A Peacemaking Presence in a Troubled Land

An appeal recently reached my husband, Bill, and me to protest the removal of an extended family of 16 Palestinian farmers, their wives, children, and grandchildren (118 souls in all) from their property in the south Hebron hills of the West Bank. These are small communities that rely on agriculture and livestock for economic sustain-ability and which lie in the shadow of several Israeli settlements, Beit Yattir, Karmel Ma’on, and Susiya with a total population of about 800 settlers. The homes of these farmers (many of them simple caves) have been destroyed by Israeli civil administration bulldozers that also demolished their wells and cisterns, leaving their families and livestock with no other water source. An Israeli Supreme Court ruling against their removal has apparently been ignored by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and this summer these families have been living in the open in the desperate hope of maintaining possession of their traditional home sites and livelihoods.

The fact that we receive appeals to protest the continued harassment and possible deportation of these people is because, as members of a recent Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) delegation to the region, we are on several listservs designed to keep us informed of events in Israel and the Occupied Territories in a detail and scope that is not available through commercial news media. It’s part of our ongoing task as CPT delegation members to gather such information, respond when needed, and help disseminate the information in articles and presentations. The goal is to help people in the U.S., especially religious people concerned about peace and justice issues, to gain a better understanding of the problems faced by Palestinians and Israelis that contribute to the complex and seemingly insoluble conflict between the two peoples.

The situations and issues we hear about through these communications would seem to be one-sided. That is, they almost always refer to violations of Palestinian human rights at the hands of the Israeli government (usually the IDF or the civil administration) or Israeli settlers, with or without government support. But what makes these communications noteworthy is their source. A large number of them come from Israelis. They come from B’Tselem, the leading Israeli organization monitoring, documenting, and advocating to improve human rights in the West Bank and Gaza, founded in 1989. They come from Rabbis for Human Rights, with a membership of both liberal and conservative Rabbis and lay people, who are engaged not only in educational efforts among Israelis but in nonviolent direct action in the Territories to help support and defend Palestinian human rights. They come from Israelis Against Home Demolitions, founded by Israeli citizen Jeff Halper and dedicated to preventing the demolition of Palestinian homes as an accepted method of collective punishment. And they come from Gush Shalom, the Israeli Peace Block, and Ta’ayush Jewish-Arab Partnership.

The information we receive from these Israeli groups not only records the plight of Palestinians at the hands of IDF and settlers; it also records the remarkable fact that the number of young Israeli men and women willing to go to prison rather than perform their required military service in the Territories is growing. It records that the number of ordinary Israeli citizens willing to risk arrest by joining Ta’ayush bringing humanitarian aid to the homeless farmers in the Susya region is growing. These communications, combined with our personal experience in the area, give us a strong sense that some Israelis are awakening to the need for a fundamental shift in their view of their nation and its security. Some Israelis are beginning to gain an understanding of their brother and sister Palestinians that diverges radically from the official position of their government.

There are also a number of active Palestinian peace groups. The ones we personally met or worked with are the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement Between Peoples (Beit Sahour), Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center (Jerusalem), the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center (Bethlehem), and The Center for the Study of Nonviolence (Hebron). We also worked with Ramallah Friends Meeting.

We went to Palestine as part of a CPT delegation called especially in response to the escalating violence on the part of both Palestinians and Israelis as the second Intifada continues. Our delegation’s task was not only to witness the situation and gather information, but to take part in nonviolent direct action in support of the human rights of the occupied indigenous people. Christian Peacemaker Teams was founded in 1987 by the three historic peace churches—Quakers, Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren. CPT’s Mission Statement describes its purposes as follows: "Christian Peacemaker Teams offers an organized, nonviolent alternative to war and other forms of lethal intergroup conflict. CPT provides organizational support to persons committed to faith-based nonviolent alternatives in situations where lethal conflict is an immediate reality or is supported by public policy. CPT seeks to enlist the response of the whole church in conscientious objection to war, and the development of nonviolent institutions, skills, and training for intervention in conflict situations. . . . Gifts of prayer, money, and time from these churches undergird CPT peacemaking ministries."

Full-time CPT corps members commit themselves to a minimum of three years of service. Corps members, trained in peacemaking skills and nonviolent direct action, are available on a full-time basis to enter emergency situations of conflict and areas of militarization at the invitation of local peacemakers. As stated in the CPT brochure, "Responding to Christ’s radical call, its members attempt to bring the redemptive love of God to violent situations."

CPT also maintains a reserve corps to augment the work of the full-time Christian peacemaker corps by providing a larger pool of trained peacemakers who commit to working with CPT part-time (two to eight weeks each year) for three years. (Bill’s and my association with CPT this summer has led to a further calling for us to become CPT reservists. We undertook an intensive, month-long training in January to that end.)

