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New Orleans to Palestine 

This summer, a trio of local activists journeyed to the Middle East to aid Palestinian efforts in the West Bank. They say they went to express solidarity; critics say such "human shields" are supporting terrorists.

Thomas Bacon, Adam Wilson and Jordan Flaherty weren't typical American tourists when they arrived in Jerusalem on July 2. But to carry out the real purpose of their journey -- to assist Palestinian efforts against Israeli control of the West Bank -- the trio of New Orleans activists pretended to be just that. By acting as tourists, they blended in with the thousands of Westerners that visit holy sites such as Bethlehem.

If their real intent was known, they say, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) troops guarding the border and checking passports would have denied their entrance to the West Bank.

"There is no law that bars us from the West Bank," says Wilson, a 27-year-old local union organizer, "other than the individual soldiers' whims when we arrive at the checkpoint. For the most part, an American passport gets you in, you just have to say you're a religious tourist."

"But once you're in, you're still not in the clear," adds Bacon, 26, who this fall will be a local Teach for America-sponsored English teacher at John Ehret High School. "The checkpoints aren't just along the border, they're everywhere internally as well. You're going to have problems going from city to city. We were always on the move, and had problems wherever we went."

The duo arrived back in New Orleans on July 29, after a month of working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Last week, they sat down to talk about their efforts. (Flaherty, 27, was still returning from Israel and was unavailable for comment.) A Palestinian organization, ISM describes itself as, "A campaign against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and for a just and viable peace." Each year, it sponsors what they term the Freedom Summer Campaign, hoping to attract as many international activists as possible for coordinated disobedience lasting until the fall's olive harvest. The group remains active year-round.

This summer's campaign was the fourth one for Flaherty, but it was Wilson and Bacon's first trip to the region. When they arrived, they joined roughly 100 other volunteers -- a group they estimate as 40 percent American. With some help from their friends, they funded their trip themselves, spending between $1,500 and $1,800 apiece, mostly for travel-related expenses. They went through two days of training they describe as "non-violent, de-escalating resistance" and were schooled on topics ranging from Israeli law regarding the detention and deportation of internationals to recognizing the sounds of government-issued Israeli weapons.

After the training, the pair embarked on "actions" such as removing Israeli-established roadblocks and demonstrating against the current construction of what is alternately termed a "security fence" or "apartheid wall," depending on one's assessment of the conflict.

Bacon still bears the scars from being shot at with rubber bullets during one demonstration. But he says he has no regrets. "I had been interested in going to Palestine for some time," he says, dating his motivation to his efforts as a student at the University of Texas in Austin against the United Nations sanctions placed on Iraq. "I became more knowledgeable on other Middle Eastern issues, like the struggle in Palestine. But I didn't want to go to Palestine in the context of an unconnected observer.

"Instead of just travelling on my own, I wanted to hook up with a group that did solidarity work or humanitarian work over there. I found ISM on the Internet and through word of mouth, and I felt ISM mostly closely matched my politics and would be a good group to work with."

Not everyone regards ISM as such a "good group." The ISM first gained notice in the American press this spring when Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American, was killed while working with the group in the Gaza Strip. Corrie was standing outside the home of a Palestinian family, bullhorn in hand, in an attempt to stop a bulldozer from demolishing the house.

The Israeli government defends the razings as an effort to curb suicide bombings that have devastated the country since the current intifada began more than two years ago. Houses selected for demolition, says the government, are those of families whose members include suicide bombers. In Corrie's case, the bulldozer didn't stop, and Corrie's death received much play in the American media, deepening divisions on both sides. Those supporting the Palestinian effort viewed it as an example of the Israeli government's cruel rule of the region, and those on the Israeli side pointed to it as an example of misguided internationals supporting murderous terrorists.

The ISM's efforts came under further scrutiny in the weeks leading up to the war in Iraq, when the concept of "human shields" -- internationals using their Western national identity to provide protection to Arab citizens -- became a common practice in Baghdad. While Bacon and Wilson say they "shy away" from the term human shield, the label has stuck, regardless of the activity.

"People with ISM are being human shields to people that have a relationship to suicide bombers," says Adam Bronstone, a director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. "The point of being a human shield is to stand where they're told not to stand, to flaunt military authority, and then complain about it to get publicity. It's a tactic to gain sympathy.

"I don't doubt the sincerity or the concern of people that work for the ISM," Bronstone continues. "But I do doubt the sincerity of the organization. The Jewish community has great issues with ISM. They claim to be nonpolitical, it purports to not take sides, but if you're standing by the houses of people that have strapped TNT to their chests and killed hundreds of innocent Israelis, then you've taken a side."

Bronstone also illustrates the efforts of some American Jews, including many from New Orleans, to assist Israel during the latest conflict. Volunteer efforts in the country have existed for generations, but Bronstone points to recent efforts by the group United Jewish Communities to establish the national "Israel Emergency Campaign," which in 2002 raised more than $300 million through private donations to "so that the Israeli government could provide necessary services for victims of terror," Bronstone says.

"It's money raised from our community as well as others to provide medical, counseling and other social services to families that are victims of terror," Bronstone says. "There are scarred people all across Israel and the West Bank. United Jewish Communities has given millions so a child can spend a summer being happy, instead of wondering, 'Why isn't my mother or father here?'"

