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At-Home with Gila Svirsky

10 August 2002
Subject: From Jerusalem to Bethlehem Today

Demonstrators cling to each other as a soldier on horseback rides through


Most of us who marched toward Bethlehem today came back home in wet clothes and disappointed at not having entered this Palestinian city. And yet, to quote Tamar Gozansky – the only Knesset Member at the event – as we were starting out, “Events like this make you feel good about getting up in the morning.”

Activists came in chartered buses from all over Israel, but mostly from Jerusalem, as our cities are separated by only a few open fields... and a built-up checkpoint [=border crossing] manned by Israeli soldiers. We were about 700 activists from Israel, Jewish and Palestinian, and a handful of internationals. The organizers from Ta’ayush (Arab-Jewish Partnership) carefully briefed everyone about the importance of maintaining non-violence, even in the face of provocations. The briefing was necessary: At a previous checkpoint event, army resistance to our presence was brutal, landing over 20 activists in hospital afterwards.

The army knew we were coming, and had prepared themselves in large numbers. A water-truck was also waiting, its turret directed right at us. As we approached the line of border police who were blocking our advance with their bodies, they began to get very rough. Several used excessive force, hurling activists back even though we used no force to get past them. Suddenly the water truck opened fire and drenched most of the demonstrators. I ducked behind a police car and avoided the dousing, though the car got well washed.

When the water did not dampen our spirits or forward drive, a much more lethal weapon emerged. Suddenly horses with helmeted riders charged in from behind us and plunged directly into the crowd, the riders flailing at demonstrators with their whips, and driving the horses directly onto us. It was terrifying to be charged by horses, and this did stop our further progress. Several demonstrators were hurt, but none seriously, I believe. One woman was taken to the emergency room and others sat down to tend their wounds. It was infuriating to see this violent police response to our peaceful action (never used at right-wing demonstrations, by the way). Finally, when the melee died down, we all sat down on the road and blocked the entry of more army vehicles to the site.

The next hour was one of waiting while appointed activists tried to negotiate our passage. Meanwhile, one local and several international TV stations interviewed participants. One “activist” grabbed the camera’s attention and shouted crazily that we were the beginning of a left-wing underground and that our next step was to assassinate the political leadership of this country. The organizers quickly announced that these are not the views of Ta’ayush, which believes in democratic action and nonviolent methods. The police hauled the guy off soon after. I did a small investigation, and no one there knew who he was. Which strongly suggests that he was a provocateur, planted by someone (the right? the Shin Bet?) to discredit this peace group. Or simply deranged.

After about an hour of sitting on the hot asphalt in the August sun, we regrouped and began to walk arm in arm toward the main checkpoint into Bethlehem, where the border patrol and soldiers now awaited us in full force, plus water truck, and now four horses. With the checkpoint in full view, we still could not get there, despite our steady chanting of “Peace – yes! Occupation – no!” and other slogans. We were stopped right there, and chanted endlessly while our negotiators talked to the army and police.

One of those chants was a rhymed version (in Hebrew) of “Our partners for peace are on the other side of that checkpoint.” Did I mention that a crowd of Palestinians was waiting for us for hours on the other side, in the plaza of the Church of the Nativity? This was meant to be a joint Israeli-Palestinian event, held with several Palestinian peace and political organizations. The intent was to meet in Bethlehem and declare our joint commitment to a just peace between our peoples.

We could not get in and, needless to say, there had never been any hope of their getting to us. Too much closure. But the mobile phones did get through, and soon we had speeches directly into the mike by two senior Palestinian officials on the other side: Muhammad al-Madani, the governor of Bethlehem, and Suliman al-Himri, a Fatah activist. (Mazen ’Abayat, brother of ’Atef ’Abayat who was killed by the IDF, was supposed to speak as well, but he didn’t since we didn’t enter the city.) What they said was pretty similar:

“Waiting for you here in Bethlehem are hundreds of Palestinians, some of whom have had their homes destroyed and their relatives killed. And yet all of us have gathered to express our appreciation for your efforts to reach us, and our desire to end the bloodshed and reach a peaceful agreement between our two nations.” And on their side, a speech prepared by the Ta’ayush group was read out loud in Arabic. Probably with similar sentiments.

It was a very encouraging day. Yet we had to close it with a moment of silence for Dafna Shpruch, veteran peace activist and Jerusalem Woman in Black, who had been seriously injured in the Hebrew University bombing two weeks ago and died as we were on the way to the action today.

Said the moderator from Ta’ayush, quietly, before we dispersed, “This call for peace – it will not be stopped.”

From Jerusalem,
Gila Svirsky

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© 2002 Gila Svirsky. The photo is by the Associated Press and was published in Ha’aretz.

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