January 16, 2004

Solidarity volunteer speaks about being shot in face

Brian Avery is a Chicago native with strong political views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But unlike many political activists, Avery has seen and felt the horrors that the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has produced. What's more, he has the scars to prove it.

Avery traveled to the West Bank as an International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteer in January 2003. On April 12 of that year, Israeli soldiers, enforcing a curfew in the town of Jenin, shot Avery in the face. His left cheek almost completely blown away, Avery spent nine weeks recovering in an Israeli hospital.

Members of the University community gathered to attend an event entitled "An Evening with Brian Avery" Thursday at 8 p.m. About 150 came to hear a lecture delivered by Avery, which was followed by a discussion period and a screening of the film "Jenin, Jenin."

Avery travels as a spokesperson for the ISM, talking about what he observed while in the West Bank. According to Avery, his tour is dedicated to "trying to promote awareness, trying to get people motivated, and trying to end the situation of occupation in Palestinian territories.

ISM is a Palestinian-led, non-violent movement, consisting of Palestinians and international activists who purport to raise awareness of the struggle for Palestinian freedom and an end to the Israeli occupation. For the past few years, they have sent volunteers to Palestinian territories to keep a record of the Israeli occupation and to help local residents.

Dressed in an olive fleece and khakis, Avery looked very much like a young man one might see on the quads at the University. The scar spiraling out from his left cheek and the tight unnatural pull of skin across the bridge of his nose, however, illustrated the violent reality of the present situation in the Middle East.

The majority of Avery's speech focused on the conditions that people live under in the Palestinian territories. "I can't underscore how bad it is there," Avery said. "There is not an aspect of their lives that is not disrupted by the Israeli military force."

Avery went on to say that "local communities cannot organize, governments cannot organize, education cannot organize. There is no regard for humanity by the Israelis toward the Palestinians."

Avery's message was unabashedly pro-Palestinian, critical of both Israel and the support that the United States grants it. "All the guns, all the military aide, the vast majority of it comes from the United States," Avery said. "When people hear about the massacres, they should know that they are paying for it. Most of this weaponry goes to abuse and oppress the Palestinian people."

Avery also criticized the American press, which he said is notorious for their lack of coverage of the Palestinian situation.

One of the most poignant moments of the event came when Avery recounted getting shot. According to Avery, citizens of Jenin organized a demonstration in April 2003 to remember and honor those who had died during the violent events in that town a year before. The next day, Israeli soldiers entered the area and began enforcing a curfew on residents of the town.

"A curfew means 24-hour lockdown," Avery said. "If you're pregnant, or you have a heart attack, or if you're a kid who just wants to go out and play—too bad."

During the curfew, Avery and a Palestinian medical worker went outside to "monitor the situation and evaluate Israeli tactics." Wearing a bright red vest with a reflective stripe, Avery made his way down the street. According to Avery, he stopped and raised his hands when he saw soldiers passing. The soldiers, standing about 40 yards away, opened fire on Avery and his associate as soon as they saw them.

"When the Israelis finished firing they quickly took off," Avery said. "It was clearly an attempt to assassinate us, and to say that they will not tolerate our presence and our objections to their treating the area like a prison."

Since the shooting, Avery has undergone three reconstructive facial surgeries. He will need three more in the near future.

Most of the crowd at Thursday's event seemed to sympathize with Avery's views. On the other hand, Avery acknowledged that there are some who might be critical of his decision to go to the West Bank, and of his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Regarding these individuals, Avery said. "A lot of people's criticism comes from having the facts misrepresented to them, and not knowing what's really going on."

"An Evening with Brian Avery" was sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Chicago and the Muslim Student's Association at the University of Chicago. The groups plan on organizing a number of further events over the next few months in protest of the security wall currently being built by Israel.