With a Christian peacemaker on the West Bank
HEBRON — At an age when most people are retired or thinking about slowing down, Bourke Kennedy routinely journeys to a part of the world that the U.S. State Department strongly advises American citizens to avoid.
For the past decade, Kennedy, 67, has been travelling to the city of Hebron in Israel’s occupied West Bank as a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). Kennedy’s, and CPT’s, mission in this often violent and war-torn region is to bear witness and offer nonviolent resistance in the face of the Israeli military occupation in the Palestinian territories.
Hebron is an ancient city of great religious significance for both Jews and Muslims. Located in the southern region of Israel’s West Bank, Hebron’s written history can be traced to 1720 BC when the prophet Abraham is said to have purchased a cave in the area to serve as the burial place for his wife, Sarah. King David made Hebron his first capital before he captured Jerusalem. For hundreds of years Jews and Muslims lived together in Hebron in peaceful coexistence. Today, the situation is far from peaceful.
Perhaps nowhere else is the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians as apparent as it is in Hebron. The proximity of Palestinians, Jewish settlers, the Israeli military, and disputed religious sites make Hebron a provocative and volatile place; it is a microcosm of the larger Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It is also the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, that started in 2000.
Kennedy, who lives in upstate NY, first learned of CPT’s mission in Hebron while on a citizen diplomacy trip with the Earthstewards Network in 1994. Though Kennedy had traveled extensively before this trip, including visits to Czechoslovakia, India, and the Middle East, she said that she was “impressed with the compassion and the passion of the people working in Hebron. These were people walking the walk.”
Separated and with grown children, Kennedy, a modest and self-effacing person, acknowledges she was “looking for a life change” when she first saw the situation in Hebron. “I felt I needed to finish this experience. I needed to come back to this place,” she says.
A member of the Unitarian Church who explores Buddhist philosophy, Kennedy began her work by spending one month training at CPT’s headquarters in Chicago. There, prospective members learn about non-violent resistance, learn what it’s like to serve as a member of a team, and also do some “self exploration,” she says. Trainees also get an opportunity to be physically involved in protests and confront those in a position of authority.
In November of 1995, Kennedy made her first trip with CPT to Hebron as a member of a delegation. At first she spent two weeks in the region but soon found herself staying two or three months each year in Hebron as a CPT reservist, raising money when back home to cover travel expenses and speaking at schools and churches to raise awareness about the conflict.
“I started knowing absolutely nothing,” Kennedy jokes about her first trip. “I had no idea how to even get from Jerusalem to Hebron. I got a little lost once in Hebron but finally found the team. It took several weeks to find out where I fitted in, but eventually I decided I wanted to do street patrols so I could get a sense of the social make-up of Hebron.
“It was easier to get around at that time as there were fewer checkpoints,” Kennedy says. “Travel in the West Bank was easier and the mood among the Palestinians was a bit more hopeful as they had more ownership over their lives at that time.” Kennedy says she “felt this is where I wanted to be,” after that trip. “I felt energized!”
CPT’s roots as a nonviolent peace organization can be traced back to the 1984 Mennonite World Conference where Ron Sider, the founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, challenged attendants with a call to action to band together as Christians to develop nonviolent ways to reduce conflict and promote peace. Sider’s speech sparked conversations in churches throughout North America and within several years of that conference, CPT was formed with the sponsorship of the Mennonite Church, the Church of the Brethren, and the Quakers. Today, nearly 20 years since its formation, CPT has projects all over the world including: Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Colombia, and even Iraq.
Originally, CPT was invited to Hebron by the cities’ Palestinian mayor in the mid 1990s and has had a continuous presence there ever since. Kennedy, who speaks with a quiet passion about her experiences, explains that CPT’s mission is “not to change a society but to be there as support for people in a community who want to make life better in a non-violent way.”
Kennedy also points out that CPT does not try to convert Muslims or Jews or get involved with the religious affairs of the people they are trying to help. “When CPT was first (in Hebron) many Palestinians thought we may be trying to convert them,” Kennedy says. “CPT had to convince them that that was not our mission. We are not out on the streets as Christians. We are out on the streets as concerned human beings.”
