Saturday, January 26, 2008

Deep in the West Bank

Joy Ellison of the Christian Peacemaker Team in At-Tuwani

Our morning took us from Bethlehem, just inside the Green Line, to Hebron, the heart of the southern West Bank. Although I've traveled many times to Israel-Palestine, I'd not yet been to Hebron, which had
always been presented as being too dangerous to visit.

We picked up a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) from Hebron outside the village of Beit Omar and heard some about a recent episode of violence that had occurred right in the little village outside Hebron. Two Palestinian men had shown up with knives and a gun inside a settlement. They were both shot dead. Hard to say what had provoked them to the point of their violent confrontation with the settlers, but it's clear from hearing stories about Beit Omar and other villages that there is "history" between Jewish settlers and local Palestinians.

In general, Hebron's roots as home to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob make the place sacred to Jews and Muslims alike. Jews settled in Hebron prior to 1948, then returned to Hebron post-1967. Several settlements, including one right in the heart of the Muslim Old City, mean Jews and Muslims are living side by side. Coexistence is tense, to say the least.

Hebron's Jews apparently are the most radical of Jewish settlers, and Palestinian residents of the Old City have put netting over their streets to protect them from stones and garbage thrown by Jewish settlers. CPTs stand between Palestinians and Jews and attempt to protect both. As in many West Bank locales, Jewish encroachments on Palestinian land are unrelenting. The two groups are enemies, and harsh words and bitter feelings are shared. A few years ago a Jewish American doctor named Goldstein brought his gun to the Hebron mosque during prayers and sprayed bullets over the crowd. He killed 29 Palestinians that day, and the atrocity has not been forgotten.

Sometime after that tragedy, Israelis divided the Hebron mosque into a mosque/synagogue, where Jews can see the traditional resting places of the patriarchs on one side while Muslims can do the same on the other - neither side being able to see the other. Having forgotten it was the Jewish sabbath we took a couple snapshots of orthodox Jews leaving the synagogue, and one man shouted out to us, calling us "Anti-Semites" until we put our cameras down.

After lunch in Hebron we drove toward the village of At-Tuwani, near the southern border of the West Bank. CPTs there work in between Palestinian villagers trying to keep their land and radical Jewish settlers trying to expand their settlements. Joy Ellison, a bright young woman from Vancouver, Washington, walked out to our bus to explain the situation there.

At-Tuwani's 150 villagers trace their roots over 800 years to the land surrounding the present village. They graze sheep, raise olives, farm wheat, and grow almonds on the rocky land around their town. The nearby Jewish settlement of Ma-aon, however, has been expanding into the Palestinians' grazing lands, and the Israeli government has marked every building in the village for demolition. Villagers have "fought" back with non-violent resistance, faithfully abiding by principles espoused by Gandhi and King. They managed to force the Israeli government to tear down a wall and have successfully retained ownership and possession of much of their history property. Joy described for us the inspiration she has received from these villagers who have patiently resisted what has seemed an inevitable onslaught of hostility and, sometimes, violence from the settlers.


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