The young woman who approached Brian Avery last week and asked to have her picture taken with him introduced herself as a Palestinian who lived in Holland for many years. This happened at the foot of the separation fence in East Jerusalem, and Brian Avery, an American from North Carolina who was severely injured in the face by Israeli fire in April 2003, gladly agreed to be photographed with her. "I know who he is," she explained. "I saw him and read his story on various Internet sites."
The two were photographed by a Dutch tourist of Indonesian descent, and the entire scene, against the background of the wall, on which someone had written, in English: "From the Warsaw Ghetto to the Abu Dis Ghetto," could have taken place only in the hallucinatory reality of the Middle East.
Avery came here two years ago, in January 2003, a 24-year-old who dreamed of fixing the world, or at least helping to solve the conflict in the Middle East. Five months and three operations later, he returned home emotionally battered and with his face seriously injured, to a no less cruel future. He has five or six rounds of plastic surgery ahead of him, until his face - maybe, some time - will once again resemble what it used to be.
The issue of Avery, an activist in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), is now being deliberated in the High Court of Justice. Two and a half weeks ago, the first session took place. A panel of three justices instructed the judge advocate general (JAG) to interview, within 90 days, the witnesses to the incident in which Avery was injured in Jenin, and to inform the court whether it will adhere to its previous decision, and if so - why.
Avery wants to know who shot and wounded him critically on Saturday night, April 5, 2003. The original Israel Defense Forces investigation, carried out immediately after the incident by Colonel Dan Hefetz, commander of the Menashe Brigade, concluded with the following surprising IDF statement, which was delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv: "Mr. Ivory's injury is an unfortunate incident. ISM activists knowingly endanger themselves by operating during curfew in combat situations, seeking clashes and frictions with IDF soldiers. No findings indicate that Mr. Avery was injured by IDF fire in any of the above-mentioned events."
Avery, today 26, was born in Connecticut, the youngest child in his family. His father, up until 10 years ago, was a submarine commander in the U.S. Navy, and his mother is a schoolteacher. It is a liberal family of German, English and Irish Protestant origin, with a history of several hundred years in America. Avery has an older brother who runs hotels, and a sister who is engaged in medical research. While he was growing up, the family wandered in the wake of his father, who was deployed at a different base every few years. At present, his parents live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. After the injury, Avery went back to live near his parents, in his own apartment, located near the hospital where he is having treatment.
Avery, who went to college for a year, was very interested in social and political issues, environmental preservation, and contributing to the community. He lived for two years on a farm in North Carolina, afterward in communal farms in southern France and Portugal, and later in a commune of 18 members in Chicago, most of them environmental activists. He worked in the city at occasional jobs, studied alternative medicine in college, and was involved in voluntary community work. "For me, it was mainly a process in which I learned and internalized the meaning of organized activism," he says.
From Chicago, Avery moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to specialize in studying medicinal herbs at a small college. For a living he worked at a farm, and did volunteer work for his community. "At that farm, there was manual labor with real sweat," he says. "I enjoyed it very much. That life, a combination of work and communal activity, is an ideology for me. I earned little money, only enough for basic survival. The purpose was not to get rich from it, but to work at something that, ideologically speaking, is contrary to what the large monopolies do."
In Albuquerque, he began to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He says that while still in Chicago he met someone who had family in Israel, who told him about the region, but in New Mexico he began to delve into the subject, met additional people who were better informed, and did his own research by reading.
What fascinated you so much?
"The fact that the world has a very serious attitude toward this region, and the United States is so involved in its politics. I thought I wanted to know more, and to experience things personally, and that's how I came to ISM. I met people who worked with them and told me what they do in the territories, and I decided to come."
On borrowed time
In order to pay for his trip, Avery collected donations from his community, and came here in January 2003, going straight to Nablus. The International Solidarity Movement, belying its grandiose name, is a small organization, one of many that cropped up in the territories and in Israel during the period of the last intifada. The movement is a coalition of groups and individuals whose goal is to support Palestinians' nonviolent resistance to the occupation.
They have no annual budget, no offices and no chairman. They all work voluntarily in regional action teams and live from donations from Israel and abroad (about $60,000 annually). One of the rules of the organization is that initiating activities is not permitted; they are only allowed to participate in an activity when the Palestinians ask them to do so. "Demonstrations, dismantling roadblocks, marching and helping the local population in various spheres, and mainly serving as a barrier between them and the army," says Neta Golan, one of the founders. "And everything without violence."
