "Apartheid Wall," that doesn't so much secure Israel's border as it does seize more land. They defy curfew to bear witness to human-rights abuses and violations of international law.
"When the soldiers first imposed the curfews, everyone obeyed," she said. "But as it went on, week after week, people needed to buy food or make a living. Children needed to go to school. Now when soldiers announce a curfew, people close up shop and obey when the soldiers are around, but when they're not, people try to live their lives as best they can. I was there once when the army entered all of a sudden. People closed their doors and pulled the metal shutters down over their shop fronts and stayed inside. I witnessed an armored personnel carrier open fire into a store with several people in it, including women and children. The bullets pierced the metal shutters and the glass, and one entered a 22-year-old college student's leg, piercing a major artery. An ambulance tried to take him to a hospital in Nablus, but it was stopped at a checkpoint by the army, and he died."
What is that compared to the Israelis killed by Palestinian suicide bombers? Plenty. Though it is those horrific bombings we see on TV, hardly a day goes by that Palestinians aren't killed by Israeli occupation forces in what Sainath justly calls "state terrorism." (While the suicide-bombing murder of three Israelis received huge play in the U.S. media last week, the 14 Palestinians killed and 60 wounded in Israeli assaults barely made the scroll on newscasts.) Armed with U.S. rockets, tanks, jets and missiles, the Israelis have killed nearly four times as many Palestinian civilians as the suicide bombers have Israelis. In the 31 months since the intifada began, over 350 of those Palestinian deaths have been children.
To judge all Palestinians by the actions of the suicide bombers makes as much sense as saying all Americans are like Tim McVeigh. Along with the killings her Palestinian neighbors have endured, Sainath has seen them subjected to innumerable indignities, from beatings to having their dishes urinated on by troops during house searches to old men being forced to dance for the amusement of young soldiers at checkpoints. Even so, she says, most of the Palestinians she has met denounce the bombings and want only a just peace with their neighbors.
She is friends with and works with many Israelis who want the same. Among the troops she confronts, she says, there are bullies and racists, but there are also many people who question Israel's policies in Palestine.
"I go to Israel quite a bit, and there is far more concern and argument over the occupation, the illegal settlements and the brutality of the Israeli army there than there is in the United States," she said. "I think it's time Americans start reading more and informing themselves on the issues and about what's happening. Israel is violating the Geneva conventions. It is violating UN resolutions. We need to stop giving $2 billion per year to a country that practices state terrorism.
"Without justice, there can be no peace. [Ariel] Sharon is always demanding that Palestinians stop all terrorism before peace can be discussed. Of course, there is no justification for the attacks on Israeli civilians, but he won't recognize that there is Israeli state terror happening every day. How do you arrive at peace when, every day, the Israeli army is invading cities, tear-gassing children, posting roadblocks and killing Palestinians?"
Sainath says her parents back home, both doctors, have been supportive of her efforts. "But as time passed, they have started saying, 'Okay, you've been there for months. Come home now.' They especially did not want me here during the war with Iraq, when they worried about the stability of the region. They know it's important work, and they can legitimize it on an intellectual level, but sometimes they're worried about their daughter being in a dangerous situation."
She misses some amenities, such as indoor heating and not having to sleep five to a room. She's concerned that ISM members might be more of a target now that their losses have provoked so little outcry in the States. But she's staying put for the time being.
"I can see tangible results from my being here: ambulances that make it through checkpoints that might not otherwise, soldiers who behave more civilly. Individual soldiers don't want to look bad to Americans and Europeans. They believe they are the most humanitarian army in the world. Many of them have told me, 'Look what you Americans are doing in Iraq! When we were in Jenin, we only bulldozed 92 houses. We didn't bomb the whole city from the air.' They're proud of how good they are, and they're more inclined to be good when someone's watching. Being here, I think, helps to support the people who are looking for nonviolent ways of ending this occupation and finding peace."You can check out ISM's website at www.palsolidarity.org.