Life in an occupied territory
In Hebron, CPT is located in the heart of the Old City. The group rents apartments on several floors of a building in an area referred to as the “chicken market.” At one time the neighborhood was a thriving market where local residents would buy poultry and eggs. It is now almost completely empty with only a few Palestinian families living nearby. It is deserted for good reason; the Israeli military has completely taken over the area. CPT’s apartments are situated directly across the street from the Tel Rumeida Settlement and overlook a busy Israeli army base. Five military checkpoints lie within six blocks.
The size of the team varies depending on the length of the members’ stay, but there are usually five or six CPT members staying in Hebron at any given time. If a delegation is in town, that number will quickly grow. Teams are assembled from a diverse group of people: men and women of all ages, occupations, differing religious beliefs, and from different parts of the globe.
Members take turns performing daily household chores like cleaning, cooking, and shopping for food, and also undertake specialized projects based on their own individual expertise. Kennedy, who is originally from Beverly Hills, California where here parents were Hollywood writers, considers creative abilities her strongest attribute. Back home she is the founder and co-artistic director for the repertory company Loose End Ltd. and in Hebron puts her artistic skills to use painting and working on mural projects. She even found time to paint the teams’ apartment.
Accommodations in the CPT apartment are fairly Spartan, however, with team members sleeping on foam mats on bare concrete floors. Toilets are of the ‘squat’ variety and temperatures can be extreme in the stifling heat of summer and bitter cold and damp of winter.
A trip up to the roof affords panoramic views of historic Hebron and the surrounding hills, but it also allows one to see numerous machine gun and sniper emplacements on the roofs of surrounding buildings and armored vehicles behind the walls of the army base. Israeli soldiers do their best to keep the CPT members from being on the roof by yelling at them, in English, that they are not allowed up there and will force them down if they don’t leave on their own.
“CPT has been accused (by the Israelis) of helping Hamas (the militant Palestinian organization responsible for many terrorist attacks against Israelis) or even of storing weapons in our apartment,” Kennedy says. “Sometimes soldiers would barge into the apartment to look for weapons.
“Of course our group has nothing to hide and is against any violence on either side, but CPT has visited with people or families who were later found to be militants,” Kennedy admits. In Hebron, Hamas is still active and there is always the potential that one may unknowingly become involved with a member of a militant group.
Kennedy also points out neither she nor CPT is anti-Israel. “There is a state of Israel on the map. Nobody denies this,” Kennedy says. “But Israel needs to redefine itself; they need to say ‘who are we as Israelis.’ Israel is not behaving like a democracy and CPT objects to Israel’s behavior, not to the existence of Israel. We are against the policies of the Zionist movement, not the people.”
A city divided
Hebron is a divided city. In the mid-1990’s Hebron was carved into two areas of control known as H1 and H2. Area H1, about 80 percent of the municipality of Hebron, was placed under Palestinian control while H2, the area that includes the Old City, the sacred Tomb of the Patriarchs, and Jewish settlements, was kept under Israeli jurisdiction. This separation occurred because 500 Jewish settlers were living among 150,000 Palestinians in the Old City. These settlers relied on protection from the Israeli army.
As a result of this division, large numbers of Palestinians moved out of the Old City to escape the pressures of life under Israeli military occupation, the frequent curfews, and conflicts with the settlers. Hundreds of shops in the ancient Casbah were closed and a once thriving area became a run-down, militarized ghost town. Economic conditions for Palestinians in the entire Hebron municipality have been bleak since the separation and start of the second Intifada.
Everywhere in the Old City one has the feeling of being watched. Israeli soldiers are stationed at strategically located checkpoints throughout the city and routinely walk the streets in six man patrols. Soldiers will enter the homes and businesses of the local Palestinians, search the premises, question residents, and at times detain them.
The Palestinians have erected wire mesh screens over the streets in the Casbah because settlers in the adjacent buildings throw their trash onto the street below; sometimes they throw concrete blocks. The trash and debris caught by these screens now forms a sort of rotting canopy hanging over the narrow streets of the Old City.
