“House to house, field to field”

Reflections on a peace mission to the West Bank

By Ken Sehested
Thursday, 18 April 2002

Yesterday came suddenly; but it seemed to go on forever. My arm no longer aches; yet the stone hurled as a curse by a young Jewish settler in Hebron struck a more tender target. Not even the bruise remains; but my heart still hurts.

Only two days prior I began a 24-hour journey to the illegally-occupied lands of the West Bank of the Jordan River. It's a long way from Clyde to the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem where we spent our first two nights. Except for the similar terrain of hills and hollows, the regions are a universe apart. The mountains of Western North Carolina may be the world's oldest; but the recorded history of ancient Palestine is among the most intense.

I am here as part of an emergency delegation arranged by Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), an organization committed to nonviolent intervention in situations of violent conflict. We are soldiers without weapons, save for the power of the Spirit to disarm nations as well as hearts. We claim neither special personal virtue nor public valor, but only this: that our lives have been gripped by the biblical vision of lion and lamb living together in peace (Isaiah 11:6); by God's promised Jubilee, when all "shall sit 'neath their own vine and fig tree, and none shall make them afraid" (Micah 4:4); by the assurance that one day all tears will be dried, when even death will come undone (Revelation 21:4), when creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay (Romans 8:21).

We have been invited to Hebron, south of Jerusalem. Beginning March 29, many cities in the West Bank, including Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus and Jenin, have been invaded and occupied by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The CPT staff of U.S., Canadian and Palestinian citizens was afraid Hebron would be next.

Hebron: Reckoned by some to be the world's oldest continuously-inhabited city. Hebron: Burial place, in the Ibrahimi Mosque, of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah. Hebron: Initial site of King David's throne.

Hebron: Home to 130,000 Palestinians and 400 heavily armed Jewish settlers, the former guarded by a 10-member Palestinian Authority security force, the latter by 2,000+ IDF soldiers. It was in Hebron that a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, opened fire in February 1994 with an automatic weapon on the crowd gathered for Friday noon prayers in the Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29 and wounding hundreds. Bullet-chipped marble and masonry are still visible. Similar damage, from a 2001 shooting, is visible on the wall of the CPT office facing a Jewish settlement and IDF rooftop post.

The U.S. "war on terrorism" has provided the perfect public relations cover for Israel's incremental measures designed to take full control of the West Bank—measures which are in direct conflict with repeated United Nations resolutions and the Geneva Convention, and subsidized with $10 million per day in U.S. foreign aid.

By the time our direct flight from Toronto landed in Tel Aviv, the threatened invasion of Hebron appeared to have passed. So after a day of training in Jerusalem, our 14-person delegation was split into three groups destined for three cities, including Hebron where my group was assigned.

Yesterday came early

Tuesday evening our leaders got word of a planned vigil in an East Jerusalem (Arab) neighborhood where a Palestinian family was scheduled for eviction. The Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions was seeking assistance in bolstering their opposing presence.

"The police probably won't arrive until 8 a.m., but we need to be ready," was the message from Jeff Halper, co-founder of the Committee. It was agreed that supporters would gather at 6:45 at a familiar location near the affected house and walk together. Which meant our group was up before dawn for the half-hour hike.

Legal wrangling, involving 500-year-old deeds, had come to a head, and the tenants were to be removed—one more small act in the larger drama of Israeli annexation. The 2,700-year-old complaint of Isaiah comes to mind as we approached our destination:

"Woe to you who join house to house, who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you. . . ." (5:8).

There were a dozen of us initially, some prepared to risk arrest. Then another dozen drifted in, and another, until the street was clogged and the press hovered. Police arrived a little after 8 a.m., surveyed the crowd, then left. No one knew when, or if, they would return. By mid-morning our group decided our presence was no longer needed, and we agreed to continue our journey to Hebron.

Under normal circumstances the 40-kilometer drive would take 35 minutes. But nothing is normal here. We encountered the first military check-point within minutes.

