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‘The Israeli army and me: I was wounded by an armoured personnel carrier – then detained and deported after refusing to spy’





As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza rages on, former peace activist Chris Dunham, from Bishop’s Stortford, looks back at his time in the West Bank – including co-starring in a documentary with the late comedian Jeremy Hardy and being bought a kebab by Yasser Arafat...

At the end of 2001 I travelled to Bethlehem to spend part of the Christmas period in the Holy Land. It wasn’t a Christian pilgrimage, but part of an attempt to end a military occupation by the fourth most powerful army in the world.

As readers may have noticed, we failed. The Israeli occupation is now in its 56th year and very much going strong.

Chris, with fellow members of the International Solidarity Movement, protesting the curfew in Bethlehem in April 2002
Chris, with fellow members of the International Solidarity Movement, protesting the curfew in Bethlehem in April 2002

It was the first of my five visits to take part in actions organised by the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led movement founded in August 2001 focused on assisting the Palestinian cause in the conflict through non-violent protests and methods only.

Its vision was that international civilians’ presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip could protect and foster a mass, popular, Ghandi-style, non-violent resistance movement. If enough internationals and Palestinians took part, the non-violent tactics and simple message of national self-determination would be unstoppable.

The “resistance” took a variety of forms. Largely it was focused on trying to allow Palestinians to go about their normal lives, removing roadblocks of earth and rubble the Israeli army had set up, accompanying Palestinian farmers picking their olives or fruit and accompanying children to school, both of whom face attack by settlers.

Chris Dunham, right, watching an Israel Defence Forces tank reversing down a track during his time as a peace campaigner in the region
Chris Dunham, right, watching an Israel Defence Forces tank reversing down a track during his time as a peace campaigner in the region

The most dangerous work involved more direct confrontation with the Israeli army. Its soldiers would often take over a Palestinian home to use as a barracks and lock the residents in their own basement. We would try to approach the house to get food or medications to the residents – with mixed success.

What felt like the most successful action was flyposting Israeli tanks blockading Nablus, one of the largest Palestinian cities in the West Bank. The tanks fled from our wallpaper paste and paintbrushes, enabling Palestinians to move within what would be their state if Israel allowed it.

The logic of international involvement was that the Israeli army would be less likely to use violence against Palestinians if foreigners were present with cameras and access to the global media. To the Israeli army, Palestinians are expendable, but killing US or UK citizens would cause an international outcry.

But eventually the Israeli army began killing us too.

Chris and Jeremy Hardy checking in to the Bethlehem Star Hotel
Chris and Jeremy Hardy checking in to the Bethlehem Star Hotel

Rachel Corrie, a US citizen aged just 23, was crushed to death by an armoured bulldozer while trying to prevent Palestinian homes being demolished. Tom Hurndall, a UK citizen, was killed by an Israeli sniper while trying to protect children in Gaza. He was 21.

While I was in Bethlehem at Easter 2003, an Israeli armoured personnel carrier opened fire on us while we were trying to deliver food to an area under curfew. Five members of the group, including myself, were injured by shrapnel. Clearly, Israel was no longer embarrassed about killing internationals too.

In March 2002, the Palestinian film maker, Leila Sansour, had persuaded comedian Jeremy Hardy to join the ISM with the idea that she would make a documentary out of his experience. She’d tried to recruit a number of celebrities, starting with Madonna, and Jeremy was the first to say yes.

Chris and Jeremy Hardy share a room in Jerusalem in the summer of 2002 during Chris’ fourth visit to the region and Jeremy’s second trip
Chris and Jeremy Hardy share a room in Jerusalem in the summer of 2002 during Chris’ fourth visit to the region and Jeremy’s second trip

Bizarrely, I ended up co-starring in the documentary with him. It was the start of a friendship that lasted until he sadly died in 2019. He had outwitted the Israeli army, but not cancer. He was the funniest person I’ve ever met, and however grim the situation we found ourselves in, his wit would lighten the mood.

The film that Leila made, Jeremy Hardy vs the Israeli Army, was released in 2003 and I ended up following it round the country to do Q&A sessions wherever it was shown. It was a hit among film critics but enjoyed quite a niche audience. I like to think it made some contribution to raising awareness of the plight of Palestinians.

