Mira Ten-Hagen read about the plight of Palestinians online, then Googled the International Solidarity Movement, a group that helps volunteers mostly from Europe and the United States get to the West Bank to take part in nonviolent protests against Israel military rule. The Dutch college student signed up for a two-month tour.
This past weekend, seven weeks after arriving, Ten-Hagen was thrust into the conflict’s searing spotlight when an Israeli officer was caught on video smashing her in the face with his rifle during what appears to have been a peaceful demonstration in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley. “The soldiers formed a line to stop us and then one of them hit me and I fell to the ground,” she told The Daily Beast.
The incident underscored the growing involvement of foreigners—mostly Europeans—in campaigns against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and the increasingly aggressive measures Israel has taken to stop them.
The Israeli military quickly suspended the officer, a lieutenant-colonel, and stressed that the beating ran against Army policies. A spokesman said investigators would determine whether the officer should be prosecuted.
But even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the incident, other Israelis pointed a finger at the activists, saying their actions reflected an ugly bias against Israel within left-wing circles in Europe.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is how you prove your left credentials in Europe,” says political scientist Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center, a private college in Herzliya.
“It’s one thing if people say, ‘On balance, I understand Israel’s concerns but we support the right of Palestinians to have a state.’ But it’s not like that. It’s like Israel is completely bad and they will not listen to anything else.”
Palestinians, of course, say the opposite is true. They maintain that Israel cynically portrays all criticism as anti-Semitic or as an attempt to delegitimize its very existence instead of recognizing it for what it is: a genuine critique of Israel’s often harsh military rule over the Palestinians since 1967.
“Israel won’t tolerate any criticism whatsoever. It shuts down all freedom of expression,” said Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Palestinian activist.
He cites as an example his own experience organizing a campaign to bring about 1,500 mostly Europeans to the West Bank for a series of political activities last week. Though no protests or provocations were planned, he says, Israel blocked most of the activists from entering the country.
At the airport, Israeli officials gave the activists a sarcastic letter asking why they’re not focusing on other Middle East countries including Syria, where the “regime’s daily savagery against its own people … has claimed thousands of lives.”
“But instead you chose to protest against Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy, where women are equal, the press criticizes the government, human rights organizations can operate freely, religious freedom is protected for all and minorities do not live in fear,” reads the letter.
The involvement of Western activists in Palestinian protests is not new and neither are the accusations against them. The International Solidarity Movement, which is led mostly by Palestinians, has been active in the West Bank since 2001, and other groups have been collaborating with foreigners since well before then.
But the latest confrontation follows closely on the heels of another controversy that had already raised sensitivities: a poem published by the German novelist Günter Grass that suggested Israel might be planning to annihilate Iranians as part of its effort to stop Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
Though it was criticized by figures across Europe’s political spectrum, the poem heightened the feeling that Israelis often articulate about their critics—that their censures are marked by a double standard and often laced with anti-Semitism.
Israel responded by barring Grass from ever visiting the Jewish state.
Ten-Hagen, the Dutch activist, said the incident over the weekend took place when about 200 Palestinian and foreign activists began a bike tour on Route 90, a road in the West Bank where she said Palestinians are often harassed.
They were stopped almost immediately by about 10 Israeli soldiers, who tossed their bicycles in a ditch before turning violent. She said the soldiers struck at least two other protesters, including an activist from Denmark.
After the video surfaced, the Danish ambassador to Israel asked officials to explain the incident.
The Army said it was checking whether the soldiers were attacked in any way. But Palestinians said a video of the entire incident showed that the violence by soldiers was unprovoked.