in Activism

Notes from Bristol Amnesty International meeting

Jan 15 AI Bristol: Martin, Nancy, Margaret

Notes taken at the January 15th 2004 Bristol Amnesty International (AI) meeting. There were two guest speakers on the topic of “Israel, Palestine and Amnesty’s new mandate“: Martin Knight, AIUK Co-ordinator for Israel, the Occupied Territories and the Palestine Authority, and Nancy Rollason of Bristol Palestine Soldidarity Movement,

Note: this article was written a week afterwards based on my semi-legible handwritten notes. It likely containing errors and omissions (some but not all flagged with ‘@’ signs). This version (updated 18 March 2004) includes some edits and clarifications from Martin. The text that follows reports as closely as possible what I heard from Martin and Nancy. Also note that I’ve avoided prefixing each sentence with qualifiers such as “Martin reported that…”, since the article itself sets that context. Where my notes seem to capture a reasonably verbatim account of what was said, I’ve put the text in quotes; please bear in mind that I probably didn’t get it word-perfect. I’ve added a few links to supplementary materials that I found online. Except for the AI and ISM sites, these links weren’t provided by the speakers.

Martin Knight is Amnesty International UK‘s coordinator for Israel, the Occupied Territories and the Palestinian Authority. Martin began by describing the nature of the role. Amnesty International Coordinators are drawn from Amnesty’s membership rather than being full time paid staff. As a “coordinator” within Amnesty, one can rarely tell or even ask people to do things, only offer guidance and perspective based on experience.

Amnesty’s original mandate of 40 years has been replaced with a new vision and mission.

AI’s vision is of a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.

In pursuit of this vision, AI’s mission is to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination, within the context of its work to promote all human rights.

The old distinctions drawn in the mandate are now packaged into a single mission. How does this relate to AI in Israel and Palestine? An Amnesty campaign starting in September 2004 addressed violation of economic and social rights. The older Amnesty mandate made it easier to reject certain issues as “out of scope”. It is now easier for AI to address campaigns to tackle root causes, as well as their effects.

Martin outlined the situation in terms of numbers of deaths – more than 2800 (including 380 children) killed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and more than 800 (including 100 children) by Palestinian armed groups. Almost all were civilians. A particular concern was the impact on civilians: the IDF have killed around 100 Palestinian militants with heavy weaponry in populated areas without apparent concern for “collateral damage”. Palestinian armed groups have targeted civilians. All killings by Palestinians, and most by the IDF (especially targeted assassinations) were illegal. Martin noted Amnesty’s concern here: while there is a limited right to force by police and army, such activities are hedged by numerous international standards. According to Amnesty, the IDF routinely flouts both international standards and its own codes of conduct; most of their killings are illegal.

For example, when a death occurs in policy custody, it must be investigated. In practice, Amnesty finds that investigations of such deaths are rare and often cursory (though somewhat better if the death is of a foreigner). Recently, Tom Hurndall (a British peace activist) was shot by an Israeli soldier; the army investigation was revisited only after months of lobbying by his family.

The IDF have demolished 3000+ houses, damaged many more, including agricultural land and infrastructure. In April 2002 there was an incursion into Ramallah, during which the ministries of Education and Health were targeted. This destroyed major Palestinian computer systems, including academic records and payment systems.

Amnesty is concerned in particular about the Israeli settlements and the new separation wall that is being built, and the associated destruction of agricultural land. The wall is inside the 1948 line, often looping around Palestinian cities and towns so that they only have a single exit, cutting people off from their places of work, hospitals and other resources.

Israel’s response to suicide bombings has been an increased clampdown on Palestinian movements, as well as an expansion of settlement activities. This has resulted in a collapse of the Palestinian economy. Martin gave some statistics, including high levels of unemployment: roughly 50% are unemployed, with the situation often being worse than this in cities. About 2/3 are in poverty, with signs of malnutrition commonplace. There is massive poverty, with (as Nancy Rollason stressed in her later talk) associated affects on mental health.

Freedom of movement is essential to a healthy economy. The long waits and checkpoints, and increased Israeli settlements have made travel both harder and more dangerous for the Palestinians. Confiscation of vehicles and ID cards is commonplace. Martin gave several examples of arbitrary, undiplomatic actions from the IDF in this way.

The wall, aka the “Separation Fence”, is always on the Palestinian side of the the line. It is 5 metres high, with subsidiary fences and patrol roads. It cuts villages off from their land. There are cases of communities cut off from their water. Palestinians living between the wall and the green line can only remain in their homes on a system of temporary permits.

So what are Amnesty International doing?

There is a 79 page report, Surviving under Siege, that deals with social and economics rights. This is new ground for AI.

During publication of this report, there was a high-up decision within Amesty International to call for the the closure and evacuation of the Israel settlements. AI stresses that these settlements are illegal under the 4th Geneva Convention, but also that they are the root cause of numerous violations of the economic right and social rights of the palestinians.

