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Interview: Hannah Griffiths, human-rights monitor

23 October 2015

‘The worst thing is watching human-rights violations happen before your eyes’

I’m living in the West Bank city of Hebron in Occupied Palestine, as part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). I’m with 29 colleagues from 25 other countries.

 

The EAPPI was established in 2002 at the request of the Churches in Jerusalem. Ecumenical Accompaniers — EAs — travel with Palestinian children to school or adults to work each day because they may face harassment from Israeli soldiers and settlers. EAs also show solidarity with both Israeli and Palestinian groups working for a just peace and an end to the Israeli occupation.

 

We had two weeks of training in the UK, led by our sending organisation, Quaker Peace and Social Witness. There’s a different sending denomination or organisation in each of the 25 countries involved. We all continued our training on the history of the conflict and principles of non-violence with each other in Jerusalem. We’re trained to use the principles of humanitarian law to judge what is fair or not.

 

The situation here in Hebron is extremely complex. As in East Jerusalem, Israeli settlers — who live in settlements which are illegal under international law — live very close to Palestinians. In this sense, Hebron is a microcosm of the entire conflict.

 

I’ve been most surprised by how quickly I became normalised to the occupation here. For example, each day we’re standing watching and protecting children walking to school in the Israeli-controlled area of Hebron. Here, school bags are regularly checked by soldiers, and people sometimes shout abusive language at the children. It’s important to remember the absurdity of this situation, even if the children find it normal.

 

The most difficult thing is watching human-rights violations happen in front of your eyes. For example, the other day, Palestinian builders were prevented from doing their work as they were harassed by Israeli settlers. Children are regularly detained for minor offences, with no family members present. In these cases, it’s very difficult to keep in mind the Quaker message that there is something of God in everyone.

 

Recent tensions in Hebron and across the West Bank have led to daily clashes. Palestinians throw stones, and Israeli soldiers respond by firing tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber-coated steel bullets. As EAs, we avoid such situations, and always work in pairs for safety.

 

As internationals, we have greater freedom of movement than local Palestinians. It can help to keep us out of danger, but also provides a continual sense of guilt.

 

The strongest message to me from my Christian faith is that the world that God wants us to build is one based on justice for all people. That’s inspired me in my career in international development, and also in my role with the EAPPI.

 

I’ll be in Hebron for three months; but I’ll continue my role upon my return through advocacy activities. I’ll be giving talks to churches and other community groups about the people I’ve met, and lobbying politicians to change the reality of the situation. I fear that it will be difficult to return to the commercialised celebration of Christmas where we sing carols such as “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie” when my memory of Bethlehem will be of the awful effects of it being under military occupation.

 

I will be searching for a job next. I’d like to continue working in the international development sector, to contribute to the creation of a better world through my professional role.

 

I grew up in a small village in rural Northamptonshire with my parents and older sister. After university, I moved to the big smoke of London, which was worlds apart from my home village. Although, when I am in the UK, I live in the city, I regularly escape to the countryside for fresh air and open spaces. That’s something that I am also planning to do while here in Hebron.

 

I’m happiest when I have the freedom to choose to do what I want, with friends or family, such as going for walks, playing music, or team-sport games. I’ve learnt that the value of such freedom can’t be overestimated.

 

I love the sound of birdsong at whatever time of day. It shows that there’s natural life out there . . . which is reassuring in times when we may be questioning the role of humanity. We’re merely temporary guardians or stewards of this world.

 

The continual abuse of power by the Israeli occupation is what is making me angry — particularly that Israeli settlers live under civilian law, yet Palestinians are under military law, which gives them fewer rights, such as access to legal advice when detained or arrested. This is a daily occurrence in Hebron, where children are detained on an almost daily basis without a family member or a lawyer present.

 

I think every person that speaks to us influences us, in ways we may not be able to recognise at that moment. A single remark by someone passing you on the street can make you change or question an assumption or belief. A recent example is when a Palestinian man gave all five EAs freshly made falafel simply for saying “Good morning” to him in Arabic. Such simple acts remind me of belief in the goodness of humanity even in such difficult circumstances and times.

 

I must admit that I rarely sit down to pray in the traditional sense. I often think and pray in a contemplative manner when walking alone. In addition to the selfish prayers that everyone must admit to saying, the majority of my prayers ask God for strength for people who are involved in the struggle for justice and peace locally and internationally.

 

I’d have loved to have the opportunity to meet Mahatma Gandhi, to ask how he kept psychologically strong during his numerous hunger strikes and other non-violent demonstrative acts that he led. If I could choose to be locked in a church with anyone, it would be him.

 

Hannah Griffiths was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

 

www.eappi.org 

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