Accompany me on my travels as I experience, learn, serve, process, gripe, and grow.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Brief Tour of Hebron

Over the fall, I participated in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, living in the West Bank in the city of Hebron. While there, I worked with a team to help provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses, and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace. Since returning to the US, I have realized the need to share more about the city and circumstances in which I was working.

I hope these pictures and brief descriptions can help illustrate some of the complexities and challenges in Hebron, and also demonstrate the need for continued international interest and attention in this area.

Hebron is the second largest city in the West Bank, following East Jerusalem. It is a beautiful and thriving city, known for its grapes, glass blowing, and textiles. It has been a center for trade and commerce and has been one of the primary economic centers in the West Bank.

It is also home to the Al-Abrahimi Mosque, which was built over the Cave of Machpelah, or the Cave of the Patriarchs. According to Genesis 20, this cave was purchased by Abraham to bury his wife Sarah. Subsequently, Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah were all buried in this cave as well.

Because of these graves of these important matriarchs and patriarchs, considered holy by Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, Hebron has tragically become a focal point of conflict.

The old city, where the mosque and the old market are located, has seen several terrible massacres in the last 100 years.

In 1929, sixty-seven Jewish residents of the city were killed by a rioting mob. The remaining members of the Jewish community, many of whom were sheltered by their Arab neighbors, fled the area feeling that it was no longer safe.

In 1967, following Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Israeli Settlers returned to the area to live and worship near the Cave of the Patriarchs.

In 1994, one of the Israeli Settlers, Baruch Goldstein, carried an automatic weapon into the mosque during Friday prayers, opened fire and killed 29 Palestinian men in prayer and injured an additional 125.

Several weeks of violence ensued, with curfews put in place throughout Hebron. The mosque was closed during this time by the Israeli Army, and when it was reopened, there was a dividing wall within the mosque and a portion of it became a Jewish Synagogue.

Large portions of the old city were then permanently shut down and placed under the guard of the Israeli army. Since that time, portions of the old city have been completely blocked off for the exclusive use of Israelis Settlers.

Markets went from looking like this still active one:

To being shut down completely like this former thoroughfare:

Palestinians are not allowed to even walk on several main roads, including roads that used to house the meat and vegetable markets for the community. These roads now resemble ghost towns. Approximately 500 storefronts were closed by military order and another 700 closed due to economic hardship since the area was perceived as dangerous due to the presence of the military and harassment from the Israeli Settlers. None of the Palestinians who lost their businesses received any form of economic compensation. These storefronts were welded shut by military order, and then “claimed” by the Settlement community with the Star of David:

To access this area, where many Palestinians still have their homes, Palestinians must enter only on foot (they are no longer allowed to drive automobiles here) and must also pass through checkpoints and metal detectors.

Even young schoolchildren are subject to search. While many soldiers carry out their responsibilities in a professional manner, there is little accountability and there have been numerous and frequent reports of abuse and harassment even toward children.

Palestinian residents continue to face harassment, to the point that on streets remaining open near the Settlements they have had to secure fencing horizontally over the road to prevent debris and stones from being thrown down upon them from the Israeli Settlers who are occupying elevated apartments.

Palestinians also suffer from frequent searches of their homes and detentions along the street by groups of soldiers who can hold them for up to three hours without explanation. Young males are particularly susceptible to these routine checks, such as these men who were simply walking down the street but are now required to undergo a search while their ids are being checked.

Approximately 500 Israeli settlers live in this area of Hebron. They are supported by an entire army brigade, which consists of up to 2,000 soldiers. Everywhere there is a Settlement house, there are several guard towers placed on neighboring roofs. Many of these guard towers have been placed without consent on the rooftops of Palestinian homes.

Palestinians in the area also encounter frequent vandalism, including the cutting of their fruit trees, poisoning of their gardens, and assaults from rocks and even bullets.

Hamed, showing one of his grapevines that was cut during the night by a group of Settlers.

Settlers are permitted to drive, travel at will, and carry firearms in the streets at all times. Weekly, the Settler community hosts a “tour” of the remaining Arab areas of the Old City. They are supported by fully armed soldiers, and bring the whole market to a standstill during their tour.

