Reflection on time with CPT in Hebron, Palestine

A short personal reflection of time spent on team with CPT in Hebron, Palestine, February to March 2020

Both uplifting and over-powering at the same time, being on team with CPT in Hebron is intense and relentless, requiring genuine teamwork, mutual support and quality leadership.   My partner, Louise, and I, are CPT reservists based in the UK, we had been to the occupied Palestinian territories (oPts) before, and had completed CPT training in 2018. This time with the team in Hebron was our first experience as team members.  I don’t want to sugar-coat the pill here and should say that first, the induction process is not easy; but second, we were lucky to be with a superlative team, backed up by a superlative project support co-ordinator. We were each appointed a mentor, who spent time 1:1 and took us through a schedule of ‘things to know and skills to have’. CPT has developed an excellent system that a) covers all the angles and b) ensures, as far as possible, a mutually supportive, respectful and egalitarian distribution of tasks.

Whilst on team we lived in an old building at the end of a small side road in the heart of the Old City, a cobbled road with squawking turkeys and ducks and often a few children and cats, a road with a tall barb-wired Israeli-built concrete wall at one end that blocks access to Shuhada Street, now occupied by the Israeli Jewish settlers.  It was winter still, and cold, and damp, but we had arrived after the worst of the weather.  Our main challenges were a) self-care, mentally and physically, b) trying to grasp the complex geographical layout of The Old City and its checkpoint connections with the Israeli High Security colonisation corridor (High Security Zone, HSZ) running from the Kiryat Arba settlement to Tel Rumeida, and c) managing the IT system and requirements for data collection/recording, and the production of  reports for UNICEF, social media and newsletters. 

We had to learn how to navigate our way around, how to manage ourselves safely at checkpoints where we would, from time to time, be held up, questioned and body-searched by soldiers, how to manage ourselves safely at clashes and demonstrations where we would be exposed to Israeli military aggression responding to ‘al-shabab’ (the youth) throwing stones with sound bombs, tear gas, and rubber bullets.  If out on duty or on-call we always worked in pairs, focused on being as safe as possible, caring for each other’s welfare, keeping in regular contact with the rest of the team by mobile phone, and on recording human rights violations by monitoring incidents of aggression and by taking photos or filming.

Our team-based routines included a daily team meeting, and a weekly team catch-up with the project support co-ordinator based in Jordan. The team meeting agenda always included a reflection led by one person, a check-in with each person for well-being or problems, any debriefing for incidents the previous 24 hrs, an allocation for the school runs, or settler-tour, or mosque patrol duties,  on-call and team phone rota for the next 24 hrs, and an individual ‘work’ check-in’. Each team member would have responsibilities, for e.g. ongoing, newsletter articles, social media reports, quarterly reports for UNICEF on school run data, use-of-force reports, and work would be allocated for hosting visiting delegations, and email communications. Domestic task are also allocated such as shopping, breakfast, washing up and dinner cooking.

Our work included all hands on deck for the school runs, where we counted numbers of children and teachers going through two of the checkpoints on their way to school – it is complicated but there are Palestinian children living in enclaves within the Israeli Settler HSZ who need to pass through military checkpoints and metal turnstiles in order to get to their schools outside the HSZ; and conversley there are children living outside the HSZ who have to go tthrough checkpoints to get to their schools inside the HSZ. The school runs start at 7 am, so were up at 06.30. It is common for soldiers to close the checkpoints and prevent children from going to school, and for children to throw stones leading to further delays and sometimes teargas and sound bombs. We would monitor and record for about an hour before returning through the checkpoints, and potential harrassment, questioning and searches by the military on our way back to the team apartment, and breakfast. In the afternoon the two team members on call would escort children from the kindergarten in the HSZ, next to Al-Ibrahimi mosque back towards their homes, and on Fridays we would monitor the mosque checkpoint at the first call to prayer at 05.00hrs, and on Saturdays we would  monitor the so-called settler tour, where the military supervise a settler ‘incursion’ from the HSZ into the Palestinian areas of the Old City and preach biased, misleading and often false zionist propaganda to Jewish ‘tourists’ or Jewish youth from abroad  visiting ‘the promised land’ on so-called Birthright-Israel trips.

So, to turn to some reflections: on experiencing the occupation (as foreigners), the value of the CPT presence in Hebron, the ongoing Palestinian resistance, the current Palestinian situation in the oPts.

Experiencing the occupation. 