According to Golan, the organization has about 30 support groups abroad, each of them with several dozen activists. The hundreds of activists the world over are a strong presence on the Internet, and are therefore perceived as a powerful factor. The IDF doesn't like them. "The purpose of ISM's activity is to enter an area where the IDF is operating and to create provocations," claims the head of Israel's National Security Council, Major General (ret.) Giora Eiland, former head of the IDF Planning and Policy Directorate, and the IDF representative vis-a-vis the United States on the matter of Avery. "This organization is falsely called a `peace organization,' and is an anti-Israeli organization whose goal is to involve the IDF in provocations, and in this way to harm Israel's status."
Avery was in Nablus for two and a half months. "Mainly we did a lot of work there at the checkpoints," he says. "We tried to mediate between the Palestinian population and the army, and to record things. We also repaired roads, cleaned, worked with children and the elderly, circulated in the villages, helped with whatever was necessary, like bringing medications during curfews. We tried to limit the friction between the population and the army as much as possible."
During the same period, he says, he began to divide reality into black and white, good guys and bad guys. "I thought that the occupation was a bad thing, and I quickly understood to what extent. The situation among the Palestinians was desperate and depressing. I found that they were without hope. I met people who had no reason to want to live. Particularly the young people. They were afraid to leave the house, to see their children in hospitals, to lose family, close friends; the feeling was that people were living on borrowed time."
During that same period, there were bereaved mothers who boasted that their children had become shaheeds - Islamic martyrs - including suicide bombers.
"I think that what they say on television is not what they really think. Nobody wants to lose a child. Only someone who lives among the population understands what they really feel. It's true that in Israel people were killed on buses, but the fear is more on the psychological level; among the Palestinians the fear is very real. There everyone lives with a feeling that if he only goes out to the street or to the neighborhood store, he won't return. They haven't had a normal life for such a long time. Israelis can go abroad, travel, go wherever they want, the Palestinians are stuck and can't move. It's a violation of human rights, immoral and inhumane."
With what conclusion did you return from there?
"That in spite of all the misery and the desperation, they haven't lost hope yet. People spoke with me about the chances for a normal life. This spark of light, after years of repression and occupation and struggle, the ability to speak about a solution and about peace, was very enriching for me, and a source of inspiration. If they can have a degree of optimism, so can I."
`I wanted to live'
At the end of March, Avery decided to go to Jenin, where he joined a local ambulance team and worked shifts, as necessary. He planned to remain in the territories for about a year, and afterward to return home, tell people what is happening here, and then return here again for a while. On Shabbat, April 5, Avery was staying in a rented apartment in Jenin, which he shared with other ISM activists. With him was Jan Tobias Carlson from Sweden, a senior ISM activist.
Jenin had been under curfew since Friday, and Avery did a shift of 17 hours straight in the ambulance. He spent Shabbat sleeping. In the afternoon he awoke and went up to the roof of the building, where he sat with Carlson and two Palestinian friends. At about 6 P.M., the sound of approaching military vehicles was heard, followed a few minutes later by two or three rounds of firing. Avery and Carlson went down into the street.
"We were afraid that there were children in the area, and thought that it would be a good idea to go down and keep them away from there," testified Carlson later. "Brian was wearing a vest with the word `Doctor' written in phosphorescent colors in English and Hebrew, front and back."
"We made our way cautiously in the direction of the central junction in Jenin," says Avery. "At the same time, four of our friends from ISM were approaching from another direction, after we spoke to them over the phone and arranged to meet at the junction in order to find out the reason for the shots. When we arrived at the junction, we saw that a tank and an APC [armored personnel carrier] were approaching us. We stopped, and stood with arms outstretched to show them that we weren't armed. We moved aside in order to allow them to pass, and stood right under a street lamp, which was already lit. When they were 30 meters from us they shot a volley of 15-20 bullets (according to Carlson's testimony, which was published on the movement's Web site, they were fired at from a distance of 10 meters), while they were driving.
"My friends fled to the sides, and nobody was hurt. I was hit by the first volley. Only me. The bullet penetrated my nose, broke the bones in my nose, hit my eye and exited from the other cheek. I immediately fell onto the road, but I remained conscious for a few seconds. I knew that I had been very severely injured, and I thought that I could die. I didn't want to die. I wanted to continue to live. I thought there were still so many things that I wanted to do, and I concentrated all my strength in order to stay alive. I asked myself why this had happened to me of all people, but I soon lost consciousness."