Short-term delegations, of which ours was one, are sent to a variety of crisis settings as part of CPT’s ongoing experiment in faith-based, active peacemaking. Delegations join permanent team members in providing encouragement for individuals and communities experiencing violence, challenging violations of human rights, and promoting active nonviolence as a means of settling disputes. At present, CPT has full-time teams in Hebron on the West Bank, in Colombia, and in Chiapas, Mexico. In the past CPT has
maintained presences in Northern Ireland, Haiti, and on the Lakota Reservation in South Dakota.

The CPT Handbook explains that the fundamental genius of CPT is based on the recognition that the mere presence of outsiders committed to nonviolence and justice is a powerful deterrent to violent aggression and a profound encouragement to endurance for those who must live under constant threat of violence. At the closing of CPT’s work in Haiti, community members said, "CPT didn’t do anything. They didn’t give us food or build us shelter or donate clothing. But they saved our lives." In South Dakota, Lakota Indians established a peaceful occupation under hostile vigilance from FBI and local law enforcement to protest Federal government plans to turn treaty land over to the state. The Lakota testified that if CPT had not been there, they are certain things would have turned violent.

Because Quakers were part of the founding of CPT, they have a special stake in its work. Our personal involvement arose from Bill’s becoming Intermountain Yearly Meeting’s representative to the Friends Peace Teams Project Coordinating Committee. The Friends Peace Team Project (FPTP) was founded in 1993 to promote peace team work among members of the Religious Society of Friends. FPTP assists individual Quakers, Friends churches, and yearly and monthly meetings in developing or supporting peace team projects. FPTP work includes the African Great Lakes Initiative projects in Burundi, Uganda, and Rwanda. FPTP offers resources and facilitators to discern or develop the spiritual basis of peace team work, and it coordinates this work with its partner organizations, CPT, and Peace Brigades International (PBI).

We made our decision to join the CPT delegation in a careful, Quaker manner. A clearness process in our worship group was followed by dialogue with Friends in Albuquerque (N. Mex.) Meeting, and with other members of the FPTP Coordinating Committee. Funding was provided by Albuquerque Meeting, the Elise Boulding Fund for Peace Team Work, and individual members of Intermountain Yearly Meeting. Our sense of calling to do this arose from living for six months at Tantur near Bethlehem in 1983-84, making many friends among Palestinians and Israelis and longing to return in some useful manner ever since. Learning of the work of CPT on the West Bank provided us with the opening we had been praying for.

CPT is a distinctly apolitical organization. Team and delegation members working in an area of conflict do not take sides based on political considerations or the "national interest" of any party. What they do is to become acquainted with the local people involved and hear their stories. They also become connected with the already established peace and justice workers and organizations on both sides of the conflict and work with them and under their direction as they become known and trusted by both sides.

What they do is to work for peace and justice at the grassroots level. CPT’s motto is "getting in the way." This is an apt description of the primary method used. Team members, one by one or two by two, are simply present in conflict situations. They stand in witness to human rights abuses or potential abuse—watchers who are known to be from another part of the world. They intervene with their bodies and their words where they see harm being done. It is a truly Christian, Biblical activity, and as such, it has the greatest potential for a minimum of damage to either side while incarnating the greatest capacity for transformation of the situation and hopefully the hearts of those involved.

What "getting in the way" meant for Bill and me while we were with the team in the West Bank this summer was taking part in several specific actions. We acted as human shields among Palestinians in Beit Jala for two successive nights when that city was under fire from the Israeli settlement of Gilo across the valley. This meant that we went out two by two and spent the night in Palestinian households in vulnerable neighborhoods. The U.S. Consulate and news media were informed that U.S. citizens were sleeping in these neighborhoods with Palestinian families and that information was broadcast on local TV stations. Our presence did not stop the shelling, and several Palestinian homes on the street where Bill and I were staying were severely damaged. But we believe it provided a witness to both Israelis and Palestinians. To the Israeli settlers and IDF responsible for the shelling it said that there are U.S. citizens who are willing to risk their lives to stand in solidarity with the weaker party in this conflict. To the Palestinians it said that their dilemma is known and that there are people in other parts of the world who care enough about what happens to them to come and share a tiny part of their daily trials.

From Beit Jala we went to the old city of Hebron to join the main team in their permanent residence. We walked throughout the old city and adjacent neighborhoods to see for ourselves the grotesque gerrymandering that has taken place in that city in recent years. Settlements have been established inside the city and some literally on top of Palestinian neighborhoods. For some reason, the settlers who come to Hebron are among the most militant and volatile anywhere in the Territories. Their close proximity to Palestinian homes, businesses, and schools has created an atmosphere of permanent siege in which Palestinians and the Israeli settlers both live. The city has been divided into H1: Palestinian-controlled areas, and H2: Israeli-controlled areas. For over two-thirds of the past year, the Palestinian neighborhoods have been under curfew, which amounts to 24-hour house arrest. Businesses and schools are closed, and Palestinian residents are not allowed to be on the streets for any reason.

