To Dabble in Activism
It was an early morning on a street corner in Ramallah that I begin my involvement with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). A group of westerners were drawing on cigarettes whilst drinking coffee from plastic cups as the drone of car horns created that familiar Middle Eastern soundtrack. “Don’t worry, we can get you arrested in a couple of weeks” was the response to my reservations that I didn’t have that much time here. This level of bravado initially deterred me and I doubted my cohesion with the group.
I also questioned myself with regards to my involvement in the events taking place. Thus far, I had been an observer. I would now be stepping over the line to participate in things that I had hitherto been documenting.
During my first few hours with the group, my uncertainty concerning cohesion subsided. These were very motivated & knowledgeable individuals. I think that the braggadocio is a product of the stress that one is under whilst undertaking this kind of activity. The talk of tear-gas & rubber bullets following demonstrations is less about machismo, and more a way to deal with what is happening. With constant movement between demonstrations, vigils and being embedded within communities, life can become very intense.
Add to this the threat of night-raids. Twelve days previously, the Ramallah apartment had been raided for the second time in four days, in contravention of the Oslo accords. Two people were arrested and equipment was confiscated; the previous month, an ISM volunteer had been deported. Every night I spent there, I went to sleep wondering whether IDF soldiers would storm in before dawn. On one occasion, the slam of a door prompted the six of us sharing a room to jump out of bed, shouting “IDF!” as we pulled-on clothes and prepared to defend our rights.
Volunteering in this Palestinian led (and strictly non-violent) organisation is basically about exploiting the freedom—and rights—that our passports, as Westerners, afford us. These are not things that are extended to Palestinians. I had heard that there are even different guidelines governing the rules of engagement by Israeli forces if internationals are present. For example, live-rounds would not be used. In the eyes of the Israeli military, all men are not born equal. Simply by being somewhere, the risk of violence inflicted on the local people is diminished, and illegitimate arrests can be prevented. For us, we risk no “administrative detention” — which means that a Palestinian can be held for six months without facing a direct charge.
A great emphasis is also put on documenting what is happening during the demonstrations, raids and other events. Settler violence in Sheihk Jarrah, for example, is a huge problem. Reports are published on the ISM website following any demonstration or incident, press releases are issued, and video-evidence of brutality can prove invaluable in defending those persecuted.
However, being a strongly pro-Palestinian organisation, the wording of these reports can be heavily biased. ISM is not known for its impartiality. This is something I would struggle with, and something which I feel still looms over my own personal writing on the subject. Yet having borne witness to the injustice that is administered to these people, it is hard to not take the tone of a propagandist writer. All sides are prone to the use of biased, or loaded, language; even reputable news organisations fall prey to the lexical semantics. One side’s terrorist attack, is another side’s targeted killing? An illegal settlement can become an Israeli neighbourhood.
And so it began…