Hell’s Grannies

British women are using themselves as human shields in Israel, and they put the rest of us to shame

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 14th August 2001

Ariel Sharon’s decision not to blast the Palestinians out of existence after last week’s suicide bombings is, at first sight, mystifying. While jets blew up the Palestinians’ police station in Ramallah and Israeli soldiers occupied their East Jerusalem headquarters, these reprisals were far less bloody than most people had predicted.

Several hypotheses have been advanced to explain this uncharacteristic restraint. Sharon is seeking to keep faith with his more conciliatory foreign minister, Shimon Peres. He is hoping to collect some moral credit, which he will use to defend much fiercer intervention at a later date. The seizure of Palestinian offices does more to hurt their cause than the murder of prominent figures. All these explanations are plausible, but there is another possible interpretation, overlooked by almost everyone. In killing Palestinians, Ariel Sharon can no longer be sure that he is killing only Palestinians.

For the past few weeks, foreign peace activists belonging to the International Solidarity Movement have been arriving in Jerusalem and the West Bank, joining demonstrations, staying in the homes of threatened Palestinians, turning themselves into human shields between the Israeli army and its targets. A few days ago they were joined by one of the most remarkable forces in British politics, a group of mostly middle-aged or elderly campaigners called Women in Black UK. These Hell’s Grannies have moved straight into the front line, ensuring that the brutality with which the Palestinians are routinely treated now has international repercussions: Israel can’t hurt local people without hurting them too.

For the past few nights, members of the solidarity movement have been sleeping in the homes of Palestinians in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala. Eight hundred and fifty homes here have been shelled by soldiers stationed in the neighbouring Jewish settlement of Gilo, as the army seeks to expel the Palestinians in order to expand Israel’s illegal plantation.

The foreigners have been standing at army checkpoints, photographing soldiers when they stop people trying to leave or enter their communities and recording the names of those they arrest. The soldiers hate this scrutiny, but whenever the monitors arrive at a checkpoint, there’s a marked reduction in the violence there.

The Women in Black also helped to organise the demonstrations outside Orient House, the Palestinian headquarters seized by Israel on Friday. They established the physical and political space in which Palestinians could protest non-violently. Arrested and beaten up with the local people, the women witnessed the torture of Palestinian prisoners in the police station, which would otherwise have gone unrecorded.

In short, these volunteer peacekeepers are seeking to do precisely what foreign governments have promised but failed to do: to monitor and contest abuses of human rights, to defuse violence, and to challenge Israel’s ethnic cleansing programme. Their actions put us all to shame.

As well as seeking to enforce peace, they are trying, hard as it is in the current atmosphere, to broker it. They have been suggesting to their Palestinian hosts some of the novel means by which injustice can be confronted without the use of violence. They have plenty of experience to draw on.

Some of these Hell’s Grannies have been involved in the Trident Ploughshares campaign which, over the past fortnight, has been running rings round the marines guarding the nuclear submarines in Scotland. To the astonishment of the guards, the protesters there have managed to evade the tightest security in the United Kingdom, swimming into the docks in which the submarines are moored and spray-painting the words “useless” and “illegal” on their sides. They have launched canoes and home-made rafts into the paths of submarines trying to leave their berths. They have cut through the razor wire and roamed around the base, hoping to arrest its commander for crimes against humanity. A few days ago, they blocked the main gates of the nuclear warhead depot, their arms embedded in barrels of concrete, bringing work to a halt as the police tried to figure out how to extract them.

Two years ago, three of these women climbed into the Trident programme’s floating research laboratory on Loch Goil and, as a delightful new video commissioned by the Quakers shows, threw all its computers into the sea. In Greenock court, they were acquitted of criminal damage, after the sherriff accepted their defence that the Trident programme infringes international law: rather than committing a crime, they were preventing one. Soon afterwards, the women “borrowed” a police boat from the Trident base in Coulport and drove it into the submarine docks at Faslane. Among them was one of the women who were also found not guilty in 1996 after smashing up a Hawk aircraft bound for East Timor. The subsequent publicity forced the government to stop exporting Hawks to Indonesia.

Though they’re acquitted as often as they’re convicted, Hell’s Grannies have spent much of the past few years in jail. They take full responsibility for their actions. If the police fail to spot them, they ring them up and ask to be arrested. Their candour, clarity and humour have played well in court, but the risks of this accountable campaigning are enormous. The prosecution began yesterday of 17 British and American Greenpeace activists, who are being tried on terrorism charges after peacefully occupying the Californian launch pad being used for George Bush’s missile defence tests. In the Middle East such tactics are likely to be still more dangerous, as Israeli soldiers have shown no hesitation in killing protesters in cold blood. But, as Gandhi recognised, the brutal treatment of non-violent campaigners can destroy the moral authority of the oppressor, generating inexorable pressure for change.

The Women in Black are clearly prepared not only to die for their cause, but also to make what Dostoevesky correctly identified as a far greater sacrifice: to live for their cause. They are ready to lose their homes, their comforts, their liberty, to be vilified, beaten up and imprisoned. Their accountable actions require a far greater courage than throwing bricks at the police.

Most importantly perhaps, these campaigners never cease to acknowledge the humanity of their opponents. They seek not to threaten but to persuade. The results can be astonishing. The MoD police who pulled the Trident swimmers out of the water ferried them back to their camp, rather than arresting them, while massaging their legs to stop cramp. When Angie Zelter, one of the co-ordinators of Women in Black, was on remand for her attempts to demolish the British military machine, she was visited in prison by a timber merchant whose business she had once tried to shut down. He had, as a result of her campaign, stopped importing mahogany stolen from indigenous reserves in Brazil, and started refashioning his business along ethical lines, and now he needed her advice.

All this is a long-winded way of saying something which, in the 21st Century, sounds rather embarrassing: these people are my heroes. They confront us with our own cowardice, our failure to match our convictions with action. We talk about it, they do it. Hell’s Grannies are walking through fire. If they can, why can’t we all?