'Aggressive pacifists' put their faith on the firing line

Christian Peacemaker Teams strain to shield Palestinians and cool Israeli tempers

How do you walk into a war zone and try to make peace? Not in the political, signing-of-treaties sense, but on a human level, day by day?

For some Christian activists from the US and Canada, peacemaking means standing at a checkpoint amid thrown stones and tear gas, trying to prick a soldier's conscience. It means doing simple things at moments of high drama, such as staying at a family's house to allay fears of demolition or walking kids to school during an edgy curfew. It means comforting a terrified woman.

These activists, members of a Chicago-based group called Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), choose to live in a strange universe known as H2, the Israeli-controlled enclave of the West Bank city of Hebron.

Here roughly 30,000 Palestinians endure curfews and other Israeli military restrictions intended to protect around 450 Jewish settlers. The settlers exist in a sort of perpetual Alamo, the Palestinians in an almost ceaseless lockdown. Violence is frequent.

The CPTers, as they call themselves, aren't in it for an easy time. They must constantly balance their commitment to be "aggressive pacifists" against the danger such a life entails.

Apart from unsuccessful efforts to establish a dialogue with the settlers and a week of riding an Israeli bus line that had been struck twice by suicide bombers, the CPT's work focuses on one side. "We're protecting the Palestinians," says CPTer Anne Montgomery, a wrinkled, wiry Catholic nun who has been getting arrested for pacifist causes since the early 1960s.

The activists say they are not against Israel, the settlers in the West Bank, or the Israeli security forces. What they oppose is the occupation of the Palestinian lands Israel seized in the 1967 Arab- Israeli War and the violence that accompanies it.

So when CPTer Pierre Shantz, a young, fiery Canadian who once worked in an auto parts factory, strides out to a Hebron roadblock to watch Israeli soldiers confront a group of stonethrowing Palestinian youths, he cuts right to the occupation.

Standing behind a barrier to avoid the stones but close enough to the soldiers to have a conversation, Mr. Shantz says to them: "It doesn't take a genius to understand that an illegal occupation is wrong."

Other soldiers are firing tear gas canisters at the boys, some of them clearly in the single-digit age-range. They have the smiling insouciance of kids who know the routine.

Shantz, watching the gas drift toward Palestinian homes, says: "Do you know what tear gas does to pregnant women? Do you know it kills the baby?"

The Israelis stand impassively. They wear flak jackets and helmets and carry M-16s. The rocks mainly pose a nuisance.

Shantz prods on, asking the Israelis how they will answer the questions of their children and grandchildren. "What will you say? 'Just following orders?' " There is probably not a single Israeli adult who does not know that countless Nazis excused their role in the Holocaust of World War II by saying that they had to obey their superiors. One of the soldiers starts to bridle. "Don't respond to him," warns his colleague.

Robert Holmes, a CPTer who is also a Catholic priest, explains the idea behind the Shantz treatment: "You're not trying to alienate the soldier. You're trying to alienate the soldier from what he's doing."

Risks for peace

In 1984 an American theologian and social activist named Ronald Sider sought to spur Christians to a more aggressive pacifism. "Unless we ... are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic, vigorous new exploits for peace and justice ... we dare never whisper another word about pacifism to our sisters and brothers in those desperate lands filled with injustice," Dr. Sider told a conference of Mennonites. CPT is the response of the Church of the Brethren, the Friends United Meeting, and Mennonite congregations in Canada and the US to his call.

The group began by dispatching delegations to war-torn areas in the early 1990s; today it sends trained volunteers and members of its full-time Christian Peacemaker Corps to live in zones of conflict.

CPTer Kathleen Kern, a published Bible scholar from New York state, puts the group's ethos this way: "I've always felt that to be a pacifist, you should be willing to take the same risks for peace that soldiers take for violence." Ms. Kern has been beaten twice by settlers in Hebron; other CPTers also have been assaulted in their work.

Funded by individual and church donations, CPT maintains projects in Hebron, the Chiapas region of Mexico, and northern Colombia, as well as with several native American groups in Canada and the US. A handful of CPT staffers support the work of 20 Corps members, such as Kern, Shantz, and Ms. Montgomery, and about 100 volunteers, who spend up to several months a year working with CPT.

CPT has been in Hebron since 1995 at the invitation of Hebron's Palestinian mayor, although it lacks any official status with the Israelis. Generally a half-dozen people constitute the team, but it can be a few more or less.

Their lifestyle falls somewhere between Spartan and monastic. The CPT apartments - one for men and one for women - are in a traditional Palestinian building in Hebron's Old City market. The floors are tiled, the thick walls are whitewashed, but the décor is strictly activist: maps and posters, two or three modest Christian symbols, and wise words, such as these from the Dalai Lama: "Be compassionate, work for peace, ... and I say again, never give up."

The team members share a common living room furnished with a couch, an easy chair, and a small dining table. They rotate responsibilities for cooking, cleaning, leading worship services, and logging their activities. A Hebron CPT specialty: pita-bread pizza.

