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They Treated Me Like a Member of Their Family…

An Interview with Kate Raphael

Kate Raphael joined the third International Solidarity Movement campaign to Palestine this Spring, which coincided with the Israeli invasion of the West Bank. In addition to taking part in demonstrations in the West Bank, she stayed with a family in Aida refugee camp for ten days.

What led you to join the ISM delegation?

I come from a very religious, and also very Zionist, Jewish family. It was a right of passage to make a pilgrimage to Israel, usually as a teenager. But I never was motivated to do that.

In my early twenties, I started to figure out that something wasn't right — that to stand on the side of justice meant to stand for Palestinian liberation.

In 1995, a close friend of mine wanted to go to Israel. We spent a month there. Half our time was spent in Israel seeing the sights. But we also met with a lot of Israeli and Palestinian activists, especially women's organizations. Since then, I've wanted to return, but only if I could do something useful.

Over the past couple of years, Israeli groups like Rabbis for Human Rights and the Committee Against Home Demolitions have been doing actions with Palestinian groups like the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement, such as planting olive trees, tearing up roadblocks, and blocking demolitions. The PCR is in Beit Sahour, which really started the nonviolent resistance movement in Palestine during the first Intifada (1988-1995).

Coming out of that work, the International Solidarity Movement began to recruit internationals to go and do nonviolent direct action. The first campaign was in June 2001, the second in December. In December, there were about 300 people. There were a lot of Europeans, especially from The Netherlands and Italy, and a fair number of Americans.

When I heard about the March (2002) direct action campaign, I didn't hesitate. I thought, "Breaking the law, that's something I'm good at." You didn't have to be a nurse or a doctor or a lawyer. You just had to be willing to put your body in the way.

How many of the internationals were Jewish?

I don't know exactly, maybe five percent. I was the only Jew at Aida for any length of time, although a couple of others stayed for a night or two.

I heard you did nonviolent direct action trainings while you were there.

David Solnit of Art & Revolution had been invited to do a training for nonviolence trainers inside Israel, and also to teach some art and street-theater organizing. I helped facilitate those trainings before going into Palestine. They were organized by Green Action, a group that organized against the trans-Israel highway.

A couple of people were in their 30s or 40s, but I think everybody else was between 18 and 23. They were almost all born in Israel. Many haven't traveled outside the country. They worked on issues like opposing privatization of child care, or doing direct support of Palestinians in the occupied areas, or working with Indy Media (

There were also people from Black Laundry, a radical queer direct action group. Last year they came out with "No Pride in Occupation" at Tel Aviv Pride (Day). They've done great actions on linking oppression of women and queers with the occupation and racism within their own society.

People were definitely into broadening their tactics. They were very interested in lock-boxes. But the most successful new tactics were art and theater. We made giant puppets, and a banner that said, "Soldier, Obey Your Conscience — That's An Order!" The day the workshop ended, there was a demonstration at a prison that held military resisters — the first use of giant puppets in Israel.

From there you went to Aida refugee camp?

First I went to Bethlehem. Getting into Bethlehem was an adventure in itself. Bethlehem had been declared a closed military area. It took me a shared taxi and two private cabs to go about six miles, to a place you can actually walk to from East Jerusalem.

I got there just in time to go on a march to Beit Jala, because of the (military) buildup there. I took off on this march not knowing much about it or who was on it. It was about 150 people, led by Palestinians and internationals.

We were marching through a ghost town. There was nobody on the street. In preparation for the invasion (of Bethlehem), people were staying in their houses.

The march was festive, but not very militant or exciting. I said to someone, "it's probably good that my first action isn't that intense."

Five minutes later, we were face to face with an Armored Personnel Carrier. It's different from a tank. With APC's there's a window in the front. I looked right into the driver's eyes. Right into his eyes. And it seemed like he pointed his gun straight at me.

Then he pointed it up in the air and fired twice. It was the loudest thing I've ever heard. Then he started firing into the ground, and into a wall on the corner. The Palestinians who were leading the march told us to walk slowly backwards. When we moved backwards, they wouldn't fire, but if we'd stop, they'd start firing again.

I turned around and looked behind me, and I saw only about 50 people. A lot of people had split.

Then I saw people being put into ambulances, and realized they'd been wounded. Mostly it was from flying debris, but one woman took a ricochet bullet in the stomach.

Is this common, for soldiers to fire on protests?

At the time, I figured it was. I didn't get that freaked out about it. But apparently this was unusual, maybe the first time. But it was also the first time ISM had done actions during a military campaign. The previous actions had been in normal occupation times, things like tearing up roadblocks.

What was the response of the protesters?

Some of us wanted to sit down. But we were being told (by the Palestinian leadership of the march) to move back slowly. It seemed kind of weird to me. Either we're making a stand or not. It felt like we weren't doing either. But I would say we all handled ourselves well. No one panicked. Those who wanted out, got out, but didn't put others at risk.

