Nasreen and her husband live in Hebron with their three children in a Palestinian occupied territory in Hebron; they are often visited by Israeli soldiers in the middle of the night who demand to search their house. The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) helps people like Nasreen providing a protective presence of volunteers in East Jerusalem; ensuring voices are heard on both sides.
Nasreen tells me how, at 1am, she was woken abruptly by banging at the front door. She slipped on her leather flip flops, grabbed a robe from the chair in her room, and walked across the cold tiled hallway to the door. Twenty armed soldiers were waiting. “They were very aggressive,” Nasreen recalls, pouring tea into a small glass cup. “They told us to go outside. I said the children were sleeping but they insisted we wake them. We had to wait in the cold while they searched the house. They went through our clothes and took all the food out of the fridge and put it on the floor.”
As I listen, I can’t help wondering how Nasreen and her family can be so hospitable after such a terrifying ordeal. Tea and homemade fig biscuits awaited me on my arrival – along with a pair of trousers to wear while mine dried from the rainstorm raging outside. Nasreen and her husband Hashem live in the centre of Hebron in the occupied Palestinian territories with their three young children. The area where they live, Tel Rumeida, is under Israeli control and every month they are visited by soldiers – often in the middle of the night – demanding to search the house.
The West Bank was occupied by Israel in 1967 when the area, alongside other territories including East Jerusalem and Gaza, was captured from Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Both the Israelis and Palestinians have been subjected to ongoing violence as attempts at peace have continued to break down. Hebron was the first town Jewish settlers moved into after the territory was captured. For most, moving back to their roots was a religious duty. Jewish settlements – small towns and villages – are now home to 400,000 people throughout the West Bank. These settlements are illegal under international law, but Israel disputes this. The centre of Hebron is still held by Israeli troops in order to protect the 400-strong Jewish community, particularly those living in Tel Rumeida. Hashem, 46, tells me how Tel Rumeida has been home all his life. “There’s been a settlement here since 1986,” he says, taking a slow drag of a cigarette in his dimly lit living room. Behind partially-drawn curtains, his windows are barred with metal grids. “The first day the settlers threw stones at us so our elders went to talk to them. We said we accepted them as neighbours and asked – do you accept us? They said no and told us to leave.”
As I follow Hashem into his garden, I spot remains of dead trees hanging from a woven canopy of branches. Most of the tree trunks have been cut so they hang largely unsupported at the side of the house, black and brittle. Hashem points out the Jewish settlement built further up the hill. Looking up, I see a row of small beige cubed houses that look barely permanent, but loom over his home. “The settlers used to throw garbage and empty bottles,” he says, pointing at old tins, glass, rubbish and an old washing machine strewn about his garden. “They threw that washing machine once and I ducked just in time. They came with metal sticks, smashed our windows and even cut all the trees in our garden.” After 23 years of abuse and intimidation, Hashem’s family are clearly tired and traumatised – but Hashem speaks freely to me, with a determination for his story to be heard.
He cannot work because of the unpredictable curfews imposed on Palestinians in Tel Rumeida, and checkpoint closures – employers simply won’t give him a job because of where he lives. “During one of the curfews we decided to open the school,” he explains, laying a hand gently on the head of his 11-year-old daughter, Raghad, sitting beside him. “But when the children walked to school, young settlers threw eggs and stones and shouted awful words. The children were frightened – it wasn’t safe for them.” But Hashem was determined they got an education, so he contacted a priest he knew in Jerusalem who spoke to the World Council of Churches about the problem.
The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) – part of the World Council of Churches – offered help. Supported by CAFOD, it trains volunteers to live and work in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and stand in solidarity with Palestinians and Israelis. The volunteers report on human rights abuses, provide a protective presence by standing side by side with people who are being intimidated, and ensure that voices on both sides are heard throughout the world. Its ultimate aim is to help bring a resolution to the conflict.
One such volunteer is Shari Brown, 43, from Birmingham, who visits Hashem and others suffering violence and intimidation. She also walks to and from school every day with Raghad and other children. She talks passionately about the huge differences she found when she arrived, compared to what she had heard back in the UK. “When you come here you see how people are struggling, but our presence does make a difference. There haven’t been any attacks on the children since we’ve been accompanying them to school and the families we visit are attacked less often. Being with people is what the programme is all about. For me this is putting my faith into action, it’s all part of being a Christian.”
Shari tells me how she is determined to share her experiences with others in the UK to raise awareness of the situation in the West Bank. Her words remind me once again of Hashem, and of his passion to build a future free from bitterness and violence.
He told me: “We must work hard together – Palestinians, internationals and Israelis. Maybe it will take time, maybe it’s not easy – but we must work. We can make the way for future generations to achieve this goal.”
When I left Hashem – with those words still at the forefront of my mind – Raghad took a red carnation out of a vase on the table in the hallway and handed it to me. A single bright flower in the wilderness. An act of simple generosity and kindness amid so much hatred.
Laura Storr, article published in the Catholic Times
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