The Israeli government says it is stepping up efforts to detain and deport foreign peace activists who come to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The activists have been serving as "human shields" to protect Palestinians from what they see as Israeli aggression. Israel says their actions are irresponsible and put them, and others, in danger. VOA's Sonja Pace spent time with a group of activists from the International Solidarity Movement, ISM, to find out what motivates them and what they hope to achieve. In her report she takes us through the West Bank, from outside Bethlehem to Tulkarem and to a village outside Qalquilya.
"We're going to run through a couple of things, just to give you an idea of the do's and don'ts when you're out in the field to make your presence as an ISM activist more effective."
Chris Brown explains the basics about working as a human shield in the Palestinian territories. He is talking to 18 would-be human shields who come from all corners of the globe - giving them tips on how to defuse tense situations, and how to stay alive. They say they know there are risks.
In mid-March, Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American, was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer, as it set about demolishing a Palestinian home in the Gaza Strip.
On April 5 another American, Brian Avery, was shot in the face by Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Jenin. Five days later, Tom Hurndall, from Britain, suffered severe head injuries when he was shot by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip as he tried to help a Palestinian woman and her children flee Israeli gunfire. All three activists were members of the International Solidarity Movement. This latest group of activists is not deterred.
Some will stay a few weeks, others a few months. Some are young, perhaps just out of school. But many are not.
"My name is F. Michael Johnson. I'm 51 years old, almost 52. I'm from Lake Stephens, Washington, USA," said Mr. Johnson, who used to work for the Boeing aircraft company, until he was laid off a few months ago. He decided to do something else.
"I'm here to try to help bring hope to both Israelis and Palestinians. I hope I can personally intervene in a dangerous situation and defuse it, and prevent the potential death of a Palestinian - on the other hand prevent a poor Israeli soldier from killing someone out of fear, who knows," he said. "My second hope is that I attain a first-hand credibility to bring this story back to the United States, because the American people just do not understand."
The ISM is a Palestinian-led group that works with individuals and organizations in Israel and around the world to bring peace activists to the Palestinian territories. Its self-described mission is creative, non-violent resistance.
The Israeli government does not see the group in quite those terms. Captain Jacob Dallal is an Israeli military spokesman.
"We have no problem with protests, with a group that wants to advocate a certain platform, with a group that even wants to advocate Palestinian rights," he said. "That's acceptable, and that's even healthy in a democratic society. What's not good or healthy is when people start taking, not only the law into their own hands, but start doing things that endanger themselves and endanger the people around them."
Captain Dallal says, recently, ISM activists were found to be sheltering a wanted Islamic Jihad terrorist in their offices in Jenin. The captain called it a serious incident. ISM leaders say they did not know the man was wanted by the Israelis.
There have also been reports two British citizens who came to Israel to carry out a suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv last month had links to foreign peace activists. ISM says the two men were among a group of people who came to an ISM apartment in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip. However, the organization says its members had no idea who the men really were, or what their intent was.
The volunteers say they did not come here to be heroes. They don't want to get hurt or killed, but they seem willing to take the risk. Elisabetta, 30, is from Verona, Italy.
"I belong to a Western country, to a rich country," she said. "I live quite well and feel myself being in a privileged condition. And, I feel guilty for that. …. And so, I thought non-violence [i.e., acting as a human shield] might be the chance for me to use my privilege to help people who don't have this privilege."
A few days later, Elisabetta is in Tulkarem, a frequent scene of clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen.
On this day, Elisabetta is protesting the construction of a security fence between Israel and parts of the West Bank, which Israel says is necessary to keep out terrorists, but which critics say is an Israeli attempt to confiscate Palestinian land. Israelis and Palestinians are taking part in the rally. The protest is peaceful.
Here, in the small village of Mas'ha near Qalqilya, an Israeli bulldozer moves in to demolish an olive grove to make way for the construction of another section of the security wall. Mike Johnson is here too. He has been camping out under the trees to try to stop Israeli attempts to clear the land and to protest Israel's seizure of property where the fence is to be built.
"The Palestinians are just here in protest to the fact that this hill is being taken from them, their livelihood is being taken from them," he said. "We're just here to draw attention to that fact. This so-called fence or wall that's for, quote, "security purposes" is being constructed many kilometers inside the occupied territories here …. It's grabbing the land away from the Palestinians here."
So, will their presence make a difference? It seems almost certain the olive grove will be destroyed and the security fence will be built. But, Naji Hassan Chalabi, who owns this land, says the foreigners have made a difference.
He thinks, without them, the soldiers would have already chased him away, and his trees would have already been destroyed.