As such, Hebron remains a place of deep tension and fear. Ecumenical Accompaniers strive to be visibly present to help reduce tension and conflict. We also listen to and hear the stories of those who otherwise have no voice. I hope that in sharing these photos and some of their stories, we can all take some small step toward being more peaceful and more just.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Reflections from Bethlehem

Given that it is Christmas Eve and I have been living in the Holy Land, I am coming to feel a little bit bad about the dark and depressing subject matter that my blog has contained. This material has, to the best of my ability, been accurate and faithful to the experiences and perceptions that I have had over the last few months. Yet, during this present season of hope, I long to send something a bit more encouraging and a bit more uplifting.

While this is a harsh land, wrought with conflict and filled with ideologies that identify force and militarization as the way to meet their objectives, it is also a surprisingly abundant and fruitful land. It is a sort of crucible, boiling people down to their core essence, revealing what is at their heart. For some, the ravages of communal pain, personal anger, and injustice rise up in tragic ways. For others, remarkable courage, faith and forgiveness emerge in such abundance and clarity that the humanity behind them becomes luminary. So today, I want to share the story of two brothers who fall in this second category.

Daher and Daoud Nasser grew up on a beautiful farm in the countryside just outside of Bethlehem, which their grandfather had purchased in 1916. They enjoyed warm times there as a family, learning how to care for land and plants and animals, and enjoying evenings under starry skies hearing their grandfather tell stories beside a campfire. As adults, the responsibility of the farm was passed to them, to continue caring for this land responsibly and to make a good and honorable life upon it.

In 1991, these brothers received word that three quarters of their land (the most desirable parts on the hilltop) was slated to be confiscated by the state of Israel in order to allow for the expansion of an illegal settlement in the area. In general, relatively few Palestinians have paperwork or titles to their land since their families have farmed these lands continuously for generations and such documents were perceived as unnecessary until very recently. Daher and Daoud are exceptions though as their grandfather was a meticulous man and kept careful records, verifying that their family purchased the land and owned it under the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate years, the Jordanian rule, and through the present.

In most countries, people who are presently farming the land and in possession of such documents would have no issue continuing forward with life as usual. But, in the occupied Palestinian territories, things aren’t quite so easy. The Nasser brothers were told that they must produce these documents along with aerial photographs of the land and have neighbors appear in court vouching that the family has indeed been there as they say they have. At considerably personal expense, Daher and Daoud accomplished all these tasks, having to rent a bus to transport their neighbors to the court to testify on their appointed court date. When they arrived, the court told them they couldn’t see their case and to return again the following week.

The brothers did return, with their neighbors in tow yet again. But, because of pressures from the settlement, the court was not so interested in recognizing them as the landowners. The brothers have remained in a legal battle over the land for the last 19 years. “As Palestinians, we are guilty until proven innocent,” said Daoud, who has been disallowed from constructing any buildings on his family’s land and forbidden from connecting to existing water and electrical networks in the area. In addition to these legal struggles, Settlers have come in the night with dogs and guns, cut their fences, and destroyed many of their olive and apricot trees.

Meanwhile, from their hilltop farm, the Nasser brothers watch as the military supports the settlements as they build all sorts of projects across the valley on land that they possess no title to. Within the last two months, electrical lines were strung up to a new settlement outpost, which has popped up in the midst of field traditionally used by a Palestinian village for agriculture.

From time to time, bulldozers appear and try to construct a road through the midst of Daher and Daoud’s land to connect two of the settlements. This is particularly frustrating given the fact that the main access road to the farm has been barricaded with rubble by the military.

Such frustrations, such powerlessness, such denial of rights to personal property would be enough to make most people become embittered and perhaps even violent. But Daoud and Daher are not most people. Reaching deep into their Christian faith, these brothers identified a different path; a path based on forgiveness, the valuing of all people, and the belief that out of nothing, God can bring new and abundant life.

To begin walking this path, these brothers and their families initiated a camp for young people. There, they bring together Israelis, Palestinians, and Internationals; Muslims, Jews, and Christians to “come to see each other as human beings.” They participate in art projects, recreation, classes about stewardship of land, dialogue, and yes, sitting around a campfire late at night sharing stories. At the entrance to their farm and this camp, a large rock is proudly engraved, “We Refuse to be Enemies.”

