It's a fair bet that if an Israeli soldier hadn't decided to fire live ammunition towards them, we would never have got to hear about the peace activists who were walking through Bethlehem earlier this week. And even now we have heard about them, and seen pictures of one British woman lying in bed after having shrapnel fragments removed from her belly, it's still only too easy to dismiss them as a total irrelevance.
For a community worker or teacher from Britain or Sweden to believe that he or she could go wandering through a war zone with a banner is, many observers would say, utterly naive. Indeed, now the peace march is over in Bethlehem and we are listening to stories of Palestinians holed up in the Church of the Nativity and Israeli soldiers shooting at ambulances, it's hard to see what effect they had on anyone in this bloody conflict.
But to dismiss peace activists entirely is to miss two important points. One point is what they really do, and the other is what they really stand for. As for what they really do yes, the war is now rolling on over this group's banners and chants. But people in different parts of the peace movement constantly show us that they can keep channels of debate and action open that would otherwise be completely closed.
The people who were marching in Bethlehem on Monday were far from the first foreign protesters to go to the Occupied Territories. Ever since the beginning of this intifada, groups from various countries have been going out to the area. They have stood at checkpoints in order to negotiate with Israeli soldiers to allow Palestinians to pass; they have helped Palestinian farmers to harvest their crops, and they have slept in their houses in occasionally successful attempts to prevent attacks from the Israeli army. These are tiny actions in a sea of despair, but they are actions, none the less, with sometimes tangible results.
Some of the activists caught up in Monday's demonstration in Bethlehem are not planning to leave the area even though they have now found themselves in a war zone. One British woman, Claire Theret, who is now in Ayda refugee camp near Bethlehem, says that she doesn't want to leave now, she wants to do what she went out there to do. This is partly just about bearing witness to the effects of the war. By closing off parts of the West Bank to journalists and observers, some Israelis believe that they can prevent coverage of the treatment of Palestinian civilians. In such a situation, the more disinterested observers there are, the better.
But of course the most influential and important contingent of peace activists doesn't come from outside the Middle East, it lies among the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. Just as the tanks roll out in ever greater numbers, this indigenous peace movement seems to be growing again. An article published this week in the Jerusalem Post notes that although small, radical groups have been operating throughout the last year, larger and more broadly based Israeli peace groups have only recently begun to find their support growing again.
One demonstration held last month and organized by a series of organizations under the umbrella of the Peace Coalition, drew around 15,000 demonstrators. And for the past three months the Peace Coalition has been organizing a weekly protest in Jerusalem. At first these were attended only by a handful of hard-core activists, but they have grown in size and scope and are now held simultaneously in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Despite the all-embracing fear of public spaces that has gripped Israel, more than a thousand people attended the last vigil.
The most unexpected recent surge of protest has come from the very center of Israeli patriotism the army reservists. There are more than 500 who have declared that they will refuse to serve in the occupied territories. When they say why they are refusing, they tell their fellow Israelis about how they have felt when they saw a pregnant woman in labor turned away from a checkpoint, or about seeing a four-year-old child sitting in detention with a sack over his head.
These people cannot be dismissed as ignorant outsiders who do not understand the reality of the situation on the ground. But they say that keeping the settlements going in the occupied territories is not worth dehumanizing themselves and brutalizing others.
For diaspora Jews, it is essential that we can see these Israelis who are acting according to their consciences, because they remind us that it is possible to speak up against the occupation even if you are a Jew and even if you support the existence of Israel. At the moment, it sometimes feels as though you will be blamed for betraying your race if you voice any disquiet. But if these brave Israelis can do it, so can we all.
Within Israel, the arguments of such dissenters are even finding a hold within the mainstream. Few peace activists in Israel would call themselves pacifists or anti-militarists, but the protesters have decided that Ariel Sharon's strategy of piling military force on illegal occupation does not make Israel secure, it makes Israel more vulnerable. A strand of mainstream Israeli debate has come to agree with this assessment, and many leading commentators are dissenting from Sharon's open-ended strategy of simple belligerence.
If nothing else, then, peace protesters have helped to keep dissent alive. But they also symbolize the occasional flicker of hope for a different future. An alternative to war is possible, their very presence says to the world. They remind observers everywhere that not all Israelis are cast in the mold of the pictures of violence they see every day. An Israeli does not have to be a soldier who would fire on unarmed peace protesters, or who stands guard over blindfolded, squatting civilians, or who poses for a photograph beside a barefoot corpse.
There are Israelis who, throughout the last months, have continued to keep dialogue open with Palestinians, who have helped to rebuild houses destroyed by the Israeli army, to replant uprooted olive trees, who have walked into zones closed by the soldiers, who have boycotted goods from the settlements. Such individuals remind us that Israelis are able to act for peace as well as for war.
At the moment, as tanks roll and bombs explode, the symbol of an alternative may be the most that the peace protesters can offer. But as long as leaders press on regardless and negotiations stall, it is only through the decisions of ordinary people that the situation in the Middle East will really change for the better. In these days, where despair often seems like the only reaction, we should admire those individuals who have decided to try to keep hope alive.
© 2002 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd