6 March 2003 Edition

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Eyewitness Intifada

Caoimhe Butterly has lived and worked in Chiapas and Guatemala but she first came to widespread notice when she made her way as a human shield into Yasser Arafat's compound in Palestine as it was came under Israeli attack in April 2002. In her work with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society since then, she was twice injured - first by shrapnel, then by an Israeli soldier, who shot her in the leg as she was tried to protect a group of Palestinian children on the streets of Jenin Refugee Camp. Now back in Ireland, she has made it her task to speak out about the suffering and struggle of the Palestinian people.

An Phoblacht: What made you decide to go to Palestine?

Caoimhe Butterly: I had been working in Latin America for a number of years. Obviously, I had heard a lot about Palestine over the years. I was back in Ireland working briefly and after 9/11, and due to the very racist vilification that was going on of Middle-Eastern people, I decided the place to go at that time was the Middle East.

I initially went to Iraq to work with a group called Voices in the Wilderness, a US-based group that seeks to highlight the devastating effects of the sanctions imposed upon the Iraqi people for the last 12 years. From there, I moved on to Palestine and spent most of the year in different refugee camps.

AP: Was Palestine very different to the images the mainstream media offer us?

CB: It was much worse. Only in years to come will people really appreciate how devastating the April invasions were for the whole infrastructure and for Palestinian society. Pre-April, what I experienced in the refugee camps were massive violation of human rights, but the crimes committed by the Israeli occupation force at the time were in some ways mild compared with what we have witnessed since.

For the first few months I was living in Balata refugee camp. I witnessed lots of things I had read about. But it was only in April 2002 that Sharon decided to test the waters of public condemnation to see whether the international community would condemn openly what they were doing... They saw that there was very little response and on the back of that the April massacres took place, and this is a process that has not really ended. Every day brings fresh news of casualties, the increasing death toll, and the destruction of the infrastructure of Palestine. There is a very intense effort going on to subjugate the Palestinian people.

AP: Media reports simplify the situation in Palestine as tit for tat. Is it really like that?

CB: A system of apartheid is being carried out. There is very little open media criticism here of the Israeli war on the Palestinian people. They often describe Palestine in the news with terms that would connote two equal sides engaged in some sort of warfare. Obviously this is not true. It is not tit for tat. I think the Palestinian bombings play into the hands of the Sharon administration, but I think the Israelis will act in the same way whether there are bombings or not. And this is something that will continue unabated because of the support and financing of the American administration and the complicity by silence of the international political community.

AP: Do Palestinians still feel a solution is attainable?

CB: I think that to engage in hopelessness is a luxury the Palestinians cannot afford. By losing hope you are throwing the towel, you stop the fight and stop struggling. I think hope lies in the future leadership, in the passionate truth coming out of the mouth of each child you speak to in the street.

They have lived under this brutal Israeli occupation, they have endured the very blatant corruption, ineptitude and brutality of their own government, the silence of the Arab world and the international community. Over 9,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned since April. They have been kept in subhuman conditions. They have been interned without trial.

Despite all that, Palestinians are resilient and courageous and loving in the face of it all, but also they believe their fight is a righteous one, because they are struggling for the most basic of human rights: for freedom, for emancipation. But it obviously needs the support of the international community in the form of sanctions against Israel and by applying the language of the oppressed to the Palestinian situation and call it what it is: apartheid.

AP: What effect will the recent Israeli elections have?

CB: The election results are nothing surprising. What I find surprising is that people still hope for change within the Israeli administration. I do not think the politics or the policies of the Sharon administration are anything new. It is a state-sponsored terrorism that has been waged upon the Palestinian people for quite a while, pre and post 1948. I think that ultimately this is a Zionist project that began in the 1890s and the principles of which are "forced transfer or annihilation".

Many Palestinians are very fearful of the intensification of the warfare that has been waged against the Iraqi people. International media attention will be focused on Iraq and that will allow the Sharon administration a free hand on Palestine. People are expecting a massive invasion of Gaza, massive transfers of people, intensification of violence in the West Bank. They are talking of a repetition of the 1948 exodus in which six million Palestinians were forced to abandon Palestine.

AP: You are painting a very bleak picture. What can we do to change it?

CB: Palestinians really appreciate people travelling there to witness what is happening. It is also important to show an alternative face of the West, to demonstrate we have more than racism and smart bombs to offer, to challenge the inaccuracies and try to build solidarity campaigns.

A lot of Palestinians say over and over that as long as there is a Palestinian man, woman or child alive, the desire for freedom will persist, as it is passed in the blood.. The resilience of the human spirit, the fact that they do not give up, that they keep going on - as Palestinians would say: for every check point there is a way around it - is what for me represents the spirit of Palestinians. They still manage to be very hospitable and loving and compassionate to the people around them. The bitterness and violence is not being internalised and they remain very focused that their fight is a righteous one.

An Phoblacht
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