"That was one of the severest injuries I have ever seen," testified Carlson. "The entire bottom part of the jaw, from the nose down, was crushed, and the left cheek remained hanging only on a very small piece of skin." Lasse Schmidt, an ISM activist from Denmark, was in the group that approached that same junction from another direction, together with a Polish journalist and two activists from Sweden. Schmidt was the first to reach Avery, who lay injured. In his testimony, Schmidt said that the entire left side of Avery's face was only attached at the ear.
Avery's shocked friends pulled themselves together and ordered an ambulance. Carlson called Avery's parents in the United States, and ran to bring a Palestinian photographer to record what was left to record. In the hospital in Jenin, when they discovered that Avery was an American citizen, they decided to transfer him for treatment to Israel. It took about an hour and a half, testify his friends from ISM, until approval came from the Israeli side to transfer him to Afula, and from there by helicopter to the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. "Most of the time I wasn't conscious," says Avery. "But I remember the movements of the ambulance and the noise of the helicopter. That same night they operated on me, and put my face back together."
Avery lay in Rambam for nine weeks. He underwent three operations, and later another three in the United States. "They have to finish reconstructing my jaw and implanting all my upper teeth, reconstruct my cheek bones, and afterward my nose," he says. "At the moment I'm breathing only through one nostril. They also have to solve the problem of my tears. My tear duct was injured, and they stream uncontrollably. They're talking about another whole year of operations. The medical treatment is being paid for by the hospital where I'm being treated, from a special fund earmarked for people who are unable to pay."
The cost of hospitalization at Rambam, NIS 126,000, was paid by the army, as was the cost of the helicopter from Afula to Rambam. "Beyond the letter of the law," wrote the IDF spokesman in his response.
"Tobias Carlson phoned my parents right after it happened," says Avery. "They were in shock, because at the time it wasn't clear if I would live. My father came here a few days later, and then my mother came, and stayed here for several weeks. Eventually they adjusted to the situation. They're happy that at least I'm still alive."
Neither of them said, "I told you not to go"?
"Not exactly. They respect me as an adult and as a responsible person, and they see it as a criminal act, something exceptional that happened to me. They were very angry at Israel, at the army and at the government. Before I was injured, they had no opinion about what is happening in the region and were uninvolved, with no feelings toward one side or another. Now they are much more involved."
At Rambam, Avery met peace activists from Haifa, who voluntarily stood shifts around his bed, and took him for short trips in the area. "Until then, I had no idea that Israeli society is also complex and multifaceted, and that there are also people here who oppose the occupation," he said. Bilha Golan, an activist in Physicians for Human Rights, met Brian a short time after he came out of an operation in Rambam, in the intensive care unit, on a respirator and with his face bandaged.
"I called his father and let him talk to Brian," she says. "There was a sense at first that his father was angry at him. He didn't understand the issue, it was very hard for him. It shakes up the family and involves expenses. His mother told me, `I understand that if the State of Israel doesn't pay, we'll have to sell our house in order to take care of him.'"
Dr. Kobi Peter, an activist in Ta'ayush, an Israeli peace group, and a professor in the mathematics department at Haifa University, met Avery a few days after the injury. "At first you couldn't understand him, because he was unable to talk," says Peter. "He corresponded with people most of the time. There was something very clearheaded about him; he looked ahead without self-pity and tried to deal with what fate had brought on him."
A few days after Avery's injury, his four friends from ISM, who were witnesses to the incident, wrote their testimonies on the movement's Web site. Three months ago, attorney Michael Sfard petitioned the High Court of Justice in Avery's name, in order to force the IDF to launch a criminal investigation to look into the circumstances of his injury in Jenin. Until then, the IDF had made do with an operational military investigation, whose results are not being published.
"A military investigation," says attorney Sfard, "has only one purpose - to draw conclusions. Not to find guilty parties. During the course of the investigation, no testimony is taken from anyone who is not a soldier. In the previous intifada, every time there were civilians killed or injured, a military police investigation was launched. In the present intifada, the previous JAG set a new policy: no automatic launching of a Military Police investigation, unless the military investigation arouses suspicion of criminal offenses."
However, says Sfard, those who conducted the military investigation met with Avery in the hospital, took testimony from him, understood that there had been additional witnesses to the incident, and afterward, for public relations purposes, prepared a presentation in English with the conclusions from the incident, and submitted it to the U.S. Embassy. "Among other things, they wrote that a comparison had been made between Brian's testimony and Carlson's, which was taken from the ISM Web site - in other words, those who conducted the military investigation read the testimony, but didn't interview a single one of those witnesses." The IDF spokesman says in response that "the witnesses, ISM activists who were present at the incident, refused to cooperate with the investigators, and therefore no testimony was taken from them."
