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As Residents of Arab Village Hide, Global ‘human Shields’ Move Right in

August 7, 2001
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The rattle of gunfire floats on the warm summer night air over the ravine separating the West Bank village of Beit Jalla from its Jewish neighbor, the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.

Anisse Hadoli lives with her husband and two of their five children in the heart of Beit Jalla, right in the front, facing Gilo.

When the almost-nightly counterpoint of Palestinian gunfire and Israeli retaliatory shelling begins, the Hadolis seek shelter on the ground floor of their old house.

They pray that the Palestinian snipers will keep their distance. They hope the Israeli soldiers won’t target their house.

“We don’t even know whom to complain to,” Anisse told JTA over the weekend. “We don’t know whom to blame.”

On both sides of the ravine, sleepless nights have become the norm. The shrieking noise of the bullets and the thunder of shells have magnified the horror of simple people who don’t care much for the intricacies of the conflict. All they know is the horror of this war of attrition — and the feeling of helplessness that no one really cares.

In recent weeks, however, the Hadolis have company from abroad. It’s not the international intervention the Palestinians want to force on the Israelis — at least not yet.

The guests are young people from around the world who have come to live in this powder keg on behalf of the International Solidarity Movement, an umbrella organization of groups vowing to perform “nonviolent” resistance to “Israeli occupation.”

The volunteers — 15 of them spent the weekend in Beit Jalla — have moved in with Palestinian families to act as “human shields” against Israel Defense Force shelling.

They believe that their presence — and the international uproar that might ensue if Westerners were injured — will make the IDF less “trigger-happy,” as they see it.

Two volunteers have spent the last few days with the Hadolis. Among them is an Israeli — Netta Golan, 30, from Tel Aviv.

Until the Palestinian uprising began last September, Golan was a full-time physiotherapist. Now she describes herself as a “full-time peace activist.”

“I came to Beit Jalla and I saw a Palestinian doing ‘protest shooting’ at a military outpost,” Golan said. “In retaliation, Beit Jalla was heavily shelled. There was no proportion between the shooting and the shelling. As a result of the shelling, a 5-year-old boy got his arm blown off. I decided to stay there, with the people.”

“Frankly,” Hadoli said of the human shields, “I don’t understand them myself, why they endanger themselves. They don’t want to see anyone suffering.”

Some might suggest that the “human shields” give cover to Palestinian snipers, who may feel they enjoy a kind of immunity from their attacks on Gilo.

Golan rejects the idea.

“We are here only to provide cover for civilians hit by Israeli fire,” she said.

Would she stop a Palestinian sniper if she saw one? Golan is asked. She doesn’t answer directly.

“We don’t justify the shooting of anyone, and that includes the Israeli civilians in Gilo,” she said.

A few minutes later, she clarifies her perspective.

“The settlement of Gilo” — a neighborhood built on land Israel won in the 1967 Six-Day War, and now an integral part of Jerusalem — “is part of the occupation. People under occupation have the right to put an end to occupation, even by armed struggle.”

She feels sorry for Gilo residents, Golan said, claiming that “they are abused by the government.”

Many Israelis, who say there would be no shelling of Beit Jalla if the Palestinians didn’t fire first on Gilo, reject Golan’s logic.

“The Palestinians are the ones who abuse those volunteers,” said Ra’anan Gissin, media adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “Why don’t those human shields go to Gilo,” whose residents “pass from one night to another in fear of shooting from the other side?”

Most of the volunteers are American. Later this week, reinforcements are expected from France. They will be followed by groups from the United Kingdom, Italy, and more Americans.

Although no one says so explicitly, it is believed that the volunteers are attracted to Beit Jalla and the adjacent city of Bethlehem because of their Christian nature.

Damage to historic Christian sites in Beit Jalla or Bethlehem likely would be magnified tenfold in the international media compared with similar damage elsewhere.

That, Israeli analysts suggest, is precisely what Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat wants, hoping to provoke a tragedy that will trigger international intervention in the conflict.

According to that analysis, it is no accident that of all the places from which Palestinian gunmen might have targeted Israeli neighborhoods, they chose Beit Jalla.

In fact, a Beit Jalla nun was wounded over the weekend by Israeli fire, an indication that Arafat’s alleged plan may not be too far from reality.

Ironically, if the Israeli analysis is correct, the supposed concern for Beit Jalla’s Christians masks a deep cynicism.

The years since the Palestinian Authority took over Bethlehem and environs have seen a wholesale exodus of Christians. A Bethlehem merchant who asked to remain anonymous told JTA that the Christian community feels trapped between the Israelis, who treat them like all other Palestinians, and the Muslim majority, which distrusts them.

Only 170,000 Christians live in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, about 2 percent of the population. According to the Bethlehem merchant, those who can leave, do.

“We are considering leaving as well, but we really don’t want to,” he said. “This is our home, where shall we go?”

Many have gone to Peru, which has a large Christian Palestinian population.

Father Raed Abu-Suheila of the Catholic Church in Jerusalem said that although violence encourages Jewish and Muslim emigration as well, the Christians are hardest hit because of the small size of their community.

Golan rejects allegations that the Palestinians deliberately heated up the Beit Jalla-Bethlehem region, noting that “they are also shooting from Ramallah at the settlement of Psagot,” in the West Bank north of Jerusalem.

Last week, Golan and her friends at the Solidarity Movement convened a press conference in which they demanded that the international community intervene against “Israeli aggression.”

This week the group will initiate a two-day campaign to show the delegations from abroad how Palestinians are suffering.

“The ultimate goal is to get the international committee to send observers to change the situation,” she said.

Although Israel rejects Arafat’s initiative for an international team of observers — feeling they could not monitor Palestinian terror as well as they could the IDF response — Golan and her friends intend to keep the pressure on.

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