Monday, December 27, 2004

A faraway village...

Hebron Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) is now in two places. The main team lives inside the Casbah in the Old City of Hebron. A smaller group rotates in and out of At-Tuwani, a remote village 20 miles away in the South Hebron Hills. I was quietly overjoyed last week when the At-Tuwani group chose me as their liaison with the main team. As this will be my principal task in the next three months, this note is to let you know about the situation in At-Tuwani. I wish there was space to describe the village. Maybe later. Here is what has been happening lately.

Last September the villagers started to build a clinic. They did this without a permit from the Israeli occupation authorities, as it is well known that such permits are seldom granted, and even then typically after several years’ delay. The builders were harassed by Israeli settlers from the nearby settlement of Ma’on, and also had to stop work whenever Israeli soldiers approached the village. Much of the work had to be done at night. The Christian Peacemaker Team, together with a smaller sister group, Operation Dove (OD), responded to the villagers’ appeal for international observers to reduce the level of violence. Operation Dove (actually Operazione Colomba) is an Italian Catholic group which has also worked in Kosovo, East Timor and several South American countries. We get on well with them.

At-Tuwani has a school which also serves several surrounding villages. Children from one of these villages – Tuba – have to walk close to the Israeli settlement to reach the school. They were sometimes attacked by settlers, and scared of making the journey. In Hebron we are familiar with this situation, so it seemed natural in At-Tuwani too to set up a ‘school patrol’ to accompany the kids to and from their lessons. The settlers responded by attacking accompaniers with chains and clubs on three occasions. Two Americans from CPT and one Italian from OD needed hospital treatment. These attacks drew wide attention to the situation. As a result the Israeli Army has now undertaken to send a jeep to escort the Tuba children to and from At-Tuwani. The villagers understandably distrust the troops, and have urged CPT and OD to keep on watching the children as they pass close to the settlement. This entails a strenuous hill-climb twice a day, and will be very uncomfortable when the rains come. No joy for an elderly arthritic!

Perhaps the most valuable thing we do here is to bring publicity to bear on this lonely area, hidden from normal contact with the rest of Palestine and the world outside. For this reason I am especially grateful to those on my mailing list who have taken time to write to the authorities about the attacks. The villagers have no doubt this publicity has brought notable benefits. The kids now have a military escort. The village has written permission to complete its clinic and the work proceeds apace; the permit is proudly displayed on the door of the little house which the villagers have (illegally) built for CPT and OD. It is even rumoured that the Separation Wall being built in South Hebron is to be rerouted to place At-Tuwani inside Palestine instead of between the Wall and the Green Line (the 1967 border between Palestine and Israel).

We are hearing of similar situations in other villages to the south, and are seeking ways to respond without overstraining our resources. As I write there are only six CPTers out here. More will join us in January. But further injuries would create a critical situation. I know you will keep praying with us.

The attached picture shows Art Gish one evening in our At-Tuwani home, helping a village lad to learn English.

Art Gish teaching english Posted by Hello

Inside an Israeli court

Last Monday I attended a trial in an Israeli military court. The accused was an Israeli soldier charged with manslaughter for shooting Tom Hurndall, an English 23-year old killed in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, in 2003.

Tom had been a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led group dedicated to nonviolence. One of his companions, Joe Carr, was with Tom when he was shot. Joe, now a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team, was subpoenaed by the defence (yes!) to give evidence at the trial. He asked me to accompany him.

The courtroom, in a military compound near Ashkelon, was quite small – in that respect more akin to an English juvenile court. There were three presiding officers, all in high-ranking military uniform. The defence counsel was a ponderous civilian. The prosecutor was a spirited woman soldier in her twenties. With repeated legal challenges, the action sometimes seemed closer to an American TV drama than to a typical English court.

Proceedings were in Hebrew, so questions to Joe had to be translated into English. It soon became clear, both to me and to the court, that the defence lawyer was ‘fishing’ in the hope of trapping Joe into contradicting some of the written evidence previously assembled by Tom Hurndall’s father. Indeed the presiding officer himself used the word ‘fishing’, showing that the colloquial English term had passed into Hebrew legalese.

This was Joe’s first court appearance, and he spent two hours in the witness box. This would be draining for anyone, but was particularly stressful in Joe’s case as he had to relive the experience of seeing his friend shot through the head. His evidence was clearly consistent with written evidence from other eye-witnesses, which showed that an Israeli soldier had been shooting at unarmed Palestinian children. Tom had entered the line of fire to shepherd the children to safety, and a bullet passed through his brain.

Joe’s disrespect for the court was not always well concealed. He had urged me to photograph him at the witness stand and I didn’t want to disappoint him. I concealed my digital camera as best I could, but was not surprised when an usher prevented me from taking a second photograph after the one attached.

I am glad to have been there to support Joe. I was favourably impressed with the apparent fairness of the presiding officer, and with the smooth informality of the legal process. The accused soldier will have a fair trial.

Naturally I have misgivings. It seems clear that this trial would never have taken place but for the persistence of Tom’s family, supported by pressure from the British government. If the victim had been a Palestinian the Israeli Army’s initial disclaimer would have passed unchallenged.

But some ills have no remedy. Tom cannot be brought back. What is achieved by making one soldier – incidentally an Israeli Bedouin – a scapegoat for the widespread practice of indiscriminate shooting? Can confrontational legal processes ever achieve anything but retribution? How many more peace activists, and soldiers, and women, and children must be shot before this pointless conflict comes to an end?

‘Father forgive … … ‘

Joe Carr in court Posted by Hello

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Carols with Mordecai Vanunu

In the morning of Christmas Eve I was with Arthur (‘Art’) Gish, a fellow member of the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT), in At-Tuwani. As it was Friday, the Muslim sabbath, the village school was closed so our usual daily ‘school patrol’ was not needed. I left in time to join the Hebron team who were leaving for Bethlehem. Art characteristically chose to stay behind with the shepherds in At-Tuwani, believing that was the best place to celebrate the humble Birth in a manger. He wouldn’t be alone. Israeli volunteers from Ta’ayush had agreed to take our place in At-Tuwani over Christmas. The CPT team had been invited to Bethlehem by Jerry Levin’s wife Lucille (‘Sis’) who teaches nonviolence in Palestinian schools there. Together we attended the Carol Service in the Lutheran Christmas Church – the oldest Lutheran church in the Holy Land.

We knew that Mordecai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear whistle-blower recently released from prison, had intended to challenge his confinement to Jerusalem by travelling south to Bethlehem to take part in a Christmas service. On Christmas Eve he was arrested en route. His car was searched, but all the Israeli Army found was a Father Christmas hat. (I know what you’re thinking, but no – not a red CPT hat). Later he was released, but on even more restrictive conditions.

We recalled that Mordecai had become a Christian 18 years ago only just before his arrest and imprisonment. He was now prevented from attending his first carol service. Those of you who know Jerry Levin’s warmth and resourcefulness will not be surprised it was he who suggested CPT should take the carols to Mordecai instead.

The attached photograph shows Cathie Uhler (a Franciscan sister with CPT), and an unmusical Quaker, singing carols with Mordecai Vanunu and the rest of the CPT team. I was comforted to find Mordecai almost equally unmusical. And so back to Hebron and news from Art Gish in high spirits having been feasted by Ta’ayush. It will soon be my turn to return to At-Tuwani, far from the internet. So forgive me for trying to cram as many messages as possible into the next few days.

Too late to wish you all a Merry Christmas. Peace and love for 2005.

Vanunu, Kathie and I Posted by Hello