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|Women:From Bristol to Bethlehem|
|05/20/02 at 15:42:42|
|Women:From Bristol to Bethlehem |
Three British women were deported from Israel last week after marching across Manger Square to take food to the people trapped inside the Church of the Nativity. Nic Fleming meets them
Thursday May 16, 2002
Two weeks ago today, 16 men and seven women pulled off one of the most audacious nonviolent direct-action stunts of recent times. Under the noses of dozens of armed Israeli soldiers, they broke through to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to leave behind a 10-strong human shield and food for almost 200 civilians, monks and Palestinian militants trapped inside.
Twelve days later, with several of their comrades still in Israeli custody, three of the siege breakers are squashed together on a floral-patterned sofa in a messy Bristol lounge. At first glance, Marcia Tubbs, Jo Wilding and Katie Thomas do not look like the type of people who would confront head-on some of the best-equipped troops in the world. They have two-and-a-half university degrees between them; one plays the cello, another is a trapeze artist and the third admits to being a chocoholic. Laughing and joking about their exploits, they sip herbal tea and explain how three young British women found themselves risking their lives 2,000 miles from home.
The dangers of what they were about to do only really hit home when, just 24 hours after landing in Tel Aviv, the trio were given a final action briefing in a car park 10 minutes' walk from the Church of the Nativity. The instructions came from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the group behind the operation. "Here's the church and here's the square," said the coordinator, pointing at a sketched map. "There are tanks here and here, and snipers here, here and here," she added, pointing to crosses on the diagram.
It is estimated that around 1,000 activists from around the world have travelled to the Middle East since the Israeli army began its recent incursions into Palestinian towns and refugee camps. While Israel insisted that it had a right to defend itself from terrorism, many direct-action groups disagreed. Urgent appeals for volunteers were issued by campaigners via the internet.
"I had heard how Palestinian ambulances and fire engines, which normally got turned back or even shot at, were often able to get through if they had foreigners with them," says Wilding. "I thought to myself, 'Do you want to be someone who actually tried to make a difference, or someone who sat at home watching it on TV?' "
Thomas, a 22-year-old bus driver, adds: "A friend from Manchester was shot in the stomach by Israeli soldiers at a peace demonstration near Bethlehem. That really upset me. I was really scared, but then I thought if I could use my skin colour and country of origin to do something good, then I should."
The three women and another friend from Bristol, Alister Hillman, arrived in Tel Aviv on May 1. By 8am the following day, they were at a meeting being advised to put toilet paper in their ears as protection against stun grenades. They were also warned not to pick up the grenades.
Wilding, who is 27 and a part-time law student, says: "The aim was to get food and people into the church. There were concerns that the Israelis were planning to end the siege by storming the church. Someone asked at the meeting about the chances of being shot. They said they usually fire at your feet or above your head or in front of you, so as long as you don't run or lie on the ground you're usually OK."
Tubbs, 30, adds: "I thought they were unlikely to shoot at me, but I was afraid of being hit by shrapnel or of walking into a bullet by accident. We discussed our fears, but in deciding to go out there I had already made my decision."
That afternoon they travelled by minibus and then taxis down side streets to avoid Israeli troops. Ducking whenever they saw a tank, they passed through rubbish- and rubble-strewn streets carpeted with broken glass and littered with flattened and burning vehicles. Bags of rice, lentils and fruit were divided out, and the 23 activists split into four groups moving on foot.
Fifty yards from their objective, on the edge of Manger Square, they paused briefly. Tubbs was worried about how she might react if shots were fired. "All the way up I was thinking how embarrassing it would be if I died of a heart attack from the shock," she says. Wilding was humming a Beach Boys song. Thomas gave a final hug to Wilding, whose heart was pounding furiously. Thomas says that just talking about it gives her butterflies.
Eyeing nearby roofs to check for snipers and trying to ignore the nearby tanks, they stepped into the square with their arms raised. Tubbs, a support worker for the mentally ill, says: "We walked as purposefully and solidly as possible. I waited for gunfire, but none came." Thomas adds: "By then I had stopped thinking and was just walking and hoping. Seeing some people getting to the door was really cool. I thought, 'Yeah, we're making it, we're doing it.' "
The Gate of Humility, the main entrance to the church, opened. Someone shouted, "Shield, shield!" and they formed into a protective huddle in the doorway. Ten of the group, including Hillman, entered quickly and the food was passed in before the door was slammed shut.
Turning around, the remaining 13 were confronted by a line of 20 Israeli troops. They were quickly bundled into custody and had their hands bound with plastic handcuffs. "They didn't know what to do with us," says Wilding. "We were not that scared because we were on such a high."
After around eight hours the Israelis put them into a truck and drove them to a checkpoint, where the men were picked out of the group and taken away. Tubbs, Wilding, Thomas and two other women had their feet tied up and were loaded into a smaller van and driven to various locations around Bethlehem. They were released individually at around 2am, with instructions to report to the Ministry of the Interior seven hours later.
On arrival at the ministry they were detained again, and for almost five days they were held in prison cells without legal representation, although they were allowed to make phone calls home. Tubbs's mother told her off for "supporting terrorists". Thomas's plans not to tell her parents the full story were thwarted when her mum read about her exploits in a newspaper.
Wilding went on hunger strike in an attempt to prevent their deportation. She says: "I refused food in protest at the idea of Israel deporting us, and also in solidarity with the Palestinians being starved both inside the church and outside. I refused to have my photo taken. They pulled my hair, slapped my face, stamped on my feet and kicked me as I was on the floor of a cell."
They were told they were being deported, banned from returning for 10 years and placed on a flight to London last Tuesday.
The women arrived home with mixed feelings. In particular, they say they are disappointed at being unable to take part in future protests. Already, activists across the world are preparing for two months of actions across the West Bank and Gaza organised by ISM and scheduled to start next month.
Yesterday, three of the remaining Church of the Nativity activists were due to be deported, while four Americans were still being held in a detention centre in Ramallah. "I was sad to be leaving so soon," says Tubbs. "I was glad to be home but I really wanted to do so much more out there. But it was incredible to be part of what we did."
Wilding adds: "I've never felt so proud of anything I've done. What we did was something international political bodies should have been doing. But if they can't or won't do it, then it's up to ordinary people like us. Anyone can do what we did."
|Re: Women:From Bristol to Bethlehem|
|05/20/02 at 19:04:56|
At one time the muslims were defending the non muslims, now it seems the non muslims are defending the muslims.
Think about this one, if all the muslims of the world who went to hajj also visited Al-Quds we wouldn't be in this mess. 2 million muslims advancing on Al-Quds man what a sight that would be. Yet, we can visit Madinah and Makkah yet Masjid-Al Aqsa cries due to the nelgect by the muslims.
No one is to blame, but ourselves.
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