Saturday, November 18, Morning. "Army forces have withdrawn from Qalqilia, having completed their mission there" says the commentator on the open radio. "While the soldiers were besieging a house where a local Hamas leader barricaded himself, a large Palestinian crowd gathered on the spot, throwing stones at the soldiers. Palestinian sources claim that three Qalqilia inhabitants were killed from the soldiers' fire and thirty wounded."
One by one, cars driven by activists arrive at the Cinema City parking lot north of Tel-Aviv, rendezvous of the Sderot-Gaza Cavalcade. Activists pick up the Peace Now signs reading "Gaza: There is No Military Solution" and "It Will Not End Until We Talk" , and attach them with sticky tapes to their cars. A woman with a T-shirt reading "If they can talk to us, surely we can talk to them" finds place for no less than five signs on the front, sides and back of a diminutive car. The joint hard work of several activists is needed to successfully cover the sides of an especially-chartered truck with enormous banners reading "Only Negotiations Can Stop the Qassam Missiles".
Finally, the preparations are completed and some forty cars set out in a long and imposing line, the narrow blue ribbons tied to radio aerials fluttering in the wind. Not far on the way, the banners on the truck get loose in the strong wind, and activists need to tie them tightly all over again under the cover of a pedestrian bridge, like sailors on an ancient windjammer struggling against billowing sails.
The next hour's radio news repeats the Qalqilia item, but then goes on to say: "A Peace Now Convoy is at this hour on its way from Tel-Aviv to Sderot and the Erez Checkpoint, to protest army activities in the Strip. The Gush Shalom Movement wrote Spanish Foreign Minister Moratinos to express support for the new European initiative to place an international force to the Gaza Strip". "Hey, two left wing items on one news broadcast? And on The Army Radio at that! Was their government controller sleeping?" says Tzachi, student at Be'er Sheva University and Peace Now organizer.
Sderot - the town which is the main target of Palestinian hand-made rockets in the past five years and whose name is the main argument used by the government for the bloody Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. The convoy goes into the main street. A small hand-made sign on a fence reads "We have been thrown to the dogs. Give the army a free hand to smash them!". As if in intentional answer, the lead car has a big sign "People of Sderot, don't let yourselves be fooled. There is NO military solution!".
The militant signs are, however, outnumbered by forlorn "for sale" signs on many houses, and the streets are nearly empty. Some four thousand inhabitants, a large percentage of the townspeople, had yesterday accepted the offer of populist billionaire Arkady Gaidamak to have a week of "holiday from the Qassam" at the resorts of Eilat on the Red Sea.
The few people on the street don't seem so well disposed towards the convoy passing through their city. Suddenly, the phone rings in the lead car: "hello, I am Shirley; I am from Kibbutz Bror Chail here in the Qassam range; I have been working with Sderot youths for three years. Can I come to your rally." "Sure you are most welcome!"
A big official sign says in Hebrew, English and Arabic:" Welcome to the Erez Crossing Point". Rather a mockery; very few have crossed through this modern facility in the past year, either into or out of Gaza. People get off their cars on the large, empty parking lot and take up the signs, activists of the Gaza Coalition brought some hand-painted signs, used last week in the joint Israeli-Palestinian convoy to the same place: "Stop the Siege! Stop the War!"
Chanting starts "In Beit Hanoun and Sderot children want to live" (in Hebrew it rhymes). From the other side of the Gaza border we hear a burst of machine-gun fire. It might have been the one in which one of today's Palestinian casualties lost his life.
At the center of the demonstration Haim Oron - kibbutznik and former Meretz Minister - takes the floor: "A unique opportunity is now opening, and if Olmert does not take it he will have on his hands the blood of the children in Sderot and Beit Hanun whose lives can still be saved. A new Palestinian government is going to be formed. Talk to them! First, of an immediate cease-fire, to stop all this killing. Then, of the solution - the solution which everybody knows will take place sooner or later, call it the Geneva Agreement of the Clinton Outline or whatever. It will come, everybody knows it. Why do thousands have still to die before it comes?"
"We asked for a permit to let Sufian Abu Zeida, the former Palestinian minister, to cross the border and join us here. The army denied it, because it is not 'an urgent humanitarian case'. We will here him over the phone." "Hello, my friends. I am sorry I can't address you face to face. I want to thank you for caring for the suffering of the people here in Gaza, for seeking to make real peace. I want to say something to the other kind of Israelis, those who want a giant new military operation in Gaza, those who want to fight and conquer and kill us: you don't learn from your own failures, if you try this you will have another bloody failure.There is no military solution, nothing but two states and and a fair solution for the refugees. This is the only way: sit together, make our two states live together!" (Chanting: "Israel and Palestine, two states for two peoples!")