In one of the men's bedrooms, the furnishings consist of two sleeping bags on narrow foam mattresses and a much-used wardrobe to store clothes. One wall is decorated by a postcard of Caravaggio's "Supper at Emmaus," which depicts a resurrected Jesus identifying himself to his unwitting companions.

The CPTers are not proselytizers, although they say they try to give Christianity a good name. Rick Polhamus, who gave up a profitable career as a harness-horse racer, says he draws spiritual sustenance from a passage of Isaiah that includes these verses (58:11-12): "And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.

"And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in."

Ancient city, modern tensions

Jewish settlers have been in Hebron since shortly after the Israelis occupied the West Bank in 1967, but they lay claim to an ancient heritage. An eon ago, the Jewish patriarch Abraham paid 400 silver shekels for a burial site in Hebron for his wife, Sarah.

For Jews, the cave of Machpelah is second in holiness only to Jerusalem's Western Wall. It is said to house the remains of Abraham and Sarah as well as their son Isaac and grandson Jacob and their wives Rebecca and Leah.

From antiquity forward, the site has variously been a church, a synagogue, and a mosque, sometimes more than one at a time. All three monotheistic faiths venerate what is known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Until a massacre of more than 60 Jews in 1929, which occurred as Zionist Jews were expanding their presence in what was then known as Palestine, the city's Muslims co-existed in relative harmony with their Jewish neighbors.

Today there is little pretense to comity. In 1997 Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed that Israel would withdraw from most of the city - which would be known as H1 - and remain in place around the settlements and the Tomb. This smaller area was labelled H2.

Hebron is a burgeoning industrial center that is the core of the southern West Bank. The city is known for blue-tinted glass, traditional embroidery, and the resilient, sometimes obstinate character of its people.

But where the 100,000 or so Palestinians in H1 bustle about their business, some 30,000 in H2 spend much of their time in the stillness of Israeli-imposed curfews, enforced regularly since the outbreak of sustained Israeli-Palestinian violence in September 2000. The Palestinians' markets, workshops, and even schools have frequently been closed, their movements impeded by roadblocks and checkpoints.

Meanwhile the Israelis are free to move among their half-dozen settlements, strolling down the often deserted streets of H2, past ubiquitous Israeli Army outposts.

The restrictions are intended to tamp down violence. Palestinian attacks on settlers are common; in the most notorious case, last March a sniper killed a 10-month-old girl as her father held her in his arms in a Hebron settlement.

But the settlers themselves do little to calm the situation. They repeatedly rampage through the market in H2, which they assert is built on Jewish land, overturning tables and harassing residents. An Israeli Army commander has publicly referred to the settlers as "hooligans."

For many Israelis, the Hebron settlers are a source of shame. In 1994 a resident of Kiryat Arba, a settlement near Hebron, shot to death 29 Palestinians in the mosque over the Tomb. Yigal Amir, who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, spent time in Hebron's settlements.

Does the CPT's presence make any difference? It depends on whom you ask.

"You can't say they have any tangible achievements, but they are doing their best," says Adli Daana, secretary general of the nonprofit International Palestinian Youth League in Hebron. "Just to be able to survive in this situation is a big sacrifice for an American."

"No one can stop the Israelis from doing what they want to do," says Raef al-Aweywi, the paunchy, white-haired proprietor of a kitchen-supply store near the CPT apartments.

He notes that the group has tried to stop demolitions of Palestinian homes and its members have helped merchants close up shop when curfews are imposed. "It touches the heart of the people that they try to help."

"I'm afraid their influence is very bad because they have a totally one-sided attitude and they never judge things as they are," says Noam Arnon, a leader of the settler community in Hebron. "When you come into this city and play with matches you cause damage .... They ignore the right of Jews to exist in this town."

The Israel Defense Forces declined to comment on the organization.

Comforting the afflicted

It was mid-afternoon last autumn. Kern, the Bible scholar, is rushing toward the sound and smoke of one of the city's daily confrontations.

Wearing her brown hair tied back under the CPT's trademark red cap, she hustles along cobblestones and under whitewashed arches, hurries into a courtyard, up a flight of stairs, and onto a rooftop. The sky is a bright pale blue, the air crisp but not chilly.

Moments earlier a middle-aged, stubble-faced man named Marwan Abu Mayah, taking it easy in a maroon track suit, had been sitting on a plastic chair, ready to enjoy tiny cups of cardamom-scented Arabic coffee with his mother.

From the shuttered, darkened street below two objects came aloft, bottles filled with gasoline, their makeshift wicks aflame. One smashed onto the stairs two yards from Mr. Abu Mayah and his mother. The other crashed and exploded between their chairs, sending up yellow flames.

Mother and son aren't physically hurt. But as her fear subsides, Zouriya Abu Mayah sits down heavily on the cement rooftop, her oval, creased face circled by a headscarf. She weeps and her cheeks tremble. She pours water from a plastic bottle onto her head. The rooftop begins to fill with neighbors and Israeli soldiers and police, none of whom doubt that settlers threw the Molotov cocktails.

Kern squats next to Zouriya, leans close to the shaken old lady, and holds her hand. Fleetingly, like a snowflake falling into a flame, the gesture brings a moment of peace.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to 'Aggressive pacifists' put their faith on the firing line
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today