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Eva Bartlett: Head first towards the opposition

June 12, 2010

The one, the only, Ms. Bartlett

Over black tea and a kaleidoscope-colored vegetarian buffet, Eva Bartlett recounts her stay thus far in the Gaza Strip, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, the “Green” ruling party of Hamas, and foreign journalists, doctors, and aid workers. Eva, a Canadian in her early thirties of average height and petite build, has been in Gaza since November 2008, arriving on a Free Gaza flotilla with seven other international activists. They had come to join the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). One month later Operation Cast Lead began and Eva’s missions of non-violent resistance took a sharp turn.

Eva, who was born in Michigan and raised mostly in Canada, told me her parents, educated and politically-progressive, instilled in her a deep respect for human rights and a passion for activism and questioning the system, so to speak. Even so, I asked, how can they, as simply your parents, support what you are doing, literally putting your life on the line? I had struggled with my own parents’ feelings ever since announcing to them my intention of joining the Gaza Freedom March. I knew that they trusted me, but couldn’t help but think that I was somehow planting a self-destructive seed in my family. But Eva replied coolly that not only were her parents proud but they supported all of what she is and has been doing. Considering what that work is, I find that shocking, and at the same time, supremely inspiring.

ISM is an non-violence resistance force of international volunteers. They receive no pay. They must endure life in either the West Bank, where they are routinely shot at while demonstrating in the shadows of the separation wall, or Gaza, where, in addition to often being shot at, they are cut off from the rest of the world. In a world where even the UNRWA has been abandoned by the blockade and the effective sway of public opinion, the ISM is quietly fighting for Palestinians, and their own, lives and livelihoods.

With Operation Cast Lead underway, hundreds of bombs were being dropped every day (over 100 targets were hit in the first 220 seconds ultimately killing over 230 Palestinians and injuring over 700 that first day). Men, women and children were now just casualty statistics. Over the course of the 22-day siege, more than half of Gaza’s hospitals and health clinics were bombed (some by guided missiles which the Israeli military claims are among the most accurate and advanced in the world) and the ISM volunteers started noticing a disturbing trend: medics were reportedly being shot at and, in some cases, killed, whether by far-away IOF snipers or close-range from soldiers/guards at military set-up checkpoints. (If true, that Israeli soldiers were targeting medics specifically and ambulances in general, this (knowingly firing at a medic wearing clear insignia) is a violation of Article(s) 17 and 18 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions and Israel is guilty of committing war crimes). After several medics had been murdered, the volunteers put out a press release saying that they would from here on ride with medics in their ambulances.

Though no more medics were killed specifically on their watch, Eva said, they continued to be shot at, and in some instances, killed outright. In all, 16 medics were murdered by the Israeli military.

Following the pull out of IOF troops, Eva remained in Gaza. Her passion: unwavering. Her mission: somewhat ambiguous. In the larger scheme, her role, as a foreign activist/journalist in a conflict zone such as Gaza is important symbolically, as a foreigner on the ground to be a physical show of solidarity and to bare radical witness to the world-at-large. But in a more immediate sense, Eva’s job was to help enable Palestinian lives get back to normal.

She began accompanying Gazan fishermen on their daily fishing expeditions. Armed with nothing more than a megaphone and a florescent vest, she would fend off Israeli military ships with calls of “We are unarmed fishermen making our daily catches! We pose no threat to you!” Gazan fishing vessels were regularly targeted by the IOF, fishermen shot, boats confiscated. Even with Eva and her fellow ISM volunteers riding along, the harrassment and shooting continued.

The restrictive nature of the sea blockade

Under the 2000 Oslo Accords, a 20-nautical mile limit was established for Gaza-originating fishing vessels. Over time, Israel has unilaterally reduced the limit to 6-nautical miles and then, following Operation Cast Lead, 3-nautical miles. Gazan fishermen say that even to fish past 2.5 nautical miles they are harassed and fired upon. According to Fishing Under Fire, since the 2008/2009 offensive ended, 1 fisherman has been killed, 9 have been injured by gunfire, at least 86 have reportedly been abducted, and 37 fishing vessels have been confiscated.

As the story unfolded before me, Eva remained calm, while I soon noticed I was becoming more jittery and visibly emotional. It was a breathtaking introduction to life on the front lines of occupation. Eva’s relationship to the IOF is a special one. Though certainly not without risk, the life of a pro-Palestinian activist is generally one of near-constant harassment, intimidation and violence, not to mention what must be overwhelming pressure.

But that’s in the West Bank and abroad. A Gaza-based activists’ relationship with Israel is filled with bullets, war and waiting. With no face-to-face contact with Israeli troops or Israelis and limited interaction with foreign activists and press, ISM volunteers in Gaza must maintain vigilance in the face of a crippling blockade, crumbling streets and infrastructure, and a Western world which largely ignores their cries for help and their incriminating video evidence of Israeli-imposed humanitarian and economic atrocities. As opposed to their Palestinian brethren, who must choose between fighting for their livelihoods and picking up the pieces of their lives, ISM volunteers have a different choice: fight or flight. Eva has a Canadian passport. She has white skin. Though difficult, she can leave if she wants. But what would happen to the Gazan civilian population if she left?  Surely Palestinians themselves will continue to farm, fish, and stand guard.  Because of these truths, Eva serves a vital role in this battle: the white foreign peacekeeper and sometimes rabble-rouser.

In the fields of northern and eastern Gaza, where farmers live in the shadows of the separation razor-wire fence, Eva helps bring families together.  When Israel constructed the fence, they divided families and villages from their farmland.  This is true in both the West Bank and Gaza, where some of the most arable land is now littered with a massive (up to 8 meters tall in some places) wall and a buffer zone. Originally just 50 meters from the fence, Israel has unilaterally increased the distance to 150 meters and then 300 meters, though IOF troops often shoot at unarmed Palestinians who stray closer than 2 km. Keeping weapons out of Gaza and bombs from being shot over the border is a noble cause and one which calls for some degree of monitoring of the checkpoints and preemptive security. But couldn’t the Israeli military, which claims to have one of the most sophisticated and precise force in the world, maintain their security AND allow farmers access to their crops and lands?  Can’t one of the most highly trained armies in the world tell the difference between farmers and militants?

Israeli tanks, as captured by Eva.

The answer is yes. But in practice, farmers are regularly shot at while tilling or harvesting their fields. Farmland is regularly razed by IOF bulldozers, with troops and machinery coming into Gaza, leaving the land in shambles, a season’s work made redundant. And Eva is there. Again, armed with nothing more than a flourescent vest and a megaphone, she calls out to the watchful eyes of the IOF: “We are unarmed farmers working our land. We pose no threat to you. Do not shoot!”

But they always shoot. And they tear farmland, a season’s worth of crops and hard work, apart.  Why? What is the reason to shoot at self-described unarmed farmers? What is the reasoning behind not letting work be done, not letting ordinary civilians make lives for themselves, be the stewards of self-determination that all people should be? It’s Eva’s opinion, and the facts certainly make the case, that by making more land in the footprint of the separation fence unlivable, the arable land no longer viable for growing food Gazans need so badly, Israel can unilaterally increase the size of the buffer zone, extending their control further into Gaza. And these land grabs and elimination of Gazan industry lead to further dependency on Israel, and the world, to provide humanitarian aid.

Eva Bartlett is a force of nature. All 5’6″ of her. She is one of the most incredible people I’ve ever had the honor of meeting doing an absolutely extraordinary service for humanity. My less than 72 hours in Gaza was a hugely influential time for me, as both a Jew and as a person. Though the time was short, what I learned both reinforced and altered what I thought I knew.  The suffering is real.  Yes, the rule of Hamas is iron-fisted but yet rooted in a desire to one day live in peace.  But I expected to learn about these things.

What I didn’t expect, though, was to meet someone like Eva, who literally took my breath away. Speaking of her role as a peacekeeper amid tremendous violence and suffering, she referred back to her passion as a concert-pianist.  I rely on my hands, she said. I would be devastated if anything happened to them and I couldn’t play piano again, she mournfully admitted.

Eva, working with farmers in the border region east of Khan Younis

To that end, Eva Bartlett leans head first towards her IDF counterparts, head first in the face of bullets screaming past her body, protecting her hands behind her head, leading with her heart.

UPDATE:  Upon sending this post to Eva as a courtesy, I was informed of some rather large news.  Turns out Eva has just left Gaza.  She is newly married to a Palestinian, Emad Badwan, a supremely talented videographer and documentary photographer, who had a visa to study in Venezuela.  I wish them all the best.

UPDATE 2: Per Eva’s corrections, this post has been altered from it’s original content, specifically regarding the number of medics killed during Operation Cast Lead and to the presence of a separation fence, not a wall, between Gaza and Israel.

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