Zurbrigg, left, and fellow ISM workers from the UK outside Bethlehem in the West Bank.

Photo courtesy Michelle Zurbrigg

Watching a world crumble

In News /

By Gariné Tcholakian

In a frenzy, Michelle Zurbrigg packed, got her rolls of film, her tape recorder, and rushed to get to her plane.

Her destination was the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, situated along Israel’s borders with the Palestinian territories of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Having graduated from the Ryerson journalism school less than a year ago, she headed to the Middle East, the centre of a territorial dispute that has been spiralling into a bloody cycle of violence and revenge. It was her first international reporting experience and she went as part of a peace activist organization called the International Solidarity Movement. And she went with the full baggage of personal convictions.

“If there’s injustice in some place, everybody’s rights are at stake. We can only address justice if there is peace everywhere,” she says.

In was in early December when Zurbrigg attended an information session presented by an Israeli and American member of the Quaker Service Committee in Toronto about the situation in the Gaza and West Bank regions that she saw an opportunity to travel to the troubled area.

“They described some of the International Solidarity campaign’s actions in Gaza this past summer and then announced that they were going again that month. I thought it would be a good opportunity and a good initiative to the human rights violations that were going on over there.”

While she has long had an interest in the Middle East, it was the events after Sept. 11 that made her decide to go.

Zurbrigg, 33, is no stranger to international tragedies. Her grandmother, a strong influence in her life, was a survivor of severe anti-Semitism within the Ukraine.

“My grandmother has some pretty horrifying stories about how Jewish people were persecuted in Ukraine,” she says. “People have to be careful when they condemn what’s happening in Israel that they don’t condemn the Jewish people. You can’t condemn that whole religion.”

The ISM, an organization based in the West Bank, is a coalition of both Palestinian and Israeli people. According to the ISM’s information pamphlet, the organization’s aims are to practice “creative non-violent resistance,” to “pressure international news media to focus on the illegality of the Occupation,” and “to protect [Palestinians] from physical violence from Israeli soldiers.”

While Zurbrigg was in the region in December 2001 and early January 2002, some of the ISM’s campaigns included tree planting on land where the greenery had been uprooted. The ISM also monitored the number of Palestinian detainees at checkpoints throughout the region and the length of time Palestinians had to wait before being allowed to go through. There are dozens of checkpoints scattered throughout the West Bank and other disputed Middle East territory. The campaign also included demonstration marches and the removal of roadblocks. ISM activists had dug out the roadblocks with their hands, digging out rock, rubble and mud until the roadblock was cleared away.

But the ISM’s actions were symbolic gestures more than anything else, says Zurbrigg.

“Roadblocks are one of the manifestations of the occupation because they stop people from traveling to see their family, getting supplies to their village, from going to school, from going to work, from going to hospitals,” Zurbrigg says. “Road blocks surround villages to cut [them] off.”

Within an hour of the activists starting to take down the roadblock in the area, the army was there with a bulldozer and a second roadblock was up within five minutes pushing up the rubble and dust from the side of the road. Zurbrigg remembers the mid-December activities when the ISM was south of Nablus, just 40 km north of Jerusalem in the town of Hares, a cluster of Palestinian villages close to the Jewish settlement Aeriel. The area of Nablus has been the site of violence as recently as this past weekend, as the death toll from the ongoing conflict steadily skyrocked with dozens of Palestinians and Israelis killed.

While the ISM campaigned, Zurbrigg observed, took photographs and notes and interviewed local Palestinians and Israeli soliders. “Part of why I went was to record what I saw,” she says.

But while Zurbrigg didn’t participate in the ISM’s campaign, she was hardly detached when it came to feelings of what she witnessed.

“You can’t bring peace in the world by bombing the hell out of these places,” says Zurbrigg.

As she describes her experiences in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, she recalls Natalie, the 6-year-old daughter of a Christian Palestinian family she met in Bethlehem who, out of fear of bombs, could never sleep at night, wet her bed, and never wanted to leave her mom’s side.

“She doesn’t want to go to school. She prefers to sleep in the basement because it’s safer there. It’s like pictures of Afghan children; they have little bodies but they have adult expressions because they’ve experienced war and hunger and things that children shouldn’t experience,” says Zurbrigg.

For Zurbrigg, the compassion she felt for the people, like Natalie, whose lives have been torn apart, supersedes any notion of journalistic objectivity when watching the events unfold in a war-torn region of the world.

“When you go from a place of privilege to a place where there’s an extreme level of suffering, I think it’s just human nature to feel a strong sense of responsibility to work for change because, basically, it’s about injustice.”

Zurbrigg sees no difference between the role of an observer and the role of a journalist.

“I think that that is the role of a journalist; to witness and report what people that they come into contact with have to say.”

Zurbrigg maintains that part of her choice of being an observer with the ISM rather than an activist was to keep a certain distance.

“As much as I wanted to, I didn’t feel it was right to get involved. It was important to maintain some distance,” she says. But it was her strong desire to get involved in the actual movements that left her toeing a careful line between giving up her role as a journalist and joining the protests — something that she chose not to go from the beginning of her trip. Though she says she stayed aware of her own emotions and biases when acting as a journalist.

“I think everybody has opinions. I just tried to keep an open mind by speaking to Palestinian Jews about their thoughts about the issue. I think everybody has subjectivity and I know how I think about the situation [the Palestinian-Israeli conflict]. I don’t think that it affects the work I do any more than anybody else. I think that subjectivity is a part of every piece of work that is out there,” she says. “An intelligent reader will factor that in when consuming news.”

“In my journalism courses at Ryerson, the predominant way of thinking is there is such a thing as objective journalism. I think this is false.” Subjectivity is reflected, she says, in our choice of questions and who we choose to talk to when gathering information. “It’s good to factor all sides of a story but you can never be 100 per cent objective.”

While not required to do so by the ISM, since her return, Zurbrigg has been voluntarily giving presentations and radio interviews — including work at CKLN — and writing about what she observed in Gaza and the West Bank.

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