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"It Hit Me Straight In the Heart"
by Sophia Delaney
Tuesday Jun 11th, 2002 6:38 PM
An Anarchist Explains Why He Was Willing To (Almost) Die For the Palestinian National Liberation Struggle
Trevor Baumgartner points to a small piece of construction equipment, a dirt-mover with a mechanized scooping arm. It’s next to a broken sidewalk on a sunny Oakland, California street. "In Jenin," he says, referring to the refugee camp in Palestine he visited only a month before, "they have two of these things. Two."

Jenin camp, home to about 13,000 Palestinians, drew the world’s attention in April, when it and several other West Bank cities were invaded by the Israeli army. The Israeli Defense Forces bulldozed and blew up dozens of homes, motivated by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Netanya, Israel in March. At least 100 square meters of Jenin was turned from tightly packed living space to a lunar landscape built of rubble. A United Nations envoy called the wreckage "horrific beyond belief," while an IDF soldier who had bulldozed homes later callously said, "We left them a football field... it was our present to Jenin. They should play on it."

And they have two—just two-- of these tiny dirt-moving things, which are between a large lawnmower and a small tractor in size, to clean up the wreckage of entire city blocks full of rubble?

"Yeah," he says. "Two. It’s sickening." From his tone and expression, he might mean sickening literally.
But if his empathy for the horrors of the recent invasion of Palestine (dubbed "Operation Defensive Wall" by the IDF) looks extreme, it also seems understandable: he’s had a closer view of the destruction than most Americans. Trevor is a part of International Solidarity Movement, an activist group that brings foreigners to the West Bank and Gaza to act as a protective force for Palestinians against the Israeli army. By riding in ambulances to ensure medical teams aren’t detained or shot at by troops, delivering humanitarian relief in the form of food and medicine, and garnering media attention, the group says it helps maintain human rights standards in the region and draw attention to the suffering of a war-torn population.

Trevor’s just come back from his second trip with the group.

"This most recent time, it was because I had friends there," he says, explaining his motivations for travelling to Palestine in mid-April, when Operation Defensive Wall was already in full swing. "I got a call from my friend Hurriya, who is twelve years old. She lives in Ramallah, and she was scared, crying sometimes, talking about how soldiers has just completed house to house searches [seeking militant Palestinian men] and they had blindfolded and kidnapped her brother—eighteen years old—and her father. I had to make a very difficult decision, whether putting myself into work here…was the best way to go, or get myself over there and use the privilege I have to defy curfew and not get killed. I agonized over it, literally.... And I felt that it was important to take the opportunity to try and mitigate some of the violence."

He had already witnessed violence in the West Bank when he traveled there as part of ISM’s December 2001 delegation. His web-site, which is features writings on his experiences, includes the story of seeing an adolescent boy shot in the face by Israelis during a firefight in the town of Qalandia. "[The boy] staggered off, his hand over his bleeding face, falling into a cinder-block wall before a group of his friends scuttled him into a nearby van…. I just wanted to leave. To pretend I didn’t just see all that. To pretend that this place called Palestine didn’t exist. To pretend that war and bullets didn’t live here. To pretend I didn’t care.

"I just wanted to leave.

"But it hit me straight in my heart."

Despite his desire to not witness any more of the conflict, Trevor followed his heart back to Palestine, arriving on April 17, 2002.

To be sure, the protection activists have provided has been necessary lately. In the course of the recent invasion, the IDF put whole cities under 24- hour-a-day curfews, enforcing the quarantine with a shoot-to-kill order for anyone found in the street; stopped ambulances at military checkpoints and occasionally killed the drivers and medics; bulldozed dozens of buildings, some with people inside; detained over 1000 Palestinian men; and occupied the Palestinian Authority’s Ramallah offices, allowing soldiers to every room as a toilet.

