Last Saturday, April 21, Kathy Kelly called to tell me that our dear friend, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, the 1976 Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner, hailed as one of the world’s great voices for nonviolence, was shot the day before by Israeli soldiers while attending a nonviolent Palestinian vigil for human rights at the Wall in the Palestinian village of Bilin. News was sketchy at first, but it seems a rubber bullet struck her in the leg, and she later succumbed to the tear gas Israeli soldiers unleashed to disperse the weekly protest.
Within a few days, Mairead was back home, and we had a good long talk. Her leg was black and blue, she and the hundreds of others had been intimated and brutalized by the Israeli military, but she was as passionate as ever on behalf of the Palestinian’s nonviolent struggle for liberation.
“Before the peace vigil, I participated in a press conference with the Palestinian Minister for Information,” she said. “He praised the nonviolent vigil of the Bil’in people and the nonviolent resistance of many people around Palestine. He said that the Bil’in resistance movement was a model and example for all. He called for an end to the building of the Wall, and for upholding of Palestinian rights under International Law.
“I supported his call and thanked the people of Bil’in. I offered my support for the nonviolent resistance to the Wall as it violates international law, including the International Court of Justice in the Hague. I also called for an end to the Palestinian occupation, which will mark 40th years in June, and full recognition by the international community of the Palestinian Government, together with restoration of economic and political rights to the people.
“Then during our peace walk to the wall,” she continued, “Israeli soldiers started firing a mystery gas at us, and aimed plastic bullets directly at us. Later, they used water cannons. We were a completely unarmed. It was a completely peaceful, nonviolent gathering. This vicious attack upon civilians by the Israeli soldiers was totally unprovoked. The soldiers blocked the upper part of the road, preventing some from joining the main vigil.
“As I helped a French woman, I was shot in the leg with a three inch long, rubber-covered steel bullet. I was targeted by an Israeli soldier and shot from a distance of 20 meters. This itself was illegal because such lethal weapons, under Israeli military law, are not allowed to be used within a 20 meter range. Altogether, twenty people were injured. But as you know, six Palestinians were killed the next day, including a 17 year old girl, a typical day under the occupation.
“Afterwards I went back to the protest while people were still being viciously attacked with nerve gas and plastic bullets. This time, I was overcome with gas. My nose bled terribly and I was carried again to an ambulance for treatment.”
Mairead is no stranger to active nonviolence. The Nobel Prize went to her thirty years ago after her nieces and nephew were killed on a Belfast street in August 1976. A British soldier shot and killed an IRA gunman driving by. His car careened into the sidewalk, killing the children, and injuring Mairead’s sister, who died a few years later. Within days, Mairead, along with friends Betty Williams and Ciaron McKeown, mobilized hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women, to march for peace. The marches continued every Saturday for the next six months, and grew to become the largest gesture for peace in the history of Northern Ireland. The Peace People movement, which advocates nonviolent conflict resolution, continues to this day.
Maguire has traveled the globe since, speaking to millions about the practice of active nonviolence, and working tirelessly with other international figures such as the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Pope John Paul II. I published a collection of her writings and speeches a few years ago, entitled The Vision of Peace: Faith and Hope in Northern Ireland and the World (Orbis Books).
“This is not only an abuse of human rights and international law by the Israeli government,” Mairead says of the Palestinian occupation. “It is a health and environmental issue. We were all traumatized by the Israeli attack. With the gas on the air, I remembered the words of a Palestinian doctor, who said, “the whole Palestinian people, after 40 years of occupation, are traumatized. It is time for the international community to act and put a stop to this suffering and injustice.”
Mairead is one of the wisest, holiest, most respected peacemakers in the world. She could easily sit back and put her feet up, and enjoy her wee cottage and wonderful family along the Irish coast, now that Northern Ireland recently turned another corner toward peace. Instead she travels every few months to Palestine to stand with the resisters, and to call attention to Israel’s 200 to 400 nuclear weapons by supporting longtime Israeli whistle- blower Mordechai Vanunu. She takes great risks for peace, and practices the nonviolence she teaches. She does so, because she knows the people of Bilin and elsewhere take great risks every week when they hold their vigil and risk Israeli attacks.
It’s an outrage that a Nobel Peace prize winner was shot by Israeli soldiers, and the world didn’t even notice, but it’s even more an outrage that Palestinians continue to be shot at and killed every day under this apartheid occupation. I hope Israel, Palestine, the United States and the world will heed her call for disarmament and pursue the Jewish vision of shalom and human rights for all.
No doubt, this attack will not deter Mairead. Her determination inspires us to take new nonviolent risks for Palestinians, Iraqis and oppressed people everywhere. “It is time for action to force the Israeli Government to enter into unconditional talks to end this tragedy upon the good and gentle Palestinian people. “Tell everyone,” she said to me on the phone, “we have to end the occupation now!”