Bourke Kennedy on the roof of the CPT apartment in Hebron
With a Christian Peacemaker on the West Bank
Story and Photos by Stephen Shaner
t a time in life when most people are retired or thinking about slowing down, Bourke Kennedy routinely journeys to a part of the world the U.S. State Department strongly advises American citizens to avoid.
For the past decade, Kennedy, 67, has been travelling to the city of Hebron in Israel’s occupied West Bank as a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). Kennedy’s, and CPT’s, mission in this often violent and war-torn region is to bear witness and offer nonviolent resistance in the face of the Israeli military occupation in the Palestinian territories.
Hebron is an ancient city of great religious significance for both Jews and Muslims. Located in the southern region of Israel’s West Bank, Hebron’s written history can be traced to 1720 BC when the prophet Abraham is said to have purchased a cave in the area to serve as the burial place for his wife, Sarah. King David made Hebron his first capital before he captured Jerusalem. For hundreds of years Jews and Muslims lived together in Hebron in peaceful coexistence. Today, the situation is far from peaceful.
Perhaps nowhere else is the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians as apparent as it is in Hebron. The proximity of Palestinians, Jewish settlers, the Israeli military, and disputed religious sites make Hebron a provocative and volatile place; it is a microcosm of the larger Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It is also the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, that started in 2000.
Kennedy, who lives in upstate NY, first learned of CPT’s mission in Hebron while on a citizen diplomacy trip with the Earthstewards Network in 1994. Though Kennedy had traveled extensively before this trip, including visits to Czechoslovakia, India, and the Middle East, she said that she was “impressed with the compassion and the passion of the people working in Hebron. These were people walking the walk.”
Separated and with grown children, Kennedy, a modest and self-effacing person, acknowledges she was “looking for a life change” when she first saw the situation in Hebron. “I felt I needed to finish this experience. I needed to come back to this place,” she says.
A member of the Unitarian Church who explores Buddhist philosophy, Kennedy began her work by spending one month training at CPT’s headquarters in Chicago. There, prospective members learn about non-violent resistance, learn what it’s like to serve as a member of a team, and also do some “self exploration,” she says. Trainees also get an opportunity to be physically involved in protests and confront those in a position of authority.
In November of 1995, Kennedy made her first trip with CPT to Hebron as a member of a delegation. At first she spent two weeks in the region but soon found herself staying two or three months each year in Hebron as a CPT reservist, raising money when back home to cover travel expenses and speaking at schools and churches to raise awareness about the conflict.
“I started knowing absolutely nothing,” Kennedy jokes about her first trip. “I had no idea how to even get from Jerusalem to Hebron. I got a little lost once in Hebron but finally found the team. It took several weeks to find out where I fitted in, but eventually I decided I wanted to do street patrols so I could get a sense of the social make-up of Hebron.
“It was easier to get around at that time as there were fewer checkpoints,” Kennedy says. “Travel in the West Bank was easier and the mood among the Palestinians was a bit more hopeful as they had more ownership over their lives at that time.” Kennedy says she “felt this is where I wanted to be,” after that trip. “I felt energized!”
CPT’s roots as a nonviolent peace organization can be traced back to the 1984 Mennonite World Conference where Ron Sider, the founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, challenged attendants with a call to action to band together as Christians to develop nonviolent ways to reduce conflict and promote peace. Sider’s speech sparked conversations in churches throughout North America and within several years of that conference, CPT was formed with the sponsorship of the Mennonite Church, the Church of the Brethren, and the Quakers. Today, nearly 20 years since its formation, CPT has projects all over the world including: Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Colombia, and even Iraq.
Originally, CPT was invited to Hebron by the cities’ Palestinian mayor in the mid 1990s and has had a continuous presence there ever since. Kennedy, who speaks with a quiet passion about her experiences, explains that CPT’s mission is “not to change a society but to be there as support for people in a community who want to make life better in a non-violent way.”
Kennedy also points out that CPT does not try to convert Muslims or Jews or get involved with the religious affairs of the people they are trying to help. “When CPT was first (in Hebron) many Palestinians thought we may be trying to convert them,” Kennedy says. “CPT had to convince them that that was not our mission. We are not out on the streets as Christians. We are out on the streets as concerned human beings.”
Life in an occupied territory
In Hebron, CPT is located in the heart of the Old City. The group rents apartments on several floors of a building in an area referred to as the “chicken market.” At one time the neighborhood was a thriving market where local residents would buy poultry and eggs. It is now almost completely empty with only a few Palestinian families living nearby. It is deserted for good reason; the Israeli military has completely taken over the area. CPT’s apartments are situated directly across the street from the Tel Rumeida Settlement and overlook a busy Israeli army base. Five military checkpoints lie within six blocks.
The size of the team varies depending on the length of the members’ stay, but there are usually five or six CPT members staying in Hebron at any given time. If a delegation is in town, that number will quickly grow. Teams are assembled from a diverse group of people: men and women of all ages, occupations, differing religious beliefs, and from different parts of the globe.
Building in the former "chicken market" that houses the CPT apartments in Hebron
Members take turns performing daily household chores like cleaning, cooking, and shopping for food, and also undertake specialized projects based on their own individual expertise. Kennedy, who is originally from Beverly Hills, California where her parents were Hollywood writers, considers creative abilities her strongest attribute. Back home she is the founder and co-artistic director for the repertory company Loose End Ltd. and in Hebron puts her artistic skills to use painting and working on mural projects. She even found time to paint the teams’ apartment.
Accommodations in the CPT apartment are fairly spartan, however, with team members sleeping on foam mats on bare concrete floors. Toilets are of the ‘squat’ variety and temperatures can be extreme in the stifling heat of summer and bitter cold and damp of winter.
A trip up to the roof affords panoramic views of historic Hebron and the surrounding hills, but it also allows one to see numerous machine gun and sniper emplacements on the roofs of surrounding buildings and armored vehicles behind the walls of the army base. Israeli soldiers do their best to keep the CPT members from being on the roof by yelling at them, in English, that they are not allowed up there and will force them down if they don’t leave on their own.
“CPT has been accused (by the Israelis) of helping Hamas (the militant Palestinian organization responsible for many terrorist attacks against Israelis) or even of storing weapons in our apartment,” Kennedy says. “Sometimes soldiers would barge into the apartment to look for weapons.
“Of course our group has nothing to hide and is against any violence on either side, but CPT has visited with people or families who were later found to be militants,” Kennedy admits. In Hebron, Hamas is still active and there is always the potential that one may unknowingly become involved with a member of a militant group.
Kennedy also points out neither she nor CPT is anti-Israel. “There is a state of Israel on the map. Nobody denies this,” Kennedy says. “But Israel needs to redefine itself; they need to say ‘who are we as Israelis.’ Israel is not behaving like a democracy and CPT objects to Israel's behavior, not to the existence of Israel. We are against the policies of the Zionist movement, not the people.”