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Picking Olives & Removing Roadblocks as Acts of Resistance: an Interview with Ghassan Andoni

Picking Olives and Removing Roadblocks in Palestine

by IDA AUDEH

It is olive picking season in Palestine, and so far about 120 activists from almost a dozen countries?the US, England, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, France, and Italy?have responded to an appeal by the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and arrived to help Palestinians harvest their groves. But the season is not getting off to a good start. Reports from Jayous (near Qalqilya), Aqraba, Inbus, and Awartha and Beit Furik (in the Nablus district) tell of beatings and shootings of Palestinians by the Israeli settlers and at least one shooting death, that of Hani Yousef, a 22-year-old Palestinian from Aqraba. In some instances, the settlers harvest the olives while Palestinians watch, helplessly. The Israeli army does nothing to prevent this. Since October 2000, Israeli soldiers and settlers have bulldozed, uprooted, or set ablaze about 200,000 Palestinian olive trees, at a cost to Palestinian farmers of about $10 million.

The 2-year-old ISM is committed to an active, engaged, nonviolent confrontation of the Israeli occupation. I interviewed ISM co-founder Ghassan Andoni, who spoke in Boulder, Colorado as part of a national tour.

Question: Why the focus on olive picking?

Andoni: Most Palestinian villagers have no access to their olive groves right now. They are either adjacent to Israeli settlements, and Israeli settlers do not hesitate to shoot them if they appear, or they are in closed military areas, or the towns are surrounded and anyone who ventures out of town risks being shot. We don’t want to lose olive picking in Palestine for two reasons. Life in Palestinian cities and refugee camps is being destroyed. If Palestinian villages are turned into cement blocks, without land, without olive groves, then they become refugee camps. We don’t want that.

In addition, olive picking is an act of defiance, because you are willing to go to areas close to settlements or areas announced as closed military zones. Soldiers and settlers will try to stop you, attack you. It is an act of defiance that many Palestinian villages are willing to take part in. In the villages you can convince people to participate in civil disobedience and nonviolence.

Question: Tell me about the road that took you to civil disobedience and nonviolence. What model of nonviolent resistance are you following? What was your inspiration?

Andoni: The idea of nonviolent resistance to occupation arose mostly during the first (1987) intifada. The Rapprochement Center in Beit Sahur led a civil disobedience movement, and the experience with tax resistance inspired many people in town, who saw that nonviolence could be effective too. When the second intifada began, people again started to think about moving in the direction of nonviolent resistance. We thought that nonviolent resistance could provide the platform for people who are not engaged to become engaged. The occupation tries to kill the spirit of resistance. We didn’t want this to happen among Palestinians, and we didn’t want this to become a fight between a few hundred idealists and the occupation army. That would definitely be a lost cause. The problem is, we didn’t have hundreds, we had dozens, and they could easily be shot at. So the question of protection came up immediately, and that’s where the internationals come in.

Those of us who eventually formed the International Solidarity Movement?Huweida Arraf and Adam Shapiro in Ramallah, Neta Golan in Jerusalem and Hare, myself in Beit Sahur?got together because we found that we were engaged in the same kinds of activities. Ours were totally individual efforts, dictated by events on the ground. We weren’t trying to apply things we read about, we were just learning from our own experiences.

Question: What is the focus of your activities?

Andoni: Our focus is on active nonviolent resistance as a way of challenging the tools of Israeli control and expansion of the occupation?mainly roadblocks, checkpoints, and land expropriation. Without those tools, it will be very difficult to maintain the occupation. You cannot challenge the control system by shooting at it. But if you are able to remove a roadblock or go through it regardless of the orders of the soldiers and if you can do that collectively and regularly, they either have to bring more soldiers to sustain it, or they have to abandon it. So it makes the occupation more costly. The idea is this: Instead of Palestinians adapting to the occupation, we have to shift the burden from the Palestinian side to the occupier through acts of resistance. Adapting to occupation kills resistance. Our approach is to take actions that are considered by the occupier to be illegal and that expose you to punishment and risk. You need to decide to take the risk.

If you look carefully, you find that people who wage war are highly motivated, whereas peacemakers are shy, afraid to take positions because they want to appear to be objective. Why? Why should people who wage war be so committed and people who believe in peace not have the guts for it? The ISM says, don’t just think peace or talk about it. If you want it, stick your neck out. Come and protect civilians in times of war. Go to the Church of the Nativity. Stand with [those under siege in the church], take food to them. And many did. Go to Jenin when the massacre was taking place. And come and help Palestinians dismantle the systems of control. Remove the roadblocks. The roadblock between Birzeit and Ramallah is operated by two soldiers, but the road is used by more than 100,000 Palestinians. For the longest time, no one challenged it. Twice, Palestinians and internationals dismantled it. If this is done daily, they would have to bring dozens of soldiers to maintain it, or they might just forget about it, because in fact the checkpoint is about control, not security. The Israelis increase their control of us, and Palestinians are expected to adjust. If Palestinians stop adjusting and crack the system of control, then Israel has to adjust. Israel can’t achieve security by caging and starving people and destroying communities. People have to move, they have to live, they have to work.

The ISM’s first activity was held on Dec. 28, 2000, about 3 months after the start of the second intifada. A number of internationals and Gush Shalom members marched with Palestinians into a military camp at the edge of Beit Sahur, entered the military camp, asked the soldiers to leave, and put a Palestinian flag on the tower. The soldiers were caught by surprise, and spiritually the act was very moving. In Gaza 12 people were killed in an effort to raise the Palestinian flag on the tower at Netzarim. In Beit Sahur, no lives were lost and the soldiers stood by helplessly, not knowing what to do.

