- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2003

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

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

“If everyone took the position that ‘there’s nothing I can do,’” the younger Mr. Avery replied, “then nothing’s ever going to change.”

Mr. Avery knew that activists had been wounded in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and that one had been killed the year before. But that supposedly had been accidental, a fluke.

Voicing another fear, Bob Avery brought up imprisoned “American Taliban” John Walker, who fought U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“I’m not going to be a fighter,” his son 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 “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.

Mr. Avery viewed the world in terms of the big guy vs. the little guy; the corporate behemoth against the family farmer; Goliath and David.

While studying herbal medicine in Albuquerque, N.M., last winter, Mr. Avery became involved with the local Arab-Jewish Peace Alliance. Eventually, he decided to volunteer with a group called the International Solidarity Movement.

Founded in 2001, the ISM operates in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — lands Israel seized in 1967 after attacks by Arab neighbors who denied the Jewish state’s right to exist, most to this day.

For Palestinians, the Israeli presence there is a heavy-handed occupation in their homeland. They bridle at Israeli army checkpoints and other restrictions intended to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from murdering Israeli civilians. The United Nations has called for Israeli withdrawal.

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

Mr. 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.”

His parents had pictured him handing out food and medicine. Instead, he was negotiating with armed border guards and occupying so-called “martyr houses,” believing that his U.S. 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 killed by an Israeli bulldozer demolishing a row of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah. Israeli officials said she was in a blind spot and the driver couldn’t see her.

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

But Mr. Avery had trained with Miss Corrie, and her death made him even more determined. Still, he tried to reassure his parents.

“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 Mr. Avery 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.

Slowly, they backed up under a street lamp and put their arms out at their sides to let the vehicles pass, Mr. Karlsson said. Only Brian was wearing a reflective vest, identifying him as a peace activist.

Suddenly, they were being pelted by bits of shattered pavement. The Israelis would often fire two or three warning shots at a wall, Mr. Karlsson explained, but this time 10, 15, 20 rounds were fired.

When the shooting stopped, he turned to find Mr. Avery lying on his stomach in the street, blood seeping between the fingers wrapped around his face.

Three days later, Bob Avery arrived at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center. From the doorway of the intensive car unit, he caught sight of his son. His face was twice its normal size, its hue a surreal yellowish-purple from the massive bruising.

X-rays showed the bullet had entered just below the right tear duct. There was a large hole where the nasal bone should have been. The bullet exited the left cheek. Half of the teeth were missing on the top left side, and another on the bottom. His lower left jaw had been sheered in half.

“He’ll never go back together,” the elder Mr. Avery said to himself.

April 10 was Mr. Avery’s 25th birthday. The staff at the Israeli hospital sang to him. The next day, a surgeon laid out a plan to harvest bone from the sides of his skull to rebuild the nasal area.

Bob Avery tried to cheer his son. “They said they needed a model for what you’ve got to look like. I gave them a picture of Elvis.”

The Israeli Defense Force released its findings on the shooting in late May.

The armored personnel carrier crew reported firing on three occasions that day, but no casualties were identified. But the army noted that vehicles enforcing the curfew were directed to keep their hatches closed for protection, creating “enhanced chances of misidentification and misunderstandings.”

The report’s conclusion: “Mr. Avery’s injury is an unfortunate incident.”

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