Csíkszereda Musings

My life in and around Csíkszereda, also known as Miercurea Ciuc.

CPT

Posted by Andy Hockley on 6 March, 2003

In a small, rudimentary apartment up a flight of steps located between a fence and a roll of barbed wire in the heart of Hebron’s old city, live a small group of people who work for Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a Mennonite organisation based in Chicago. Recognisable by their red caps and armbands, they daily brave the guns of the Israeli soldiers and the spitting and rock throwing of the Israeli settlers in the town as they go about the business of observing, documenting, and, as much as possible, stopping violence and illegal acts.

Every day Chris, a US Citizen born in South Africa, and full time CPT member, gets up early to lead a team of volunteers on school patrol, chaperoning the Palestinian kids who still live in the old city, through the checkpoints to their school. Frequently they are stopped by the soldiers and informed that they cannot pass. Chris talks to the soldiers and as gently as possible informs the soldiers that stopping kids from attending school is in violation of the Geneva Convention, and that they need to pass. Nearly always they do. If he were not there, it is possible that the kids would rarely get to school without being turned back by the soldiers or the gun-toting settler militias. Only by being there to observe and where necessary force the issue does CPT ensure that a semblance of adherence to international law takes place.

Susie and I walked with Art, a retired widower from Toronto, along the road reserved for the illegal settlers. Occasionally on this road CPT members are spat at or have rocks thrown at them by the settlers. This time, aside from a few hostile glances, we were not troubled. We walked along the road for about a quarter of a mile, passing a temporary military base stocked with armoured personnel carriers, numerous checkpoints, and sandbagged observation posts manned by nervous looking Israeli teenage soldiers weighed down by their bulletproof uniforms and unwieldy weaponry. We also passed a monument at a road junction, a shrine to Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli settler who, in 1994, walked into the Ibrahimi mosque and opened fire at the backs of the praying muslims, killing 29.

We arrived at the entrance to the very same mosque that Goldstein had turned into a slaughterhouse, the resting place of Abraham, the father of all three major religions founded in this region. On a platform housing four unused and seemingly brand new airport-style metal detectors, lounged a group of about 5 very bored looking Israeli soldiers. Their spokesman informed us that the mosque was closed. We asked why it was closed, and learned that it was part of the curfew imposed on the city. The day before our visit, the curfew had been relaxed for the first time in 110 days, but today it was back on. No-one really knew why, and no-one responsible for imposing it felt it necessary to explain. We were invited instead to visit the synagogue in the other half of the same building. We pointed out the absurdity of the fact that the mosque was closed because of the curfew, but that the synagogue wasn’t, and were told that the curfew was for Muslims.

The illogic and inequality of it all was not lost on the soldiers – at least the ones who talked to us. Their captain, a very personable Ethiopian Israeli, eventually showed up to participate in what was possible the only action his unit had seen all day – talking to us. Like the others, he was prepared to talk, joke, and privately admit the ridiculousness of the situation. Of the fact that Hebron has a battalion of over 2000 Israeli soldiers to protect approximately 300 illegal Jewish settlers. That it needs a buffer zone between the settler community and the Palestinian residents of the city, a buffer zone that takes in the heart of the old city, an area which is now a permanent twilight zone of boarded up shops and abandoned apartments, their owners evicted without compensation. However, when pressed, they all, without exception, resort to the time-honoured “just following orders” reasoning.

Later that afternoon, from the CPT rooftop in this once thriving and vital old city, we heard gunfire coming from the direction of the mosque where we had been earlier. Two percussion grenades rocked the quiet and were followed by four or five rounds of high velocity rifle fire. The Palestinians that remain in the area, desperately hanging on through the abuse and difficulty of living there under virtual permanent curfew, emerged onto their roofs and, like us, looked nervously in the direction of the reports. As abruptly as it had started, the shooting stopped. We learned later that they had apparently spotted a “suspicious bag” and were shooting at it in order to verify that it wasn’t a bomb. Judging by the level of inactivity and boredom I had seen earlier, it must have made their day.

It was time for us to move on, but CPT members will stay there until such time as they are evicted too, and even then will move to the closest place they can get in order to stop or limit the abuses here. The thinking in Hebron is that Sharon will wait until the US war on Iraq starts and then use the distraction to “deal with” Hebron – and that doesn’t involve removing the few illegal settlers who are responsible for the problem. Chris, the school patrol leader, grew up under apartheid in South Africa. He saw his brother killed by the police on the street in front of him when he was just 11. He saw his father tortured by the security services. He himself was arrested and held without trial for a year and half simply for being out after a curfew that he didn’t know had been called. In his opinion, the situation in the West Bank is four times worse for the Palestinians than the situation that he and the rest of majority black South Africa endured under apartheid. And of all the places in the West Bank, it is Hebron that is the most clearly the front line of this new apartheid.

(published in the Brattleboro Reformer as Eyewitness Hebron)

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