Activists put bodies on the line

Observations on Iraq

The anti-globalisation movement has often been derided as noisy and self-indulgent, more concerned with throwing bricks through the window of McDonald's in central London than in real achievements.

That accusation may be hard to level against the 100 or so activists who, under the umbrella of the Iraq Peace Team, plan to head straight for Iraq in the event of a US military assault or invasion. Acting as a sort of voluntary human shield, they intend to live among the Iraqi people and to position themselves at water purification plants and other sites necessary for Iraqi civilian life.

Like the protesters at the G8 summit in Genoa and the IMF/World Bank meeting in Prague, they will operate in small "affinity groups" of eight to ten people. The Iraq Peace Team says it will accept only the most seasoned and hardened international operators, who must also have "a total commitment to non-violent principles". The organisers expect most protesters to be US citizens.

The group has grown out of the Chicago- and London-based pressure group Voices in the Wilderness, founded in 1996 to campaign against the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq. It first broke the sanctions that same year when it took vital medical supplies across the Iraqi border. One member of the group, Kathy Kelly, had her passport seized when she returned to the US, and was not issued a new one until 2000. Another activist, a retired engineer from Seattle named Bert Sacks, was fined $10,000 (which he has refused to pay).

This form of international activism involves affluent, highly educated westerners - who could easily stay at home and work for investment banks and stifle their consciences - putting themselves directly in the line of fire. We have already seen something similar in the occupied territories, where earlier this year, the International Solidarity Movement ringed Yasser Arafat's headquarters and two refugee camps in Bethlehem. It succeeded (albeit for only a few months) in preventing their destruction. It broke the siege of the Church of the Nativity, taking in food and medical supplies.

More than 200 activists have been in Palestine so far, and more are expected for the new "olive harvest" campaign later this year. For politically minded young people, here at last is a clear, moral cause where action can make a visible difference, in contrast to soggy, money-saturated domestic politics of America and Britain. Many US activists have been drawn to the Palestinian cause through campaigns at home. For example, Mark Schneider, a black American who was held in the siege of the Church of the Nativity, explains: "I went to Palestine because I feel as if I was pushed to go by my ancestors. I am a product of slavery, American apartheid and the product of a people whose history was stolen . . . I look to the Palestinian people as kin."

Such groups have been persistently condemned by the Israeli government and by the Jerusalem Post, which is owned, along with London's Daily Telegraph, by Conrad Black.

It may once have been reasonable to condemn the anti-globalisation movement as impotent, irrelevant and self-indulgent. But it would be hard to apply these strictures to those now in Palestine or to those packing to go to Iraq. The anti-globalisation movement has perhaps come of age - not on the streets of Seattle or London, but on the streets of Gaza, the West Bank and, soon, Baghdad.