Saturday, 7 February 2015

Being there/Being with: Reflections on interntational accompaniment in Palestine.

Thursday 22nd January 2015
It was good to have the reflections of Alwyn Knight on ten years of association with Hebron in the West Bank with visits to the small village off At-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills. Alwyn first visited through the accompaniment programme of theWCC Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme for Israel and Palestine and then more substantially through many sustained tours of duty with the Christian Peacemaker's Team.

Many readers will be familiar with the political situation in Hebron and the South Hebron Hills . Both communities have experienced the general effects of prolonged occupation but also the particular effect of living in close proximity to Israeli settlements.20% of the settlers in both places could be described as 'ideological' as opposed to 'economic' settlers. With the ideology of the minority comes a propensity for violence, protection by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), and almost total impunity.

The World Council of Churches' EAPPI and CPT programmes both provide 'accompaniment seeking to provide an effective presence whose functions are three fold; deterrence by 'being there as a witness' and thus inhibiting or constraining abusers from carrying out attacks, encouragement by encouraging civil society's capacity to protect itself non violently and influence by supporting progressive voices inside abusive or negligent institutions.

Accompaniers live in the Old City of Hebron.  IDF soldiers are posted on the roof of derelict buildings opposite. CPTers seek to respond quickly with news of house invasions by the military, arrests,especially of children, clashes at vital checkpoints and protests by Palestinians which invariably result in the use of tear-gas and percussion grenades, oftne escalating inot the use of rubber-coated bullets, and even live ammunition. All of this taking place in an urban setting where children are trying to go to school, and adults are tyring to go about their everyday lives.

CPTers used to live in a simple block built, tin roofed dwelling in At Tuwani drawing water from the well, relying on no more than  four hours of electricity a day and accompanying  children from Tuba and Maghayir al-Abeed to shcool, spending hours on the hills with Palestinian shepherds - eyes and ears alert to the ever-present threat of attack by masked and armed  setlers usually carrying heavy wooden staves, or stones. CPT no longer has a presence there but this description is not untypical of similar situations in placements with EAPPI or CPT.

Such is the stuff of accompaniment. Mennonites provided the intiative in the founding of CPT. A characteristic of Mennonite spirituality is non resistance. Historically  they had suffered persecution by other Protestants and Catholics in the 16th Century. Thousands were killed and some burnt at the stake, drowned or beheaded. Many died in prison. This was the seed corn to a rejection to all forms of force or coercion and of military service...indeed many Mennonites had historically as little to do with the 'world' as possible.

John Howard Yoder in publishing 'The Politics of Jesus' in 1972, helped address the theological challenges faced by Mennonites as they adapted to the world of the twentieth century. Jesus was characterised as ' a model of radical political action' amd this was endorsed by the Mennonite community as the model that they felt they had practiced for some time. This activist stance now owned and celebrated could be considered to be a driving force behind the foundation of CPT. Dianne Row, CPTeer, accompanying Paelstinian children to school in Hebron a those very first beginnings in 1995, in response to settler violence experienced by herself and her colleague, Wendy Lehman,  created a banner depicting a pair of sandaled feet walking along the barbed-wire strewn path with the slogan 'Getting in the Way'. This declared that their witness was travelling the path Jesus trod, given that Jesus' ministry was increasingly understood as non-violent restistance to the powers-that-be, religious and political, of his own day. John Vincent of the Seffiled Urban Thology Unit said 'Christian discipleship is mainly a question of what you do with your feet!' Get your feet moving in the right direction and heard and head are bound to follow.

Liam Mahony in 'Protective Presence: Field Strategies for Civilian Protection' published in 2006 points out that 'every decision is affected by a series of calculations and perceptions' and that a field mission 'can influence these decisions by creating circumstances in which perpetrators recalculate the consequences and make a different choice'. International presence moves the border and tends to shrink the space in which the perpetrator feels he or she can 'get away with' his or her actions.

The being there and seeing and sometimes experiencing first-hand what is happening, is a vital resource for what Mahony calls the most traditional tool of protection; advocacy. ' 'Public exposure is a political cost to an abuser' he suggests. So one of the tasks of the accompanier is to monitor and report violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

The second function of effective presence, Mahony suggests, is encouragement by encouraging civil society's capacity to protect itself. One of the most impressive facts of the experience of accompaniment is illustrated by the arabic word 'samud' or steadfastness. In the face of oppression, Palestinians have many strategies for keeping safe without accepting the normalisation of the occupation.  The decision to 'stay put' regardless of the intimidation to do otherwise. The determination to find a way around senseless barriers and a determination to lead as normal a life as possible despite the obstacles to that put in their path.  So Palestinians are no inept by any means at protecting themselves but as the head of a village council stated ' Harassment has decreased...the reason is that foreignoers are in the village. The presence in Yanoun of people from peace groups is what changed the situation'.

The third function was influence by supporting progressive voices inside abusive or negligent institutions.  CPTees and EAPPI both concur with a statement made by EAPPI of principled impartiality, ' we do not want to take sides in this conflict and we do not want to discriminate against anyone, but we are not neutral in terms of prinicples of human rights and international humanitarian law. We stand faithfully with the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised. We want to serve all parties in this conflict in a fair and unbiased manner, in word and action.'.

Alongside the work of many progressive individual voices within Israel and especially within Israeli organisations seeking reform, CPT and EAPPI ask both sides to do a reality check seeking to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian popuation on a daily basis, and are in engaged in the control of that population's everyday life.

The Sermon on the Mount provides many a proof text, some of which have become proverbial such as 'turning the other cheek', 'going the second mile' but also 'love your enemy', 'pray for those who persecute you', and perhaps more controversially 'do not resist the evildoer'.  When you have just seem an eighteen year old Israeli soldier humiliate a seventy year old Palestinian, it is difficult to just 'pass the time of day' and ignore what has happened. It's at times like these that it is worth remembering what the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, George Fox, said about 'answering that of God in every person'.

CPT's challenge is to 'devote the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war' Its members are now drawn form many Christian traditions. There are Muslim and Jewish members and those with no religious faith but who are committed to CPT's values.