Chris Dunham and Jeremy Hardy on Channel 4 chat show Richard & Judy
Chris Dunham and Jeremy Hardy on Channel 4 chat show Richard & Judy

On my first Christmas there, in 2001, we had visited Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his besieged compound in Ramallah in the West Bank. He rewarded us with a welcome speech and an even more welcome lamb kebab. Much as I like falafel, it made a nice change from the usual fare.

Israel controls all entry points into the West Bank, so getting in was always challenging. On my sixth and final trip I was detained at Tel Aviv airport and taken down into a small room in the basement where four members of the Israeli security services made me a job offer. They would let me in if I would agree to spy for them. When I turned down the offer I was put in a cell for a few nights and then deported. There was no point in attempting to go back.

The conflict is often presented as unresolvable, a clash between two peoples with an irreconcilable claim to the same land. This is a convenient cover for reality.

Quite remarkably, since the 1970s, the Palestinians, in the form of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, have accepted the international consensus that Israeli and Palestinian states should be formed along the 1967 ceasefire lines, despite the fact that it leaves Palestinians with just 22% of the historical land of Palestine, split into two unconnected territories – the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel rejects this on the basis that “if we continue to hold out, we will obtain more”, as an Israeli government minister said in 1971. After all, by “holding out” between 1948 and 1967, the Israeli share of the territory allocated by the UN went from 56% to 78%.

During the Oslo peace process, which was supposed to lead to a two-state solution, Israel carried on building new Jewish settlements on the land that would have formed the Palestinian state, gradually eating into the 22%. It was very obvious that Israel wasn’t serious about a two-state solution. If it could, Israel would take the remaining 22% as well.

Chris, at the back wearing yellow gloves, gluing anti-war literature to an Israeli tank
Chris, at the back wearing yellow gloves, gluing anti-war literature to an Israeli tank

But there’s a problem in that if Israel were to formally annex the West Bank and Gaza, the resulting state would no longer be a majority Jewish. It wants the land but not the inhabitants.

None of this would have been possible without US support. The US has provided diplomatic cover – vetoing anything that comes before the UN Security Council and providing massive military aid. It does this because Israel has a wider purpose.

It’s effectively a sub-contracted military base, part of the way the US controls and profits from Middle East oil (with the UK as its sidekick). If Israel were to integrate peacefully in the region and demilitarise, then what use would it be to the US?

The former Israeli defence minister General Moshe Dayan said in 1967: “We should tell the Palestinians: We have no solution… You [Palestinians] shall continue to live like dogs, and whoever wishes may leave, and we will see where this process leads.” And that, in essence, is Israeli policy.

In the West Bank, Palestinians being forced to “live like dogs” was very much in evidence while I was there, but in Gaza “living like dogs” looks decidedly attractive.

Israel has imposed a crushing blockade on Gaza since 2006, carefully controlling imports of food to keep the population just above starvation level. Gaza is in effect an “open-air prison”, as David Cameron described it. Every few years Israel conducts a brutal bombing campaign which it charmingly describes as “mowing the lawn”.

Chris, holding the banner, with fellow members of the International Solidarity Movement protesting against the curfew in Bethlehem
Chris, holding the banner, with fellow members of the International Solidarity Movement protesting against the curfew in Bethlehem

We should absolutely condemn Hamas’ October 7 atrocities. But could these attacks have been predicted and avoided?

Two-thirds of the Gazan population are descendants of refugees from what is now Israel. Half of the population are children. 62% have never travelled outside Gaza and the only thing they’ve ever known is the blockade and bombing.

In this tiny strip of land only 26 miles long and five miles wide, one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, there are few jobs, no chance to leave, no hope – just regular “mowing” down of your relatives.

The only way to end the cycle of violence is for Israel to end the occupation and its rejection of a Palestinian state.

In the case of Ukraine, the UK Government sends weapons to help them fight the occupation forces, but in the case of the Palestinians we send warships to aid the occupiers. The inconsistency of this policy position has to change.

*Chris Dunham, 53, lives in Bishop’s Stortford with his wife Kathryn and their son Luke, 16, a student at The Bishop’s Stortford High School. Chris runs his own energy consulting and software business, and is a member and former chair of the Bishop’s Stortford Climate Group. He has also volunteered as a committee member at Bishop’s Stortford Lawn Tennis Club for longer than he can remember.



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