International Direct Action
[This is an excerpt from the new book, Live From Palestine: International and Palestinian Direct Action Against the Israeli Occupation Published by South End Press, September, 2003.]
Direct action is a tactic implying physical action to immediately end or curtail some function of an oppressive force, for instance, blocking a bulldozer that’s trying to demolish homes. This is distinct from educational tactics or lobbying for government policy change. Here, MARK SCHNEIDER argues that direct action has more than tactical results: it empowers communities and builds autonomy. He places the International Solidarity Movement’s practice of nonviolence in a broader context and locates the roots of today’s internationalism and use of direct action in the freedom and solidarity struggles of previous generations.
"Join the struggle for freedom in Palestine," the call from the International Solidarity Movement read. "The presence of internationals will give heart and support to the very important nonviolent resistance to the illegal occupation of Palestine."1
Having watched the United States invade and brutally bomb Afghanistan while Israel renamed its 50-year-old war on Palestinians a "war on terrorism," I was tired of the peace movement’s feeble response: ineffectual by-the-numbers newsletters, vigils, and protest marches. Along with four comrades who shared my rage and disillusionment, I quickly decided to use my privilege as a US citizen and heed the call from Palestine.
Nearly 70 years ago, common people from around the world were inspired by a similar passionate plea, "No Pasaran!" [They shall not pass!]. Tens of thousands went in solidarity to Spain to defend the workers’ revolution from attack by the fascist-aided insurgency. Of the over 50,000 internationals who arrived in Spain, more than 2,800 came from the United States. Together they helped to create the infamous International Brigades.
Albert Weisbord, a lifelong US radical organizer, wrote from Spain in 1936 that
The Spanish Civil War is like a huge flaming candle attracting many moths who soon enough singe their wings and fall into the blaze. German emigres torn from their native land by the purge of Hitler, Italian outcasts, now long enduring the misery of exile in France and unable to pass the bans of Mussolini, French partisans of the class war who believe events in France are going too slow and want to speed them up by the acceleration of Spanish strife, British and even American youths ready to take sides, these are the people who rush enthusiastically to the borders of France, burning to give their lives and to fall on the blood soaked fields of Spain.2
Spain in 1936 and Palestine in 2003 are both examples of indigenous people valiantly contesting oppression by asserting their self-determination and liberation. Soliciting help from international peoples, both Spain then and Palestine now have gained solidarity in the form of direct action.
Direct action is a rejection of the idea that common people are powerless and must follow orders. Direct action seeks to empower by forming mutual, autonomous communities and breaking dependency on others to run the world. In the historical struggles of Spain, Palestine, and elsewhere, the pattern is one of people managing their own struggles, building their own accountable institutions, and understanding the need to link up with like-minded others.
Native American indigenous and mixed-indigenous resistance against European colonizers is full of examples. For more than 500 years, mutual cooperation among indigenous tribes allowed them to resist invasion and genocide from the Spanish, French, British, and US empires. In the 1840s, when the United States invaded Mexico and sovereign indigenous lands, brigades from nations including Seminoles, Apaches, and the infamous St. Patrick Battalion, fresh from British-plundered Ireland, created common cause with a militarily inferior Mexico.
Recognizing the moral right of these indigenous freedom struggles, today’s internationals also view these battles as confronting their own countries’ imperial practices, which are responsible for destroying the sources of liberation. And in the wake of the horrible tragedy of September 11, 2001, my comrades and I were eager to expose the root cause of such devastation: the systematic trail of destruction that is US imperialism.
The imperial connection between the United States and Israel is strikingly clear. The US government annually spends billions of dollars in economic aid to prop up the Israeli apartheid state. My state’s (Colorado) biggest employer, Lockheed-Martin, is one among many companies earning fantastic profits from the F-16 bombers raining death on Bethlehem, Nablus, and Jenin. Caterpillar Inc. grows rich off the sale of the 30-foot-tall, Orwellian, D-9 bulldozers that Israel uses to demolish hundreds of Palestinian homes.
Grassroots International Protection for the Palestinian People (GIPPP) and International Solidarity Movement (ISM) are the two main indigenous organizations in Palestine that have, since the Al-Aqsa Intifada began in September 2000, actively organized internationals to nonviolently act in solidarity with Palestinians under siege. GIPPP and ISM have successfully mobilized thousands of people to risk their privilege. These groups’ successes are in part because of the immense groundwork laid by previous international calls for direct action.
In contrast to modern-day activists in Palestine, the internationals of 1930s’ Spain used expressly violent resistance as a tactic. The International Brigades joined workers’ militias and the regular Republican forces, using mostly crude weapons against the well-financed and well-supplied fascist Nationals.
In Homage to Catalonia, written just after the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell reminisced about his time in the International Brigades:
…the gaunt trains full of shabby soldiers creeping to the front, the gray war-stricken towns farther up the line, the muddy, ice-cold trenches in the mountains…the frosty crackle of bullets, the roar and glare of bombs; the clear cold light of the Barcelona mornings, and the stamp of boots in the barrack yard, back in December when people still believed in the revolution; and the food queues and the red-and-black flags and the faces of Spanish militiamen; above all the faces of militiamen-men whom I knew in the line and who are now scattered Lord knows where, some killed in battle, some maimed, some in prison-most of them, I hope, still safe and sound.3
Though the free republic of Spain fell in the spring of 1939, and nearly 30 percent of the US brigade died in battle, the International Brigades provided important solidarity when anti-fascist Spaniards were left adrift by nearly all nations. Their example has inspired the US left for generations.
The modern offspring of anti-colonial (anti-authoritarian) struggles from people such as the indigenous Americans has two tied threads: those who resist capital and empire at its roots, and those who resist the consequences of capitalism and imperialism. A noteworthy example of the former is the anti-globalization, or global justice, movement.
In the United States, the biggest victory for these global justice forces was the 1999 mass direct action that shut down the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) annual meeting in Seattle. Working outside even the weak forms of democracy in the West, the WTO and other multilateral trade and financial organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund serve capitalist leaders by imposing duplicitous loans and international agreements that consolidate money and control into fewer and fewer hands. For example, in 1999, following World Bank threats to cut off its access to international credit, Bolivia granted a 40-year privatization lease to a subsidiary of the US-based Bechtel Corporation, giving it control over the water on which more than half a million people survived. Within a month, the company more than doubled its rates, from $12 to $30 a month, for families with total earnings of $100 a month.4
To expose this global feudal oligarchy, activists from Bolivia and around the world descended on the kings and queens of capital and empire in Seattle. Displaying classic nonviolent direct action tactics (mass numbers, blocking streets, refusing to move or defend when attacked), this colorful people’s coalition withstood heavy physical attacks from the police and ideological attacks from their mainstream media accomplices.
For several days, a nonpartisan international nonviolent people’s force taught capital and empire what democracy really looks like. As Michael Moore, author of Stupid White Men, wrote
They never knew what hit them. They had assumed it would be business as usual, the way it had been for decades. Rich men gather, meet, decide the fate of the world, then return home to amass more wealth. It’s the way it’s always been. Until Seattle. 5
But in the decades prior to Seattle, the North American left had already witnessed the rapid growth of various solidarity and accompaniment movements that confronted the worldwide consequences of capitalism and imperialism.
The committed nonviolent volunteer corps (often called "unarmed body guards") that makes up groups like Witness for Peace and Peace Brigades International grew out of a desire for both a long-theorized world peace army and the necessity of being effective. Volunteers use their privilege and mere presence as internationals to protect and allow nonviolent indigenous resistance movements to continue their own struggles.
The Gulf Peace Team involved a brave soup of several dozen international activists who, just prior to the first US invasion of Iraq in early 1991, descended on a small patch of desert on the border of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Organized by British activists, the idea was to interpose a multinational nonviolent force between the United States (and the negligible "allied coalition") and Iraqi militaries_and to prevent a war. Judged mostly a failure (within 10 days of the US invasion, the internationals were evicted by their reluctant hosts, the Iraqi government), the lessons learned from this attempt, such as how to organize diverse cultures and languages in traumatic environments, helped spawn several organizations and creative ventures.6
Two years later, a radical Italian priest and a Serb/Croatian group called Mir Sada (Peace Now) organized over 2,000 internationals to march from the Croatian border on the Adriatic Sea to war-torn Sarajevo. Once there, they planned to create a three-month peace encampment in an attempt to stop a war. Though the group didn’t make it to Sarajevo, these disciplined direct actionists did succeed in getting the warring sides to commit to an unprecedented cease-fire. In a situation where UN and international aid organization vehicles had been getting shelled, hundreds of internationals peacefully walked into the Bosnian villages of Prosor and Mostar.7
In the 1990s, two North American organizations began sending internationals to Iraq and Palestine. By 1995 Christian Peacemaker Teams had established a small, long-term presence of trained nonviolent interveners in Hebron. Since 1996, Voices in the Wilderness has worked to draw international attention to the sanctions regime that has cost the lives of half a million Iraqi. In this effort they have organized hundreds of international civilians to participate in short-term stays in Iraq. Voices and Christian Peacemaker Teams both supported activists who remained in Iraq throughout the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.
