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Human Shields For Palestine

An open letter and call to action for progressive activists of Europe and North America who demand that Israel unilaterally end the violence.

By Stefan Sharkansky
April 29, 2002

Dear Friend,

You are obviously passionate about bringing peace to the Middle East. You write letters to the editor condemning Israeli violence and comparing Sharon to Hitler. You organize marches, demanding statehood for the Palestinians. You boycott Israeli products and demonstrate for universities to divest from Israel. It's not that you're necessarily anti-Semitic. You might even be Jewish. You might not want to see Jews pushed into the sea, but you do want Israel to pull out of the West Bank and Gaza, and you do want the Palestinians have their own country. Fair enough.

I know that shouting slogans and calling Sharon a murderer makes you feel principled and important. You may sincerely believe that you have more moral authority than the people of Israel. But Israel is a democracy, and the public feels the need to defend themselves, and they have to live there and you don't. So if the collective foreign pressure does force Israel to stop defending itself and the terrorism continues? It is not you who will pay the price. You will not be among those whose body parts litter the sidewalks and pizzerias of cities that you have never even bothered to visit. For you to risk nothing to agitate for change where you don't have to live with its consequences is at best an inexpensive form of entertainment (for you), and at worst the sanctimonious oppression of innocent civilians. That's not to say that you shouldn't be concerned about the Palestinians and shouldn't try to support them. On the contrary. You have the potential to play an invaluable role to help bring peace and to help the Palestinians. But in order to do so you must first ask yourself: Do you have the courage to risk your own life for your principles, or are you simply demanding that other people risk their lives for your principles?

Most people, sadly, are in the latter camp. But such people do not sustain great movements or bring about real change. If you are truly concerned and passionate about the Palestinian cause and are willing to make a commitment to help them achieve statehood, the good news is that what you want to accomplish is easier than you might think. Furthermore, you won't have to endure the years of tedious sit-ins that your predecessors in the civil rights, anti-war and anti-Apartheid movements had to go through. You see, there are a few little secrets about Israel's vulnerability that you should know. First, many, if not most, Israelis would only be too glad to hand over the West Bank and Gaza at the earliest opportunity, as long as they knew the territories wouldn't be used to launch more terror attacks. Second, many, if not most, Israelis would only be too glad to have someone other than Sharon as their Prime Minister. He's been running unsuccessfully for Prime Minister since the 1970s and the only reason he managed to get elected this time was because of events that ran amok beyond his control and swept him into office. Many Israelis see him as bellicose, untrustworthy and too far to the right of the mainstream. That used to be a problem for him, until the Palestinians handed him an opening last year by rejecting Ehud Barak's peace overtures and launching the latest cycle of terrorism.

The key to the whole conflict is really very simple. The Israelis don't like being subjected to terrorism. Once the Palestinians stop the terrorism, the Israelis will stop the military operations and will be prepared to return the occupied territories. The Palestinians will get their country and Sharon will retire to his ranch in the desert. It's not that Sharon would necessarily want to retire, he would simply cease to have a useful purpose. So what you can and must do to solve the problem is to help the Palestinians shift their tactics from terrorism and murder to non-violent resistance and nation building.

Here’s how. You go to Israel to sit in a café to serve as a Human Shield for Palestine. You can pass your time talking to the Israeli customers and encouraging them to withdraw from the occupied territories and make peace. You may be pleasantly surprised to discover that a lot of them think like you do, but they just want the terror to stop. If and when a suicide bomber walks into the cafe, stand in front of the bomber and persuade him to abandon his mission. Tell the bomber that you are a friend of Palestine. Explain how you boycott Israeli products, show him clippings of the pro-Palestine letters you wrote to the newspaper. Tell him that you have come to Israel only to persuade the Israelis to return the territories, and that it wouldn’t be fair for the bomber to blow you up along with the Zionists. Convince the would-be martyr that his life has meaning and that he can better serve the Palestinian cause through non-violent means. Would he not contribute more to his people as a tutor, a soccer coach, a builder of houses, a computer repairman, an organizer of sit-ins? Teach him about Martin Luther King and the Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and if you succeed, you will save the life of the bomber and possibly some Israelis.

