If Israeli TV cameras had bothered to follow the Israeli peace activists from the coexistence group Ta'ayush last Saturday when they went to Ramallah, they could have provided Israelis an answer to the question of what the IDF would do if thousands of unarmed Palestinians marched on the army's positions.
Some 300 men and women from the Israeli group, which calls itself a Jewish-Arab partnership, met last Saturday in Ramallah with Yasser Arafat and central activists from Fatah, feminists, and representatives from Palestinian non-governmental organizations. After a meeting in Arafat's office, they went outside to demonstrate opposite the tanks poised on a hill outside the Palestinian government complex. They marched toward the tanks. They were not armed. Not with guns, stones, or even posters.
All they had was a single hand-held loudspeaker, and people aged from 17 to 75, 300 in all. They were exposed, open, and walked toward the soldiers, also Israelis, who hid inside four tanks and a single jeep. It would have been very difficult to think the soldiers weren't there, because they did what every IDF force in the territories does: They started their engines with a deafening noise, moved the cannon barrels up and down and left to right, as if aiming it at the demonstrators, issued white and black smoke from the engines, and rolled back and forth on the tank treads, those steel teeth that have chewed up the asphalt and sidewalks that European countries spent a lot of money improving.
It's doubtful the voice coming from the loudspeaker reached the soldiers. But they must have known that every person marching toward them was an Israeli. The IDF takes a great deal of pride in its sophisticated technology, which enables daylight or nighttime identification of sources of fire. That day in Ramallah, a pair of opera glasses would have sufficed for the soldiers in the tanks to know who was marching outside. Who knows, maybe they recognized a neighbor, or their older sister's philosophy teacher.
In fact, maybe the Hebrew voice reached the soldiers. The speaker, a Ph.D. in history, was emotional as he shouted "We invite the soldiers to come home." The rest of the marchers began chanting "Soldiers come home," and with perfect orchestration, the soldiers responded immediately with two stun grenades. Don't be afraid, said an Israeli woman with some experience in these kinds of events. That's nothing but noise. It's just meant to frighten us.
That's not exactly true. When a stun grenade falls inside a crowd, and not away from it, the way they are supposed to, it can burn, harm eyes, wound, even break a bone. Dozens of Palestinians who stood unarmed over the past year opposite soldiers have been wounded that way. During the last 16 months, the Palestinians tried dozens, if not hundreds, of times to hold non-violent demonstrations against IDF forces.
It's impossible to march on the settlements. Banks of tanks and machine guns, fortifications, reinforced outposts and roads for Jews only block direct access to the settlements. The IDF Spokesman's Office has spun a myth that every clash that ended with Palestinian casualties was a conflict between two armed sides.
IDF and Border Patrol troops have made clear innumerable times that any gathering of people opposite its forces is considered a dangerous "disturbance of the peace" that requires a response. Sometimes clubbing and violent dragging, then come the stun grenades, maybe tear gas, and very quickly firing live ammunition into the air and then shooting rubber-coated steel pellets into the crowd. The steel pellets are covered with a thin layer of rubber, sometimes it's live ammunition.
Sometimes the shooting starts before any of the demonstrators have managed to throw a stone. Often, the shooting is in response to stone-throwing by teenagers who hide behind improvised barricades. Sometimes they are shot in the head, sometimes the pellets strike protesters standing in albeit dangerous places, but dozens of meters away from the stone-throwers. To someone who has been at these non-violent demonstrations in recent months, it appears the IDF has long since gone past what was thought to be its limits. The Israelis that day in Ramallah decided not to test the limits, and dispersed on their own, going to their next meeting with the Palestinians.
For Palestinian activists to organize dozens of non-violent demonstrations that would march simultaneously toward IDF forces, they would need some guarantee that the soldiers wouldn't cross the red lines into mass murder. Only Israeli society can provide that guarantee. Israeli society must widen the circle of those asking about the nature of the IDF's activities in the territories captured in 1967. It must ask what its frightened and frightening children are doing at the checkpoints, before those children become casualties of the "Let me die with the Philistines" war. Israeli society must ask more and more questions about the IDF's rules of engagement and the money the government spends on developing the settlements and on the welfare of their residents, while its disabled citizens are left to live as beggars.
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