Sunday, January 20, 2008

The price of the Occupation

Atan of B'tselem

Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence

Our group divided up today to head to churches in the area for Sunday worship. My choice was the Redeemer Lutheran Church in the Old City, which we'd heard has a 9 a.m. English service. We got there to discover the service was in Arabic, and none too energetic Arabic at that. We hummed along to the Old One Hundredth which was the closing hymn. At the conclusion of the service a nice couple came up to us and asked why we didn't go to the English service in the church's chapel. We dashed up to the chapel and found around 150 English-speakers, mostly Americans, enjoying a warm and vibrant service. Joshua stuck around for post-service tea while others headed to the Jaffa Gate to explore and shop.

After lunch we bused to the headquarters of B'tselem, a Jewish human rights organization. Atan, a field worker there, laid out for us the organization's work of documenting human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza - of and by both Palestinians and Israelis. We talked a lot about the social cost of checkpoints, especially those that separate Palestinian communities in the West Bank from each other. It was quite interesting to hear, too, about the challenges faced by Jewish settlements that are placed directly in the middle of Palestinian communities like Hebron. B'tselem's audience is the Israeli public, 70% of whom know of B'tselem's work, but only 30% of whom support it. The org has begun giving video cameras to Palestinians so they can document harassment and abuse. One recent episode, in which an Israeli settler harasses a family living nearby, is shown in this video.

Kathy discovered St. George's Cathedral was planning to host the local celebration of Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, so we hightailed it back to the cathedral in time to enjoy the Anglican/ecumenical service there. Bishop Suheil Duwani, who recently visited Seattle, was the speaker. The organist did a fine job on the Toccata of Widor Symphony #5 as a postlude.

Following the service we gathered in the hostel dining room to hear Yehuda Shuel of Breaking the Silence. Yehuda, a 25-year old, served 3 years in the IDF on the West Bank and, along with several others, put together a photo display of his tour of duty in Tel Aviv. The display was viewed by over 7,000 people, and the Israeli press featured it in headlines for several days. This was the genesis of Breaking the Silence, which is an organization that interviews Israeli soldiers to learn about their experiences on the West Bank and Gaza. So far they've interviewed over 500 soldiers, and their testimonies have been put into print and web form.

Yehuda shared with us his own service. He was trained to combat the Syrians in open battle, but his tour of duty ended up primarily on the West Bank. He was given the command, which he followed, to lob rocket propelled grenades across a no-man's land onto a Palestinian structure in a village around .5 kilometer away.He did this night after night until it became a game, but he was haunted by the likelihood that his RPGs likely fell on innocent civilians, given the inevitable inaccuracy caused by distance. He decided it was his responsibility to tell the truth about what he did so Israeli society could come to grips with the moral and social cost of the occupation.

I asked Yehuda whether he would live in an Israeli settlement on the West Bank, and he did not say he would not live there. He did say that his attempt was to get Israelis to ask the question, "What is Israel for if it is hurting innocent people?" I'm proud of Yehuda and glad he broke the silence. He's a good man, an Orthodox Jew, and he declined dinner with us on kosher grounds, but it would have been great to break bread with him and enjoy his obvious good humor and strong character built out of tough times.


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