Inside the Al-Azza Refugee Camp in Bethlehem

New York Activists Risk Their Lives to Defend Palestinians

"I’ve been shot at every day," says Kristen Schurr, a 33-year-old freelance journalist from Harlem, speaking via cellphone from the Al-Azza refugee camp in Bethlehem. Schurr is one of 10 New Yorkers who traveled to the West Bank with the International Solidarity Movement, a group of peace activists who have vowed to act as human shields to protect Palestinian civilians.

Since March 29, she and five of the New Yorkers have been holed up with families in the Al-Azza camp as Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) besiege Bethlehem.

Conditions there are "grim," Schurr says. While electricity was restored to the camp this week, residents are largely prevented from leaving for food or medical supplies for fear of being arrested or shot at by Israeli snipers posted at the entrances to the camp and surrounding rooftops. "They mostly fire into the main alley that runs through the camp, so to get across it you have to duck and run very fast or you’ll be hit," Schurr says. "There are F16’s and Apache helicopters flying overhead and tanks constantly circling the camp. Occasionally they fire shells at the perimeter, just to remind people that they’re always under threat," she adds.

Though Schurr believes the growing number of internationals arriving on the West Bank is helping to save Palestinian lives, she and the other New Yorkers have found little safety behind their American passports.

On April 1, Schurr was among the 150 peace activists who were fired upon by Israeli Defense Forces when they attempted to march to the neighboring town of Beit Jala in support of Palestinians who were facing house-to-house arrests. A Palestinian camerman and seven activists were wounded, including Zaid Khalil, an Upper East Side resident, who suffered shrapnel wounds to his leg, and an Australian woman, who was seriously wounded when a bullet fragmented in her stomach.

Although the U.S. embassy offered to evacuate the Americans, Schurr and the other ISM activists refused. "We don’t want to leave until the Israeli troops withdraw from this offensive," she says.

Schurr says most of the New Yorkers are members of the Direct Action Network. When they first set off for the West Bank, they had hoped to stage nonviolent civil disobedience protests outside Israeli checkpoints and escort Palestinian farmers to their fields, protecting them from attacks by Israeli settlers.

But that was before Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared Israel to be "in a state of war."

The group’s focus has since shifted to bearing witness and providing humanitarian aid. "We go out in pairs at the very least, carrying white flags," Schurr says. "We spend most of the day escorting Palestinians who have been detained home from prison or getting supplies and food and filling prescriptions for people at the hospital in Bethlehem, because no one can get out of the camp," Schurr says. "We also ride with the ambulances because if there are internationals with them, they get shot at less, though today and yesterday the ambulances were getting shot at here."

On Sunday, Schurr accompanied several Red Crescent medics in an ambulance who were attempting to deliver food, water, and medical supplies to the more than than 200 Palestinians and Christian clergy who have taken refuge inside the Church of the Nativity. But they were turned back by an Israeli tank, which fired a warning shot at the ambulance and the group of internationals who marched behind it bearing signs printed with sections of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which guarantee the right to treat the sick and wounded. Schurr, who said she has been communicating via cell phone with Palestinians inside the Church, says that as of Tuesday there were nine people dead and 13 wounded and very little food. Contrary to news reports and claims by the Israeli military, Schurr and other international observers insist there have been no shots fired by Palestinians inside the church at the Israeli forces surrounding them.

On Tuesday, Schurr and four other ISM activists faced off with a group of Israeli soldiers riding in a tank and armored personnel carrier through the streets of Bethlehem. "The Israeli soldiers got out of the APC and grabbed this Palestinian guy and shoved him to the ground, with their rifles pointed at him," Schurr says. "We walked towards them with our hands in the air. The soldiers told us to go back but we didn’t, because it looked like they were going to shoot the guy. After about 20 minutes, they let him go. He said they were going to kill him because he didn’t have his ID card with him."

Despite the spiraling conflict in the region, Schurr and her fellow internationals seem undeterred. On Wednesday, she and three other New Yorkers left Bethlehem for the ruins of the Jenin refugee camp, the site of the fiercest fighting between Israelis and Palestinian gunmen. (More than 14 Israeli soldiers have been killed there and at least 150 Palestinians, according to CNN and other news sources.)

While Schurr and the other internationals may get nowhere near the camp—for the past week, Israeli forces have denied entry to both media and aid workers—they hope to bear witness to reports of severe human rights violations there, including an as yet unconfirmed account that some Palestinian families had been bulldozed inside their homes by the Israeli Army, which is now systematically flattening the camp. Israeli officials say civilians were given the opportunity to leave their houses, but on Wednesday, even Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was referring to the situation in Jenin as "a massacre." The city is reportedly littered with bodies, and residents are said to be without food and drinking waste water.

"We’re not worried about ourselves." Schurr told the Voice early Wednesday morning. "We’re worried about the Palestinians. We have the choice to leave at any time. They don’t."

 
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