British protesters are trapped by army's refusal to let cars through

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The Independent Online

More than 30 British peace protesters were trapped in Bethlehem and West Bank refugee camps yesterday after the Israeli army refused to let consular officials through military checkpoints.

The group, including the comedian Jeremy Hardy and the author Nicholas Blincoe, travelled to the West Bank before Easter to join non-violent demonstrations against Israel's occupation. The protests were co-ordinated by the International Solidarity Movement, which organised a march on Monday at which four Britons were wounded by shrapnel after Israeli troops fired warning shots. The injured included James Budd, 59, of Essex, and Kunle Ibidun, 30, of Bristol, who were both hit in the face by ammunition fragments. Mr Ibidun is now trying to return home because of the death of his father.

The Britons are spread between the Dheisheh, Azza and Ayda refugee camps, and the Star Hotel in Bethlehem, which a small group, including Mr Hardy and Mr Ibidun, tried to leave yesterday.

An armoured car from the British consulate in Jerusalem was sent to bring them out but a consular spokesman said it was turned away after three hours of negotiations.

Mr Hardy, 40, who is also a newspaper columnist and regular guest on The News Quiz on BBC Radio 4, said the protesters had asked the British embassy to help get the injured out of Bethlehem.

Speaking from the Star Hotel over the sound of gunfire, Mr Hardy said he could see a mosque on fire in Manger Square in the city centre.

"We've been hearing gun fire and shells since 4am," he said. "The fighting seems to be concentrated in the centre of the city. We can't go outside because it is too dangerous, there are gun battles and there have been soldiers and armoured personal carriers outside the hotel."

Mr Hardy, who was filming a documentary about the protests, added: "I wanted to leave because I have an 11-year-old daughter and could not put my family through any more worry. There is no more I can do here and I thought it would be more useful to go home.

"The Israelis said the consulate's car could not come in because it was too dangerous but it was armoured and clearly marked as a diplomatic vehicle.

"There is nothing we can do now. We just have to sit it out.

Mr Ibidun's sister, Billie, said her brother had been through a "terrifying experience" and now just wanted to return home to bury his 60-year-old father, James.

"He is just really devastated about what has happened in our family and desperate to come home," she said.

Miss Ibidun, 34, said her father had supported his son's protests and called on Israel to allow their family to be together. "It is not humane," she said.

"People there know what loss is like. My brother needs to be home. He needs to bury his father."

Mr Blincoe said many of the protesters were experienced in peaceful demonstrations but he and some others were novices. They were trained for several days at the Star Hotel by American volunteers and expected two weeks of non-violent demonstrations.

"We thought that we were going to engage in non-violent protest and we ended up in the middle of an invasion," he said. "We can't make any plans because it is impossible to get out of the buildings we are in."

Sean Riordan, an American volunteer for the movement, said some protesters intended to stay even though they were surprised by the scale of the violence.

"As we were training everything started disintegrating," he said. "A lot of people are asking their consulates to come and rescue them.

"There is big difference between direct, non-violent protest against an occupation and being caught in the middle of a war zone that is completely cut off from the outside world."

A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office confirmed that consular officials had spent several hours in armoured vehicles outside Bethlehem. She said they hoped to obtain permission to bring out the Britons early today.

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