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Berkeley activist faces Israeli tanks in West Bank

By Matt Artz, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday April 12, 2002

When Berkeley resident Rob Lipton answered his cell phone on April 1, the voice on the other end made him feel a helplessness known to so many of the Palestinian refugees with whom he was staying 

“Rob, they’re shooting us up,” cried a fellow peace activist.Lipton’s cohorts had situated themselves approximately 15 meters from an Israeli armored division in the West Bank city of Beit Jala. The tense stand off ended violently when an Israeli soldier fired shots in their direction. 

According to Lipton, five peace demonstrators, two Palestinian cameramen and an Italian video photographer were hit when the bullets ricocheted off their intended targets. One demonstrator, an Australian woman was hit directly in the stomach. The protestors retreated from the Israeli front lines and were able to get their wounded medical attention.  

Lipton had originally intended to join his comrades in the daytime march, but decided against it after he was unable to sleep in the face of constant Israeli fire throughout his first night at the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. 

Upon receiving the call, Lipton knew there was little he could do for the injured protestors. 

He contacted the U.S. Embassy for assistance and waited to hear from the field, stoically aware that the difference between finding himself on the receiving end of Israeli fire and his friend’s telephone call was one sleepless night. 


Such was a day in the life of a Berkeley peace activist who had taken his politics to the middle of a war zone. 

It wasn’t supposed to be quite so difficult for Lipton, a 43-year old public health researcher, who had previously worked at refugee camps in Hong Kong and the Cambodia – Thailand border, “I had never been to the region and it seemed like a good opportunity to see what was happening,” said Lipton. 

He and his fellow protestors from the International Solidarity Movement, a one-year old grass roots organization advocating civil disobedience in opposition to the Israeli occupation, had planned a two-week itinerary to provide support for Palestinians. 

“Our original mission was to rebuild demolished houses, harvest olives (from olive groves that were placed off limits to Palestinians), and tear down Israeli blockades,” said Lipton. 

The plan was foiled as Lipton was just setting off for Israel. That night, March 27th, a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated an explosive at a Netanya hotel where Israelis had congregated for a Passover seder. Twenty Israelis were killed; it was the deadliest suicide bombing in the conflict’s bloody history.  

When Lipton arrived in Tel Aviv on March 29th, he acted as if nothing had changed. A chartered taxi was waiting for him. He took it to a border crossing, and then had no difficulty hailing a second taxi to Bethlehem’s Star Hotel, where he met up with other ISM activists.  

At the hotel, the activists gauged the severity of the situation, and decided to change their mission. With Israeli troops surrounding Bethlehem and blocking major transport roads as part of their new incursion into the occupied West Bank, ISM shifted its attention from performing acts of civil disobedience throughout the West Bank to trying to protect the local Palestinians from the invading Israeli forces. 

The plan was that if the Israelis knew that there were international protesters in the Palestinian refugee camps they would be more hesitant to attack. The activists were to become human shields for the Palestinians. 

Lipton agreed with the change in tactics, and drew strength from the size and diversity of the ISM contingent. “There were between 70 and 100 activists from the North America, Europe, and Japan,” said Lipton who was surprised to meet grandparents, single mothers and Republican lawyers among the ISM activists. 

On March 31st, Lipton joined a group of ISM marchers to confront an Israeli division in Beit Jala, a city adjacent to Bethlehem. Unlike the march that would end violently the following day, the protesters were only met with stun grenades, which according to Lipton made a loud noise but did no harm. 

While they were face to face with Israeli soldiers, Lipton and several other activists tried to engage them in a conversation about the war. Some troops expressed exasperation with the situation, asking rhetorically what they were supposed to in under such circumstances. Other soldiers were more strident. One soldier told Lipton, “Palestinians kill people because they want to, when we do it, it is by accident.” 

On the evening of March 31st Lipton along with several other ISM activists were assigned to reside at the Aida Refugee Camp. During his two-day stay, Lipton toured the camp, which he compared to a crowded condominium community with narrow streets. The camp was remarkably clean, he observed, but there were holes in some roads from rounds shot out of Apachee helicopters, and several homes were damaged from a March 8th Israeli invasion against alleged snipers. 

Lipton’s arrival proved to be an eye opening experience for everyone involved. At about 6’5” with curly brown hair, his presence could not help but raise a few eyebrows among the camp’s 2,500 inhabitants. When those who talked to him learned that he is an American Jew, they expressed even greater surprise. 

This revelation did not change the warm welcome Lipton found at the camp. “The Palestinians I met made a clear distinction between Israelis and Jews”, said Lipton, who claimed that he did not encounter any racism from the Palestinians he met. 

Lipton was encouraged by most of what he saw at the camp. Although some residents had kalishnikov rifles and expressed rigid opinions, the bulk of the Palestinians he spoke to seemed more interested in ultimately achieving a middle class lifestyle than in seeking revenge against the Israelis. “They didn’t show a lot of rancor towards the Israelis. They just wanted to run their own lives,” said Lipton. 

Home for Lipton in Aida was a children’s center attached to the home of Abu Sroar, a Palestinian who was born in the camp, earned a doctorate in Biology at a French University, but then returned to build the children’s center and a theater. 

“He was a friendly and warm man living in crowded but clean house,” said Lipton who slept on a mat with his host’s elderly parents. 

Nightime at Aida were difficult. Israeli gunfire could be heard throughout both nights and occasionally the shots were directed at the camp as a warning, according to Lipton, who said that he was fortified by how the Palestinians dealt with the constant threat. “The Palestinians are amazing, they are not just surviving, but they are living…they got you by with their grace and kindness,” said Lipton. 

Lipton spent the night of April 2nd back at the Star Hotel, but that did not mean he was free from danger. “Israeli troops were everywhere, said Lipton, who said that one time when he was leaving the hotel, he saw a laser light on his chest. This was a targeting laser from an Israeli soldier who had Lipton in full view. 

On April 3rd, the U.S. embassy was able to provide the evacuation cars that Lipton had requested after he had learned of the violence in Beit Jala two days earlier. While approximately 20 – 30 ISM activists stayed on as shields in local camps, 

Lipton decided to board a car to Jerusalem where he devoted his time to supplying the residents of the Aida Camp with much needed medical supplies. 

Working with the Union of Palestinian Relief Committees, Lipton knitted together a group of people who acquired medical supplies. He then maneuvered his way around Israeli checkpoints, and hand delivered the supplies to the hospital in Beit Jala, from where they were to be sent to the Aida camp.  

Lipton is now en route to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem, where he says the mood is equally tense. “There are guards at every bank and every restaurant,” said Lipton. On Saturday, he will fly back to the Bay Area, where he will continue his role as a co-ordinator for Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization calling for the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. 

Lipton will return home having witnessed ghastly suffering and violence, but his experience in Aida gives him reason for optimism. “I think the Palestinians want good relations.” “If the Israelis end the occupation in a just way, the region will normalize.”