The Voice: Spring 2003

The Voice

Alum faces Middle East conflict head on

By: Sally Jongsma

Kristin Anderson and fellow Christian peacemaker team members talk with Israeli soldiers at a Palestinian home demolition.

Kristin Anderson (’01) lives in an apartment in the heart of the Palestinian city of Hebron. On one side of the apartment live Palestinians; on the other side live Jewish settlers. When Anderson arrived in Hebron in September, the heavy metal gate keeping Palestinians out of the settlers’ area was twenty feet from her apartment gate. Today it is about two inches away as settlers expand their territory, she says.

Hebron is a city of 150,000 people, divided into two sections. It is the only Palestinian city with Jewish settlers living within its borders. H2, the part of the city in which Anderson and her colleagues live, has 30,000 Palestinians, 2000 Israeli soldiers, and 400 Jewish settlers. Palestinian homes are regularly demolished by huge American Caterpillar bulldozers to make room for new buildings for Israeli “settlers,” as they’ve come to be known. Many of these settlers are expatriate American Jews with Brooklyn accents, says Anderson.

Israeli soldiers with automatic rifles patrol the area, manning checkpoints, checking ID cards, enforcing curfews. Palestinians who are often under curfew (which means they are not allowed to leave their homes) by the Israeli military, spend much of their time huddled in the homes that are left, while stores, markets, schools, police stations, and hospitals stand empty. Settlers move about as they wish. Hebron looks like a war zone.

Anderson is in Hebron as a member of the Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT), a faith-based group originally established by Mennonite, Quaker, and Brethren Chris-tians. They are committed to bringing organized non-violent alternatives to areas torn by war and violent conflict.

“If the root causes of conflict are not stopped, violence continues to spin out of control,” Anderson says. She and the organization she works with try to get others to see that reconciliation is possible and will benefit everyone.

Members of the Christian Peacemakers Team get actively involved with people in conflict areas in several ways. They hold training sessions, especially with young people, on non-violent ways to deal with conflict. They document what they see, and they monitor checkpoints. They accompany doctors who try to make house calls on desperately sick people or go with people to find food for their hungry families during curfew times. In the three months Anderson spent in Hebron last fall, Palestinians were under curfew for thirty-five days.

Peacemaker Team members also help fight against home demolitions and for secure dwellings for all people. They partner with Israeli civil rights organizations that call for justice for Palestinians who have lived in this area for generations. Together, they work to end violence and bring justice to people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Team members also occasionally work alongside Palestinian farmers as they harvest their olives, because frequently these farmers are attacked and beaten by settlers who want to prevent them from earning their livelihood or who want to have their land. At times CPT members physically put themselves between people and their attackers, even spending the night in homes during times of random violence, hoping that the threat of bad publicity will make attackers hesitate before hurting them.

Anderson says that both CPT members and Palestinians regularly get spat upon and threatened by settlers, who tell them they hope they die in their sleep.

Anderson acknowledges that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a complex one with plenty of blame to be assigned to all parties. Until the 1980s, the goal of the Palestinians through the PLO was to push Israelis out of land that Palestinians had occupied for generations. And although Israel is officially bound by international agreements that maintain the Palestinians’ rights to their land and civil rights, many Israelis believe the land is theirs for historical and religious reasons and the Palestinians, as Arabs, should move out. And besides the fact that the land is also their “home,” Palestinians have no place to go.

“It will take an international intervention or a miracle to bring change,” Anderson says. She also understands that it is instinctive for many Christians to sympathize with the Jews because of a common heritage. But Americans do not hear about the situations she sees on a daily basis, she says. The major media outlets in the United States do not give an accurate picture of the situation in the Middle East. It is because of what she and her team members see that they are so convinced that Palestinian people are being gravely mistreated and abused and that people in the United States need to see both sides of the conflict. They are kept in contained areas, and their hospitals, stores, schools, and police stations are repeatedly destroyed by the Israeli military in the name of national security.

“The slow strangulation of life is creating a desperate people,” says Anderson. Israeli soldiers surround every Palestinian city. No men between the ages of sixteen and thirty-five are allowed to travel. People are suffering from psychological problems brought on by poverty and the inability to work or support their families and by fear of personal attacks and having their homes suddenly demolished.

“You can’t be told you’re scum daily without having it affect your sense of dignity and worth,” Anderson says.

Soldiers are not the only ones carrying guns. Anderson tells numerous stories of people who are abused and beaten, usually by settlers committed to taking over and cleansing land they believe should be theirs.

“There is no legal mechanism for Palestinians—or even internationals like CPT to appeal to,” says Anderson.

Anderson tells of a woman translator beaten by settlers. CPT members have walked two miles with the translator to report the incident to Israeli officials. After waiting for four hours they were told to return the next day—when they were told the same thing.

Despite the conditions, Anderson, who has traveled to several countries, finds Palestinian people among the most generous, warm, and friendly people she’s met.

“Palestinians I’ve met know that the United States provides huge amounts of military aid to Israel, yet they make a distinction between American people and the American government,” she says. “I’m not sure I’d be that gracious.”

That is one reason why Anderson, even though she lives in the midst of conflict, does not feel threatened by Palestinians when she walks out of her apartment.

Another reason is the non-violent stance CPT takes. “In some ways we are able to react to violence more creatively because we do not carry guns,” says Anderson. “If you carry a gun you’re a target. If they know you don’t have one, they are more willing to listen before reacting.”

“We’re most afraid of the Israeli settlers,” she adds. “Young children will throw rocks at us as well as the Palestinians. They’re taught to hate from birth. Even many Israelis are afraid of the settlers, sometimes calling them fanatical and irrational.” Team members have been “roughed up” often and, recently, a twenty-four-year-old woman from the team was beaten by three settler women.

Anderson acknowledges the danger, but she also knows that danger and injury can happen anywhere and at any time.

“I’m here because I believe in the power of God to transform hearts,” she says. “I want to be a voice for the voiceless.” For that reason she travels around telling her story when she returns to the United States every three months, urging people to find alternative sources of information about the situation in the Middle East, and urging people to pressure their legislators to change U.S. policy of giving over $2 billion in military aid to Israel, enabling them to continue on the present course.

She’d like to believe the settlers don’t mean it when they say they wish her dead, but she’s afraid they do.