The International Solidarity Movement’s trip to the West Bank and Gaza Strip last week was intense,Reverend Thom Saffold said.
Saffold, along with 15 others from across the world, traveled to Israel and the occupied territories last week as part of an effort to launch a wide-scale, non-violent, pro-Palestinian movement.
The excursion was Saffold’s fourth visit to the area. He said the extent of the damage shocked him.
Saffold said he found the state of Jenin, a refugee camp that was reduced to rubble by an Israeli incursion two weeks ago, particularly disturbing.
“I wasn’t prepared for how devastated Jenin was. It looked like an earthquake. That’s affecting, to see that level of devastation,” he said.
Because the area was closed off to foreigners by military checkpoints, Saffold and a team of 15 others from around the world decided to sneak into the camp.
“We ran down this tree-lined path to escape being seen by the soldiers at the military checkpoints. Whenever we were stopped, we told (the soldiers) we were going to a different village,” Saffold said.
The ISM also visited the Presidential Com pound in Ramallah where Prime Minister Yasser Arafat and several dozen aids had been under house arrest by Israeli forces since March 29.
Before approaching Arafat’s headquarters, Saffold said his team formed into two groups. One group served as a decoy and was fired upon by Israeli troops while the other ran into the restricted area, he said.
When asked about the danger, Saffold said because the ISM sees the Palestinian struggle for freedom from Israeli domination as a civil rights issue, the team is prepared to take the risks associated with such a struggle. “We keep thinking one of these days, one of us will get killed and that’s a test to see if we’ll continue. So far, the more people hear about our members being wounded, the more want to join. That’s what has to happen in civil rights movements,” he said.
The ISM, which was founded by University alum Huwaida Arraf in the spring of 2001, is fashioned after the campaign of the Civil Rights Movement and began by organizing non-violent demonstrations and protests in support of the Palestinian people. “The ISM awakened in people a vision that international citizens standing on international law can actually organize and resist non-violently,” Saffold said.
But for some, the recent rash of Palestinian suicide bombers makes them doubtful about the success of a non-violent movement.
Though Saffold said he finds suicide bombings morally wrong, he can understand the appeal they hold to the Palestinian people. “We can see some very sad justification in (the suicide bombings) in the sense that Palestinians have no weapons to use against Israel except their bodies. Everyone over there talks about suicide bombings but with a very sad, very conditional support,” he said.
The ISM also took part in “human shield” actions by providing protection for occupation protesters during non-violent weekly demonstrations held in Ramallah after Friday prayers.
“(Israeli soldiers) are afraid of killing us. They’re not afraid of killing Palestinians. That’s why the organizers asked us to be there,” Saffold said, explaining that the ISM’s presence influenced the soldiers’ decision to release tear gas and sound bombs rather than open live fire.
Saffold returned from his trip May 2, the same day the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed resolutions that almost unanimously pledged support for Israel. The resolutions, Saffold said, serve to reflect the definite bias Americans hold toward seeing Israel as the victim and the Palestinians as the terrible aggressors. “The media coverage (of the conflict) in America is laughable except there’s such deadly consequences,” he said. “It made me sick, angry and more committed than ever to be standing in the face of lies.”
But LSA junior Richard Dorfman, a member of the Michigan Student Zionists, said the coverage is more complicated than it seems. “The truth is, the media sells what people want to see. As a whole, America supports Israel so the American media supports Israel, but the media is also sensationalizing Palestinian oppression to make the story more interesting,” he said.