Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2001, page 68

Christianity and the Middle East

Christian Peacemaker Teams Demonstrate Need for International Observers

By Fred Strickert

“We believe that we who are protected in America should experience and live in the same way that Palestinians are living in the suffering occupied territories.” So Ron Forthofer of Longmont, Colorado told a reporter after weathering a night of heavy shelling in Beit Jala.

Forthofer was part of a specially-organized delegation of the Christian Peacemakers Teams (CPT) which found itself in the midst of continued violence in Beit Jala and in other locations during its July 27 to Aug. 8 visit. The purpose of the visit was to explore the possibility of regular voluntary teams of international observers in this strife-torn region. With the U.S. government continuing to veto all requests for international observers—most recently from the G-8 summit conference in Genoa—church leaders are exploring ways for such groups of informal observers modeled on the successful CPT program to get in the way of violence, to provide accurate documentation, and perhaps to calm troubled situations.

Ongoing CPT Work

Christian Peacemaker Teams, an initiative of the Quaker, Brethren, and Mennonite Churches, have been successful in conflict situations throughout the world. Since 1995, teams of about eight members have rotated to provide a continuing presence in the city of Hebron.

The assumption is that if Western eyes are watching—even through these few individuals—violence may be minimized. Sometimes their ready cameras serve as a deterrent. Sometimes it is merely the calming effect of carefully worded comments that may defuse a tense situation. At other times they are even called upon, as their own slogan puts it, to “get in the way”—to place their own bodies between opposing forces. (See “Threatening Incident in Hebron Draws Attention to Personal Sacrifices of Christian Peacemaker Teams,” March 1999 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 17.)

CPTers have been extremely busy over the past months in Hebron, where 500 settlers seem to be in constant conflict with the surrounding Palestinian community. At Christmas time, several CPTers moved in with families in Beit Jala, a constant target of Israeli shelling. The situation there turned quiet for a time.

Unofficial International Observers

With Beit Jala and other Palestinian cities regularly under fire again, a June delegation of World Council of Churches (WCC) officials met with church leaders in Jerusalem to seek a solution for violence spiraling out of control. If official observers continue to be rejected, then the answer may be unofficial observers—representatives of the international church community who would spend time in Palestinian homes, both to provide encouragement and support for the victims and to provide accurate documentation of the reality on the ground.

Similarly, the goal of the recent CPT exploratory delegation was to determine how feasible it would be to organize an alternative human rights protection force. The CPT model of a sustained presence within threatened communities has now been recommended and encouraged by an August WCC consultation in Geneva.

Following an extensive orientation with training in nonviolence, the 16-member ecumenical CPT delegation took part in an intense program of observation and solidarity action. In the Hebron area, delegation members stayed in a Palestinian home bordering the Kiryat Arba settlement which had been burnt out the previous week; with a family terrorized by settlers at Tel Rumeida; in Beit Ummar, which recently was sealed off as collective punishment; and in other communities facing the brunt of violence. On the evening of Aug. 4, in the Baqaa Valley, participants witnessed a settler rampage against local vehicles and Palestinian drivers on rural roads. At Yatta, where the IDF bulldozed first cave dwellings and then makeshift tents provided by the Red Cross, the delegation worked with local activists in bringing blankets, mattresses, and other necessities to meet the needs of the people. There they met harassment by military patrols for “distribution of illegal aid.”

Under Fire in Beit Jala

The most intense part of this CPT visit was a three-night stay in homes of families under attack in Beit Jala. The stay was coordinated with a larger “human shield” action coordinated by the quickly developing International Solidarity Movement (including Israeli, Palestinian, and international peace activists) in cooperation with the city government. In addition to the CPT delegation, volunteers from the U.S., Canada and Europe (including Luisa Morgiantini, European Parliament member) flew in for this program to call attention to the need for official international observers.

Although the IDF had been alerted to the presence of outsiders in Beit Jala, the CPT delegates were greeted with shelling as they made their way through the streets. Char Smith of Gibson City, Illinois described the situation as “surreal.” “We were told to duck and keep running,” she said. “When we got to the houses afterward I couldn’t believe what I’d just been through.”

Kathryn Kingsbury, from Madison, Wisconsin was amazed by the appreciation of her host family, who offered hospitality even in these intense times. “Our host was completely concerned about whether we were OK and comfortable, and whether we needed sandwiches or anything else,” Kingsbury said. “He and his family have gotten so used to the shelling and gunfire that they’ve decided normal life has got to just go on.”

The houses of a number of delegations were hit hard by Israeli shelling, causing the volunteers and family members to spend the night in basements. Brenda Holliday, 60, from Waynesboro, VA, who found herself in such a situation, noted how the children in the house would wake up frightened. “If children live under this kind of oppression...a vicious cycle will be repeated,’’ she said.

An Accurate Description

As observers, one of the CPT delegations’ tasks is to provide an accurate description of the situation on the ground. Americans have become used to daily newspaper reports and television soundbites which place the two combatants on an equal footing: “Israeli tanks shelled Beit Jala in response to gunfire aimed at Gilo,” for example. Rather than debating “who started it,” the CPTers expressed an acute awareness of the disproportionate fire. “For every one Palestinian bullet, 50 were fired by the IDF,” noted one delegate, who went on to point out how Israelis used tank shells and mortars to respond to rifles.