The death toll officially stood at fifty-three people killed in Jenin camp after the month-long incursion, but some have claimed that the fatalities were far higher—particularly when counting those who were buried beneath destroyed buildings. The claims quickly became nearly impossible to corroborate: the Israeli government first approved, then barred a UN investigation team from entering the West Bank in the aftermath of the invasion, delaying the mission for over a week before causing it to disband completely.

But while arguments about sending official international observers to Jenin raged, their grassroots counterparts were hard at work in Bethlehem.

During a round of gunfire in Bethlehem’s Manger Square on April 2, about 200 Palestinians took refuge in the Church of the Nativity, which is built over the spot where Christians say Jesus Christ was born. The group was mostly civilians and policemen, but included a few gunmen from the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Fatah faction as well as a few Christian clergymen. The Palestinians, according to Trevor, "went in there thinking it would be over in a day or two."

It wasn’t. Instead, the group found themselves embroiled in an international controversy when Israeli Defense Forces surrounded the church, claiming that wanted militants were inside using Palestinian civilians as hostages. IDF Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz claimed that "all of [the Palestinians] are armed with at least Kalashnikovs... some of them with explosive belts..." live on CNN, while the Palestinians insisted that that wasn’t true, and the siege had been a matter of circumstance, not strategy, on their part. The standoff lasted for thirty-eight days, grabbing headlines and provoking an international debate on the rights—and crimes—of both the people trapped inside and the Israelis outside. While everyone from internet trolls to the Vatican weighed in with an opinion on the fate of the besieged basilica, Israeli troops erected barbed wire and stationed tanks around the church and shot at least three men inside.

By April 21, Father Ibrahim Faltas, the warden of the church, said that food supplies inside had run out. Groups of international activists who had contact with people in the church began planning to circumvent the building’s IDF blockade to deliver food to those under siege.

"There was a request put out to bring food and basically an international protective presence... People had tried to get in four or five times and just weren’t able to," Trevor said about ISM’s decision to get involved in the crisis. He continues, "People [inside] were starving, quite literally.... People were risking their lives to get to the courtyard inside and pick leaves off the lemon tree to boil so they could have some kind of nutritional value added to water. This is how savage it was.

"The larger issues behind this are basically principles of human rights, of which food is one, water is another, shelter is another.

"These are acts of war. This is autonomous territory that’s under invasion. In times of war and invasion, it is the occupying army’s responsibility to assure civilian people that they have access to food and water.... Nobody was standing up to demand that the human rights of Palestinian civilians were being respected in this time of war. So we felt like… as our governments refuse to act, we felt like we will. And we did."

On May 2, ISM delegates successfully staged another attempt at getting into the church: while one group created a diversion, another ten managed to slip past the doors carrying food and medicine.

IDF soldiers immediately arrested a contingent of thirteen that hadn’t entered the church, including Trevor. They were interrogated ("They asked us to call our friends and tell them to come out") and taken to Masiyahu Prison in Ramle, Israel.

Trevor refused to eat as soon as he arrived. "I didn’t and don’t recognize the legitimacy of my incarceration. So I wasn’t going to take handouts from my jailers…. I was the only one from the beginning who refused to eat."

Eight activists were deported within a few days, while the other five Americans—Trevor plus Nathan Mauger, Thomas Koutsoukos, Nathan Musselman, and Huwaida Arraf--remained in custody, although they were never officially arrested.

"We were never charged with a crime. Therefore we had no legal recourse. We were being deported for violating Israeli law for entering a closed military zone. And officially, they said we were being deported for collaborating with the enemy, which is something to be proud of in this case."

Denied a legal avenue for release and ignored by their embassy, Trevor’s companions joined his hunger strike.

The group demanded the right to leave Israel voluntarily (as opposed to deportation), and a letter from the Ministry of the Interior stating in English that they had not been banned from the country.

Huwaida Arraf, the group’s only female, was granted the letter and left for New York on May 7, five days into the hunger strike.

