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A VOLUNTEER with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) came to Cheltenham recently to give a talk about his experiences volunteering in the Occupied West Bank, Palestine where he had just returned from spending three months in Hebron.
The CPT volunteer, who had also volunteered several times with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme for Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), described Hebron as a “cauldron” for Palestinians, and spoke about his volunteer work there with CPT, for example, offering protection to Palestinian children walking to school or then home again, where they would often have to pass through Israeli military checkpoints, rows of Israeli soldiers or occasionally stone-throwing Israeli settlers.
He said he could not understand the need for soldiers to amass outside school gates, sometimes forcing young children to pass them in fear at the beginning and end of each school day.
Worried teachers would accompany their students on their entry to or exit from school, keeping the children moving, and volunteers like himself would step into line with the Palestinians at times where the Israeli soldiers were behaving extra aggressively.
He said he saw children being arrested and showed us photos of boys as young as 12 being escorted, hands tied and sometimes blindfolded, into military jeeps.
He went to a meeting with Defence for Children International, who explained that Palestinian children are dealt with under military law, with all its consequences, whereas Israeli children living in settlements on the West Bank are dealt with using civil law.
He shared with us the joyful experience and photograph of a mother crying with happiness as her son was released from a settlement where he and another Palestinian boy had been taken by Israeli soliders following false claims by settlers that the two boys had attacked settlers (apparently this was a common occurrence).
He said this was one happy instance and he will never forget the relief of the boy’s mother. However, he added that sadly, this was not a frequent occurrence and there were many other similar cases which did not end so happily.
Shockingly, we learned that international volunteers were often made to show Israeli soldiers their ID documents, which were then photographed, and subsequently soldiers and settlers in Hebron would mockingly greet the volunteers by name, calling out to them in the street — showing that the information had been shared with some settlers and other soldiers.
This CPT volunteer also told us about his previous trips where he was volunteering with EAPPI, assisting Palestinians whose homes had been demolished.
He and his colleagues would provide support such as they could, for example giving details of the Red Cross, which could help with temporary accommodation like tents.
One difference between home demolitions in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, however, was that in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian families would be charged for the demolition, or have to choose to self-demolish.
He asked us to try and imagine the humiliation these families were subjected to; forced to demolish their own homes, or pay the people who were taking everything they owned from them. He said not one Palestinian will be given compensation of any kind.
But he said he had been overwhelmed by the incredible generosity of some Palestinian families in the aftermath of demolitions; sometimes being invited to share food and drink with them in the ruins of their demolished homes.
They wanted to thank him and his colleagues for trying to help them. He asked one family why their home had been demolished, and they explained that Israel wanted to build a road to connect two illegal settlements and their home was in the way.
He became emotional while speaking of his experiences and explained that in his youth, before visiting Palestine/Israel, he had seen Israel in a different light; and admitted that he had viewed all Palestinians as “terrorists.”
He said: “I wonder how many other people in Britain still hold such a view.”
Since he started volunteering in Palestine, he has done over 70 talks about his experiences, aiming to help raise awareness of the everyday injustices under Israeli occupation that Palestinians face, and encouraging others to go and volunteer.
He expressed concern over the future of important groups such as EAPPI and CPT — in short, he said, the Israeli soldiers and settlers really didn’t want us there reporting on human rights abuses.
“We were treated better than Palestinians, but it was clear they didn’t like us being there.”
One volunteer was threatened with being shot in the head by an Israeli soldier if he didn’t stop taking photos of a youth being aggressively body searched.
Another volunteer was spat at in the face by a settler; and the CPT and EAPPI volunteer said the overt aggression has dramatically increased in recent years.
He also emphasised his passionate support of EAPPI’s “principled impartiality” — ie that any solution to the conflict must be based on human rights and international humanitarian law, an end to the occupation and a just peace with security and dignity for all.
He also talked about the huge privilege he had of working with Israeli peace activist groups like Breaking The Silence, Women in Black and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, but particularly the effect of the Parents’ Circle on him, a joint Israeli/Palestinian initiative of people who have lost a child in the conflict.
His thoughtful talk provoked lots of questions from the audience. There was discussion on current campaigns being pushed by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign such as those pressuring HSBC to divest from companies complicit in the Israeli occupation, and those which students across Britain are engaging in to pressure their universities to divest from companies complicit with Israel’s apartheid regime.
Also mentioned was the upcoming supreme court case where PSC is challenging the British government’s attempt to criminalise the boycott campaign, with the government insisting that Local Government Pension Schemes should not be allowed to divest from Israeli arms companies, even if British citizens do not wish their pension funds to be investing in companies complicit in the oppression and killing of other human beings.
As the situation for Palestinians grows ever more urgent, so it grows more urgent to join the solidarity movement fighting for equality for the Palestinians.
Rose Chacko is a member of Gloucestershire PSC.
Visit www.palestinecampaign.org for information on the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s current campaigns.
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