Israeli soldiers often looked at me with surprise during my seven months in the West Bank. “What are you doing here?” they would ask. “Go back to India—you have many problems there.” One Russian-Israeli soldier even sang the old Indian “I’m a disco dancer” hit at a checkpoint before shooting towards two colleagues 60 feet away.
I joined the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) last October to support the Palestinian nonviolent resistance to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. We found that with foreigners present, the Israeli army was less likely to use lethal force against peaceful protesters.
Not a day passed when I didn’t witness the ritual humiliations, arbitrary arrests, shootings and killings of Palestinians—children killed on their way to school, farmers harassed while tending to their land, pregnant women denied passage to hospitals.
There were no Israeli military inquiries into these human rights violations.
I recall pleading with Israeli soldiers last April to allow a Palestinian gynecologist passage from one West Bank city to another to see a mother suffering from internal bleeding. One soldier was sympathetic, but said that he could do nothing. The checkpoint was closed “for security reasons.”
Many people assume that such atrocities could never be perpetrated by democratic Israel. This is simply not the case.
B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and Physicians for Human Rights—Israel have documented the army’s treatment of Palestinian medical personnel. Soldiers have opened fire on Palestinian ambulances, and over 40 women have given birth at checkpoints. Infants have died as a result.
Last spring, I urgently negotiated with a soldier in a lightweight tank to allow an ambulance to pass to treat a teenager shot in the back by Israeli forces. After 90 seconds I managed to convince him. It was too late. The boy’s crime? Violating curfew and throwing rocks at armored vehicles.
Many believed Bush’s Road Map would end these horror stories. However, in many ways, conditions couldn’t be worse for Palestinians. The first stage of Israel’s “security fence”—in many places a 25-30 feet high concrete wall—complete with watchtowers and trenches, was being completed. Dozens of Palestinian villages will lose most of their land behind the wall, which snakes around miles from the Green Line (1967 border) and deep inside the West Bank. The wall confiscates wells and greenhouses while enclosing entire communities.
The wall already surrounds the West Bank town of Qalqilia. With only one exit, which is controlled by Israeli soldiers, the city is now a ghetto. Denied access to their farmland and locked into these open-air prisons, Palestinians will be forced to leave, making the wall a tool for ethnic cleansing. Fifteen percent of Qalqilia’s 42,000 residents have already left.
Palestinian nonviolent resistance rarely gets reported in the U.S. media. But many Palestinians find strength in Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience.
Images of Indian colonial struggle came to mind when I participated in a nonviolent march in the West Bank village of Jayyous last December. Over 500 Palestinian men, women, and children peacefully marched, accompanied by over 100 international activists. As we reached the outskirts of the village, we were faced with Israeli soldiers pointing M-16s. After minutes of unsuccessful negotiation, the army charged, wielding clubs. As the Israeli army threw percussion grenades and teargas, I feared they would open fire into the crowd of peaceful protesters. Thanks to the high proportion of foreigners, no doubt, the soldiers fired rubber-coated steel bullets, and there were no fatal injuries.
As retaliation for nonviolent resistance to the wall, the army regularly enters Jayyous. As an Indian-American, my presence has often deterred soldiers from human rights violations. I recall an Israeli military jeep driving around Jayyous and shooting randomly. One soldier got out and took aim at some children scurrying away. Having seen too many youths mutilated or killed, I stood in front of the gun. The soldier, shaking in anger, put it down. No one wants to look evil in front of a nice Indian girl from California.
In my opinion, the worst part of the Israeli occupation cannot be defined by statistics. How do you quantify humiliation? Palestinian grandfathers forced to wet themselves repeatedly by Israeli soldiers who refuse to allow them to use the bathroom. Religious objects desecrated and dishes urinated on during house-to-house “searches.” Palestinian university blackboards scrawled with racist epithets in Hebrew such as “All Arabs are bastards.”
Israel justifies its policies as security measures. Does collective humiliation help Israeli security? Or will it drive an already impoverished, devastated, colonized people to extreme measures? Yes, suicide attacks are deplorable, but why does 36 years of state terrorism rarely make headlines? That is, 36 years of Israeli state terrorism funded by the world’s most powerful democracy.
Many Indians have asked me why I choose to focus my human rights work in Palestine. My tax dollars sustain Israel’s occupation, and as an American, I am thus indirectly contributing to the violation of the Fourth Geneva Conventions.
That is why I, along with hundreds of other Americans, together with Europeans, South Africans, Australians, and Japanese joined ISM’s nonviolent movement. About 30 percent of our volunteers are Jewish. All of us are warmly received by Palestinians, but as an Indian, I felt especially welcome.
As an Indian, I feel a connection with Palestinians, a colonized people under military occupation. This connection crystallized last winter when an English-Israeli soldier threatened to smash my digital camera and arrest me if I didn’t stop documenting the Israeli bulldozing of Palestinian olive trees. As I politely refused and ignored his British-accented threats and reddening face, the monster within him briefly became unleashed. Minutes passed. And then he simply walked away, mumbling something about being in the army too long. Nonviolence prevailed.
Only by ending the occupation can a just peace be reached for Palestinians and Israelis. Drawing on Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience, global citizens of diverse ethnicities, including Indians, have an important role to play in supporting Palestinians and Israelis to reach this goal.
Radhika Sainath is a coordinator for the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank (www.palsolidarity.org). She was born and raised in southern California.