These words have stayed with me. They were spoken by a resident of Sussiya in the South Hebron Hills, deep inside the West Bank, when I met him and his family on a visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory in January 2011. His family was living in a tent because the Israeli authorities had destroyed his home. On that occasion I was travelling with my then employer, international development agency Christian Aid.
Two and a half years on, I am about to travel back to the region to spend 3 months working as a Human Rights Observer in an international team with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). EAPPI is a program of the World Council of Churches, supported in the UK by international development charities including Christian Aid and CAFOD, and administered by the Quakers. It was founded in 2002 in response to a request from the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem. The programme is the biggest presence of internationals working for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory. It has two aims: to help end the occupation, and to advocate for a just peace based on international law.
I’m taking a secondment from my job as Head of Advocacy at international poverty charity ActionAid UK, where I spent the first 6 months of this year working to influence the G8 to deliver action to tackle tax dodging, a problem which costs poor countries more than they receive in aid every year. This involved numerous meetings with politicians and civil servants in Westminster: in Parliament, the Treasury and at 10 Downing Street; and media work: I appeared on TV, on the radio and in newspapers to publicise our message.
The next few months are going to be very different. I’m being posted to Hebron, which is the biggest city in the West Bank, and is a place of particular tension and division in the long, tragic conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is occupied by 1500 Israeli soldiers who are primarily there to protect the 500 Israeli settlers who hold strong religious views and sometimes use violence to uphold them. I have visited Hebron twice before, just for a few hours, and found it to be the strangest place I have ever been.
I will be living there in an apartment with three other people from different countries, none of whom I have ever met. We will work together to provide a ‘protective presence’ and to monitor and report on human rights abuses. The idea – which has been found useful in a number of conflicts across the world – is that the presence of internationals, armed with nothing more than a notebook and a camera, helps ordinary people to feel safer and know that they are not alone. It can reduce the propensity for human rights abuses to occur because perpetrators are less willing to act when someone is recording what they do and telling the outside world about it.
In Hebron, our work is likely to include accompanying Palestinian children experiencing harassment and intimidation from Israeli settlers to school; monitoring the length of time it takes Palestinian workers to cross military checkpoints; accompanying Palestinian farmers at risk of violence from Israeli settlers as they harvest their olives; and supporting the non-violent activities of Israelis and Palestinians working together jointly for peace and human rights.
So: what is my motivation for doing this? Life in the UK is pretty comfortable and I love my regular job with ActionAid. My first two visits to Israel-Palestine were on delegations which introduced the region and the many issues in the conflict from a Jewish/ Israeli perspective. The first trip was about 10 years ago. It was fascinating – we met Israeli politicians, academics and discussed a huge range of issues. We went to Jerusalem, Jaffa, Tel Aviv and visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. We talked about the fear that ordinary Israelis felt about suicide bombings. We met Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones in the conflict and were working across the divide with the Parents Circle, a fantastic organisation. On my second visit we went to Haifa and also to Ramallah, and met some Palestinian politicians and NGOs. But on both trips, the overwhelming majority of what we saw and heard was, unsurprisingly, from only one perspective.
I was very aware of this and so, on my third visit (for a Jewish friend’s wedding at a kibbutz), I made sure that I educated myself about the Palestinian perspective. I visited Bethlehem and walked through the massive military checkpoint there, rather than cruising through on a coach as most tourists do. I went back to Ramallah, and I spent time in East Jerusalem (the largely Palestinian part of this divided city except for the increasing numbers of Israelis who live in settlements there).
I met an old Palestinian woman sitting in a tent in the garden of her home in Sheikh Jarrah, surrounded by her cooker, her fridge and all of her possessions. Inside her empty home was an armed private Israeli security guard, employed by the Israeli settlers who had evicted the old woman from her home. An Israeli police car sat out in the street, clearly finding nothing that they should intervene in. The settlers, who had also taken over the house across the street, shouted some abuse at us as we left. They had American accents.
When I later went to work for Christian Aid, I travelled to Israel-Palestine twice more. I met inspiring Israelis working for human rights and peace in organisations like B’TSelem, Breaking the Silence, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and Ta’ayush. I travelled across the West Bank to Nablus, Jericho, the Jordan Valley, Jayyous, Jenin, the South Hebron Hills – and Hebron itself. I have never seen parents actively encourage their children to be violent before but this is what we witnessed in Hebron with some Israeli settlers encouraging their children to come and kick our guide from Breaking the Silence; an Orthodox Jew who had served in the Israeli army in Hebron and was telling us what he used to do there.
I learnt much more about the other perspective in the conflict, that of the Palestinians, and came away feeling that I now had a much more balanced sense of things and a reasonable understanding of the viewpoints and arguments of each ‘side’.
On my last two visits we also met some Human Rights Observers – or Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) as they are known – from Europe, who were serving with EAPPI. At 6am they were monitoring the amount of time it took Palestinian workers to cross the enormous Bethlehem checkpoint to the jobs in Palestinian East Jerusalem and Israel. Literally hundreds of older men (it is practically impossible for young Palestinian men to get work permits) were crammed into metal pens to have their details checked by teenage Israeli soldiers. I had never witnessed people be treated in such a degrading manner.
I was intensely interested in the work of the EAs and how they came to be there. My experiences left me with a deep sense of the injustice of the conflict, and of the poverty and suffering in much of the West Bank. The man in a tent in Sussiya, the old lady in her garden in Sheikh Jarrah and the Hebron settler children attacking a fellow Israeli were not things I could easily forget.
So that is how it came to be that I will shortly fly there to work for 3 months. There is so much bluster and debate about the issues in Israel-Palestine that I decided it was time to do something more useful than argue about it in the pub. Whatever the situation, I have never believed that we should walk by on the other side – if we can do something to help, then we should. The time I will spend there is my way of making a tiny contribution. I feel excited and apprehensive about arriving and starting work.
That place is never dull but it will be especially interesting when John Kerry’s efforts to re-energise the peace deal are ongoing. Let us hope and pray that he succeeds.
In the meantime, if my efforts mean that a few children can get to school safely and more easily, then my forthcoming adventure will have been worth it.