We walked back a ways. Eventually we turned a corner, and the APC turned back. From there, a lot of people stopped at Beit Jala hospital to see what they could find out about the injured people.

Did the march get any media coverage?

Generally, the U.S. media was nowhere in sight. There were always European media, but no U.S. So if anything happened, like at this march, the U.S. media would have to go get their footage from European sources. The Beit Jala march actually got a lot of coverage; when I came home, I saw myself in some of the footage shown here in the Bay Area.

So from there, you went to Aida?

I went back to the Bethlehem Star (Hotel). Other internationals were meeting in their affinity groups. I wrote in my journal for a while. Then a guy came through saying, "Anyone who wants to go to a refugee camp, get your stuff together."

I thought, "I don't have a room, so I guess I could go stay in a refugee camp." I got a few things together, although not enough as it turned out — a change of underwear and a clean T-shirt, a book, a bottle of water, my camera and cell phone — and took off for Aida.

There were about 18 of us, walking with two Palestinians from the camp. It was dark by that time. It's about a mile and a half, but we went around a longer way. We walked very fast. Every time we had to cross a street or an alley, one of the (Palestinian) guys would peek out and look for snipers. Later, I realized that they were just creeping out to see if they got shot. It's not like you actually see snipers, you just get shot.

We made it to Aida. Some people went to the Al-Rowwad Theatre Training Center, where people were hanging out to get on the internet. I went with Kareem Amira to his brother Nidal's house, where we had a wonderful dinner and I met their kids.

Kareem runs the LAJI Center, which runs a youth program, and also sponsors work camps where internationals come and spend two weeks or a month in the summer, building houses and other things.

Kareem took me and two other internationals to Faris's house, where the three of us stayed that night, and where Erik and I stayed for the next ten days. Faris and Naifa have two sets of twins, Amr and Abeer, 10, and Ahud and Mohammad, 8. The baby, Annan (named after Kofi Annan) is 18 months. Faris was in prison during the first Intifada, for three years. Almost all the men have been in prison. It's not a question of whether they've been in prison, but how many times, or for how long. Many of them have been shot or injured in some way.

That first night, we started to hear gunfire and shelling. It seemed really close. Later, I learned to identify when it was close or not. The people thought the camp would be attacked, because it had been attacked in the last invasion in early March. Three people were killed, including a mother of five. The soldiers had ripped through the camp, arrested most of the men, and torn huge holes in most people's houses. They were supposedly looking for caches of weapons. But Aida is a disarmed camp. Any militia or armed resistance left over a year ago.

For us internationals, it was why we were there. Hopefully our presence in the camp would discourage the Israelis from attacking. We didn't know if that would be true, or what they would do with us if they came to the door. We had a lot of discussions about what we should do if they came to the door. We thought that I should go to the door with Naifa. I would speak in English, and say, "We're internationals," and hope for the best.

Then it dawned on me that I should call the media. So I called a reporter I had spoken with previously, and she put my number out on the wire, and I started getting calls from all over. I talked on the phone all night long.

That night was scary. I didn't know what was going to happen, but I knew if they started shooting or shelling or bombing, it's not like they can tell who they are hitting.

The next day, we had breakfast and then walked to the Training Center. I got to look at the camp. It didn't look like what I expected. The houses were a lot more solid. I'd been in a camp in Thailand once, where people had lived for five or seven years, and it had dirt roads and thatch huts and tents, not much running water or electricity.

But in Aida, there's a variety of housing. The U.N. built this camp in 1948, for people who were refugees from inside (the newly-formed) state of Israel. Then more people came there (after the war) in 1967. The U.N. built temporary housing, but after a number of years, people realized they weren't going home anytime soon, and they started to build better housing. Since there was no way to expand out, they built up.

Tell us more about Aida.

There are about 4,000 people in Aida, about 750 families. The houses are mainly of stone. They have electricity, mobile phones, running water. The water tanks are on the roof. They collect rain water as well as pumped water.

Water is an issue, like everywhere. There are 400,000 (Israeli) settlers and 2.5 million Palestinians (in the West bank), and the settlers get to use 80% of the water. So the Palestinians are always collecting water. Especially during closure times, when things like water get scarce. They collect bath water, dish water, rain water — they never let water just go down the drain.

It's a very educated society. Literacy is about 95%. There's a higher level of advanced education among women than among men — partly because so many of the men are in and out of prison. A lot of teachers, doctors, and lawyers are women. That has fostered a very strong feminist movement. They take the view that women's liberation is not secondary to the national liberation struggle.

All over Aida, you see pictures of martyrs. When you meet a kid, they'll immediately come up to the pictures and point and say, "That was my cousin," or, "That was my brother." Pretty much everybody in the camp has lost someone close to them. in the last few years.

What were your days like?

