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At-Home with Gila Svirsky

3 July 2001
Subject: In the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Israeli peace activism has been getting more and more attention lately, both in Israel and abroad. Below is an article that appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. A photograph from this action also appeared on a recent cover of the Cairo Times (a bimonthly, English-language news magazine published in Cairo – the new edition is not yet on the web), which means that word is also getting out to the Arabic-speaking world. Thanks to journalist Betsy Hiel, who covered the events.

Gila Svirsky

Saturday, June 30, 2001

Israeli activists protest

By Betsy Hiel

JERUSALEM - Silver-haired Gila Svirsky stands in the middle of 60 Israeli activists in Liberty Bell Park. Black letters on her gray T-shirt proclaim, in English, Hebrew and Arabic: “Peace: It’s a beautiful sight to see.”

With her wire-framed glasses and purple ball cap, she looks more like a grandmother than a political agitator. “It is not our goal today to get arrested,” she tells the crowd. “ ... The product of nonviolent actions is so much better than violent action.”

Around Israel, these protests are increasing – from settlers demanding more protection in the occupied territories, to centrists and leftists condemning settlements and demanding peace.

In nine months of clashes that have killed more than 600 Palestinians and Israelis, peace activists largely disappeared. Now a committed core, mostly women, are on the streets, even cooperating with Palestinian activists.

Svirsky and others from three peace groups – Gush Shalom, Coalition of Women for a Just Peace, the Alternative Information Center – planned Friday to take buses to Al-Khadar, a West Bank village on the road to Hebron, to protest the confiscation of Palestinian land for three Israeli settlements.

Neta Golan, 30, one of the leaders, gives advice: “Resist passively. Lie down. If they want to take you, they will have to carry you. If they are doing their job, they won’t drag you on the ground.”

Golan gingerly holds the cast on her right arm, broken in a protest two weeks ago in Al-Khadar. If arrested, she tells the women, don’t give information to the police. A fund will pay for bail. A lawyer is on call.

“We are going to build a protest tent with the Palestinians on the hill and the land that was confiscated by the settlers,” Golan says. If stopped by Israeli soldiers, “we will go another way. If they stop us again, we will get off the bus quickly and do a demonstration right there.”

The demonstrators board two buses and head off.

On the way, Sarra Lev, a Talmud teacher from Philadelphia who spends summers in Israel, talks with a friend, Renee Goutmann. “I am here as a Jew and as a person,” Lev said. “I have a responsibility to stop oppression where I see it. And seeing it so close to home, I have even more responsibility to stand up against it.”

Goutmann, a tour guide, is out of work because of the bloodshed. She “can’t live in peace in my country until the Palestinians have a state, and they won’t have a state while there are settlements in the Palestinian territories.”

Along the way, Golan and Svirsky talk on cell phones, coordinating with the other bus and with Palestinians in Al-Khadar.

The buses are stopped at an Israeli checkpoint near the village. Men and women scramble out, carrying signs in Hebrew and English: “Peace or Settlements,” “Get Out of the Occupied Territories,” “We Die for Settlers.” Some 30 policemen and soldiers armed with assault rifles rush forward.

Svirsky announces that the soldiers will not let the group pass: “The army wants to keep this protest sterile ... they declared this place a closed military area.”

One of the protesters, David Nir, blames the United States for giving $3.2 billion annually to Israel. The money pays for settlements and the occupation of Palestinian land, he says, adding, “I wish the citizens of the United States would protest against this use of U.S. money.”

Dalia Pilavsky holds a sign displaying the Israeli and Palestinian flags topped by a dove as she faces an Israeli soldier

Dalia Pilovsky, 68, calls her government the “most racist and fascist ... in the Middle East.” A member of the ultra-leftist Matzpn (Compass) party, Pilovsky says she pays dearly for speaking out against war, the occupation and all weapons, including Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal.

“People stop talking to you. It is harder and harder to find work, and when there is work, it is harder to climb the ladder.”

Yet Pilovsky insists she and her husband could not stay home: “We are not... healthy, it is a burden to sit in the hot sun. But we can’t live with this situation, and we have to do something for our souls.”

After an hour the protesters reboard the buses, and Svirsky announces that they earned gold stars for good behavior. They try another road into Al-Khadar, but are stopped again. Svirsky orders everyone off to form a human chain, locking arms and sitting down to block the settler road.

Cars stop, military jeeps squeal up. A woman jumps from her car, shouting and rushing at the protesters; a policeman restrains her. The protesters chant “Away with the occupation!” as cars honk and motorists curse them.

More chants: “We came out of Lebanon and will come out of the occupied territories! ... Peace, yes! Occupation, no!”

A motorist tries to drive into the demonstrators. A policeman steps in front of the car’s bumper.

Soldiers and police push into the chanters on the road and cordon off those standing near the buses. There are screams as police yank apart the human chain, pushing men and women into police vans. Those who resist are carried to the vans.

Soon, Neta Golan sits alone on the road, biting a finger, fidgeting with her broken arm, looking small as armed troops surround her. Soldiers lift her up until she walks on her own. She joins several protesters heading to Gush Etzion, another settlement where the detainees were taken.

On the bus ride back to Jerusalem, a woman who identifies herself only as Gila reflects on why she joined the protest. “I think you can’t live in Israel with some kind of conscience and be aware of what is going on," she says, shaking her head, "without being an activist.”

Web site of the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace:

At-Home with Gila Svirsky

Letters from Jerusalem, 2001
Letters from Jerusalem, 2002
Letters from Jerusalem, 2003
New & recent letters from Jerusalem (2004)
Resources and Links

© 2001 Gila Svirsky, The Tribune-Review Publishing Co. Photo of Dalia Pilavsky was taken by Dana Smillie for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and reprinted by the Cairo Times.

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