Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Nonviolence in the South Hebron hills

This is an exciting time to be in At-Tuwani, the tiny village in the South Hebron hills, from which I have just returned. We are seeing the beginnings of organized nonviolent resistance.

Just two weeks ago Palestinian shepherds would flee at the sight of an armed Israeli settler. Last Saturday shepherds from At-Tuwani and from neighbouring villages gathered with their flocks on the slopes surrounding the Avigail settlement outpost, about 3 miles west of At-Tuwani. Sheep and goats were everywhere. Here a flock is about twenty animals; there must have been a dozen flocks grazing on hillsides that the shepherds had not dared to crop for years.
They came within 80 metres of the settlement. When an Israeli army officer warned them not to approach within 500 metres they moved round to the other side of the outpost.

On Sunday the combined flocks approached the woods by the Ma’on settlement – another area from which they had previously been driven. Settlers and police were ignored. Eventually a pair of senior Israeli army officers appeared, warning the shepherds, and their accompaniers from the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT), that they were in a military firing zone and would be arrested if they returned.

Previous attempts have been made to declare a large area south of At-Tuwani a live training area for the Israeli army. In 1999 the Israeli carried out mass evictions; the Israeli High Court of Justice confirmed the villagers’ right to return home temporarily, but a final ruling is still awaited. Now the villagers seem confident of eventual victory. On Monday the shepherds were
back on the Ma’on slopes. On Tuesday they returned to Avigail.

It is doubly exciting to realize that our simple presence has helped to bring this change about, and is giving us a grandstand view of history in the making. No Gandhi or Martin Luther King: just sheep and goats, shepherds, and us, far away in the South Hebron Hills on the edge of the Negev Desert.

Of course there will be setbacks. Only last week one of our Italian colleagues from Operation Dove was attacked by an Israeli settler from Ma’on. His jaw was broken and he suffered neurological damage – blurred vision and memory loss. Call me an optimist, but I feel more hopeful every day I spend in At-Tuwani.

Do you remember what I wrote in January about abandoned villages in the South Hebron hills? I blinked in disbelief when I revisited one last week-end, empty for ten years. Hens clucked in the yard. Washing flapped on the line. Two or three families have ventured back. Nonviolence thrives on steps like these.

Monday, February 14, 2005

I too have a dream

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.”
Psalm 122:6.

I share the psalmist’s dream. Even today Old Jerusalem is a cosmopolitan neighbourhood. Black-coated Hasidim rub shoulders with kaffiya’d Muslims and robed Christian priests. But guns are here, there and everywhere. Over the shoulders of worshippers at the Wailing Wall. In the hands of watchful Israeli conscripts. Our dream will not be realized until these weapons are removed from the Holy City.

Why does a weapon-free Jerusalem have to remain just a dream? The Old City is bounded by an ancient wall and penetrated by a mere handful of “gates”. I can envisage a couple of airport security systems outside each gate, staffed independently by Israelis and Palestinians. If an aircraft can be weapon-free, why not Old Jerusalem?

Think of the benefits. Pilgrims of every faith would come and go without fear of guns or bombs. Tourists would return to the old markets. Mosques, churches and synagogues would become havens of peace once more. Why not?

Blame the military. Blame the politicians on both sides who maintain that only arms can protect their people effectively. But wait – Jerusalem is a Holy City for Muslims, Christians and Jews. Their combined prayers, their longing for peace, the dedicated conscience of the three Abrahamic faiths could launch such a compelling bandwagon that politicians(and even cautious church dignitaries) would hasten to climb on board. Jubilee 2000 is a lesson we should take to heart: the pressure must come from below.

Here’s the programme I’m proposing. First a world-wide inter-faith Week of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem. Ideally this would be endorsed by the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the various Chief Rabbis and Imams. Christians might be invited to pray in mosques and synagogues; Jews and Muslims also in alternate places of worship. Subsequent religious holidays involving Jerusalem, e.g. Isra’-Mi’raj, Easter, Tisha B’Av, might be encouraged to incorporate some support for the campaign. This would develop into an international campaign to persuade and press world statesmen to declare the Old City of Jerusalem a weapon-free area for a trial period of twelve months.

The first step would be to remove private weapons. These need not be monitored or surrendered, just taken out of the Old City. Then the monitoring equipment would be wheeled in and the twelve-month experiment would be under way. Once this is seen to work then we might hope it would spread out in two directions:
(a) New Israeli settlements in Greater Jerusalem could be internationally accepted as part of Jerusalem on the same terms as the Old City: no weapons, and free indiscriminate access and movement.
(b) Other divided cities (Belfast?) could also take note.

Just a dream; but look what’s just dropped out of Friends Quarterly. The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust is seeking six “Visionaries” with ideas for changing the world (see www.jrct-visionaries.org.uk). Could I be one of the chosen six? Statistically, not a hope. Hundreds of applicants are expected, and Hebron doesn’t even have a letter-box to post my application. Still, I’m filling out that application form ....

So pray that the Joseph Rowntree Trust will be rightly guided, even if my dream doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. And do let me know what you think of it. Maybe a better dream will blossom later. And maybe somebody else will pick it up and run with it.

“For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.... and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks”. Isaiah 2:3-4.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

News from Hebron

First some bad news. The Old City used to be the heart of Hebron, a souk full of noise, colour and bustle. The neighbourhood where the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) lives was once the chicken market, but nowadays it is deserted. Every few hours a wary 6-man Israeli patrol passes through the souk, with automatic weapons pointing into each doorway and alley along the way. Often they force their way into Palestinian homes “in search of weapons”. A small Israeli settlement overlooks the main passageway. Wire netting is fastened overhead to catch garbage emptied by settlers into the old market. Entrances to the souk are continuously guarded by Israeli army checkpoints where Palestinians (and sometimes CPTers) can be stopped and searched.

Few Palestinians venture in, so most of the shops have had to close, perpetuating the cycle of hopelessness. The local Palestinian administration has responded by offering 2-year-rent-free dwellings inside the Old City. So as our old neighbours give up their homes they are being partly replaced by desperate families, unemployed and without roots in this age-old community.

In the CPT team we notice the difference. Nowadays if we go out alone we can expect to be harassed if not physically assaulted. During the past week all the lock barrels on our apartment doors were knocked out in an attempted break-in. Our steel doors held fast, but we were locked out in the cold and dark for several hours that evening. A day or two earlier I was deliberately knocked down by a Palestinian who had been prevented from snatching a bag from one of my companions. Don’t worry. I’m OK. Small bruises and cuts are almosthealed. I was without glasses for several days, but a Palestinian optician has repaired them free-of-charge. Frustrating, though, as a grazed knee stopped me from returning to At-Tuwani where accompanying shepherds involves rock-hopping. I intend to be back in a day or two.

Now for some good news. Local Palestinians have been very concerned and supportive; we have to discourage them from threatening retribution. Everyone seems quietly optimistic about the peace process: keep praying for this. Last week I took part in a sit-down near Khallet Eddar, just south of Hebron. The sit-down sounded just right for my grazed knee. Some hope! It was on the summit of a hill on land claimed by an Israeli settlement. Getting there meant scaling a succession of hills and valleys. I finished up in the rear with the hajs. No Israelis in sight. A peaceful but exhausting day.

On a lighter note, we have combined birthdays in the team with birthday parties for local children in threatened homes. Israeli soldiers at checkpoints have twice had to confront CPTers, joined by Ecumenical Accompaniers and ISMers, with balloons, party hats and birthday cakes.