Last year in March, shortly after the United States declared war on Iraq for the second time, sixteen people staged a die-in across Fifth Avenue in protest of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the US occupation of Iraq. They lay still, chanting their message against war and injustice, while an angry crowd hurled insults and hot coffee at them. To the individuals who participated, their message was important enough that it merited disrupting the lives of busy New Yorkers. For this disruption, those sixteen individuals now face up to a year in prison. I am one of those sixteen.
Eight months ago I was standing in the Palestinian city of Qalqiliya, facing a 25-foot high wall of concrete and steel. Qalqiliya is entirely surrounded by Israel's infamous separation wall. For the 50,000 Palestinian residents of Qalqiliya, there is one way to enter and exit the city--through a single Israeli checkpoint guarded by Israeli soldiers. This checkpoint is only open from 8 am to 6 pm; outside of that time, no one can get in or out. One man I met, Sharif, told me: 'I come to Qalqiliya three times a year because my wife's family lives here. It takes at least one hour to get through checkpoints when it is a ten minute drive. My brother, a school teacher, was killed one year ago by Israeli military trying to get into Qalqiliya through a back road. It was curfew at 2:00 in the afternoon and without warning they shot him. They left him to bleed for hours before they allowed an ambulance to get to him. By that time he died.'
During my three-week stay in the West Bank, a number of Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli military. Their numbers went largely unreported in any media, American or international. On my last day there, a five-year-old boy was killed in the village of Bartaa. A soldier fired a tank-mounted machine gun into a car passing through a checkpoint, killing the boy and wounding two little girls. Later, the Israeli army described it as an 'operational mistake.' This was the third time in four days that Israeli security forces had fatally shot unarmed Palestinians at or near a checkpoint. These killings at checkpoints were during a 'calm' period, in the language of the American media. The newspapers talked about a 'lull in violence' because there had been no attacks on Israelis in two months. The Palestinian deaths during that time did not factor into their accounting.
Also ignored are the stories of ordinary civilians-Palestinians, as well as an increasing number of internationals who come to stand in solidarity with them-engaged in non-violent civil resistance to the 35-year-old military occupation that governs every aspect of Palestinians' lives. The protest on Fifth Avenue was in direct response to the tragedy that had occurred a week previous in Gaza, when a 23-year-old American human rights activist, Rachel Corrie, was killed by an Israeli military bulldozer. She was standing in front of a Palestinian pharmacist's home, attempting to prevent it from being destroyed. Despite the fact that she was clearly marked with a fluorescent orange safety vest and waving her arms, the driver of the bulldozer drove over her twice, crushing her to death.
The protest was also a direct response to the war in Iraq, which had been declared by President Bush a week previous. The protesters' intent was to draw parallels between Israel's bloody and unjust occupation, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which was initiated for reasons just as suspect, and which promised consequences equally as dire. One year later, the most pessimistic projections about the war on Iraq have come to pass. In the last few weeks, over 600 people were killed as a result of the U.S.'s cynical and misguided policies in the Middle East. Many more Iraqis as well as U.S. soldiers will die in the months to come, and the Iraqi people will continue to be ruled over by a government that pays only lip service to the idea of self-determination and human rights. The protest last March was in part a desperate attempt to forestall these tragedies.
Many of the sixteen individuals who participated in the protest--ranging in age from 21 to 44 and including Jews, students and school teachers, activists and social workers, a devout Christian, a Palestinian-American, all of diverse class backgrounds, sexual orientations, beliefs, and upbringings--have been to the Occupied Territories and seen the destruction wreaked by the Israeli occupation first-hand. The people of the Occupied West Bank and Gaza have almost no way of getting out the information on their own of what daily life is like for them. The horror and humiliation they suffer goes largely unreported in the American and international news media.
Here in the US, we have the right to vote, the right to freedom of movement and expression, the right to security--while at the same time we supply Israel with $3 billion dollars a year to deny the Palestinian people these same rights. The protest on March 26, 2003 was done in order to accept the heavy responsibility our government has placed on us by its tragically ill-conceived policies of war and military occupation. We are at fault not if we choose to speak out, but only if we remain silent.
Eric Monse is a co-defendant in trial urging jail time for
non-violent protesters. He is a member of Jews Against the Occupation and
has traveled to the Israeli Occupied Palestinian Territories to work in
solidarity with Palestinians non-violently resisting occupation. More
information on the case and photos can be found at