The first couple of days, we didn't go anywhere. The first day they lifted curfew, a friend and I went to the baby hospital to deliver some medicine. We learned that, as internationals, we could go out even during curfew, but we didn't go as far as Bethlehem, because that seemed a lot riskier. There were soldiers everywhere.

When we'd been there about a week, they lifted curfew long enough for everyone to shop. So we went to Bethlehem to get the rest of our stuff, so we could have clean clothes.

There was shooting the whole time we were in Bethlehem, even though the curfew was lifted. People were out with their babies. And I thought, why are they letting their kids be out when there's shooting? But then I realized, there's always shooting, and you have to go and shop sometime.

The ambulances came in that day with food, so we walked alongside the ambulances, in hopes that (the Israelis) wouldn't shoot them. A Red Cross driver got up on top of an ambulance and told people they could come and get food. Despite the sounds of shooting, people rushed to get the food. It was almost like a stampede.

In the evening we'd hang out with the family, drink coffee and tea, play with the kids. Sometimes they'd have someone over who spoke English, and we'd talk.

During the days, the international people would go down to the community center, partly so the families could have some time without strangers hanging out in their house, but also so we could all work together. One day we went on a march to try to get an ambulance into Manger Square. That one was fired on, or at least they fired into the air.

Another day that curfew was lifted at Aida, they buried seven people who had been killed at Bethlehem. There was room in the cemetery in Aida, and it wasn't going to be possible to have a funeral in Bethlehem, where there was still all the shooting. So they buried them at Aida.

When curfew was lifted, everyone had two or three hours, and there are these tiny little shops, and everyone in town was trying to get their groceries. Then the Israelis decided to re-impose the curfew a half hour early. It was pure chaos.

I'm curious — how many of the internationals were Jewish?

I don't know exactly, but I don't think it was a large percentage, maybe 5% at the most. I was the only Jew at Aida for any length of time, though a British guy named Adam came for one night, and another had been there for a couple nights before the invasion. Of those who went from the Bay Area, only two of us out of 6-10, depending whom you count, are Jewish. There was one Jewish guy I knew of at Azza, and I think Tycho and I were the only ones on our trip to Jenin.

You stayed at Aida till the end of the ISM campaign?

Yeah. Then the last day I was in Israel, we did a protest at the U.S embassy in Tel Aviv. Another American woman said she wanted to protest at the embassy. That had been my idea, too. The campaign ended at noon on Friday, but I wasn't leaving till midnight. So our idea was that the Americans would do something at the U.S. embassy.

I called some of my friends in Tel Aviv. They said we should do it at 2:30, since the Women in Black vigil was from 1 to 2. They put it out through their network, and we got in touch with Israeli leftists. Several thousand people came out. There were Arab members of the Knesset there, and pretty much everybody who was anybody in the Israeli left.

What do you feel the campaign accomplished?

It's important that there are internationals in Palestine, because it gives people back home a connection. People I know were concerned about what was happening in Bethlehem because I was there.

I wouldn't say I learned a lot about the occupation that I hadn't already heard. But it makes a big difference to people if you can say, "I've been there and seen this."

Selected Web Resources

For more information on the International Solidarity Movement, contact Kate at (510) 666-1376, or email

For information about San Francisco Women in Black, contact (510) 434-1304,

For information on events in the Middle East:

The Other Israel —
Palestine Remembered —
Tim Wise, "Reflections on Zionism by a Dissident Jew" —
Salman Abu Sitta, "The Return of the Refugees: the Key to Peace," —
What did your experience mean to you as a Jew?

Previously I could have said, "I don't believe that all Palestinians hate all Jews." Now I can say, "I've lived among Palestinians who knew I was Jewish, and they treated me like a member of their family — except one who didn't do any work and got fed the best food..."

I lived among the people, they took care of me, they fed me, housed me, let their kids play with me — and all they asked in return is that I tell people back home what is going on.

The Palestinians that I met in Aida, most of them hadn't met a Jew who wasn't a soldier. The men who worked in Israel had, but the kids hadn't. A lot of the women hadn't. So they found out that not all Jews are their enemy.

It's also important that Jews see that there are other Jews who feel strongly enough that what the state of Israel is doing is wrong that we are willing to go and put ourselves in the line of fire.

We'll give contact information for the ISM. But what else can people do?

If you're willing and have time to do one risky thing, do a highly visible direct action here in the U.S. Ultimately, that is what's going to stop the occupation. The Palestinians are very clear that the occupation will end when the U.S. government wants it to end. The government will want that because thousands of North Americans are demonstrating in the streets and blocking federal buildings and roads — because the cost is getting too high at home.

Kate Raphael has been an activist in the San Francisco Bay Area for twenty years, for causes ranging from nuclear disarmament to queer and women's liberation. She attended her first Reclaiming ritual in Santa Rita Jail in 1983.