In spite of their building restrictions, the Nasser brothers seek to model for these youth that “out of nothing, you can create something.” Since they can’t build above the ground, they have taken ancient caves and outfitted them as classrooms, meeting spaces, and even a small theater. Since they can’t connect to electric grids, they have focused on green energy and, with help from some international groups, have installed solar panels for basic electricity. For sleeping, they have erected two very large tents, which I’m proud to say were donated by a group of Presbyterians. These tents tie into the name of their organization, “The Tent of Nations,” and they use them provide shelter, hospitality, and bridges of understanding for people from every nation ( Regrettably, the Israeli army has issued a demolition order on these tents, so they may have to find some other creative alternatives for housing their guests.

Picture: Daher pointing to a mural constructed out of "broken rubbish" scrap tiles by young people during camp. The Arabic writing is Psalm 133, "How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity..."

While politics and policies continue to squeeze and restrict this farm, it persists in witnessing to higher standards and deeper connections between people. Daoud shared several experiences with me of Settlers who have in various ways tried to push them from this land. One set came with guns to try to intimidate him into selling his property. He asked them to leave their guns outside and instead come and sit down for tea. It led to conversation and a degree of respect that has reduced many tensions and deterred the Settler community from destroying any more of the farm’s fruit trees.

Another Settler who came initially to the farm in a confrontational fashion was so struck by the family’s unwillingness to engage him as an enemy and their surprising welcome that he returned with a group to help build four composting toilets for the farm so that they could better host groups and continue building bridges.

These stories, and many others of healing and hope, have emerged out of the perseverance of this family that refuses to be enemies. For me, during this season of incarnation, this family’s life witnesses to the reality of a God who also refuses to be enemies. They witness to a God who bridges divides, who endures hostility, who refuses to come as a warrior or politician but instead takes on the form of a baby to grow with us and walk along side of us. They witness to a God who, out of dead ends and crucifixions, creates new ways forward and new possibilities for life and life abundant. They witness to a God who provides redemption rather condemnation.

Here in Bethlehem, just as all over the globe, God’s Spirit is at work providing new and startling ways forward through the difficulties of our harsh world. This Christmas, just as every day, may that same Spirit be born again in us and lead us forward in hope, down new and life giving paths.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Morning Commute

No, this isn't a maximum security prison.

No, I'm not under arrest again, or even visiting people in jail.

I'm actually joining some 3,000 Palestinians on their morning commute. They are lined up outside of checkpoint 300 between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem (both of which are technically part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories according to the UN, yet they are separated by this massive security barrier).

I arrived with a number of my colleagues who are stationed in Bethlehem and monitor this checkpoint daily. They are here each morning at approximately 4:00 am when the checkpoint is supposed to open.

When we arrived about 3:55, there were already around 500 people lined up, some who arrived as early as 2:30 so that they would be able to get through in time so as to not be late for work.

As Ecumenical Accompaniers, we keep careful records of when the gates actually open, how many people pass through every 30 minutes, how many are sent back and lose their permits, and how long it takes for the checkpoint to let everyone in the line through. All of these statistics vary widely from day to day, depending upon the mood of the soldiers in charge.

On this particular morning, just over 150 people were able to pass through the checkpoint before 5:00 am, to then catch their buses or walk the remainder of their journey to their various places of employment. By 6:00 am, there were still well over 700 people in line with more on their way, waiting to walk through these barred corridors, pass through turnstiles and metal detectors, show their identity cards to soldiers with machine guns , and present valid permits proving they have cause to travel into Jerusalem and Israel.

For me, the checkpoint is a very demoralizing place. Hundreds of grown men, packed in to what feel like cages from the inside, anxious as to whether or not they will make it to their jobs on time. Each morning is different and subject to what my teammates refer to as the "planned unpredictability" of life under occupation. Some mornings (very few), things run according to what is possible. All the metal detectors are open and more than two of the ID booths are staffed. Most of the Palestinian workmen are through and catching their buses by 6:30. More frequently though, there is a wide variation as to when folks are able to reach the other side. Sometimes it is as late as 9:30 before the line has finally dissipated.

