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ISM activist Brian Avery on the Israeli occupation:
"You live in fear for your life every day"

February 27, 2004 | Pages 6 and 7

ISRAELI PRIME Minister Ariel Sharon made headlines by pledging to withdraw Israeli forces from Gaza. But Sharon's announcement is far from a genuine promise to meet the demands of those calling for an end to Israel's occupation.

First, Sharon's government simultaneously approved an additional $21 million for settlement building–with some of the money earmarked for the so-called "unauthorized outposts" that Sharon had vowed to dismantle. Second, Sharon seems to be testing the waters, domestically and internationally, to see if measures to impose a unilateral settlement without negotiations with Palestinians will receive support, in particular from the U.S.

A pullout from Gaza would be "a step in the right direction," claims Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. This vote of confidence from the U.S. may have contributed to Israel's decision to boycott the hearing at the International Court of Justice in the Hague on the construction of its apartheid wall, which is carving up the occupied territory of the West Bank.

Israel's pretext for building this wall is security, but the real reason is to deepen the occupation. "What this wall is really doing is taking Palestinian lands," Noam Chomsky wrote in the New York Times. "It is also–as the Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling has described Israel's war of 'politicide' against the Palestinians–helping turn Palestinian communities into dungeons, next to which the bantustans of South Africa look like symbols of freedom, sovereignty and self-determination."

In an attempt to frustrate Israel's unrestrained use of force against Palestinians, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) has brought activists from around the world to document and witness Israel's war in the Occupied Territories. On April 5, 2003, BRIAN AVERY, an ISM volunteer from Albuquerque, N.M., was shot in the face by an Israeli sniper, disfiguring him for life. Brian talked to Socialist Worker's NATE GOLDBAUM about the reality of Israel's occupation.

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CAN YOU start by telling how you were shot?

THERE HAD been an Israeli-imposed curfew in Jenin for two days. I had spent most of my time prior to that in Nablus, the major city in the West Bank. I had been in Jenin for about a week, mostly working with the medical crews around there, riding with the ambulances.

An Israeli imposed curfew is a 24-hour-a-day lockdown. No one can go outside of their house out on the streets. They are prone to do this for weeks or months at a time. The ISM is out on the streets during the curfews. Typically, we are the only ones out–save for maybe some of the local kids. We go out to make sure that if any civilians are out on the streets, they are not being gunned down by the military–and if they are, that proper medical assistance is available.

It was during the late afternoon, and I was at the ISM office with a few other folks. We heard a big barrage of gunfire coming very close to where we were, within a block or two, and we decided to go out and investigate. A couple of other colleagues were already out in the center part of town. We decided to meet up with them to go out and investigate.

About two blocks from the apartment, we heard a couple of Israeli vehicles rolling up. An armored personnel vehicle, which is basically an old, rehabbed tank–they just take the turret off and make it into a personnel carrier–and a tank behind that rolled down the middle of the street. They stopped.

I had a red vest with a big, bright reflective strip on it. We held up our hands and just stood there. It is not an unusual phenomenon for them to drive up, and we'll be standing there. This time, though, they drove up and just started opening fire right at us.

I was hit in the face. The guy next to me, a Swedish activist named Tobias Karlsson, had leapt aside when rounds were first fired at the ground. He said that bullets had also whizzed past his head.

If there's a curfew, the Israelis usually fire a few shots–warning shots into a building or something–but this time, they fired a large number of rounds. I got shot, and the vehicles just took off and left the area. Then an ambulance came, and I was taken to the hospital in Jenin.

But it was obvious that they didn't have the facilities to deal with my wound, so an ambulance took me to the border of Israel. The Israelis actually held up the ambulance for two hours. The soldiers didn't want to let it pass through.

The only reason it got passed through was because, as soon as I got shot, Tobias had contacted the American embassy, and there happened to be a military liaison to the Israelis on staff that night who knew the right people to call to tell these guys to "let this one through." If that guy hadn't been on staff, I probably wouldn't be here today.

CAN YOU describe other Israeli assaults that you saw?

IT DEPENDS on the situation. If they were making an incursion to look for "suspected militants," they would use a sort of blitzkrieg style. They would roll in without warning and just be all over the place like ants. They'd fire shots to let people know that they're there, and that people had better stay in their houses.

At that point, we ISM observers will try to be with the crowds. Wherever the Palestinians are, that's where we'll try to be. If we can, we'll go along with the emergency medical crews to assist them, because in these situations, a lot of people die because they get shot and aren't allowed medical care.