Some might say that persuading a suicide bomber to do something positive with his life is absurd. The suicide bombings, some claim, are the understandable, even inevitable act of a people who are so oppressed and desperate that they have no other option. No other option. Really? If this were the case then there should have been hundreds of episodes in recent history where desperate oppressed peoples in all corners of the globe used their own bodies as ordnance to kill and maim other innocent civilians. But when has this happened? When, in all of World War II, did any of the conquered, enslaved and otherwise devastated victims of the Nazis blow themselves up in German kindergartens? All of the anti-Nazi resistance as far as I can determine was devoted to attacking military and infrastructure targets only, not German schoolchildren. Nor did any of the then brutalized people of China or Korea blow themselves up and murder elderly Japanese housewives in their grocery stores. The desperate, starving and growth-stunted residents of North Korea today are not spontaneously blowing themselves up in the homes of their cruel and incompetent military leaders. List every instance of oppression, colonization, dispossession, imperialism, and slavery in recent memory, from the entire history of Blacks in the American South to the Tibetans under the Chinese, the Africans and Indians under the British, Kurds under the Iraqis, the dozens of distinct nations colonized within the Soviet Union, or the many native peoples of North and South America. The list goes on and on, and many situations that are and were far worse than anything that the Palestinians have endured. In how many of these cases have we seen suicide bombings or attacks against innocent civilians of the oppressing power? Not many.

Suicide bombing is not an "understandable act" of a desperate person with no other options. Never mind that there is an infrastructure of seemingly rational individuals who methodically recruit, finance, organize, select targets and direct the suicide missions. There are those who purchase wires and explosives and build the bombs with their hands, hands which are just as capable of building factories and schools and clinics. There are those who use video cameras to record the testaments of the bombers in front of carefully lit backdrops of Jerusalem. But the will to live, even for the people in the most miserable of circumstances, is so overwhelming that it takes a cynical, well-organized and persistent campaign to indoctrinate and persuade young and vital people that they have no other option but to incinerate their own lives along with the lives of other innocent people. And anybody who has been talked into ending their own life can even more easily be talked out of ending their life.

Yes, standing in the way of a suicide bomber takes courage. Never mind that this is effectively what the anti-Israel activists of the world are demanding from the citizens of Israel. But peace will come to the region if and only if the suicide-bombers are confronted, their intentions changed and their infrastructure dismantled, whether by means of withering firepower or by means of overwhelming love and open-heartedness. The firepower will continue for the time being, because a majority of Israeli voters seem to believe that it works. But who can offer the unconditional love and compassion to change the attitudes of the terrorists? The Israeli peace camp has tried for decades to bring about peace with the Palestinians, but as Jews and Zionists they are met with the same hatred and suspicion as are other Jews. There are few in the Arab world who have dared break ranks to condemn the serial killing of Israelis and the ritual sacrifice of the Palestinian youth. So it is up to you, the Western friend of Palestine. You are the only one with the credibility and independence and stature to show the Palestinians another way.

Encourage your friends to join you as Human Shields. I am optimistic that your compassion and moral suasion alone will deter even the most fanatical and hate-driven terrorist. But in case you fail to persuade your own fated bomber to remove his explosive belt, then you should at least be proud to know that your death will have transformative value. The deaths of Zionist Jews and their tourists and employees may be viewed in the Arab world as successes that encourage more attacks. But you are a friend of Palestine and an enemy of the Zionists and before too many of you are killed, the Arab street will wake up and say "Enough already. We have gone too far."

If enough progressive activists from the U.S. and Europe go to Israel as Human Shields, the Palestinians will have to end their terror campaign. How could they possibly allow many of their American and European friends to be killed? Once the terror ends, the Israelis will have no choice but to end their military operations. They will have no grounds to justify them any more. Sharon’s government will collapse from its own irrelevance. The Labor party will return to power, pull out of the territories, help create a Palestinian state, and form a lasting peace with the neighbors. And both sides will praise you as a hero.

The choice is yours. You might just continue to shout slogans, demanding sacrifices of innocent Israelis (including members of my own immediate family) that you wouldn't demand of your own family. Or you might choose the more principled and effective path and serve the Palestinian cause as a Human Shield. If this is your choice, I will arrange funding to help subsidize your mission. If you don't think that being a Human Shield is a good idea, please write to me anyway and tell me why.

Sincerely,

Stefan Sharkansky

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