"That's a lie," says Sfard. "The fact is that in the reply of the judge advocate general to the petition in the High Court, that claim was no longer made." And in fact, in the response to the petition, the State Prosecutor, in the name of the JAG, worded things less conclusively: "Attempts made by the IDF to receive additional information from Tobias Carlson relating to the incident were unsuccessful, in spite of the contacts with Tobias himself and with his proxy, before he left the country. Additional efforts to receive details about the other ISM activists who, according to the petitioner, were present at the time of the incident, proved fruitless."
`No evidence was found'
Avery was not the only foreign citizen to be injured in the territories in the spring of 2003. Rachel Corrie, an American activist in ISM, was killed on March 16 in the Gaza Strip. An IDF bulldozer ran her over when she tried to prevent the demolition of a house with her body. Tom Hurndall of Great Britain was shot on April 11 in Rafah, when he distanced two children who were standing opposite a watchtower throwing stones. He was seriously injured, and died later in England. James Miller, a photographer for Britain's Channel 4, was killed on May 2. He had come to Rafah with a crew to film a documentary about the lives of Palestinian children during the war, and was shot at night, although he was carrying identification and a white flag in his hand, and shouted, "Don't shoot, we're journalists."
And who shot Brian Avery? In the reply of the JAG, one can detect a certain softening of the initial conclusive assertion to the effect that "No evidence was found that indicates that Mr. Avery was injured by IDF fire in one of the shooting incidents that took place that day in Jenin." The JAG told the High Court, after analyzing the four shooting incidents ("friction") in the appropriate sector of Jenin, that it is possible that the third of the four incidents "is the most similar to the incident described by the petitioner, although there are certain differences between the version of the petitioner and that of the investigation."
Giora Eiland puts it this way: "The official position of the IDF for external consumption was that on the one hand there is no conclusive evidence that says, `We saw him being injured,' but by the process of elimination, it is reasonable to assume that he was injured in incident number three."
So why not launch a Military Police investigation?
"Although we found various mistakes in the operational activity of the force, we didn't find that there was anything that requires a Military Police investigation, or an indictment. I met with the U.S. military attache three times, and presented the matter to him. Not in every case when the IDF opens fire, is someone responsible, or does someone have to account for it. In any case, we assumed that Avery was telling the truth. We didn't make the same assumption about the ISM people, because they have been liars and provocateurs in dozens of cases. See what instructions they give their people as to how to enter the country and how to introduce themselves. I don't believe a word they say."
"If they say upon entering Israel that they're coming as tourists, and are caught in their lie, then they are expelled with the excuse that they are lying," says Neta Golan in reply. "That's why the instructions are to tell the truth, immediately upon entry to Israel, but then they are expelled because they are ISM activists. The organization has not been declared illegal, so there is no reason to expel the activists from here. There hasn't been a single case where an ISM activist has been arrested for violence. The only case in which an indictment was filed was against me, because in April 2001, I was tied to olive trees, along with other activists. Aside from that, no indictment has ever been filed against the foreign activists."
The army says you are provocateurs.
"Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were considered major provocateurs in their time. The attempt to undermine the credibility of the witnesses even before they have testified is very disturbing. The body that hasn't been credible so far is the army. At first they said that the incident didn't take place at all. Afterward, in court, they said that it was most similar to the third incident."
Superintendent Shlomi Sagi, spokesman for the Judea and Samaria district of the Israel Police, confirms: "Beyond occasional arrests in demonstrations over the separation fence, we do not encounter problems of violence or illegal weapons on the part of international activists in the territories."
Three weeks ago, Avery returned to Israel in order to attend the High Court proceedings. This trip was also paid for by donations of people from many countries, who saw his picture on the ISM Web site and read his story. In addition to the petition, he will soon file a suit for damages against the state, through his attorney, Shlomo Lecker. Avery hopes to receive a large amount of financial compensation, several million dollars, which will cover the expenses of his treatments in the United States.
For Avery, his severe injury did not spell the end of his activity, but rather a stimulus, and the period of recovery is only a recess before jumping in again. "No, I don't pity myself," he says. "At least I'm still alive and I can function quite well, and still work at what interests me and giving people hope. After I finish the entire series of operations, I'll return here."
© 2005 Haaretz