It was hard and exceedingly frustrating to witness this checkpoint once. I couldn't help but reflect that for these three thousand workers, this is part of their daily commute. Every single morning that they are able to get a permit to go through to their jobs, they must endure this hours-long trial. It is also hard to fathom that these Palestinians in some ways are the lucky ones. Many of their friends and relatives have no work at all, or have been denied permits to Jerusalem for literally years.

Suddenly, traffic on I-40 doesn't seem quite so bad.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


I’m glad to say that over the past week I have managed to avoid a second trip to the police station. However, due to my arrest, I have also not been able to visit the Saffa valley where landowners are still disallowed from being on their farms. The Israeli army is pretty serious about these farms being within “a closed military zone,” and not letting anyone on to the land.

Well, that is not entirely true. Some people do seem to be allowed to enter this area. On Tuesday night, Settlers from the Bat Ayn settlement that are trying to annex this piece of land entered one of the farms and set fire to around 70 olive trees. Recognizing that their trees were being burned, several Palestinians rushed to the area to extinguish the flames. Three of these Palestinians were placed under arrest by the Israeli army, again for being in a closed military zone. Yet no Settlers were arrested for trespassing or for arson.

If you’d like to follow the events occurring in this valley, or read more about the history of violence and crop destruction there, you can read up at:

If you’d like to know more about the Bat Ayn Settlement, their webpage can be found at Quick Wikipedia research on their founding member and guide, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh is also informative, particularly under the section marked “Controversy.”

Monday, November 15, 2010

Will This Go On My Permanent Record?

Most people who know me well will vouch for the fact that it would be a real stretch to call me a troublemaker. In most circumstances, I do all that I can to avoid conflict and confrontation. Having lived in the South, I’ve also adopted the habit of being polite even when I don’t feel like it. I’ve even been accused of being too much of a rule-follower. And, naturally, I’m deferential to authority figures, sometimes to a fault.

So, it came as a surprise to me to be arrested this past Sunday. Riding in a paddy wagon, having my fingerprints taken, and being questioned by a police investigator were all newexperiences for me. I’m not terribly interested in repeating these events, but at the moment I don't regret the way I spent this past Sunday.

We began in the morning around 9:30 with a group of Palestinian farmers who are trying to clear their land in preparation for planting a grove of fruit trees: apricots, olives, and the like. These farmers have documents proving their ownership of the land, but to their misfortune, the land lies directly below the illegal Israeli settlement of Bat Ayn.

The settlement, which at this point is relatively small and located deep within the Occupied Palestinian Territories, has slated these farmlands to be annexed so that they can continue to grow.Despite the fact that this settlement is illegal by international law, the Israeli army is actively assisting the settlement’s annexation of land. In the West Bank, there is a law applied by Israel that allows for any land that is not utilized for three years to become property of the state. Once land has become state property, it is then easy to re-assign it for use by settlements.

So, for a Palestinian landowner, the natural course of action is to use your land so that it won’t be confiscated. Hence, these farmers went to prepare the ground for planting trees when the short rainy season comes in January and February.

However, these farmers have been having some difficulties. At times, they have been attacked by settlers who have a vested interest in preventing them from using their land for the next three years. Additionally, the Israeli Army has also begun to bar the farmers from their land, a practice that the Israeli Supreme Court has declared unlawful.

Because of the farmers’ fears of attack and brutality from both settlers and the Israeli army, they asked a group of internationals to accompany them and hopefully provide a protective presence as they work their family’s land. So we joined them, and had been with them for about an hour when three Israeli soldiers arrived.

The soldiers stood about 10 yards away, watching the group of farmers working. They didn’t say anything, but just stood, observing. After about five minutes, the farmers decided that they were anxious enough to leave, so we all began walking back down the hill and toward the Arab village where they live.

The soldiers quickly cut off the group and told us we were not permitted to leave. They then informed us that we were being arrested. Fortunately, they did not detain any Palestinians, but only the five internationals present. If you’d like to see this event, there is a video up at:

So, we were escorted back to the military jeeps where we were loaded up and hauled off to the police station. At the station, we did lots of sitting and waiting, with no word as to why we had been arrested. To their credit, we were served a nice lunch of salad, bread, hot dogs and hummus, but I would have preferred to buy my own lunch on my own dime and in my own time.

After nearly four hours, we were questioned individually and finally told why we were being detained. You can imagine my surprise when I was told that I had been arrested for trespassing in a closed military zone, refusing to leave when shown documentation of the land’s status (which by the way doesn’t exist, wasn’t shown to us, and we were in fact trying to leave), and not cooperating with instructions from a soldier!

I was then told by the police investigator in a disdainful tone that if he had come to my country and done such terrible things he would be instantly deported. I was so surprised that I couldn’t even manage to point out how perfectly acceptable it would be for him to walk around a farm with its owner in my home country! He then told me to go back to my country and stop causing trouble here.

My colleague Viking and I inside the police station, being carefully guarded so that we don't cause any more trouble.

Another one of the girls who was detained with us is a Jewish girl from California. She was severely offended when the police investigator told her, “in a month you will be a Muslim.” She articulated beautifully that what caused her offense was not being associated with the Islamic faith which she respects, but due to the policeman’s insinuation that her status as a Jewish person was in jeopardy if she opposed what she viewed as unjust policies of the Israeli army and its support of illegal settlement activity.

After a few more hours, we were finally released since they of course didn’t have a single legitimate charge against us and it was nearing supper time. None the less, in order to leave we were required to sign papers indicating that we would not return to the area for 14 days.

So, while nothing akin to justice occurred at the police station that day, and decisions of the Supreme Court continue to go ignored in principal and practice, the military and the settlement’s objectives were met. We will not be able to accompany the farmers. They are too intimidated to go to their own land alone. The ground will not be ready for saplings when the only short rainy season of the year arrives. The powerful will slowly but steadily take more land, and the powerless will be told by men with guns to be quiet and to not cause any trouble.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Facts on the Ground

Just about a year ago, the little farming community of Al Bwera, located on the outskirts of Hebron, got some new neighbors. For around 20 years they’ve been living by the large Givat Harsina Settlement that, while illegal by international law, has been allowed and supported by the state of Israel. This settlement is insulated by a “buffer zone” comprised of an approximately 400-yard strip of former farmland that now resides behind a tall barbed wire fence.

At some point last year, a new dirt road was constructed out of the back of the suburban Givat Harsina Settlement, through Palestinian farmland, and up to the top of a nearby hill. Subsequently, a trailer appeared and what was known as a Settlement Outpost was established. These Outposts tend to spring up on the outskirts of Settlements and in a strategic fashion for circling farmlands and connecting the already existing larger Settlements.

The Settlement Outposts are completely illegal by everyone’s perspective, including the Israeli government. Well, sort of.

This particular Outpost was reported to the authorities, who did in fact come, declare it illegal, and place a demolition order on the Outpost. Later, the Israeli Army arrived with battle forces and bulldozers and ended up having a standoff with this group of Israeli Settlers. The standoff did end up with the demolition of the trailer, but not before a military jeep was overturned and burned. No arrests of the Israeli Settlers took place, even though they staged an armed resistance to the military and destroyed military property.

Within the week, the Settlers had returned with a new trailer and reestablished themselves on the site, with the charred remains of the jeep standing at the entrance of their compound like some macabre trophy. The army and the Israeli government did not bother to return to actually remove this group or return the property to the Palestinian landowners.

So, one of our roles now is to stand alongside a Palestinian road which parallels the new dirt Settler road for several hundred yards. The Palestinian road is used by school children that must use it to return to their many homes in the farming community. Most of these children are between eight and twelve years old and are terrified to walk along this stretch of road because they are frequently verbally and occasionally physically harassed by the Settlers (shortly after the Settlement Outpost was destroyed by the military, the Settlers retaliated by beating with bats two international observers who were watching the road, sending them both to the hospital).

Last week while monitoring this area and providing a protective presence for the school children, we observed another interesting phenomenon. A large military bulldozer (identified by my friend Simon as a Caterpillar 950 Articulated Front End Loader) was moving gigantic scoops of rocks and building up a five-foot tall barrier between the Settler road and the Palestinian road. We asked the soldiers on the side of the road what the bulldozer was doing, to which they replied that it was erecting a security barrier. When we asked them for what purpose, they said, "to protect the Settlers."

What is particularly revealing about this situation is that military personnel using military equipment were actively engaged in fortifying an illegal Settlement Outpost. While it may appear contradictory for the military to be assisting in establishing something that is technically illegal, this is actually part of a larger Israeli policy that the state itself refers to as “Facts on the Ground.”

In practical terms, the state of Israel has shown no indication that it wants to relinquish any control over the West Bank. On the contrary, it seems to want to annex large sections of this land to become a permanent part of Israel. The most famous expression of this intention came from then cabinet member Ariel Sharon who, addressing the Israeli public said, “everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements, because everything we take now will stay ours… everything we don’t grab will go to them.”

They primary way land is claimed here in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is by these Settlement Outposts which then become recognized by Israel and gradually fortified with security barriers, permanent roads, and utilities. Quickly they become verifiable “Facts on the Ground;” homes and infrastructure built by Israelis for Israelis. The argument during Peace talks then goes, “why shouldn’t these Israeli developments be part of Israel?”

In light of these ever-growing “Facts on the Ground,” the internationally recognized Green Line boundary between Israel and Palestine becomes more and more theoretical. What is tragic is that there are some other facts on the ground, some facts not accounted for or frequently noted. They are the facts of individuals and families displaced from their homes, they are the facts of the children we walk with daily who are growing up with fear and resentment in their hearts, there are the facts of whole populations entering into the roles of victim and victimizer, and both being dehumanized in the process.

There is much sadness here, but I’m glad that there is still yet another set of facts on the ground. There is the fact that a sizeable minority of Israeli citizens resists the cultural and institutional norms of their society and instead works for just policies in their government. There is the fact that the vast majority of Palestinians rejects violence and instead engages in the hard work of peaceful protest. It is these last few facts that encourage me and give me the hope and strength and courage to face the pervasive conflict and sadness in this land.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

From Cavemen to Nomads

Recently our team visited a rural area in the South Hebron Hills called Susiya. Up until the 1980s, Susiya was a small village whose residents owned large tracks of the surrounding land. In 1982, an Israeli settlement took over the village and expelled the residents, including the family of the man we were visiting, Nasser.

While Nasser's family no longer has access to their former home, the Israeli Supreme Court has upheld their right to dwell on their farm land (the family has documents dating back to the Ottoman Empire which recognizing their ownership over this property). While it is unjust that Nasser has been pushed from his own home, one would also think that he could resume some sort of normal life on the remainder of his land. The catch is, Nasser is not allowed to build a single thing on his own property. The Israeli government has declared this land a "Security Buffer Zone" to protect the illegal Settlement at Susiya. So, no Palestinian is allowed to build anything at all in this area.

For a few years, Nasser was able to shelter his family in an ancient cave which existed on his property. They dug the cave out a bit more, and fashioned a door for it, and persisted on eking out their living herding goats, harvesting their olives, and planting small vegetable gardens. However, Nasser's presence on his land proved to be an irritation to the nearby Israeli Settlers who reside in his old home. So, the Israeli army issued a demolition order on Nasser's cave home. They came with bulldozers and back-hoes, demolishing Nasser's improvised dwelling. The remnants can be seen above.

Homeless, Nasser and his family received tents from the International Red Cross so that they would have some form of shelter in which to live. The Israeli army has again issued demolition orders, this time upon the tents! Thankfully, no one has bothered to follow through on this set of orders. Yet, Nasser and his family live in constant insecurity, unable to make any improvements to their land or their shelter.

Throughout the hillsides of the West Bank, countless heartbreaks like this one continue daily. Another nearby family has a demolition order on the latrine that an international aid agency helped them construct; again on their own property and near the tents that they are forced to live in. I have heard of other rural Palestinians who have had their wells demolished. All of this happens for "security reasons." I assure you, the Palestinian families do not feel more secure, and one starts to wonder why the alleged security needs of illegal Israeli settlers supersedes the local farmers' rights to security, to property, and to basic human dignity in these occupied territories.