BY THE TIME you read this, Seattle child-care provider and human rights activist Trevor Baumgartner may be resting safely in his Seattle home.
Or, he may have starved himself to death as a prisoner of the Israeli Army.
Either way, a desperate protest by Baumgartner and three other detained internationals appeared, on Tuesday morning (May 14), to be drawing to a climax. By Monday, reportedly near death after 11 days without food and six days of refusing water, Baumgartner and three other hunger- striking American detainees—Nathan Mauger of Spokane, Thomas Koutsoukos of suburban Chicago, and Nathan Musselman of Roanoke, Va.—were about to be deported by Israeli authorities, and Baumgartner, hospitalized and too weak to move, began "sipping small amounts of water."
But on Tuesday, deportation plans hit a snag, with Israeli authorities insisting that the deportees pay for their plane tickets. The seeming inability of authorities and the hunger strikers to reach agreement had plagued negotiations since May 2, when Baumgartner and 12 other foreigners were arrested at the then-besieged Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The group created a diversion while a group of 10 activists slipped through Israeli security into the church, carrying bags of food and medical supplies for the Palestinians trapped inside.
The detainees were held by the Israeli Army, although they were charged with no crime, appeared before no court, and technically were outside the boundaries of Israel (and therefore Israeli legal authority). Eight of the 13 arrested foreigners were immediately deported. The remaining five, all Americans, began a hunger strike to protest and draw attention to their situation. Their stated goal was to be allowed to leave Israel voluntarily, without any future prohibitions on their eligibility to return.
By late last week, with the five also refusing water, Israel's Ministry of the Interior had agreed to those conditions. Huwaida Arraf returned to the United States, but after her departure, Israel claimed the agreement pertained only to her, and negotiations stalled. Baumgartner was hospitalized and the physical condition of the four remaining detainees worsened.
At the same time, an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority brought the siege of the Church of the Nativity to an end; when the people who had been held inside emerged, Israeli authorities arrested the other 10 activists who had slipped inside the church. That group included four Americans, among them Kristen Schurr (see "A Rumor of War," April 11). Those activists, too, are facing deportation.
Baumgartner, an activist with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), arrived on the West Bank in mid-April, well after Israel's Easter offensive against Palestinian cities, towns, and refugee camps had begun. The ISM had been bringing in groups of internationals this year to provide moral support for Palestinians and to describe their experiences when they returned home. In recent months, their role became far more dramatic, as they often delivered medical or food aid or served as accompaniment for the protection of ambulance drivers, emergency workers, and ordinary Palestinians fearful of being shot by Israeli soldiers.
Schurr arrived with the ISM's third tour, just before the offensive began, and had stayed on past her original two-week tour. Baumgartner, back in Seattle, had been in Palestine with the first ISM tour early this year, and when the violence escalated, he scrambled to return. The role that they and hundreds of other internationals—many of them Jewish—have taken has become a lightning rod for the volatile debate over the Middle East in the United States. Supporters of Israel have reviled the activists—extremists forced the family of Adam Shapiro of New York City to leave town because of repeated death threats and property damage. Conversely, sympathizers to the Palestinian cause have treated the American internationals as heroes.
"It seems as if the ticket issues are being resolved," ISM spokesperson Georgina Reeves said from Bethlehem on Tuesday. But in the chaos of the moment, and with the hunger strikers split up by Israeli authorities, what was less clear was the physical condition of the activists—especially Baumgartner, whose physical condition was particularly poor. Whether he would be sent through Amman, Jordan (his original route home), or directly to New York, and even whether he was physically capable of an airplane flight, was unclear. But for the moment, at least, it appears he will survive—leaving the obvious question (unanswered in any of the group's press statements) of why he and his colleagues took on such a dangerous, even suicidal course.