Full-time team member Rick Polhamus made the following analogy: “Imagine you’re a police officer driving through a neighborhood when someone shoots at your car. Now, do you spray the entire neighborhood with gunfire, not caring who might be in there? Or do you make some attempt to find the individual responsible and arrest him?”

Curtailing Violence

One of the goals of CPT is to diminish the amount of violence, and the team in Hebron has found a measure of success through their continued presence in the city. On the basis of the exploratory delegation’s short stay this effect might seem minimal. Yet most participants expressed confidence in the potential of longer-term international observers.

The Israeli government referred to the volunteers as pawns in a Palestinian propaganda exercise. Raanan Gissin, senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, argued, “There hasn’t been one night where we initiated fire.”

Gissin went on to warn the volunteers that if any were wounded or killed, it would be the responsibility of those who allowed them into danger areas. The implication is that they would ignore such observers. CPTer LeAnne Clausen noted, however, that hosts in Beit Jala appeared encouraged by the delegation. “Residents of Beit Jala last winter banded to evict the gunmen from their streets,” she explains. “Nowadays, it seems that people don’t shoo them out because they have come to believe that no one on the outside cares or will protect them. The presence of international observers could well serve as the impetus for them to evict the gunmen once again.” 


Fred Strickert is professor of religion at Wartburg College in Waverley, IA.

SIDEBAR 1

Who Are These CPT Volunteers?

Who are the people who volunteer for CPT assignments? They seem like such extraordinary folks. The current delegation includes individuals from Pennsylvania to Colorado, from Alabama to Wisconsin—11 states in all. They are Catholic and Mennonite, Episcopalian and United Church of Christ. They include a 70-year-old attorney and a 22-year-old student, a 60-year-old high school science teacher and a 34-year-old pastor. Some, like 71-year-old Elayne McClannen, a former Hebron CPTer, bring with them prior experience. For others, they were relatively new to this sort of thing. These are ordinary people, heeding an extraordinary call.

Perhaps the most prominent delegation member was Jerry Levin, CNN Middle East bureau chief in the 1980s who had been captured and held hostage in Lebanon for almost a year. When the CPT group stayed in one Beit Jala home, they were greeted by the imam from nearby Dheisheh refugee camp. The imam apologized for what Hezbollah had done to him. Levin turned, took the imam’s hands in his, and said, “I am even more sorry for what has been done to your people here by our own government.”

For more information visit the CPT Web site: <www.prairienet.org/cpt>.

—F.S.

SIDEBAR 2

Ignoring Israeli Pressure, Greek Orthodox Elect Irineos Patriarch

A Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem on Aug. 13 elected Irineos as patriarch. The election ends months of intrigue and speculation since the death of Patriarch Diodoros 1 on Dec. 20 (see Aug./Sept. Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 17).

The position is of utmost importance since it oversees the largest church in the Holy Land with 100,000 members in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Its authority includes 150 churches and monasteries, as well as significant holy sites.

The election took place in three stages. First, a list of 15 candidates was compiled. Then 50 Orthodox clerics voted to narrow the list to three: Metropolitans Timotheos, secretary of the patriarch; Cornelius, who has been serving as interim patriarch; and Irineos. The final ballot was cast in the Catholicon, opposite the Tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, by 17 senior clerics. The results were seven votes for Irineos, with the other two candidates receiving five each.

The election turned controversial in early July when the Israeli government declared five of the candidates—including Irineos and Timotheos—were ineligible. According to a law going back to Byzantine times, the 15-name ballot is sent to the respective governments—Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan—to make sure all candidates had proper travel documents. In an unprecedented move, Israeli Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit informed the patriarch that five were disqualified. The July 13 issue of the Jerusalem Post quoted a government official as saying the five names were censored for security reasons.

The attempted Israeli government interference in the election process is due partially to concern over the growing strength of Arab clergy in the Orthodox Church. Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican churches all have Palestinian leadership. The other issue is related to the extensive land holdings of the Orthodox Church. Diodorus 1 had been highly criticized by church members for his willingness to sell and lease land to Israelis.

The Greek patriarchate, reportedly furious over Israel’s intrusion into church affairs, filed a petition with the High Court of Justice. A letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stated, “We were stunned and angered by the announcement, which is reminiscent of despotic regimes.”

According to Ha’aretz, Sheetrit backed down, reversing his decision two weeks prior to the election.

Many believe that the electors were planning to ignore the Israeli attempt at censorship and that the election would have turned out the same. The Israeli reversal avoided an embarrassing confrontation with the church, with the likelihood of international repercussions.

Yonatan Ben-Ari, head of Israel’s Religious Affairs Ministry, attended the election ceremony. According to the Jerusalem Post, he congratulated the new patriarch and stated that he hoped Irineos would not bear a grudge even though Israel had at one point disqualified him.

In a speech following the election, Irineos thanked the priests and sent special regards to King Abdullah of Jordan and to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. An AP wire story quoted the new patriarch as saying, “I will serve the church and I support the Palestinian people and their just issues.” Reportedly he planned to meet personally with Prime Minister Sharon that same day.

Irineos was born in Samos in 1939 and came to Jerusalem in 1953 where he studied at the Greek Orthodox Seminary. Since 1979, he has served as exarch, the Jerusalem church’s representative in Greece.

—F.S.

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