Another effort joined by New Orleanians to help Israel is the program Volunteers for Israel (VIF). Like ISM, VIF describes itself as "non-political." Founded in 1982, it is the initiative of Gen. A. Davidi, a military hero of the Six Day War in 1967. "The Volunteers for Israel program really has nothing to do with the latest conflict," says Vivian Khan, a New Orleanian that has been to Israel three times with the program and now interviews and approves local candidates wishing to join the effort. "It is set up to help the military performing certain jobs that gives relief to reservists, whether it's putting together first-aid kits, painting curbs or sorting military uniforms. It helps the reservists go back to their normal jobs."

Khan says VIF has drawn local residents of all ages, and that the interview process is to inform volunteers of the mundane work and "less than luxurious" accommodations on IDF bases. The stints usually last two to three weeks. Americans pay for the trip out of pocket, though room and board are covered once on the base.

Yaakova Mize, a 39-year-old nurse in New Orleans, is one of the locals that have served with VIF. "When the current intifada started, I really wanted to do something," Mize says. She served at Tel Hashomer, an IDF base outside of Tel Aviv, in summer, 2002. "I'm an emergency room nurse, so I really wanted to be a nurse. When we were there, it was an emergency situation, a lot of terror attacks were occurring. We were putting together kits that medics would carry on their backpacks, and preparing the emergency boxes that everyone in Israel has in case of biological warfare."

Mize's dedication to the effort was evident as she prepared to leave the United States from the Kennedy International Airport in New York. "When we were at the airport, security asked, 'Why are you going to Israel right now? It's dangerous.' I told them, 'I'm going to serve my country.'"

"I feel like it was one of the most important things I've ever done in my life," Mize says of her experience with VIF. "I feel like I'm at home in Israel, more at home than in the United States. It's my spiritual paradise."

The American-assisted efforts VIF and ISM are different in terms of both tactic and attitude. "The ISM's engagements with Israeli soldiers are, by design, confrontational," acknowledges Bacon.

"It's very frightening over there as an international, because our space isn't really defined," Wilson says. "There's no law that protects activists. It's not like you have freedom to demonstrate, or freedom of speech, there. It's military anarchy; it's up to Israeli soldiers what the law of the day is.

"So, even non-violent resistance over there is extremely dangerous for Palestinians," he continues. "We provide a presence over there to observe and learn, but also to protect Palestinians because soldiers are much less willing to become violent quickly when there's a barrier of internationals around a demonstration."

Wilson says the most effective demonstrations were coordinated with Palestinians. He calls his personal summer highlight a demonstration against the "security fence" or "apartheid wall" in the village of Jayous. "Everyone in the village walked down a hill a quarter mile to where the apartheid wall is being built. It wasn't a confrontational event. It was really beautiful; young boys singing songs, the entire village chanting, everyone expressing their anger toward this wall."

The "wall" has been a focal point of the ISM's recent efforts, and extends into a major sticking point in negotiations between President George W. Bush and the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the so-called "road map" to peace. At times, it takes the form of a 30-foot concrete structure; at other intervals it's a chain-link fence with razor wire. In dispute is whether the wall accurately follows "the green line," the internationally recognized border between Israel and Palestine.

"The effect of the fence is that it's going to aggravate the whole situation," Bacon says. "It's very clearly a political boundary. Israel says it's only temporary, but that's not the case.

"In the Freedom Summer Campaign, we had four days of consecutive protest against the wall," Bacon continues. "It was dealt with very harshly by the IDF -- lots of arrests, lots of internationals detained, and lots of rubber bullets."

Bacon's physical scars from two rubber bullets appear on his back as circular red welts. A New Orleans doctor told him there is evidence of possible kidney damage from the shooting. Despite the injury and confrontations, both Bacon and Wilson say they did not go to the region to put themselves in harm's way.

"The one thing I kept hearing over and over before I left was, 'You guys are crazy. You're going to get yourself killed,'" Wilson says. "There's a perception that we're willing to get ourselves killed. That's not true. What we do is non-violent resistance, it's de-escalatory. We don't put ourselves in danger. The soldiers point their guns at us, we exit."

While Flaherty worked with a different group, Bacon and Wilson stayed together the majority of their time in the West Bank. For a while, they lived with a family in city of Nablus. The family's building was scheduled for demolition -- one of the four families in the building was the family of a suicide bomber, Bacon and Wilson say. The other three families -- and a business in the building -- had no ties to the bomber, they say.

"Our presence and passports no doubt saved that home," Bacon says. "By placing ourselves there, we weren't defending suicide bombers. We're protecting innocent people from collective punishment. These people are being punished for living in the same building as a man who made a very stupid decision."

"What breeds the violence in this conflict, is that Israelis continue to use collective punishment in this conflict," Wilson says. "That's no way to peace. ... Israel needs to allow Palestinians to develop their own community, their own democracy. That's a hard process."

However, Wilson says his self-financed summer of activism has given him a small degree of hope. "I think when you look at the Israel-Palestine conflict, it's seems to be this hopeless situation, this conflict that just goes on forever," he says. "I'm not going to say I'm more optimistic now, but I do feel after being there that when relations do improve, the potential for peace is really high. I never met a Palestinian that didn't want peace with Israelis, and I didn't meet any Israelis that didn't want peace with Palestinians. People are tired of the violence, and they want the conflict over."

click to enlarge ADAM WILSON
click to enlarge Both Thomas Bacon and Adam Wilson say they - didn't go to the region to put themselves in harm's - way. But Bacon still has the physical scars from two - rubber bullets following one demonstration. - ADAM WILSON
  • Adam Wilson
  • Both Thomas Bacon and Adam Wilson say they didn't go to the region to put themselves in harm's way. But Bacon still has the physical scars from two rubber bullets following one demonstration.
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