Question: How would you describe the structure of the ISM?

Andoni: We agreed from the start that we would come up with campaigns of direct actions and that the movement had to be international and Palestinian. It has to be a Palestinian led movement; we did not want international coming and deciding the agenda. And we agreed that it would be decentralized and that we would operate by consensus.

Once a month, the core group meets to strategize, think about campaigns, decide on where a presence is needed. Internationals form affinity groups and work together. We don’t really tell them what to do. We might give the broad outlines, such as the importance of deploying people in Nablus. The main purpose might be for internationals to stay in the homes of martyrs [suicide bombers] and protect them from demolition. The group members sit and discuss this, and you end up with the people who are really into it.

As a movement, we categorically reject physical and verbal violence, and we distance ourselves from any Palestinian effort that mixes both. There is a certain way we want to conduct ourselves, and we don’t violate our ground rules.

Question: How able are you to involve Palestinians?

Andoni: In the beginning, people were skeptical. We started an ongoing dialog with people until they accepted that our activities should be done and that there was nothing suspicious about it. We started coordinating with different active groups in different areas to organize campaigns, because we didn’t want ISM to become an additional Palestinian faction. We are building a network of activists, people as well as groups and organizations that are attuned to working with international groups. I think ISM is well perceived. People appreciate what the international activists are doing. [Our challenge] is to get people to see ISM not only as something positive but as something in which they want to participate.

Question: Defying a military occupation that doesn’t hesitate to shoot entails substantial risks. How possible is to get people to overcome their fear?

Andoni: It depends. Some are, and some are not, and that’s why we are not talking about big numbers. We think it will build up very slowly, but if you remember 1987, nobody expected that Palestinians would do anything. There comes a point you can never anticipate when collectively people take a decision, and we hope that this point will come soon. We hope that the example set and the work done will accelerate this process and get people into it and at least increase the number of people who are actively resisting the occupation.

Question: How did the spring incursions change your work?

Andoni: When the incursion started, we tried to identify what would be the most powerful ways to mobilize this movement during a time of war, and we realized that we needed to work on the level of protection and presence. And that’s why we started to deploy internationals in refugee camps, the most dangerous areas, and we entered the presidential compound and the church of the nativity while under siege. The internationals took in food and raised morale and were there to report, because there were lots of biased media reports, images coming from there of a hostagelike situation. I think those two incidents were what made the ISM famous.

Question: How many internationals do you think you have at any given time?

Andoni: We got much more than we expected. ISM has grown a lot in a short period of time. The numbers depend on the campaigns. When we have a campaign, during the freedom summer campaign, we had between 70 to 100 people at any time during the 3-month period. Between campaigns we might have between 20 and 40 at any time.

Question: What is the relationship between ISM and Palestinian political factions and the Palestinian Authority?

Andoni: ISM is part of Grassroots International for the Protection of the Palestinian People (GIPP), but in fact the relations with GIPP have never been clear. We have a different focus: GIPP does a lot of fact finding and reporting, whereas our focus is direct actions. You have to be open to everyone, to work with different political factions. But we have our ground rules. We don’t work with any group exclusively, and we won’t engage in any violence whatsoever. That’s taboo.

ISM tends to keep a distance from the PA. The PA has a lot of appreciation for the ISM especially after our members went to the presidential compound and the Church of the Nativity during the sieges. But we were always aware that we wanted to keep a distance. We have always turned down their offers of financial assistance.

Question: What kind of relations does ISM have with Israeli groups?

Andoni: ISM accepts individuals as activists irrespective of color, religion, nationality, whatever. We don’t mind working with Israeli radical groups but we don’t invite them. If we have an activity in Nablus, then it is up to the people of Nablus to invite Israeli groups to participate. We act as guests, not hosts.

Question: What do you think the future might hold in store?

Andoni: Things could get worse. We used to think that forced massive transfer [ethnic cleansing] would be impossible, but now it seems possible. I think if war breaks out in Iraq, Sharon will spend every minute thinking about a pretext for massive transfer. Among the Israeli population, it is discussed as something that is inevitable, as the only solution. When you undermine any form of coexistence, even one of occupation, you open up the door to other alternatives, including fascist alternatives.

Question: You must have some hope that the ISM will make a difference.

Andoni: Each of us has a certain faith that he doesn’t discuss. It is not necessarily logical or rational. I have this deep faith in the ability of my people. I have never stopped believing in their capacity to revive, even when things got really bad, when morale was low. I believe that’s what the Palestinians did in 1987. If you remember that period, everyone was detached, we were even ignoring what was going on around us. In my town, young people started going to parties. We thought we lost that generation, the PLO was out of Lebanon, and the occupation appeared to be here to stay. Suddenly, without anyone expecting it, the intifada broke out. You cannot force people to think the way you want them to think?it doesn’t work this way. The collective unconscious of people moves them in a direction. You need to trust that the collective unconscious of people comes to the right decision at the right time. This has happened so many times, and it will continue to happen.

IDA AUDEH’s interviews with Palestinian survivors of Israel’s spring 2002 offensive have been published as “Narratives of Siege: Eye-Witness Testimonies From Jenin, Bethlehem, and Nablus,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 31, no. 4 (Summer 2002), 13-34. She can be reached at idaaudeh@yahoo.com.

Information about the ISM is available at www.palsolidarity.org