|ORLEANSTooling around town on his bright yellow bike with the ubiquitous milk crate affixed to the back, Neal Ahern is in many ways the quintessential Cape Codder.
He is a bearded, bright-eyed world traveler who, in the tradition of Cape sailors and fishermen before him, relishes returning to the Cape after being away.
He loves a good yarn and a lively political discussion. He has opinions on everything from the best way to cook a piece of cod to improving U.S. relations with the world at large.
Ahern, 25, is an unabashed enthusiast for life on Cape Cod.
But in recent months his perception of what it means to be a Cape Codder and what it means to be an American have changed.
Three months of living in Palestine, being shot at with rubber bullets and arrested by the Israeli army while participating in international peace demonstrations there have sharpened his appreciation for a lot of things.
"The thing that really hit me on coming back here is, no matter how big our country, no matter how diverse we are, the fact is we have more in common with one another than we realize," Ahern says. "And that's what makes us such a remarkable nation. There is so much we can do working together."
A graduate of Nauset Regional High School in North Eastham and Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., Ahern developed an interest in social activism as a teen.
Then it took the form of working with others to open a juice bar for Lower Cape teens; more recently it has taken the form of joining in with international observers of the barrier wall Israel is building between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
He was inspired to go in large part in honor of his friend Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old Washington resident killed in March 2003 after being run down by an Israeli army bulldozer at a demonstration against the wall.
"Rachel was a friend," he says, perched on the edge of a chair outside the Chocolate Sparrow in Orleans. One hand curls around a cup of coffee, the other curls and uncurls in unspoken emotion.
"She was a wonderful person, not someone who was out to make trouble. She cared passionately about others," he says quietly. "I felt it was important to go there (the West Bank) and stand in Rachel's place."
Corrie, like Ahern , went to Israel and Palestine under the auspices of the International Solidarity Movement, an organization of people from many Western nations, including Israel, opposed to the creation of the wall and Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In May 2003, the organization was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by a member of the Canadian Parliament.
The Israeli government contends the wall is necessary to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks. Palestinians contend it separates families and villages and prevents farmers from reaching their farmland. Israel says the barrier is strictly a security measure, that it could be moved or torn down at a later date. Palestinians describe it as a thinly disguised effort to confiscate land and complicate efforts to establish a Palestinian state.
The Bush administration has said it does not object to the barrier in principle, but believes it should be on, or very close to, the borders Israel had before the 1967 war in which Israel seized the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
When complete, the wall will run for 436 miles from the northern West Bank, wrap around some Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and end on the southern rim of the West Bank. In some places the barrier is a 20-foot high concrete wall. In other places upon completion it will be an electronic fence with coils of razor wire, adjoining 80-foot-deep trenches and guard towers.
According to reports by , the Israeli Supreme Court ruled Wednesday the building of the wall can go on and the Army can expropriate plots of land in the West Bank for security along the wall.
The current plan calls for seizing tens of thousands of acres from Palestinians. Israel's highest court also ruled that the Israeli army, which is building wall, must redraw the proposed route to take into account the needs of Palestinian farmers who grow olives, grapes and figs on plots of land, often located outside their home villages.
"I think it is difficult for us to imagine what it is like to live with something like this," Ahern says.
"It literally divides families. The path of the wall runs through houses and villages. In places where it is already built, the impact is tremendous because the only way through is a gate," Ahern says.
"Those gates can be closed without warning. The guards at the gate have a big degree of latitude in deciding who can get through or who is turned away," he says.
"In one village, the building of the wall means that what was once a 10-minute drive to a hospital is now an hour and a half drive.
"When I talk to people about this, I say: Imagine downtown Orleans being enclosed by a 20-foot wall. The business owners live outside that wall and can only get in if the guards at the wall say it is OK.
"Imagine living inside the wall and needing to get outside to reach your fishing boat. Your ability to make a livelihood to support your family will depend upon whether or not the guards at the wall decide to let you through on a particular day."
Ahern flew to the Mideast with his head full of American history. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the mending of a nation divided by civil war inform his understanding of democracy and human rights.
Nonetheless, he understood that listening to Israelis and Palestinians was the most important thing he could do. His first impression was "'Wow, there are a lot of soldiers here.'"
"It's a very militarized culture," Ahern says "It was a new experience for me to see armed soldiers everywhere, being frisked as I walked into a coffee shop and repeatedly being stopped and checked for no reason apparent to me. They have a right to do that."
He spent a few days in Israel before heading into the occupied territory of Palestine. There he met with other internationals with whom he shared an apartment.
"Every day we went out, met and talked with people, and if there was a demonstration we went there as witnesses, sometimes putting ourselves in front of the crowd under the presumption that the Israeli army would not mow down or fire upon internationals," he said.
At one demonstration in March, Ahern discovered that was not the case. Along with other international visitors and Palestinians, Ahern went to a village called Kharbatta, after driving some 45 minutes over "some of the bumpiest roads I have ever been on."
"It reminded me of the outer beach in Orleans."
By then a veteran of several demonstrations, Ahern was accustomed to seeing children throw stones at soldiers, and soldiers in return break up marches with batons, concussion grenades and gas canisters. But this time the soldiers began firing rubber bullets at the crowd that gathered on recently bulldozed farmland to protest the building of the wall. For the first time Ahern became afraid.
"I tried to lie on the ground and crawl away from the scene when a rubber bullet went flying into the back of my upper leg," he says. "I gave the bullet to the man I was lying near as a souvenir, and then we shared a little laugh."
By the end of the day 37 people had been injured by the rubber bullets.
It was at another demonstration that Ahern was arrestedafter an unsuccessful attempt to outrun Israel border police.
"My other arrest experience was as a kid in Eastham when the cops broke up a beer party and I tried to steal the keg left sitting on the back of a cruiser," he says. "Those cops knew me. They ran after me yelling my name. It was a very stupid gesture on my part, but I never felt afraid of them.
"At this demonstration, I felt this guy single me out and come after me," he says. "He didn't speak English. I didn't speak Hebrew. ... I ended up with my hands bound together with plastic, and tossed into the back of a jeep. The only place for me to sit was on a pile of percussion grenades. I had to stand up every time the soldiers came back to the jeep to grab some more grenadesto throw at people who were my friends," he says.
Ahern ended up at a police station along with about a dozen other demonstrators. All were eventually released after being admonished not to participate in demonstrations again.
Ahern returned to the Cape last month. Though he would like to return to Palestine and stays in contact with friends there, "There is work to be done here as a peace activist and that includes telling people about my experiences on the West Bank."