No, we were told, we could not continue on this highway. Why? Security threats. Terrorism. Oddly, no such threats applied to vehicles with Israeli tags and Jewish drivers, which breezed through the road block. This particular road is not among the growing network of Jews-only highways, but the effect is the same.

Our taxi, a boxy-shaped Ford van, turned around and took back roads winding through the countryside and several tiny villages, a scenic but rugged trip over broken, sometimes precipitously narrow pavement along the edges of steep cliffs. Meeting an oncoming vehicle was always a carefully orchestrated maneuver.

After more than an hour the road came to an unnatural end. Massive cubic-yard concrete barricades forced our halt. We would continue on foot. After a quarter of a mile there were more barriers and beyond them more taxis waiting to resume the trip. Thousands of Palestinian workers and merchants endure this daily travail. Whole trucks are unloaded at one barrier, carried by hand or push-cart to the other, then reloaded onto different trucks.

House to house, field to field, even road to road: The everyday acts of humiliation and aggravation mount, the reservoir of bitterness deepens.

Finally, we disembark in a bustling market in downtown Hebron and begin the half-mile walk to the CPT office in the town's Old City. The hike involves crossing a line from one area controlled by the Palestinian Authority to another controlled by the IDF. The latter was under curfew, meaning all citizens are confined to their homes. Such lock-downs are randomly-called and can last for days. It's quite possible for a family to run out of food during such curfews. "Internationals" like ourselves are exempt from this form of collective house-arrest, as are members of Jewish settlements.

Crossing from one zone to the other felt like entry into some twilight zone—from the crowded, noisy streets to a ghost town where nothing moved except the occasional cat, the wind-generated flapping of tarps stretched across market stall entrances, and the occasional IDF patrol. For three more blocks we walked along the narrow, abandoned streets—some cave-like, with housing built above—past padlocked shop doors spray-painted with a Star of David and epitaphs like "Arabs are filthy pigs" or merely "This is Israeli land."

Yesterday came with naked malice

Yesterday came suddenly, early, and with naked malice. After settling into our quarters at the CPT office (including a briefing on water conservation—all water is used twice before reaching the sewer), we got a rooftop visual tour of the city. An IDF command and fire outpost was perched in camouflage netting on an adjacent roof. Two other encampments were visible blocks away. The fearful racket resulting from their designated mission would become apparent on subsequent nights, once with the coordinating presence of Apache attack helicopters, "Made in America" along with the modified M-16 rifles carried by the IDF.

Later that afternoon we began our "patrol," one of the more common tactics in CPT's mission of offering public presence and being available to intervene in potentially provocative encounters involving soldiers/settlers and Palestinians. As we made our way along one major road—eerily deserted, devoid of traffic—a rock thrown from behind skipped along the pavement near our feet. I turned to see a young boy, no older than ten years, scurrying to find another stone to toss. Then another, and another. His young arm and inexperienced aim made it immediately obvious that no real threat was imminent. But his sinister grin and apparent delight in this mischief froze me in my tracks. Seconds later I suddenly became aware that one of his insults was coming straight at my head, so I instinctively raised my arm, which absorbed the impact. The collision of stone with flesh is an ancient animus in this part of the world, where rocks are more commonplace than dirt.

A few minutes later our unwanted and unwelcomed presence was reinforced, again by settler children. As the six of us continued our stroll, two preadolescent girls, followed by a slightly-older third, were approaching. The two in front bore facial expressions suggesting intrigue and curiosity, maybe even a cautious smile. But as our paths converged—ours on the sidewalk, theirs a few feet out in the empty roadway—the third girl nonchalantly veered in our direction. Without warning she doused us with the contents of her chocolate milk carton. And I recall hearing giggles from the other two, very much like those I remember from my own daughters' pajama parties of years past.

Physically we were unscathed, but I was left emotionally trembling. A palpable nausea extended downward from my gut into my legs and upward into my chest and shoulders. There is something especially poignant and frightening about the petty violence of children.

Dodging bullets would have been easier.

Yesterday's over, but tomorrow's outta' sight

There is a popular saying here: Stay in the Middle East for a week, and you think you can write a book. Stay for a month, and you think, well, maybe an essay. Stay for a year, and you don't know what to say.

Does the conflict here lend itself to simple solutions? No. But fatalism is no less dishonest.

Later in this journey I overheard a fragment of a conversation between one of my fellow travelers and a journalist. The latter exclaimed: "Truth? You want truth? There is no truth here. This is the Middle East!" I wanted to butt in and respond: If there's no chance for truth, there's no possibility for a solution. And if there's no solution that makes you a scavenger, earning a living on people's misery!

There are many and diverse things to be said, however humbly. The following is my top-ten list of things needing to be highlighted.

1. The nation of Israel was created as a refuge for Jews escaping Europe's holocaust ovens, an episode unparalleled in the history of human savagery—in its systematic intention and implementation if not in sheer magnitude. Indeed, the brutal legacy of anti-Semitism (in which the Christian community shares responsibility) in many parts of the world is well-documented. Nevertheless, the Jewish safe-haven that is Israel was built on the backs of an indigenous population, one that is also Semitic, 726,000 of whom were displaced from their homes and ancestral lands.

2.Theological claims that the land of ancient Palestine was promised to the Jews by God may be emotionally satisfying but cannot be privileged in a world where gods, like gang leaders, inhabit every other block. Palestinians (both Christian and Muslim) and Jews each have legitimate claims to the land, which if not shared could become a perpetual killing field, maybe even trigger an international nuclear exchange.

3. I am among those raised on “cowboy and Indian” movies in North America, where the latter were stereotyped as barbarous, untrustworthy and bloodthirsty savages who prey on the weak and innocent. A similar portrait of Arab peoples has been painted by modern movies and news programs. Until that field of vision changes we will continue to be clueless in reading history and in charting a redemptive future.

4. The so-called "Oslo Accords" is utterly inadequate in its projected division of land between Israel and Palestine. The proposed map of the Palestinian nation is more like a patchwork of reservations, each encircled by, and thus controlled by, Israel. Jeff Halper has noted, the fact that 95% of the Occupied West Bank would be part of the new Palestinian nation is a grossly misleading statement. Inmates occupy some 95% of a prison. It's what happens with the other 5% that matters.

5. There is significant and growing evidence that Israeli leaders have no intention of returning illegally occupied lands to Palestinian control. Such policies of encroachment (particularly with the expanding settlements) amount to ethnic cleansing.

6. It is certainly true that Arab “terror networks" exist and must be stopped (just as there have been Ku Klux Klan and other terror networks in the U.S. for over a century). However, addressing terrorism by military means is, in the words of John Paul Lederach, like trying to kill flowering dandelions by hitting them with a golf club.

7. The violence of Palestinian terrorists doesn’t occur in a vacuum. "The first and worst violence," according to Uri Avnery, former member of the Israeli Knesset, "is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land." Virtually every major human rights organization (including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, and even B’tselem, the leading Israeli human rights body) insist that Israeli demands for Palestinians to “stop the violence” actually turns reality on its head.

8. Many statements, from governments and non-governmental bodies (including churches), have been made decrying the violence on both sides of this conflict. Such statements are actually disingenuous in that they ignore the dynamics of power in the conflict. If both sides were to immediately cease all hostilities, the resulting "peace" would leave Israel in an overwhelmingly dominant position. Any peace agreement that refuses to acknowledge the imbalance of power is destined to harden the realities of injustice and thereby sow the seeds for the next war.

9. The recent plan approved by the Arab League, acknowledging both Israeli and Palestinian rights to exist within secure borders, must be affirmed as the framework for a just peace. It is not unfair to ask if Arab nations are sincere. But there is only one way to find out.

10. Finally, while the United Nations is the proper forum for negotiating a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians, numerous national and regional governing bodies will have distinctive roles to play. Among those must be a commitment by the U.S. to leverage its massive financial aid to Israel as incentive for good-faith bargaining.

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©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org. A condensed version of this article was printed in the July-August 2002 issue of The Other Side magazine.