Journalist Gideon Levy: "I, unlike most of you, was able to cross to the other side here. I saw Beit Hanoun destroyed and ruined, destroyed streets with every house showing signs of damage, many completely ruined. I saw wounded people dying slowly because they are dependant on respirators and electricity is erratic since our air force bombed their only electric generator. Five minutes' drive from here, across this crossing point, a terrible humanitarian crisis is developing. Everyone who stands complacently aside, which means most people in Israel, shares in the guilt. And I want to say: everybody is talking about the terrible suffering of the Sderot people. They suffer, true, but you can't compare it to Beit Hanoun. Sderot is mourning one victim this week, in Beit Hanoun they mourn more than eighty!" As if on cue, at the exact end of Levy's speech there was again a prolonged machine-gun burst, and we could see a helicopter flying very fast over the fields of the North Gaza Strip."
"I am Shirley, and I come here from Sderot. I identify with the aims of this rally, but I don't agree with the end of what Gideon Levy said. You can't measure the suffering of Sderot only by the number of the dead. I am working with children and youths and I see how this tension affects them. I saw how they were taken to a safe place, to a nice quiet beach, and when the lifeguard announced something trivial on the loudspeaker they were shaking with fear and instinctively looking for an air raid shelter. There is a whole traumatized generation growing there, in fear and hatred."
Yariv Oppenheimer of Peace Now calmed a starting debate, announcing: "We have not come here to set a competition of who is the worst sufferer. We have come to try and stop the suffering of everybody, on both sides of the border."
Just as participants were dispersing, a startling piece of news came over the phone: "The Anarchists are making their own action, some kilometres south of here. They have climbed on tanks and wave signs from them!".
Several cars head fast in that direction, across a muddy track. Ahead, a row of armoured vehicles, and in front of them a clump of blue-uniformed police. "ID's please. This is as far as you go, not a step further!" "Oh Yeh? And by what authority do you stop Israeli citizens from proceeding in the territory of their own country?"
A few minutes' interaction, and we are able to proceed. In fact, what are in front of us are not tanks but armoured personnel carriers, of the type which the IDF quite appropriately designates as "Achzarit" ("Cruella").
The nearest one bears graffiti apparently made by the soldiers themselves: "Sweet revenge". "Gil'ad, we are coming!" (referring to captured Israeli soldier Gil'ad Shalit). "Khaled Mash'al, we are coming!" (referring to the Damascus-based Hamas leader). On the ground are strewn several empty cartons with the inscription: "Israeli Defence Forces - Improved Machine-gun Ammunition." In the second row are the two machines on which the Anarchists chose to make their stand.
There they stand on top of the machines, three spreading out a giant banner: "Stop the murder machines!", while others hold out colour photos of the wounded Palestinians from Beit Hanoun. Some cover their face with life-size photos of a bandaged child's face. They have made red stains on their faces and clothing, and the ground is strewn with dummies simulating body parts. One of these, with arms upraised as if to block the brutal threads, is marked "Rachel Corrie".
There are several press photographers and TV cameras present. Yonathan Polak, central organizer of Anarchists Against the Wall, gives non-stop press interviews on his mobile phone: (...) Since we are Israeli citizens, this murder is perpetrated also in our name. Protesting as strongly as we can is not an option, it is an absolute duty. This is not the first time that we were arrested. That is a very low price to pay, and we are completely willing to pay it."
One of the girls on top of the vehicle tries to sing a parody of a song from the 1967 war: "we have fought like lions..." But her companions retort: "Sorry, we don't know this song. We did not have the advantage of your militarist education". They settle for singing raucously "Avanti Popolo", the song of the Italian left-wing.
The police start approaching closer, and the metallic glint from their belts indicates handcuffs ready for use. The group on top of the vehicles get ready, as do the photographers. But the police stop, and in the sudden silence we can hear one of them asking on his phone: "But precisely what should we charge them with, sir?" A few minutes later, the police turn back, pile into their patrol cars and disappear. There is left the strange tableau of demonstrators apparently left in possession of the army vehicles, with only two conscript guards standing bewildered on one side.