Soon after arriving, though, she learned that the assurances she had received from Israeli authorities that her companions would be given the same letter had been false. All four were still in detention, with the Israeli government now saying that they would be deported without the letter or would stay in prison. Trevor, now on the sixth day of his strike, was so weak he could not move from his bed, and had began refusing water, too.

Although a good-faith agreement that should have allowed for their release had been made between the Ministry of the Interior and the prisoners’ lawyer, they stayed put.
On May 11, after more than a week of not eating, Trevor collapsed. After being given sugar-water and threatened with force feeding, he began to sip water, as did his comrades.

After the hunger strike was made public on Jerusalem Indymedia, reactions were sometimes less than supportive. One reader commented, "If you starve yourself, that's your choice. Have fun!" But Trevor believes that the value of strike wasn’t necessarily in gaining condolences. "It wasn’t about me, and I didn’t ask anyone for their sympathy," he says, preferring to think in terms of bringing peace to the Occupied Territories. "Basic human rights, that’s what this was about."

"We could have done a better job making our position clear, which is that we were there in support of Palestinian’s human rights, which... are contingent upon Israeli human tights. This is not just about Palestinians, this is not just about Israelis, it’s about human living—and that’s the place that I moved from, personally."

He also says that the hunger strike was a matter of strategy.
"...We know that Israel has been very blunt about their plans to deport activists and humanitarian workers who are coming to support Palestinians. ...We felt like, if they’re going to detain us from Palestinian land and then deport us from Israel, this was a very dangerous prospect. Especially since Palestinians who we spoke with... felt like they need international observation. They’ve been calling for international observers, peace observers, for years and years, and it’s been steadily opposed by governments around the world.... [Getting rid of internationals] makes it easier for something like what they call "population transfer" to happen, which is to say, ethnic cleansing."

At least a few activists got the message: a rally in Seattle in mid-May drew a few hundred people, who chanted "Free Palestine, Free Trevor!" And some people took heed of the notice to call the American embassy in Tel Aviv: "Our embassy people were being hounded twelve, sixteen hours a day…. This is not in their interest. So we tried to put pressure on them to get Israel not to [deport activists]."

After fifteen days in jail, the pressure worked, at least for Trevor. He was released and put on a plane to Seattle, where he arrived on May 18 to a cheering throng of friends and supporters.

His friends remained in jail, where the activists who had originally entered the besieged Church of the Nativity had recently joined them. The group was divided and some were sent to Netzion Prison, where guards told their Israeli cellmates that the activists were "terrorists." The insult could have gotten them killed by angry inmates, but all eventually emerged unscathed.

Trevor says he doesn’t regret the experience.

"There are some things that I feel are very important. One of them is speaking from a place of personal experience. I can rattle off UN Resolutions to somebody for days, I can talk about...any of these very abstract principles that no one really cares about anyway. And that’s only so effective.

"Being able to speak from a place of personal experience, you have a different credibility, you have a have a human connection there. You can say, ‘Look, I’ve seen some of this. I don’t ask you to agree with my politics, I just ask you to recognize the truth behind what I’m telling you, that’s all.’ That’s irrefutable."

It might seem odd that Trevor, who identifies himself as an anarchist, feels so strongly about a national liberation movement. "Yeah, there are inherent contradictions," he admits, "Our job, I believe, is not to only act when something is perfect, when we have a clear and perfect outcome. I feel like, on a much larger scale, we’re talking about millions of people’s lives here. Millions. Refugees, people who are living in intense forced isolation. Whether or not they choose a capitalist system is not material to me at this point. Whether they have the right to choose is material.... I feel like if we anarchists or anti-capitalists choose only to support movements which are going to take into consideration all of our analyses, then we are going to make ourselves irrelevant.... If we are talking about supporting human struggles... for the right to live with some semblance of dignity, then we can further talk about the building of a community which will support us when we need it."

So, would he do it all again?

"If I was allowed to," he says, laughing. "Without a doubt, without a doubt…."

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