There are quite remarkable Palestinian team members without whom the CPT presence in Hebron would be all but impossible and whose contribution to the work cannot be over-estimated.  In our particular case, as ‘foreigners’, from the UK, we could never feel or experience the occupation as the Palestinians do. However, I think we sensed that, the more time we spent there, the more our minds became occupied by the occupation in two ways. 

First, I felt we began to be subjugated by the occupation, to be less outraged than we should be, as we ‘normalised’ the situation so that it became harder for us to remember that this ‘normality’ is not normal at all. We see the children passing through metal turnstiles, past heavily armed soldiers, on their way to school and ponder that this normality has been their social experience since birth: how do they respond to the occupation?  As a team we tried to counter this ideological occupation of our minds through our daily reflections and team de-briefings.

Second, I think that, during our stay, we gradually absorbed a kind of loss of optimism, and even hope, that this over-powering oppressive enterprise of occupation (and ethnic cleansing) on an industrial scale, can ever be overcome. Our conversations with Palestinian partner agencies in Hebron reveal a depression of mood, though no less determination to continue to resist. The recent shift even further to the right by the USA, with the election of Trump and his fascist rhetoric, has emboldened the already far-right government of Israel to accelerate its programme of settler-colonisation and ethnic cleansing. 

It has struck me that Israeli tactics of occupation always focus on the less visible margins of the oPts, the outskirts of the cities and in the rural villages – this slow-burn approach helps to ensure a) that Palestinians in the cities remain absorbed by their own battles to survive in the still neoliberal socio-economic structures of Palestine and all that entails, and b) that the western media continue to remain silent.

The Palestinian resistance

Our conversations with CPT’s Palestinian partner organisations in Hebron made it clear that there are determined and very brave groups in Hebron standing up to the occupation.  These included the Hebron Defense Committee, Human Rights Defenders, and Youth Against Settlements.  As foreigners we cannot begin to imagine what they face, daily, and can only be amazed by their persistence. Unfortunately, it must be noted, their overall impact is reduced by political differences in their relationship to and with the Palestinian Authority.  Their activities put CPTs work (and the work of other foreign agencies such as ISM and EAPPI) into context; CPT provides only a marginal impact as a foreign presence, trying to amplify their voices.  At times I think some Palestinians become frustrated with CPT because it has not been able to make much difference over the years, and that is, unfortunately, true. However, I also sensed a genuine appreciation of the CPT presence and its efforts to help tell the world what is going on. For sure, it is clear that CPT will be most effective if close relations with these partner organisations can be fostered with regular contact and by helping to develop their faith that CPT will respond if called.

Then came Corona

From the 8th March we were confined to our apartment because of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Even before that we had been subjected to cries of “Corona!” directed at us as we walked through the New Shallalah Street vegetable market –  as foreigners we embodied the viral threat and experienced the early stages of a xenophobia the pandemic has triggered globally. Initially lighthearted, as if banter, it was always clear this could turn quite ugly. Foreigners were barred from entry to Hebron, and Bethlehem was in lockdown with foreigners quarantined in a hotel there.  On the 11th March I wrote:

“We can’t respond to any calls for a monitoring presence for human rights violations by armed vigilante settlers or the occupying forces.  From inside the apartment we can hear vehicles going up and down Shuhada Street, a road that used to be lined with Palestinian homes and shops and a major economic lifeline for the Old City of Hebron, now invaded, colonized, and securitised with the ugly security aesthetic of concrete walls, barbed wire, cameras, searchlights and checkpoints.”

And on the 14th March:

“The time is nigh for our days with CPT in Hebron to be cut short, and our team to be no more. Grateful for the experiences we have had together and the learning along the way. The coronavirus and the moral panic – more or less reasonable – holds sway over our short-term future and made life here unreasonable. So some of us must depart and very soon … Thinking of our days, in our ‘luxurious’ confinement, with incredible people around us, Julian and Tarteel, and now Mona; with the background sounds of the call to pray, the squawking of ducks and turkeys in the street below, and the occasional disruptive explosions of fireworks – daily it seems – from the alien invaders.”

So, by the 17th we left for the UK. This has been a sad time for us, to leave so much behind, and so much work undone. I think that the work of CPT (and other foreign agencies) is as worthwhile as ever: to amplify the voices of the oppressed, and to support their resistance. We intend to go back when we are able to. In the meantime we can only lend support, at a distance, to those on the ground.  We can only hope that this pandemic does lead to significant shifts in global politics that will one day emancipate the Palestinians and reverse the racist occupation and settler-colonisation.

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