The medics are told, "No, you can't take that guy away because you'll get shot as well." So we'll try to offer support and give people a chance to get medical care in those situations.

At times, there will be kids roaming about, and IDF soldiers will fire warning shots at them just to intimidate them–to say stay away from this operation but also to say, "We don't like you, we don't want to see you." When we hear shots, we go to them because it's likely that civilians are being shot at or shot.

WHAT IS life like for Palestinians under occupation?

YOU LIVE in fear for your life every day. You never know when the Israel Defense Force is going to roll in, when guns are going to go off or when they'll shoot rockets into your neighborhood.

It's capricious how the Israelis work. Some guy may be sitting in his car in the middle of the street, but they don't go in with a sniper. They go in with an F-16, which is an American-built fighter jet.

And this will backfire, really, because it will cause more people to become militants–suicide bombers and so on–because you see your neighbors and your family members killed, homes destroyed with no compensation for family members. This leads to a major feeling of hopelessness, of despair. It's the feeling that you're being squashed like bugs, and the rest of the world just couldn't care less.

GIVEN THE Sharon government's posture, what is the hope for the Palestinians?

THERE'S ALWAYS hope, but it's a very murky hope. There's always the prospect of independence, but it's not something that will come without a heavy toll. The occupation has been going on for 36 years, so two generations have grown up under the guns of the Israeli military.

To live under that situation for that long and see that much death, blood and tragedy and to not feel like you want to get fired up and become a militant or a suicide bomber would be very difficult. People shouldn't be surprised that people are drawn to these actions, but that more people aren't.

When you see the situation in the Occupied Territories, you'd be surprised suicide bombings aren't happening every day. People have no prospects. They can't see any hope for the future.

The Israelis have to pull out–it's just that simple. As long as the Israeli military is there, doing what they are doing, this situation will not improve. The responsibility rests squarely on the Israelis' shoulders. They are the ones who have illegally occupied these cities for so many years.

WHAT ARE you hoping to accomplish with your speaking tour?

THIS IS the most important part of my ISM experience. It's not so much about what we can do to help Palestinians while we're there in the Occupied Territories. We hope we can help, but that isn't where our work can accomplish the most.

The most important part of my activism is being a witness to the occupation and bringing back the truth. The American media is not willing to show this, and by going there and experiencing Israeli brutality and bringing back firsthand accounts of what it's like to live under it, I hope I can open people's eyes here in the U.S.

WHAT CAN people in the U.S. do?

FIRST AND foremost, we should all wake up to the fact that everything the Israeli army is doing comes from the U.S. Without U.S. aid, the Israelis would not be able to continue the occupation. They are pushing the boot and holding the gun, but we are giving them the guns. And we're watching them do it and patting them on the back and giving them a check for more.

The first thing I'd say is that people need to get rid of the idea that they can't change things–that they don't have the power to change things. A government only does as much as the people who are under that government allow it to get away with.

People who live and work in this society have a responsibility for what happens to their tax money. As long as the people in this society don't stand up to the government, this will continue. Palestinians will continue to lose their lives and homes.

It starts with the simple step of taking political responsibility. Taking the step now to read and learn about these causes, reaching out to organizations working to bring about change. Finding out where the money is being budgeted, where the money is going. And learning that all you have to do is to stand up and say, "I refuse to take this anymore."

SINCE BUSH made clear his intention to invade Iraq, a sizable antiwar movement has begun to make itself heard. What would you say to people involved in that movement about the situation in Palestine?

THE FACT that more and more people are participating in the antiwar movement, are paying more attention to American politics and American foreign policy, is a positive thing. And I think that the fact that there is a network of support out there for those who are willing to take the initiative to get involved and to become a participant in the political system is good.

Everybody is a participant in that political system, whether they like it or not. Every dollar you spend, every hour you work is a part of that system. There's a reason why September 11 happened, and that reason is that much of the world is either left to rot by vicious local dictators or exploited for their resources for the sole benefit of the turbo-capitalist dynamo.

It's just going to keep getting worse until people really realize that it's not about numbers and profits, it's about people. It's about living in peace with each other and living in a cooperative society.

Brian will continue to need facial reconstructive surgery for more than a year to come. Donations to help with Brian's medical costs can be sent to: Brian Avery Medical Fund, c/o Wells Fargo Bank NM, 7530 Montgomery NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109.

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