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At-Home with Gila Svirsky

14 April 2001
Subject: Breaking Barriers for Peace

Peace activists stand chest-to-chest with Israeli soldiers, pushing against each other - photo by Elias I. Rishmawi


Today was a great day for peace in the Middle East. Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists for peace managed to break through the barriers separating us, push through cordon after cordon of Israeli soldiers, and meet together to pledge ourselves to end the occupation and make a just peace between our peoples.

The event was initiated and sponsored by the Centre for Rapprochement, a Palestinian peace organization based in the town of Beit Sahour not far from Bethlehem. On the Israeli side, the sponsors were the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace, Gush Shalom, Rapprochement, and the Committee Against Home Demolitions. The internationals – split between both sides – included people from Italy, Germany, the U.S., England, France, and probably many other countries. We were about 200 on each side.

As agreed, the Palestinians started out from the Hotel Paradise in Bethlehem, which has suffered so much severe shelling in recent weeks. Israelis started from the Mar Elias Monastery on the Israeli side. At the pre-arranged time, both groups walked simultaneously toward the checkpoint separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, the barrier between Israel and Palestine-to-be. Many of our signs said “End the Occupation” and “Stop the Siege of Palestinian Towns,” but primarily our message was the medium – the meeting of Palestinian and Israeli allies for peace. We had not expected to actually get closer than waving distance, and that’s how it started.

Soldiers prevented the Palestinians from continuing along the main road, but they took side streets and were finally brought to a halt about 100 meters (yards) from the checkpoint. The Israelis took the main road and walked right up to the checkpoint, where the soldiers formed a cordon to block us from going through. They presented an order that the area was a “closed military zone.” After some negotiation, they agreed to allow in a “small delegation.” Our “small delegation” turned into 30, as more and more people slipped through the soldiers and became delegates. The delegation walked down the road and we could see the Palestinians at the other end waiting for us, and we began to chant, “Peace – Yes! Occupation – No!” When we reached the Palestinians, we fell into each other’s arms, embraced, and kissed, even though most of us barely knew each other.

Moved by the moment, the group spontaneously turned to walk together to the checkpoint, even though the soldiers now formed a solid wall of armed men to block us. We interlocked arms and walked right up to them and began to push through. They fortunately did not draw their weapons, but locked their arms against us. But how could they possibly win, with no moral strength on their side? And we were infused with a burning sense of doing the right thing. We pushed and they pushed back, and there seemed to be a standoff, and the soldier pushing me said, “You don’t have a chance against us,” and I heard myself say, “You have no idea how powerful a moral purpose can be,” and one of us was apparently right, because soon I felt them giving way, and our group was pushing them backwards, and we were moving forward. They dropped back and regrouped, and again we had our pushing game, and this went on for nearly half an hour, until they could not contain this powerful group, and we pushed through their entire cordon and broke through to the group of Israelis cheering us on and waiting at the checkpoint.

The meeting of both groups was as inspired a moment as can be. People were clapping and whistling and hugging and shaking each other’s hands and slapping backs. There were meetings of old friends, and making of new friends. The moment felt so sweet. Suddenly I noticed a “spare” stepladder, which I handed over the crowd, and a few of us spoke standing on it – Ghassan Andoni from the Centre for Rapprochement, Uri Avnery from Gush Shalom, Luisa Morgantini from the European Parliament, and me, from the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace. It was not easy to be heard, but who cares what we said. The very fact of our presence together, united in our yearning for peace, for justice, for a state of Palestine side by side with a state of Israel, was all that really mattered.

Afterwards many Israelis walked into Bethlehem with their hosts to continue the good feeling, but I went home. Perhaps one of them will continue this report.

Thank you to our Palestinian friends for this alliance for peace and justice, much needed by all.

Shalom / Salaam from Jerusalem,
Gila Svirsky

At-Home with Gila Svirsky

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Letters from Jerusalem, 2002
Letters from Jerusalem, 2003
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Text © 2001 Gila Svirsky. The photo by activist Elias I. Rishmawi is one of many to be found at the website of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement between People.

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