Global Ministries delegation witnesses both welcome and worries in Hebron
After a week in the Middle East, the 13-person delegation from Global Ministries—leaders of both the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)— experienced the extravagant welcome and hospitality displayed by people of all faiths in this part of the world. Nowhere was that more evident in the town of Hebron, situated in the West Bank, despite living under Israeli occupation since the late 1960s. But Hebron has another side, one much less hospitable to some who call it home.
Layla, a Muslim Palestinian living in Hebron with six children and six grandchildren, invited the group and their guides into her home to share a meal and conversation. With their guests seated on the floor in the dining room, two of Layla’s granddaughters, Dana, 9, and Mimi, 7, help her fill bowls of kafta (meat mixed with minced onions and parsley) and potatoes to pass around the room. Palestinian families like Layla’s welcome visitors to the largest city in the West Bank with open arms, because they say visitors in Hebron make them feel safe from harassment by the Israeli military.
Hebron is one of the many places in Palestine with settlements, communities of Jewish families located within the occupied West Bank. Like many settlements, Hebron is sectioned off into Palestinian neighborhoods and Jewish neighborhoods, with Palestinians living under the constant military presence and observation of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
“This is one of the areas, aside from Jerusalem, with both Palestinians and Jews living in such close proximity,” said Marie Lund-Johansen, an ecumenical accompanier (EA) from Norway. “So there is a lot of tension.”
Marie experiences that tension firsthand. She is one of four young adults leading the delegation around Hebron, as a member of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). As part of a project of the World Council of Churches, EAs walk the city to monitor any problem between Palestinians and Israelis, acting as a check, providing a watchful eye, witnessing and publicizing any harassment—all to make Palestinians feels as safe as they possibly can under the shadow of the Israeli military.
The goal of EAPPI, a Global Ministries partner, is to support local and international efforts to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and bring about a just peace. Since 2002, more than 1,500 people worldwide have volunteered as EAs, who work without pay in the region for three months. By walking beside Palestinians on their way to work and school, the EAs offer a protective presence, documenting and reporting any harassment by soldiers or settlers. To be impartial as possible, the organization also documents any harassment against Israelis.
Hebron is a city of about 250,000 people—of which less than 1,000 are Jewish settlers—with IDF soldiers patrolling streets with fully-automatic machine guns. Armored cars routinely drive up and down the Palestinian-designated district.
EAs accompany people like Layla, who moved to Hebron six years ago from a village to be closer to her business, a cooperative that sells textiles and homemade jewelry in the city’s market. “Life was easier living in the village,” she confesses, “because I can come and go as I please.”
There are 18 checkpoints around Hebron, the EAs explain, at which point non-Jewish citizens must show their identification. Palestinians pass through these checkpoints on a regular basis, on the way to work, to the market, or on their way home from school. The Israeli government justifies the military presence in towns and settlements by claiming it is necessary for security reasons.
“In this part of the world, the saying is ‘If you’re an Israeli policeman without a gun, you’re nobody,'” Marie said.
Ingrid, another EA from Norway, said there has been a growing problem with arrests of Palestinian youths by the IDF. “There were 16 minors arrested in the last two weeks,” she says. “There would be 50 soldiers showing up at houses at 2 a.m. and rounding up all the young boys and taking them to detention centers 30 or 40 kilometers away.”
“We talked with one boy, Abed, who is 15,” Ingrid continued. “We saw bruises on his knees and shins. He said the soldiers hit him with glass bottles. They asked him if he threw any rocks at the soldiers, and he denied it. Still, the court ruled he threw a Molotov cocktail, even though he said he’s never seen one in his life. His family had to pay a fine of 1,000 shackles ($250).”
Boys like Abed arrested by the IDF are tried in military courts, not civilian courts. “If you are Palestinian and arrested by the IDF, it’s a military trial because the West Bank is considered under military law by the Israeli government,” Ingrid said. “But if you are a Jewish settler in Hebron, the IDF cannot arrest you. Israeli police arrest you, and you are tried in civilian court.”
Reflecting on the experience, the Rev. Bernard Wilson, chair of the UCC Board, said, “Hebron was eye-opening. The division [between the communities] is stark.”
There are some Jewish settlers in Hebron who are friendly toward Palestinians living there. “There is this one man in town known for being sympathetic, saying hello and telling us how he wishes everyone could get along,” Marie said. “But, he’s become ostracized by a majority of the settlers for doing that.”
Asked why she was willing to stand in the middle of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Marie said she “wanted to do something different and I wanted to see for myself what was happening in this part of the world.”
“Hebron is a microcosm of the larger occupation, including controlled access, and limitations on access, to historic places of faith and settlements,” said Peter Makari, Global Ministries area executive for the Middle East and Europe. “Our visit put us in first-hand contact with that reality, even as we experienced the gracious hospitality in a Palestinian home.”
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