MOUNT VERNON — Joseph Stuart knew he had entered a different world when he found himself apologizing to an Israeli soldier armed with an assault rifle for intimidating the soldier. But eye-opening events were par for the course during Stuart’s recent mission trip to Israel under the auspices of the Christian Peacemaker Team project, a group which dares people of faith to put as much sacrifice and effort into peace as people regularly do to accommodate war.
One immediate goal is to help increase the international pressure on Israel to end the occupation of the Palestinian settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan River.
Stuart, a sophomore at Manchester College in Fort Wayne, Ind., was part of a delegation of 13 people of different ages and walks of life who were interested in learning more about possibilities for finding peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Based in Hebron, just north of Jerusalem, the team traveled throughout the West Bank area where various Palestinian settlements are kept cordoned off and separated by a large wall Israel has installed.
Majoring in peace studies in college, Stuart went on patrols during his mission which showed him the occupation firsthand.
“I was very aware that my skin color helped me a lot,” Stuart said, telling of being waved through pat-down checkpoints by soldiers mumbling that the search wouldn’t apply to him.
The most surreal moment came when the group received a call that Israeli soldiers had occupied the roof of the CPT apartment, searching for a Palestinian throwing rocks. The group returned to the building and went up to talk with the soldiers about their mission. A soldier, about Stuart’s own age, explained to them that he supported the occupation because he felt that he and his family are in danger from Palestinian extremists.
“The one thing I struggled with most is that he said ‘You have your view and I have mine, and neither of us is going to change,’” Stuart said. “If I accept that as true, why bother?”
He realized that he and three of his fellow CPT missionaries had essentially cornered the soldier on the roof and bombarded him with questions. Even though the soldier was armed with an assault rifle and the missionaries were unarmed, Stuart realized they were intimidating him and not helping him consider the benefits of overcoming his fears of making peace with the Palestinians. So, before the soldiers left the roof, Stuart made sure to apologize to the soldier so they could depart as friends.
Stuart said that Israel’s occupation is divide and conquer at its very best, and that caused him to feel frustration many times during the two-week mission, but that he saw enough positive signs to leave with optimism, such as a perceived move toward non-violence by the younger generation of Palestinians. He added that a number of Israeli groups and organizations are beginning to recognize the damage caused by the occupation policy. And after all, Stuart said, Israel has to be the one to make those decisions.
“Israel has all the power in this situation,” Stuart said. “They need to be the ones to start offering some concessions.” He described seeing so-called refugee camps that have become so permanent, the housing is built out of concrete and has been occupied for 20 to 30 years. Original refugee children are now having children of their own in the camps. Many of the residents are forbidden to travel because they can’t get the right permits. One shopkeeper in Hebron is forbidden to travel to nearby Jerusalem because of his permits.
Stuart did not experience any outbreaks of violence while he was in the West Bank and never felt unsafe around either Israelis or Palestinians. Though signs of the occupation are plentiful in most locations, there were moments when Stuart was able to forget briefly about it, such a moment of peaceful communion he felt when he visited the Mount of Olives.
All of the unresolved discord of Israel’s relations with internal and external Muslim groups and nations comes down to a country roughly the size of the state of New Jersey. The West Bank itself is about 5,860 square miles, about the size of 10 Knox counties.
“Minus the checkpoints, you could get everywhere in an hour,” Stuart said. This intimacy made him want to connect with these people and their daily lives even more.“Hearing their stories was definitely eye-opening,” Stuart said. He is eager to return and continue to reach out for peace.10/