From Norfolk to Jerusalem to plead for peace

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The Independent Online

When Angela Zelter tried to talk to an Orthodox Jew last week, she got an earful. "I greeted him with 'Shalom' and he and his friends told us we were 'friends of terrorists'," she says. "One of them told me: 'Fuck you, your friends killed our babies.' We were spat at." But being a member of the International Solidarity Movement to End the Occupation has its rewards. Ms Zelter – a potter from Norfolk -- and her friends from Britain, France, Italy and America have their little victories in Jerusalem and on the West Bank, preaching non-violence to a population that admires suicide bombers, pleading with Palestinians not to throw stones, ostentatiously monitoring the Israeli army's debilitating, endless checkpoints.

I watched several of the "internationals" – men and women – telling Palestinians not to throw stones at the police outside Orient House last week. A day later, they were standing beside Israeli troops at a roadblock in Qalandiya in the West Bank, holding placards proclaiming themselves "international observers". Palestinians told them there was less harassment while they stood there. As many as 80 men and women from Europe and the United States – along with at least five Israeli women and a Colombian – have been trying to persuade the Palestinians that the world has not forgotten them, that it is possible to resist an occupation without violence.

At one checkpoint, the monitor was a retired Israeli policewoman – formerly a police major – while Ms Zelter spent some minutes trying to encourage a young Israeli tank driver to meet her at the group's hotel and travel with them in plain clothes to meet Palestinians. The Israeli might not be the only man frightened of these formidable ladies from "Women in Black", who regularly meet at the foot of Nurse Edith Cavell's statue near the National Gallery in London.

Tough is not the word for them. Up to 20 Western men and women sleep every night in the Palestinian town of Beit Jalla -- the shooting gallery which regularly appears on every television news programme -- risking their lives under the Israeli tank shells which invariably follow the appearance of Palestinian gunmen in the town's streets.

Jerry Levin, the CNN reporter once kidnapped in Beirut, and his wife have stayed there, along with a clutch of French and Britons, at least five Jews among them. Ms Zelter says Arafat's men have turned up most recently and appear to be keeping the gunmen off the streets – perhaps because of the presence of the "internationals".

Edward Mast and his wife Linda Bevis from Seattle are spending their honeymoon to show "solidarity" – how painfully old-fashioned that word seems amid the Palestinian-Israeli war – with those under occupation. "I want to be part of the non-violent resistance to occupation," Mast says. "And to register my protest as an American at what is happening here." Last week, in perhaps the most dramatic incident of its kind, the group turned up at the West Bank village of Al-Khader to remove an Israeli roadblock made up of rocks and two carbonised buses that was preventing villagers from driving to their fields.

"We eventually got the Palestinians to understand what we wanted to do and an 11-year-old boy turned up with a JCB digger," Zelter says. "He was very brave and very professional, and I think the other Palestinians were afraid. But we formed a human shield and he moved the stones and pushed one of the buses to one side and the people could then take their vehicles to their fields. Some Israeli soldiers were watching from a hill. An army truck moved towards us, but stopped."

At 2am the next day, the Israelis returned and re-erected the roadblock. Then the group returned to play football on a field the Israelis had deemed "forbidden" because it overlooked a road for Jewish settlers -- though not close enough for a Palestinian to throw a stone even with a slingshot, as one of the women explained. Again, the Israelis watched. An army jeep drew up, then retreated when the driver saw that Westerners were playing in the football game. Al-Khader are football champions in this part of the West Bank.

It's easy to dismiss the "internationals" as a bunch of do-gooders out of their depth – "ageing hippies", as one Western journalist called them. But the message is all too real for the Israelis. Israel refuses to allow international monitors to police the Israeli-Palestinian war. But the men and women of this solidarity campaign are proving that they can throw a blanket over the sparks, persuade Palestinians to play football rather than throw stones.

Perhaps a real monitoring force – disciplined and without political leanings – could do even better. It might at least take its cue from the last words of Nurse Cavell, which Ms Zelter remembers: "Patriotism," the English heroine said as she faced a German firing squad in the First World War, "is not enough."