As the Israeli army occupies Bethlehem and international opposition to the war on the Palestinians takes to the streets, some protestors have gone a step further. They spoke to Pascale Ghazaleh from behind the barricades
It is early in the afternoon, but inside Yasser Arafat's compound it is dark. Food supplies are running out, and Israeli tanks have destroyed the pipes that channel water to the compound. The electricity comes in fits and spurts -- barely enough to recharge the cell phones that are the only connection to the chaos outside.
It takes a long time to get through. In Cairo, lists of phone numbers are circulating. The international codes are Swiss, Italian, French, Israeli. Most of them connect to voice mail immediately -- a sign that the batteries are dead. The detached, metallic voices echo down the line: "I can't answer the phone right now, please leave..."
And then, someone answers. Sandrine belongs to a loose, heterogeneous network calling itself the Civilian Missions for the Protection of the Palestinian People. She is one of the many international protestors "who are sick of government inaction" and have decided to do something about it; and so, she is inside the besieged presidential compound, helping to protect Yasser Arafat. With her are about 40 people from France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium... Some have never done anything like this before. Others, having participated in their first solidarity movements elsewhere (one of the internationals is a Brazilian campesino peasant rights activist), have come to Palestine to thwart what looks like a massacre -- if they can, any way they can. Many are young -- in their 20s and early 30s; others are seasoned activists. The most prominent among them, José Bové, head of the anti-globalisation Farmers' Confederation, who has received air time and opprobrium for wrecking a McDonald's, left the compound a little over an hour after the group got in on Sunday afternoon, and was immediately arrested and deported back to France. So now the others know what awaits them.
The media have called them pacifists or demonstrators, but they see themselves as human shields. "We heard about the Israeli attacks, and we are here to protect the Palestinians," Marielle, another protestor, told Al-Ahram Weekly on Tuesday night from inside the compound. This they will do with their bodies, in the belief that the presence of internationals will dissuade the Israeli forces from bombing the compound.
The group arrived at Arafat's headquarters (besieged since Friday dawn) on Sunday afternoon, and benefited from the "surprise factor." Waving white flags, they approached the cordons of armed soldiers and tanks -- and walked straight through. "Maybe the soldiers had not yet received orders, because they just fired warning shots in the air or at the ground," Marielle told the Weekly. Once they were inside, the Israeli army tried scare tactics, setting off loud explosions; but since then, calm has reigned: "just the opposite of the situation in the city," Sandrine noted, where on Monday, the occupation forces bombarded a hotel housing internationals, and destroyed the Al-Khaled Hospital. As the Weekly went to press, news kept coming in of Palestinians being rounded up en masse; residents were being evicted and their homes vandalised by the rampaging soldiers.
Like the Palestinian president and his guards, the civilian protestors have little food -- "a piece of bread in the morning, and another at night," they said. "Today we got a bit of rice, so that filled us up," Sandrine added. After negotiating with the Israelis, they managed to have a trickle of water restored temporarily on Tuesday morning for washing, but "the sanitary conditions can't last," she admitted. "Besides, every time we manage to connect to a water pipe, Israeli tanks crush it and cut us off again."
The Israeli forces encircling the site turned away Red Cross trucks loaded with food and water, and stopped a delegation of 15 European consuls at the Qalandiya checkpoint on the outskirts of Ramallah. Even US special envoy Anthony Zinni was turned away. Within the compound, the protestors are separated from each other and cut off from the outside world: the only signs of what is going on outside are the explosions and artillery fire they can hear.
While conditions are drastic, morale remains high. They meet Arafat every day, and say the Palestinian leader is categorical in his refusal to surrender. Still, the civilians do not want to think beyond the immediate future, and to imagine what will happen if food and water run out altogether. "The Israelis are claiming that supplies are coming in, but I can tell you that's not true," Sandrine said. Nor do they want to repeat Bové's experience of deportation. "We will be arrested if we leave," Marielle explained, "and we do not want that to happen. Besides, now the Israelis are prepared, and we will receive worse treatment than the others. We will be treated as criminals, and that is not what we are." The Israeli government also considers that the activists have broken the law -- by entering what is in effect a closed military zone, Sandrine added, and by supporting the "terrorists" inside the compound.
It is such language, and the vicious panic the Israelis are showing in their attacks on journalists, internationals and medical relief staff, that reveal most forcefully what the world continues to deny: "This is total war." As one activist put it: "The Israelis are not respecting even the most basic rules of international law." The city of Ramallah is devastated: the Israeli forces are indulging in a frenzy of destruction as spiteful as it is wanton. Killing and wounding of civilians aside, property has sustained almost unbelievable damage. In 24 hours, the city's physiognomy has changed utterly.
By Tuesday, with the end of the food supplies in sight, the situation seemed dire, but the mood was still upbeat. "Everyone is all right," said Bruno, an activist in Jerusalem who had spoken to those inside the compound. Sandrine added: "President Arafat's guards are in a good mood. They said the siege of Beirut lasted 88 days, so they're used to this kind of thing -- but they're worried about us!"
Copyright © Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved 2002. Reprinted for fair use only
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