Here in Seattle, after a long and dreary winter, it is an utterly perfect, sunny spring Thursday. It is April, and I should be out in the garden or down by the lake, something to soak up the idyllic glory of Seattle's fleeting springtime.
Instead, I am on the phone talking with former Seattle resident (and Seattle Weekly editorial assistant) Kristen Schurr. Outside my window, kids are playing. Outside Kristen's, it is a war zone, and children are shot at every day.
It is life in a Palestinian refugee camp. Hers happens to be Al-Azzeh, outside Bethlehem. It's been a bad week.
"The first night I was here, just crossing the alley in front of the apartment, I was shot at," she says matter-of-factly. "They showed me how to duck and run." She's used her new skills regularly in the past few days. "Just today, I went into a little shop inside of camp; we got shot at."
During our four conversations last week, Schurr practiced the maneuver, pausing during a sentence as she scurried across some alley. There's a sniper tower in the adjacent Israeli settlement, and the Israeli army has taken over all of Bethlehem's tallest buildings. At times, as with my other conversations with people in the area, I could hear the gunshots and 18 mm shells over the phone.
Is she brave? Reckless? Stupid? Why on earth would someone choose to go into such a place? Especially now? Is it a martyr complex? An all-time bad vacation story for the grandkids?
SCHURR, 33, NOW lives in New York. She is working for her doctorate at the New School in Manhattan—specifically studying the Middle East. It's the culmination of years of activist interest in the Palestinian tragedy, she says: "The 1987 intifada politicized me in the first place. I started reading about it in high school. That's what I've studied, and now I'm working on my Ph.D." Why did this, of all the world's issues, stand out to her, even in high school? "I dunno," she says, "just the absolute injustice of it, the complete humiliation by the Israelis . . . sanctioned and paid for by the U.S.; it's just one of the world's great injustices. There's just no two ways about it. It's so cut-and-dry."
With several people from Western Washington, she's in Palestine for a few weeks as one of a couple hundred delegates for the current tour of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). It's the third such tour for the ISM, recently organized by the Center for Rapproachment, a Palestinian nongovernmental organization (NGO) based in Bethlehem. Along with other "internationals" from Europe, Asia, and North America, the activists' professed intent is to be foreign, nonviolent witnesses to the occupation—human cameras doing the work U.S. media mostly isn't, who could show their solidarity through their presence, through protests, through house rebuildings and olive tree plantings, and then return home to tell their stories and nurture their new friendships.
This particular delegation knew it was walking into a tense situation. One cannot fly into Palestine; the only airport—in Gaza—has been bombed out by Israel. To get to Bethlehem, and Al-Azzeh, Schurr says, "I had to fly into Israel and then sneak past a checkpoint." She's talking on the Israeli cell phone she rented at the airport; Palestine doesn't have those, either.
And now, cities like Bethlehem have almost nothing—their infrastructure and many of their buildings destroyed. Shortly after Schurr's arrival, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 26 Israelis at a Passover seder, and things got a lot worse. The internationals' desire to agitate for peace became an opportunity to become human shields as war erupted in front of them on the streets of cities that already have been under military occupation for 35 years.
"Palestinians are forced to live in unimaginable conditions," Schurr says. "Just to cross the street, they have to duck and run—that's life here. There are no schools here, people aren't able to work, we have two or three days' worth of food left inside the camp. Israel has been continually attacking Palestinians and putting them in a humiliating position where they're supposed to beg for the most basic human rights.
"This camp is made of stone buildings with narrow alleyways. There's no room to build out, so they build up, generations of families living on top of one another. The Israeli military comes in sometimes and rounds up men and disappears them. Sometimes some of them come home, sometimes not." Last Saturday, Schurr accompanied a Bethlehem man who had been playing with his children in his yard; Israeli troops came in, arrested him, and, she says, beat him and denied him his medication while he was in jail. When he was released several miles from his home, Schurr went to walk back with him so that he wouldn't be shot on the way if manatajawol, or curfew, were suddenly declared. It is one of the first Arabic words the internationals learn.
"It's not safe to sleep at night, so we sleep in the early light hours," Schurr explains. "We get shot at in the night and have to run from one room to another. With the U.S. weapons, they have night vision, they have access to weapons that can. . . . I don't know how to say it.
"The way the camp is set out is like this maze, and people having to scurry around, scurry, scurry, scurry, like animal experimentation. . . . Just passing from the door of the apartment to the stairway inside the house, we get shot at through the door. All the windows have bags of sand stacked one on top of another inside. This is how they live their life. This is constant."
Schurr was also involved in an incident last week in which Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers, in their American-made tanks, attacked activists as they tried to deliver food and medical aid; the soldiers then destroyed the goods. (No food or medical supplies were being allowed into the besieged cities and camps.) The bullets fired at the group hit the ground in front of them and richocheted into the crowd; Schurr is convinced that if Palestinians, rather than foreigners, had been in the front row, the soldiers would not have aimed at the ground.
