Sunday, 7 February 2010


I was told to expect my heart to be broken during our visit. It happened yesterday in Hebron. We travelled to Hebron to meet Ecumenical Accompaniers Gerry O’Sullivan from Ireland and Sofia Hammarstrom from Sweden. Hebron is a lively, bustling Palestinian town but the Old City tells a different story. The Cave of Machpelah/Tomb of the Patriarchs, at the centre of Hebron, is said to be the burial place of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah. This place is therefore sacred to all three monotheistic faiths but to Jews it is second only to the Western Wall and to Muslims it comes second in the Holy Land only to Jerusalem’s Haram esh-Sharif.

For centuries a small Jewish community has lived in relative peace in Hebron. However in 1929 in a wave of Arab riots the violence in Hebron was especially fierce and most of the Jewish population were killed and the few who survived fled. Initially after the 1967 war the Israeli government banned Jews from settling here, but after significant pressure a settlement was allowed to be created on the edge of the city. In 1979 a group of settler women and children illegally occupied Beit Hadassah in the heart of the Old City and after an eight month sit-in they were given permission to stay. There are now 4 settlements and they are a focus of on-going tension.

We walked through the narrow market streets beyond Bab Al-Zawya, the entrance to the Old City. In places a wire netting protects the streets below from the rubbish and missiles thrown down by the settlers’ flats above. At the end of the street are a series of checkpoints before reaching the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The building has now been split in two, one side a mosque, the other a synagogue. As it was the Sabbath we were not allowed in to the Jewish side.

However on returning along the parallel market road, Al-Shuhada Street, the contrast was stark. All the shops that once lined this street were closed. It felt like a ghost town with the exception of a few settler children on the street. Before entering the settler area, which Palestinians are prevented from doing, the street was split in two, Palestinians are allowed to walk down only one side, the road is for Israelis only. On the walls of some of the buildings are murals and signs which make clear the beliefs of the settlers. It was very reminiscent of walls in Belfast or Derry in Northern Ireland.

We’d had the opportunity earlier to see the impact on the city of the settlements and the numerous army lookouts by looking across the rooftops of the Old City from the house occupied by a Christian Peacemaker Team. CPTs are international teams that enter in conflict zones around the world and have been in Hebron since 1995. They aim to reduce violent situations by “getting in the way”. We listened to how they, like the EAs, support school patrols, accompany those at risk of house demolition and monitor soldiers as they search homes.

Gerry and Sofia showed us the steps up which Palestinian children had to be escorted to reach their school adjacent to the settler area. We were later to see a film showing settlers attacking children and their teachers coming down these steps on their way from school. In one such incident the daughter of Hashem al’Azzeh suffered a broken arm.

Hashem and his family live in a house up the hill close to the school. In 1984 a group of settlers occupied the land directly overlooking his home and the house they built now obstructs the entrance to his home. It means that the only way in is not to climb up the steep banking behind the house. The family have suffered physical and verbal abuse from their neighbours ever since. His wife has had 2 miscarriages as a result of assaults, their home has been broken in to and an attempt was made to burn it down. His olive trees have been cut down and it is too dangerous to try and collect the remaining olives. Yet despite the violence and intimidation, Hashem is adamant that this is his home and he will not be forced to leave. Whilst the settlers repeatedly say to him “Your house, your land is promised by God to us”, his response is “you can kill me physically but you will never kill my ideals”.

He has been protected in large part by the interest of the international community. He has hosted film crews and journalists from around the world, a many clips of what he and his family have had to endure are on the video site You-Tube. He is though cynical about what the international community have achieved in seeking an end to the occupation of Palestinian territory, but if full of praise for the role of the ecumenical accompanier programme.

We left the heartbreak of Hebron and drove on to Bethlehem were we met a group of leaders of Christian organisations, many of whom had been involved in writing the Kairos Document. Usama Nicola and Lucy Talgieh from the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Centre, Nidal AbuZuluf from the Joint Advocacy Initiative of YMCA, Rifat Kassis of Defence for Children International and George Rishmawi of the Siraj Centre for Holy Land studies all told us how important they felt the Kairos document was for them, not just as a message to their own people but also to the international community. They were disappointed that the Churches were so slow to respond to the situation in Palestine. They called on the Church to be pro-active, courageous and prophetic.

We then made the short journey to Beit Sahour, were the Evangelical Lutheran Church scout group were hosting an evening’s fundraising event. In 2 years of restarting the Shepherds Scout group they have grown to 120 members. The hall was packed with friends and family, including a group of 6th Form students on an exchange from Sweden. There was singing, music and dancing, and even a favoured Palestinian activity – bingo. The hall was full of smiles and laughter, love, joy and hope. It restored our broken hearts.

No comments: