At 7:30 a.m. each school day, a few Christians from various parts of the world stand near a military checkpoint in Hebron, offering schoolgirls smiling facesand protection as they pass a daunting obstacle course of checkpoints, soldiers, settlers, and the occasional stoning and harassment. The students, ages 6 to 16, are headed for Cordoba Girls School, located inside Area H2, the area of Hebron under Israeli military control. The volunteers watching over them are from the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).
In 2001, church leaders from Israel and Palestine asked the World Council of Churches to provide "more than statements" about their precarious and all too often violent situation. The "more" became the accompaniment program, which allows Christians from around the world to come together with the people of Palestine and Israel in their daily life and work.
Unlike other peace groups working in the area, EAPPI draws participants from a wide range of churches and countriesnot just the United States, but nine other countries: New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Canada, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. And in June, the first four "accompaniers" arrived from South Africa, fresh from intensive nonviolence training both at home and in Jerusalem.
As the people of Israel and Palestine continue their long struggle for peace, the South African accompaniers will bring to the Middle East their experiences and their hope for a better world. As Father Luke Pato, a South African Anglican canon, recently told prospective volunteers, "It is too easy for us to forget the dark and terrible days of our own struggle, but the world has not forgotten, and our mere presence [in Israel and Palestine] stands as a sign of hope to others." Volunteering in Palestine, he said, is "a great gift we can offer to the global community."
Their participation is particularly meaningful because the accompaniment program is modeled after the Ecumenical Monitoring Program in South Africa, a movement of faith-based solidarity during the violent years of 1990 through 1994, the critical final phase of the transition from apartheid to democracy. At that time, almost 450 volunteers from churches all over the world shared the fears and excitement of the people and served as witnesses to violent situations, the process of negotiations, and electoral proceedings. EAPPIs eventual goal is to draw from as many countries as its South African predecessor, which attracted volunteers from countries ranging from Brazil and Nicaragua to Japan and India.
"They were there for us and it is important to be here for them now," said Rev. Trevor Sibande, a South African accompanier in Palestine. Sibande, who was a student during the time of the monitoring program in his country, says that it "really opened our eyes and encouraged us to stand up for what we believe. We wouldnt have survived without international support." At home in South Africa, friends, family, and churches are burning candles and praying for the safety of Trevor and the others in the program.
The mission of the program is to accompany Palestinians and Israelis in their nonviolent actionsto offer, through "presence and witness...solidarity to those who are suffering as well as an international watchdog presence to deter the use of violence," according to Father Pato. Participants in the program monitor and report violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, support acts of nonviolent resistance alongside local Christian and Muslim Palestinians and Israeli peace activists, and engage in public policy advocacy.
The accompaniers are in the region at the invitation of its churches, and orientation and learning from local church members and peace groups is critical to the program, says Anne-Marie Vuignier, the program associate working from the WCC in Geneva. Participants learn about the history of the area, including that of its churches, and are instructed how to report human rights violations. Perhaps most critical is the training in nonviolence, which includes role plays about how to react peacefully to the situations participants will face, such as crossing checkpoints and escorting ambulances and health-care workers. Also important to the orientation are personal interactions, including a meeting with the Parents Circle, which includes both Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost family members due to the conflict.
The program works closely with other solidarity and peace groups, especially Christian Peacemaker Teams, to decide which locations most need an international presence. Program volunteers currently work in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Jayyous, Yanoun, Sawahreh, and Hebron. In many situations, just being there is enough to make a difference.
In Yanoun, a village of Palestinians completely surrounded by Israeli settlers, the presence of internationals is the only thing allowing the Palestinians to stay in their homes safely. Accompaniers there help with olive harvests and shepherding and are often invited to villagers homes for tea. Going away for a weekend is not an option, according to Vuignier; there have been several cases where the coming and going of internationals has provoked harsh punishment on the locals by the settlers. A villager recently summed up the importance of EAPPIs presence in Yanoun: "If you leave in the morning, we leave in the afternoon."
Some participants, including Ilse from Switzerland and Soeren from Denmark, work with the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, a group that provides health care to the villages around the West Bank and Gaza. The group also sends ambulances to planned demonstrations in case of violent clashes, helping people wounded by tear gas and the rubber bullets used by the Israeli Defense Force.
Vital to the work of the accompaniers is the job of raising awareness about the realities of Palestine and Israel after returning to their home countries. The program has created a presentation with photos of the realities on both sides of the wall and in various occupied territories. The returning participants speak to church congregations, peace groups, and universities and offer stories to the media, in their home countries and around the world. Such international solidarity encourages and strengthens Israeli peace groups, whose actions are often criticized or ignored in their own society.
Telling their stories is important inside Israel too, said Staale Langoergen, a participant from Norway. "Most Israelis are surprised and do not understand what is happening in the occupied territories," said Langoergen. "It is important for us to share the realities." He tells them about the difficulties of crossing checkpoints, the violent attacks on civilian Palestinians, and how the wall is dividing communities. Responses to these presentations run the gamut from disbelief and condemnation to genuine concern and requests for more information.
Through the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program, the people of Israel and Palestine have a daily representation of their brothers and sisters in solidarity around the world. For the churches in Israel and Palestine, this sign of friendship and solidarity provides support and encouragement.
For the Jewish and Muslim people of the region, the program participants reveal a different face of Christianity, the nonviolent actions that Jesus taught, and the hope for peace. As Jean Zaru, who works with the peace group Sabeel and is presiding clerk of Ramallahs Quaker community, recently put it, "When asked about what gives me hope, I mention the EAPPI."
Rachel Medema was an intern at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland, researching current programs of Christian service, development, and the struggle for justice, when this article appeared. Visit the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program online at www.eappi.org.