(questions to the speaker were taken later, after Nancy Rollason’s talk).

Nancy Rollasson spoke about her experiences in the Occupied Territories, and about the work of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led movement of activists “working to raise awareness of the struggle for Palestinian freedom and an end to Israeli occupation” (see Web site for more detail). Nancy describes the ISM’s use of non-violent direct action, and the risks associated with this, drawing attention to the recent deaths of Tom Hurndall and of Rachel Corrie. Nancy stressed that non-violent resistance efforts benefited significantly from an international presence, in large part because it draws wider attention to the behaviour of the IDF. In the absence of international observers, the IDF seem less hesitant to use force.

Nancy reported on her two visits to the region. The first was in July of 2002; the second for 3 weeks in April of 2003. Her visit began in Jerusalem, where she was asked by the ISM to go to Jenin, a large town to the North, in the aftermath of a massacre there. Israeli forces had entered Jenin in search of armed militants. They sealed off large areas of the camp; 60+ were killed during the incursion.
(see also: Aug 2002 Guardian article about UN report disputing classification as ‘massacre’).

Nancy: “When I arrived, people were still in shock. Roadblocks, curfews, … grim day-to-day life. Curfews were arbitrarily timed, imposed, lifted. For example, people had to spent 10 consecutive days trapped in their houses (including kids). No shops. No health facilities except if desperate, you could try to get out via ambulance. Refugee camps in the West Bank aren’t tents, but solid buildings – warrens. This large town was closed. It was even worse in Nablus.”

Nancy: ISM volunteers worked to help get food and medication to those in need. They also monitored tank activity (tanks were used to police the curfews). When the curfews were lifted, people rushed out (to get to shops etc.), but the tanks sometimes returned at random. This was dangerous, especially for kids. ISM pressed for greater dispersal of tanks.

Nancy: “I was shot at with live ammo (over my head). Tear gas, etc. The job we had… was to stand in front of tanks… and to spot where the snipers were… and accompany women and children home. Children were very vulnerable. They grew up with tanks and had no fear of them; children chased after tanks. So volunteers tried to occupy the children by playing games in alleys.”

Nancy outlined other activities of the ISM: “We also accompanied ambulances, for example through checkpoints. These ambulances were often stopped, delayed etc. On several occasions people died while ambulances were stopped at checkpoints. The was recently a death of twins during childbirth during a checkpoint stop.”

Nancy: “Solidiers were better behaved if international observers were there. Arab drivers [of ambulances] for the International Red Crescent welcomed us. Seeing 10 machine guns facing an ambulance is scary. For example, once we took a woman in acute appendicitus. We had to climb over and back past a mound of earth due to a blockaded road. We then met a tank [controlled by] scared, young, trigger-happy boys. These boys insisted on searching the ambulance. The woman was terrified. They also lifted her dress; this was particularly violating as she was strictly Muslim. Their excuse for this was that they were checking for suicide bombers.”

Nancy’s 2nd visit was in 2003. “There were not so many curfews, but definitely (?) checkpoints. These are utterly disruptive. You can’t plan. There’s a constant risk of shooting. For example a journey I took from Jerusalem to Jenin. It should have been a 90 minute trip, but took us all day due to checkpoints. They required us to unpack all our belongings. Then they sent us back… So we took another taxi via the mountains, off-road… we were met by a jeep, firing, and had our tires slashed. We expected them to shoot us. The taxi driver said that keys are often confiscated, and that driver’s legs have been shot. It is so difficult to have an ordinary life.”

“I met a woman… a teacher… her husband a security officer at a bank. They lived in a camp… The army came to the camp last April; destroyed their house. She feared for her mother in a different house. She eventually had a nervous breakdown: her mother was shot, but the army refused to allow ambulances, and so she bled to death in her own home. Mahah [@@check spelling] never recovered from that experience. She can’t work… tries to spend much of her time with her mother’s friends,”

“This was last May. This was the importance of ISM, to get first hand accounts of the situation. At the moment, in Tukaram and Nablus, there are very difficult circumstances.”

Nancy read a first hand account that came via ISM last week (early Jan 2004), of people being rounded up by soldiers, handcuffed, blindfolded. Also, recently in Nablus, ISM reports a 10 day curfew, and signs of starvation. [other detail not captured; see ISM site].

ISM’s activities are under threat. Nancy highlighted recent changes, with the Israeli government now insisting on permit to visit the West Bank. She outlines some practical ways to support the Palestinians, including boycotts, [...]… supplying equipment (eg. video cameras) for ISM.

These two talks were followed by a Question and Answer session.

(which I might write up later…)

See also:
News from an occupied land
, by Emily Thwaite in This is the South Cotsworlds, 7 March 2003.