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Disturbing the Peace 

The local conversation between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists is getting less civil every day. And Lee Kaplan's tactics aren't helping.

Wednesday, Aug 9 2006
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At the end of the detention diary Larudee kept (and later posted online), he makes an unexpected gesture: He wryly thanks Lee Kaplan for his "tireless work." In a phone interview shortly after his return to the United States and before an impromptu trip to Lebanon, he explains that several newspapers printed his Op-Eds during his ordeal. "He really did result in me being able to publish things that otherwise I would not have been able to publish, and it may result in a book, indirectly," he says. "In a way, it's like the head of MGM once said: There's no such thing as bad publicity."

Yet Larudee does acknowledge that Kaplan's scrutiny has changed the way the ISM works in the U.S. "We started out being a very open kind of organization," he says. "We're not a danger to anybody, and what we're doing is the same kind of things that the civil rights movement used to do in this country. This is not a secret terrorist organization." Now, if activists use their full names at conferences or in mass e-mails, they worry they'll end up on the watch list in an Israeli customs computer. After Larudee was featured in Kaplan's writing, he legally changed his last name and got a new passport, which got him into Israel several times. He suspects he got stopped this time because Kaplan found out about the name change, and passed the information on to Israeli officials.

Kaplan links nearly all of his foes to the ISM, and considers it his trump card. He insists that ISM volunteers directly support Hamas and other militant groups when they're in the occupied territories. Larudee admits that there have been some unintended connections in the past. In 2003, two Muslim men from Britain stopped by an ISM activists' office in Gaza, where they briefly talked politics, shared tea, and asked to see the place where Rachel Corrie was killed. About a week later, the two men carried out a suicide bombing at a bar in Tel Aviv.

Larudee says there's no indication that the ISM volunteers had any idea of the two men's intentions. But there are a lot of things they don't know about the Palestinians they meet and work with from day to day. When Larudee was interrogated by the Israeli security agents at the airport, they asked if he had ever had contact with people from Hamas. "I said, 'Probably. I wouldn't be at all surprised if people I know are members of Hamas,'" he explains. "'I don't ask these questions.'"

Both Kaplan and the pro-Palestinian groups had been eagerly anticipating the Al-Awda convention in mid-July at San Francisco State University. Al-Awda, also known as the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, takes as its founding principle that all Palestinian refugees and their descendents have the right to return to the land they lived on before the creation of Israel in 1948. To supporters of Israel, this is an extremist position that amounts to a call for the country's destruction, because the roughly 5 million Palestinian refugees would outnumber Jewish Israelis, and bring about a radically altered state. As Kaplan said, "Then they could even vote the Jews out of existence!"

Kaplan's expectations were high for what he called the "anti-Israel hate fest." He made his views of the event known, says conference organizer Ramsey Al-Qare, of the General Union of Palestine Students. The group had originally planned to hold the event in an academic building, but the administration got spooked when Kaplan called the dean and published an article accusing the university of using Californians' tax dollars to support terrorist organizations. The group decided to use the student union building instead, because its operations are funded entirely by student fees.

When the foggy Friday night finally arrived, about 100 people filed into a banquet hall and arranged themselves around the tables. Even before the first speaker took the podium, Kaplan had attracted attention. A scrum of conference organizers — identifiable by the bright red sashes tied around their biceps — surrounded his table. They wanted to know if he was there as a journalist, and, if so, who he was writing for. They asked to see ID. Kaplan refused. He was a freelance journalist, he said, but he was also a private citizen who had every right to be there. The two gray-haired women who had sat down at his table picked up their paper plates and fled. "We wound up with the Zionist!" they exclaimed with giddy horror.

The speakers that night talked about the right of return as a basic human right, and dismissed the notion of a two-state solution. They told listeners to keep sight of the goal: establishing a Palestinian state that would offer shelter to all the scattered descendents of the refugees. A dark-haired woman from Al-Awda's New York chapter gave the most rousing talk, and also the most incendiary. "Al-Awda was born of the knowledge that there is no place for Zionism in the Arab world," she said. "This is resistance. This is solidarity. ... This is the bomb on the Israeli barge." She left the stage amid rousing cheers.

The next morning started where the previous evening left off. Organizers accused Kaplan of secretly taking pictures — a violation of the conference rules, posted everywhere, which forbid all recording devices and cameras. Al-Qare, a student in his junior year, said the ban on recording was a direct result of the prior actions of Kaplan and his colleagues. "I've had friends who have gone to Palestine-Israel, and when their names are run through the computer at immigration a picture will come up from Malcolm X Plaza at San Francisco State," he said. "How the hell does Israel have pictures of us on our campus?"

About The Author

Eliza Strickland

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