CPT tries to keep track of these activities and records events it feels violate the rights of the Palestinians. But Kennedy is realistic about what she faces in Hebron, “Sometimes we (CPT) feel a little frustrated because the situation doesn’t seem to get any better for the Palestinians,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t affect things. Of course I would like to see instant changes, but the world doesn’t work that way.”
While in Hebron, Kennedy’s primary work involves conducting daily school patrols. During the height of the Intifada, the Israelis would close the schools for days or weeks at a time because of the curfews imposed on Palestinians. It was decided that CPT would start patrols to accompany children to their schools after they learned of a United Nations document that stated children have the right to go to school even during a time of war.
At first, Kennedy found the situation very tense and dangerous. “Teargas was thrown into schoolyards by the Israelis to disperse groups of kids,” she says. “Palestinian boys would sometimes throw stones at the soldiers. The soldiers have responded with gunfire and children have been shot.”
On a typical day, Kennedy wakes at 6 a.m., has a simple breakfast, and is out on the streets by 7 a.m. to start patrolling where the Palestinian children walk to school. Two team members usually split up and walk several routes between the seven nearby schools. Children must pass army checkpoints and travel on roads controlled by settlers. This leads to confrontations.
To increase their visibility on the street, CPT members wear red baseball caps when on patrol. They hope their presence will calm the children’s fears and defuse potential problems before they occur. Kennedy believes that CPT helps keep the children safe because settlers and soldiers are less likely to provoke the kids when internationals are monitoring the situation.
When the school patrol is finished, team members will return to the CPT apartment at about 8 a.m., hold a worship service, and then have a team meeting to discuss the days’ remaining tasks. The team teaches nonviolence skills to other activist groups and often conducts tours of Hebron for visiting journalists and groups of concerned individuals, so all of these events must be planned in advance. The team works six days a week while in Hebron with Sunday being the groups’ day for rest and reflection.
Work in a war zone
Fortunately, people in the U.S. do not have to live or work in a war zone. In the West Bank, however, it is one of life’s realities. “I was in Hebron about two weeks after the start of the second Intifada in the fall of 2000,” Kennedy says as she described the fighting. “I had never been in a situation like this in my life; mortars, tanks, helicopters, people with guns, and snipers shooting overhead.
“(During the fighting) CPT didn’t stop its work, but we did stop going on night patrols due to fears of the military,” Kennedy says. “The CPT building was not a target, but was right in the middle of it all. We would see flares in the night and hear helicopters. My first thought was to run up to the roof and see what was going on but common sense prevailed. Eventually, the IDF (Israeli army) took over the hilltops surrounding the Old City.”
While most people will do whatever they can to escape a combat zone, CPT stayed in Hebron through the Intifada. “None of the (CPT) members ran,” Kennedy says. “As a group we talked about our fears of getting injured or killed. We realized it was a real possibility. But what would the Palestinians, who have to live in this everyday, feel if we behaved like cowards? But I never did get used to the gunfire. How could you?”
In some ways, being in the midst of the fighting has strengthened Kennedy’s resolve. “I feel almost privileged to have that war experience, emotionally and physically,” she notes. “When I now see people in that combat situation, I can emphasize with them and what they are going through.”
Recently though, violence in the area has had a direct impact on CPT’s mission in the West Bank. In August, the patriarch of at-Tuwani had invited CPT to come to his small village after its’ water supply was poisoned by residents of the nearby Ma’on settlement. Villagers knew of the teams’ work in Hebron and hoped CPT might be able to help ease tensions with the settlers.
CPT set up a camp in the remote village, located about 15 kilometers south of Hebron, and began escorting children on their way to school in at-Tuwani. The route passed through the hills near the Ma’on outpost. In late September, while escorting a group of children, two members of CPT were brutally attacked by five settlers hiding in ambush. The children were able to flee, but the CPT members were savagely beaten with chains and baseball bats and suffered broken arms and cracked ribs. One member’s lung was punctured.