A large part of CPT’s "getting in the way" in this instance is simply to be available to Palestinians who need to be on the street during curfew—to accompany a mother and child to a doctor appointment, or accompany children to school who would otherwise be unable to attend school during curfew. CPTers have found that if one of them, in his or her distinctive red hat, is companion to a Palestinian breaking curfew, chances are that person will be unmolested. The experience of these besieged folk is that if they break curfew on their own for some important need, they are often attacked and beaten, sometimes severely, by Israeli soldiers or settlers.

In Hebron, we accepted the hospitality of the Abdul Hafaz Jaber family for a day and a night to experience firsthand their daily lives under curfew and in the shad-ow of settlement. Our hosts were a large family consisting of the elder parents, three married brothers, their wives, and children.

The family’s home is directly across the road from the entrance to the Israeli settlement of Kyriat Arba. Residents of the settlement have posted a large sign in a field facing the family’s home which reads—in Arabic—"Death to Arabs." Certain rooms of the home are vulnerable to gratuitous gunfire from the settlement and bear damage from recurrent raids (broken windows, smashed walls) that render them unusable. Yet the family is unarmed and does not retaliate; their only provocative act is to insist upon staying put in their ancestral home.

A wide, paved road reserved for settler use runs in front of their house. But their children (when not under curfew) must traverse a steep hill behind the house, climb a three-meter wall, and travel another six to eight circuitous blocks to get to school because they will be beaten or shot if they set foot on the settler road.

The brothers told us of a time when their father’s medical condition became acute. They called an ambulance to take him to hospital. Because the ambulance could not cross a large, permanent roadblock built to prevent Palestinian access to the settlers’ road, the brothers dismantled the roadblock to allow the ambulance to get through. Then the settlers stoned the ambulance.

Our final action with CPT before returning to the U.S. was to go with them and three busloads of Israelis led by members of Rabbis for Human Rights and Ta’ayush to the Yatta (Susya) region to help deliver food, blankets, and tents to the dispossessed farm families there. Providing humanitarian aid in cases such as this is illegal under Israeli law because "it provides comfort to the enemy." So the Israelis were risking arrest for doing this good deed. On the day we accompanied them, we succeeded in delivering the humanitarian aid before IDF intervened and caused us to leave the area. In the process they arrested the three Palestinian drivers who had brought our group to the site. A CPT volunteer went with each driver to the Israeli police station and succeeded in preventing the confiscation of their vehicles by "getting in the way": sitting down in front of the soldiers’ jeep and refusing to move until the soldiers gave up, returned their keys, and let them go.

Our experience in the West Bank was focused entirely on the issues and situations described here, so our ministry and witness would appear to be "pro-Palestinian" because it was pro-justice. It was noted above that CPT is apolitical, not taking sides for political or national interest reasons. CPT does take sides, as we did, on the basis of human rights considerations. In the Occupied Territories of the West Bank, justice and human rights considerations require us to stand with the Palestinians. The West Bank is historically their land. In 1948 they were the preponderant occupants of what was called Palestine.

That year, 78 percent of that area was taken over by the new Israeli state, by force rather than UN partition, leaving in the West Bank only 22 percent of historic Palestine. It is that part of their original homeland in which they are attempting to maintain their lives, raise their children safely, and pursue their careers. Yet for the past 34 years they have been prevented from doing so by the ongoing occupation by Israel and by the continuing incursion of settlements—each one an illegal confiscation of land and water (violating UN Security Council resolutions 242, 252, and 478 and the Fourth Geneva Convention on occupied territories) and for the Palestinians, the elimination of the basic human right of survival.

Israeli concern for security is understandable. Israelis rightly fear the lethal desperation of suicide bombers in their cities and towns. They have a right to respond to terror attacks by frustrated Palestinians. Our position and that of the several Israeli peace and justice groups described above, and of CPT and other international observers is that Israeli response is overwhelmingly disproportional.

Israeli military organization, weaponry, firepower, and foreign (mostly U.S.) military support far outweighs that of the Palestinians. Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories consist of collective punishment, deportations, ghettoization, and destruction of economic infrastructure—all in defiance of international law. Justice requires a proportional response to attacks and a willingness to end occupation and the forced proliferation of Israeli settlements in non-Israeli land. When such steps are given serious consideration in Israel, we expect there will be a relaxation of tension and violence in this troubled land.

Genie Durland

Genie Durland has taught classes and led workshops with her husband, Bill, on religious nonviolent practice and on Quaker faith and testimonies. In the 1980s, they served on the staff of Pendle Hill. They belong to a tiny worship group that meets in their home in a recycled mining town in southern Colorado and is under the care of Albuquerque (N. Mex.) Meeting. She is a former co-clerk with Bill of Intermountain Yearly Meeting.