Guest Blog: Michael McRay

We welcome a submission today by Michael McRay, former student of Lee Camp, who recently spent two months working with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron, in the West Bank. Michael is planning to begin graduate studies in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation this fall at Trinity College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. “CPT! CPT! Come, come! The soldiers have a man!” Her voice startled me.  Jean, Rosie, and I had been returning from afternoon patrol, but I had lagged behind to look at a few shops in the Old City of Hebron, south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. Though I did not know the woman requesting my presence, she knew who I was. My red hat and grey vest bearing the CPT name and logo quickly indicated with whom I worked. CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams) began in 1985 as an attempt to provide an answer to the question, “What would it look like if Christians devoted the same self-sacrifice and discipline to nonviolent peacemaking that soldiers devote to war?” After intensive nonviolent training, CPT sends its members to areas of intense conflict around the world to provide alternatives to the standard downward spirals of militarized and demilitarized violence. As a Christian convicted by the nonviolence of Jesus, I had decided to spend two months with CPT in Palestine, standing in peaceful solidarity with the Palestinian people in their oppression.

The woman’s call immediately made me nervous. I was alone, inexperienced in the field. Questions flooded my mind. How do I proceed? What are CPT protocols in this situation? What do the people expect me to do? Do they really expect I can free a detained man from a group of IDF (Israeli Defense Force) soldiers? Despite my hesitancies, I set down the potential gift I was holding and followed the woman.

Turning a corner, I arrived on scene in a matter of seconds. Four Israeli soldiers stood in a semicircle next to a wall, with two in the center. One was pointing a gun toward a Palestinian man who was leaning casually against the stone wall, and the other had the Palestinian’s green identification card, radioing his headquarters to check the ID. Soldiers did this (and continue to do it) often, randomly checking the IDs of passersby. As far as I could tell, no rhyme or reason existed for their method of choosing whom to check. The superior gives the command to check IDs, so they check IDs. While some may excuse the soldiers since they are simply “following orders,” the Palestinians do not share that sentiment. They feel harassed. For the soldiers, the agenda of the Palestinian is of no real importance; the Palestinian’s errand or time frame is of no consequence. If a soldier wants to check an ID, then the Palestinian must stand and wait. This particular man was not even crossing a checkpoint. He was merely walking through the old suuq (marketplace) of his city, just like everyone else. Palestinians can generally be held for ID checks for as long as twenty minutes before calls and interventions are made, which often are ineffective. This is no doubt a major inconvenience for the people.

I was unsure of how to proceed. This being only my second day on team, I had not yet encountered any incidents I could use as reference points. I tried calling Jean, but quickly remembered her phone was charging and thus not with her. I accepted the fact I was on my own for this one. I decided to do what I had always read that CPTers do, i.e., confront the soldiers.

“Why are you holding this man,” I said to one of the soldiers in the middle. “What did he do?” No answer. “Why do you need to check his ID?” The soldier looked up at my eyes with disdain but said nothing. I turned to the man pointing the gun at the detainee. “Why are you pointing a gun at him? What did he do?” Still no response from anyone.

Realizing I would not get the soldiers to talk to me, I decided to at least make them aware that I was documenting their actions. I pulled out my small blue notebook and described the scene. My hands shook as I began photographing and videoing. I had never before confronted someone carrying an automatic weapon, much less six such persons. After only a few minutes, however, the ID cleared, and the soldiers released the Palestinian. Both parties went about their business.

I decided to follow the soldiers, though, to see if they stirred up any other trouble. Trailing them by only a few feet, I held my camera up, videoing their march. They walked in two lines, three to a line, and seemed to be practicing some kind of drill or routine. Periodically, a couple would lift their rifles up, briefly taking aim at houses above, or down alleyways. After the first one pointed his weapon, the soldier(s) behind him followed suit. I could not determine the point of this march.

As they approached the end of the Old City, one of the soldiers in the back turned and quickly pointed the barrel of his weapon into an elderly man’s shop. This was the first time I had seen a soldier point a gun in a shop. The store owner sat out in front, his head just beneath the level of the gun’s barrel. Given the history and current realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I assumed the man would protest, sharing some choice words with this soldier who was arbitrarily directing his weapon into the man’s place of business. But the man did not. He simply bowed his head, lifted his hand, palm upward, and said, “Ahlan wasahlan, you are most welcome.” This Arabic phrase originates from a greeting that expresses both acceptance of the guest as a part of the family and the hope that the guest’s path be easy, as if on a level plain. His response so caught me off guard I laughed out loud. Here was an IDF soldier – a member of the military occupying this Palestinian man’s land, a representation of the occupation itself – who walks the streets of Hebron to protect the Jewish settlers who illegally take more and more land from this man and his people. In short, there walked his enemy. And this Muslim man extended his hand in humble invitation. It was a token of resistance.