A Deafening Silence

The death of International Solidarity Movement volunteer Rachel Corrie beneath an Israeli military bulldozer in March sent shock waves through the activist community. In the midst of grief, however, many also hoped that the murder of an unarmed American would finally catapult the plight of occupied Palestine into the international spotlight.

The premise of accompaniment groups like ISM rests on the assumption that, though the United States and Israel have ignored the more than 1,200 Palestinian civilian casualties since September 2000, neither country's government or media could afford to ignore an American's death. "Israel isn't held accountable for killing [Palestinians]," ISM founder Huwaida Arraf told Salon.com just two months before Corrie was killed. "But killing a foreigner is a PR disaster." Especially a young, blond foreigner from Olympia, Washington, who had been trying to protect a Palestinian home from demolition.

Imagine the potential public relations nightmare when Corrie's death was quickly followed by the seemingly deliberate targeting of two other international activists, Brian Avery, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Tom Hurndall, from England. Avery is in serious condition, and the shot to Hurndall's head rendered him brain dead.

Peace teams finally had a cause over which mainstream America could express outrage—three internationals targeted in the Middle East!—yet there was little discussion of the incidents. After a flurry of front-page stories and State Department condolences, the government and media returned its focus to Iraq. The Israeli government investigated Corrie's death and quickly exonerated itself, claiming she had behaved with "reprehensible negligence."

The U.S. administration has maintained a silence throughout these events that's easy to miss if you're not listening for it—but accompaniment groups find it deafening. The U.S. government's response seems to confirm uncritical support for Israeli policy and practice. Indeed, it's important to take into account political ties that enable the Israeli government to fire on—and plow over—American citizens without consequence. Undoubtedly, Corrie's death and the other shootings would have garnered more condemnation had the violence been committed by Palestinian militants or Iraqi troops.

THAT THE Israeli Defense Force now acts with apparent disregard for international lives introduces a new factor into Middle Eastern peace group operations. Protective accompaniment has effectively curbed violence against civilians for 20 years, beginning with a Witness for Peace delegation whose presence halted guerrilla warfare in Nicaraguan villages. The model of Americans using their privileged status to guard noncombatants has been effectively implemented in Gaza and the West Bank for years. But now that American deaths have failed to rouse public outcry against Israeli injustices, one has to wonder if "accompaniment teams" have become obsolete. The hypothesis has been tested, and a "PR disaster" did not materialize. Using their own lives as leverage, international activists can no longer ensure security for the Palestinians they accompany. Consequently, some say the heyday of accompaniment groups is over, and that it's time for them to try a new approach—or go home.

But most activists insist these incidents have only reinforced their role. ISM and other peace groups are re-evaluating their accompaniment strategies, especially now that Israel has arrested ISM accompaniers and threatened to deport them. Activists say they will stay put, training Palestinians in nonviolent resistance, telling their stories to the media, and simply being present.

"This is too much of a cost-benefit analysis for me, [and] I don't think a lot of biblical teaching would make it through a cost-benefit analysis," says Joel Carillet, a World Council of Churches accompanier serving near Jenin. "My root reason for being in the midst of the oppression and abuse of Palestinian civilians is to walk beside them and share in their lives. Even if we don't save lives, it is surely Christ-like to share in their sufferings." —Kate Bowman

Kate Bowman is the news/Internet assistant at Sojourners.

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