Kennedy was in the CPT apartment in Hebron when the attack occurred and helped coordinate medical assistance for the injured team members. She also reported the incident to the media; within 15 minutes of the attack, CPT had sent out news releases. These events attracted the attention of the world’s press, and journalists descended on the area to report the story; settlers’ ambushing foreign nationals was seen as especially violent and threatening.
Only 10 days after the first incident, despite the previous media attention, CPT members were again attacked and beaten while escorting children to school near at-Tuwani. This time, the governments of the members who were injured took notice. The American Consulate in East Jerusalem personally traveled to at-Tuwani to assess the situation and the Israeli military got involved.
Kennedy hasn’t questioned the teams’ mission since the attacks. Instead, she questioned the motives of people who would attack defenseless women and children. CPT decided to maintain its presence in at-Tuwani and continues to monitor the situation there.
In the wake of these events, Kennedy is candid about how people at home react to her desire to work in a dangerous place. “Friends and family all tell me not to go,” she says. “But they know there’s a little piece of passion in my heart for being there. We have to say ‘yes’ in order to live fully when opportunities come up to explore this life experience. As long as that opportunity isn’t doing harm, I want to say ‘yes’ to it. These are chances to grow.”
One incident sticks in Kennedy’s mind when she is asked about fear. “CPT records damage done to Palestinian homes as a result of Israeli military action,” she says. “Once I was going into a home that had been damaged and the man who lived there asked me where I was from. I said I was from the U.S. and he looked right at me and said ‘if it were not for my religion (Islam) I would kill you’. So I thanked him for being in his religion! After that time, I started noticing people with prayer beads!”
But violence and threats are more often overshadowed by acts of hospitality and kindness. “In November of 2000, three of us CPT’ers were invited to a Palestinian family’s home,” Kennedy recalls. “When we got there, they had prepared a full Thanksgiving turkey dinner for the Americans in Hebron. We were so filled with emotion that we all were crying.”
Thoughts for the future
Kennedy is also aware of the strong emotion in the U.S. that surrounds the conflict in Israel. Few issues tend to be as polarizing and many people have taken up sides, especially after the events of 9/11. “People (in the U.S.) tend to think that all Palestinians are terrorists,” she says. “People think that everyone has a gun, that they (Palestinians) are all out to kill, that all Arabs are fanatics. They also have a view that all Jews are very religious or orthodox and support the settlements.”
With the recent death of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, peace efforts have been rekindled in the region. “Arafat really was a terrorist. He was corrupt. He was bad news,” Kennedy says. She feels that the Palestinians are “still grieving as a people over Arafat’s death but need to move beyond that period in their history. The Palestinians may come out of this turmoil with a sense of identity about who they are as a people.”
But Kennedy can’t see the Israelis and Palestinians living together in harmonious single state unity anytime soon. “It would be almost impossible to integrate these two almost un-blendable cultures,” she says. “Everyone wants the same thing, but it would be impossible to get these two peoples to cooperate and get along. The key is to find out how we make ourselves good neighbors; what do we have in common? How do we create better economic conditions in Israel for both parties? How do we distribute natural resources in a generous way? How do we create a viable Palestinian state?
“The Israeli settlements have to go,” Kennedy says, criticizing what she sees as a major roadblock on the path to peace. “Settlements are bleeding Israel. Why would Israel want settlements in a place like the Gaza Strip? How can that (policy) be justified? There have been no moves to create any kind of trust between the people. People see each other as ‘the enemy’.”
When speaking about the future, however, Kennedy is still optimistic. The thought of CPT undertaking this type of work in the Holy Land appeals to her spiritual beliefs. “I would rather be there in a place with that sense of holiness,” she says. “A place where the geography is so imbued with possibility. I’m terribly moved to know that we are in a place where there is so much potential for peaceful coexistence.”
Although Kennedy has no set date to return to Hebron, she knows she will be going back at some point. Until then, she will continue her work by speaking to groups about the situation and trying to share her experiences. “I love the (CPT) teams,” she says. “We all consider ourselves part of a family. This is who I am and what I do. I don’t need praise for it.”