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Illusion of Invincibility Shattered -- Painfully

Brian Avery thought his U.S. passport would protect him when he journeyed to the Mideast to be a 'human shield.'

October 26, 2003|Allen G. Breed | Associated Press Writer

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When Brian Avery called home in early January to say he was heading for Israel, his parents realized that they could not stop him. But they had to try.

"This issue has been there for so long," his father, Bob Avery, tried to reason with his son, 24. "How do you think you can change it?"

"If everyone took the position that there's nothing I can do, then nothing's ever going to change," Brian replied.

Brian knew that peace activists had been wounded in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- and that a humanitarian worker had been killed the year before. But that had supposedly been an accident, a fluke.

Voicing another fear, Bob Avery brought up the imprisoned "American Taliban," John Walker Lindh, who was nearly killed fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

"I'm not going to be a fighter," Brian assured him. "I'm going to report on the events and write articles."

The words "human shield" didn't come up until later.

*

Julie Avery had always called her son Brian "my free spirit."

The ponytailed rock drummer had studied music in college, but dropped out after a year to work on an organic farm. He worked with the homeless and poor in Chicago.

Brian viewed the world in terms of the big guy versus the little guy, the corporate behemoth against the family farmer, Goliath and David.

While studying herbal medicine in Albuquerque last winter, Brian had become involved with the local Arab-Jewish Peace Alliance. Eventually, he decided to volunteer with a group called the International Solidarity Movement.

Founded in 2001, ISM operates in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- lands that Israel seized in 1967 and 1973 after attacks by Arab neighbors who denied the 56-year-old Jewish state's right to exist.

Some Israelis see these lands as a necessary buffer against continuing sniper attacks and suicide bombings; Jewish settlers claim them as a biblical birthright.

For Palestinians, the Israeli presence there is a heavy-handed occupation of their homeland. They bridle at Israeli Army checkpoints and other restrictions.

The United Nations has called for Israeli withdrawal. There have been pullbacks, but renewed violence has begotten reoccupation.

The latest Palestinian up- rising began three years ago. Since then, 2,400 Palestinians and 830 Israelis have died in the fighting.

ISM's founders saw themselves as an international peacekeeping and monitoring presence that the United Nations could not or would not provide. To the Israeli government, ISM's activists are meddlers whose actions range from negligence to outright abetting of terrorism.

*

Brian Avery hadn't been in the West Bank city of Nablus a week when his parents got a lengthy e-mail.

His group's main "actions," as he put it in the Jan. 31 note, consisted of "being monitors and witnesses at military checkpoints" and "lodging in the homes of the families of individuals who chose suicide bombing as their method of resisting the occupation."

Brian's parents had pictured him handing out food and medicine. Instead, he was negotiating with armed border guards and occupying "martyr houses."

Brian told them that he believed that his American citizenship put him in a special position.

On the one hand, it made him feel partially responsible for what was happening in the territories because of U.S. aid to Israel. At the same time, though, he saw his American passport as a unique asset -- a "badge of invincibility" that he would share with the Palestinians.

Six weeks later, the Averys learned just how little protection a U.S. passport provided.

On March 16, another ISM member, Rachel Corrie, 23, a college student from Olympia, Wash., was crushed to death while trying to stop an Israeli bulldozer demolishing a row of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah.

Israeli officials said that she was in a blind spot and that the driver couldn't see her, despite her bright red vest.

"Please get out of Palestine while you can!!!!" Julie Avery begged her son in an e-mail afterward.

But Brian had trained with Rachel, and her death made him even more determined.

Still, he tried to reassure his parents: He had a couple more weeks left on his visa, after which he would see them. Besides, he was headed north to Jenin, even farther from the volatile Gaza Strip.

"Don't worry, Mom," he said in a rare telephone call. "They don't shoot Americans."

*

Bob Avery was sitting in his basement office on April 5, watching the rain that had washed out his softball game, when the phone rang.

"I'm afraid I've got some very, very bad news for you," came a voice in heavily accented English.

It was Tobias Karlsson, head of ISM's Jenin office.

Just minutes before, he and Brian had heard gunfire in the streets below. The city was under curfew, but the two went out to meet four other activists and investigate.

That's when they noticed two Israeli vehicles rumbling up behind them.

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