A confluence of this tradition of solidarity and accompaniment with the groundswell of global justice organizing_demonstrated in Geneva (1998), Seattle (1999), Washington DC and Prague (2000)_resulted in hundreds of internationals arriving in Palestine just after the spontaneous September 2000 Intifada began. Global justice protests continued in Quebec and Genoa in 2001 and more than a quarter-million internationals traveled to Barcelona to protest the annual meeting of capitalist leaders of the European Union Summit. A month later, Israel ruthlessly invaded the Palestinian cities of the West Bank. Members of Ya Basta, an Italian direct action group that helped organize the 2001 mass demonstration in Genoa, joined experienced organizers and activists from France, Britain, Belgium, and the United States, and made the connection between the globalization movement and the liberation struggle in Palestine. "For the movement which came of age in Seattle," noted British dissident George Monbiot, "the World Bank and the West Bank belong to the same political territory."8
While the Palestinian Authority retained some autonomous control, internationals used mass nonviolent interventions, like liberating an illegal Israeli military checkpoint in Palestinian territory and removal, by hand, of village roadblocks that restricted Palestinian freedom of movement. But during Israel’s brutal spring 2002 invasion, internationals, directed by a Palestinian leadership nearly in hiding, took on greater risks. Many accompanied ambulances were targeted by the Israeli military. Palestinian refugee camps had suffered the most in previous Israeli invasions of the West Bank and Gaza, so dozens of internationals stayed in Palestinian homes in the refugee camps and clinics under threat. During the 43-day invasion, the Israeli army laid siege to the historic Church of the Nativity where 150 Palestinians (predominantly unarmed civilians) sought safety. With the world’s governments turning a blind eye to the siege, two dozen internationals staged two daunting nonviolent raids that got 10 internationals, carrying food and medicine, inside to the people nearing starvation.
If results are strictly measured by the ending of Israel’s illegal occupation, then international direct action in Palestine has been a failure. However, international solidarity has been successful in many important ways, such as, humanizing the Palestinian people’s plight through personal stories shared by internationals with their home communities, expanding the breadth of coverage of the Palestinian experience of the occupation in both alternative and mainstream media, and demonstrating a commitment to international solidarity that both the common Palestinian people and their leadership appreciate and want to see expanded.
Organizers in North America and Europe continue to put out well-organized calls for internationals to come to Palestine and participate in increasingly risky direct actions. And the answer is inspiring: thousands of common people from around the world, motivated by those courageous before them, continue to respond with their presence. Nonviolent Peaceforce, a new organization using interpositioning, accompaniment, presence, and witnessing as tactics, plans to organize and deploy hundreds of international peace workers by 2004. Further linking peace solidarity and the anti-capitalist movement, the radical World Social Forum, which brings together tens of thousands of international activists, has repeatedly proposed organizing their annual gathering in Palestine. In the United States, college students are quickly organizing a divestment movement (reminiscent of the global anti-South Africa apartheid campaigns of the 1970s and 80s).
My comrades and I spent four weeks in Palestine in 2001, staying in village homes and meeting well-respected leaders. Joining the Palestinians and other comrades from all over the world, we used our bodies and spirits to act against oppression and injustice. Though my time in Palestine included frustrating experiences, such as differences on various tactical questions and internecine struggles for power among the Palestinian political parties, I came away from the experience_like my historical ancestors did in 1848 Mexico, 1936 Spain, 1981 Nicaragua, and 1999 Seattle_with a taste of real equality, a feeling of liberation and freedom.
On returning to the United States, what struck me most was how simple the solution seemed: tens of thousands more people need to aggressively confront their government’s foreign policy. Those with privilege must stand up, be counted, and take direct action now. As Republican leader Dolores Ibarruri said in her farewell address to the internationals in Spain, "You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality in the face of the vile and accommodating spirit of those who interpret democratic principles with their eyes on hoards of wealth or corporate shares which they want to safeguard from all risk."9
1 International Solidarity Movement, "Join the Struggle for Freedom in Palestine," October 4, 2001, <>.
2 Albert Weisbord, "The Underground Railway to Spain," Albert and Vera Weisbord Archives.
3 Homage to Catalonia: The Orwell Reader (New York: Harcourt Brace, Javonivich, 1956), p. 166. 4 Jim Shultz, "Bolivia’s War Over Water", February 4, 2000.
5 Michael Moore, "Battle of Seattle," December 7, 1999.
6 C. Peter Dougherty, "A Way to Peace: Non violent Mediation and Intervention," Synapse 26.
7 Bela Bhatia, Jean Dreze, and Kathy Kelly, eds., War and Peace In the Gulf: Testimonies of the Gulf Peace Team, (Nottingham, UK: Spokesman Press, 2001).
8 George Monbiot, "World Bank to West Bank, The Movement Written Off After September 11 is Demonstrating Its Worth in Palestine," London Guardian, April 9, 2002.
9 Dolores Ibarruri, "La Pasionaria," Barcelona, November 1, 1938, "About the Spanish Civil War," Cary Nelson.
MARK SCHNEIDER is an organizer experienced with the struggles of the environment, poor people of color discriminated against by banks, homeless people asserting their rights, anti-war movements, and the two solidarity movements with the Palestinian and Iraqi people. As a member of the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace he joined the Winter 2001 ISM campaign in Palestine, and spent two weeks in Iraq in 2000.
You can write Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.