Jackie Wolf agrees. As it happens, I know many of the "internationals" from the Northwest in this particular ISM delegation. Wolf, 52, from Lopez Island, describes herself as "a human rights activist for about 20 years." She was active in a number of issues—South Africa, Central America, and the like—in the 1980s, and was then drawn to the Palestinian cause during the first intifada. While living in Seattle, she helped start an office in Capitol Hill's Odd Fellows Hall called the Center for Palestinian Information. She traveled to Palestine in 1989 on a two-week tour and wound up staying for seven months. Last week, she was back, among activists on a march who were shot at by the IDF. Eight were seriously wounded. Jackie was grazed by a bullet fragment and slightly injured.
"There's no doubt that the presence of internationals here has made a huge difference," Wolf said last week. "It's unbelievable. There's still a lot of brutality going on, but they aren't as willing to be as brutal when we're around; although they did fire on us when we did the march to Beit Jala. . . . It was really a walk more than a march; we walked into Beit Jala, which is sort of a small area within Bethlehem, and we walked within about 10 feet of the tanks, and they just started rolling at us, and they opened fire.
"They used bullets that are called dumdum bullets, and when they hit—whatever they hit—there are fragments everywhere. They shot at the wall next to the cameraman. He got hit with several pretty big fragments. He moved back toward us; a few other people and I went to him to see if he was OK, so they fired at us. I got hit with some fragments . . . and then the tanks pushed us back down the road.
"That was our one attempt at a march."
Wolf is, seemingly perversely, glad she's there. "It means so much to the people here to have some of us willing to go through this with them, especially people from America, because America is responsible for so much of this—it's paying for the whole thing."
SOME INTERNATIONALS have left—not expecting to be dropped into the midst of a war zone, not prepared for the terror. Some have been expelled, including David Solnit (of WTO/Direct Action Network notoriety), who accompanied a delegation led by Frenchman Jose Bove. Others are now trying to get into Israel, with mixed success.
More have not left—former Seattle activist Rich Wood, for example. Wood, 49, now lives in the Bay Area; he helped Wolf start the pro-Palestinian office on Capitol Hill. When I talked with him on Sunday, the ISM delegation was mostly cooling its heels, and he was frustrated: "There's really very little we can do here, that's the problem. People here are scared to go outside the door. The last few days we haven't been able to do anything." He was also there the last time around. "It's extremely different from the last intifada. This is armed. Last time, it was mass actions. Now, there are hundreds of armed [Palestinian] fighters in every city. It's a very different feeling."
A current Seattle resident and my friend, Jake Mundy, also went with the ISM. He spent much of last week either at the Al-Azzeh camp or the Bethlehem Star Hotel. Along with Schurr and five others, he wrote a statement pointedly declining the U.S. Embassy's offer of evacuation: "The U.S. consulate's offer is an indication [of] the danger we are in. We hope the United States' commitment to our safety extends to that of the Palestinian people."
The survival of these "internationals" is no assured thing. But their presence, they feel, helps increase the chances of survival for a mostly secular civilian population that largely only wants the violence and the occupation to end. But it's also impossible to miss the sense, from all of the activists that I talked with, that both the sense of community and the adrenaline rush of war were also powerful lures.
"I've been befriended by all the little girls in the camp," says Schurr. "They call my name and get me to run around with them. It's kind of amazing that people's life goes on in this way.
"There's so much despair but there's also this laughter that's as prevalent as the despair is. And [there's] this incredible brightness in peoples' eyes. They look at each other when the shelling is over—and the eye contact here is amazing—and people start laughing. It's like, what else are you gonna do?
"It's getting harder to be clear about it the longer I'm here. When I was in New York and Seattle, this was a really political situation, but being here now, it's become very personal. I have a family here now, I have friends here now, I'm called a daughter, a sister. It's harder to face the reality of the situation. People I'm living with, they say this is no life, that their children won't be able to live."
As she says this, I am wondering whether Schurr's "not being clear" any longer and taking this "cut-and-dry" issue personally has led her to greater insight, or whether it is a symptom of how easy it is to get sucked into the rage that provides seemingly endless fuel for all sides in this conflict.
Near the end of a long conversation, I ask Schurr what she will do when she returns to the United States. She starts into a well-practiced recital of the work that is needed to end U.S. support of the Israeli occupation, but stops:
"I could have answered that question before I left, but now that I'm here . . . I don't know. I don't know that I want to come back."
And, softly, on the phone from Bethlehem: "The stars are out tonight."
In Seattle, it's still a warm and sunny day. There's a helicopter overhead. It's a traffic copter. But what if it weren't? What if it were an F-16, or some gunship, hovering over a highway only the occupiers were allowed on, spitting fire or bullets at us? What if it were impossible to step outside without dodging bullets? What if, my health conditions notwithstanding, I could expect to be rounded up, arrested, jailed, and beaten every now and then, just for my age, gender, and race, just so I knew who was boss? What if I couldn't get electricity or water or medical care or food, let alone a job or a future for my children? What if my whole city were in the same situation? For 35 years? And what if the rest of the world was doing nothing about it?
Or what if my country—with the same population as Washington state—founded in genocide, hated by its neighbors, unique in the world, felt itself under siege, not knowing whether the next trip to a pizza parlor or mall would end in fiery death? And we had the military might to punish all who lived where the attackers did?
Would we be acting any differently from either side?