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CURRENT ISSUE:  December 12, 2005VOL. 43, NO. 21Oakland, CA

Former hostage and CNN reporter
becomes advocate for Mid-East peace

As four of his colleagues remained as captives of a radical Iraqi group, facing the threat of execution, Jerry Levin of Christian Peacemaker Teams spoke to a local audience of the passion that drives him and others to risk their lives for peace.

“I have a feeling of déjà vu; this is where I came in,” said Levin in regard to the four CPT hostages. He was speaking at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Berkeley last month of his own ordeal in Lebanon 20 years ago.

It was during his year as a hostage that he found his faith in God, and it was this faith and his conviction that violence never works that led him to join CPT. Together with his wife Sis, he has since devoted his life to promoting peace in the Middle East.

“I reasoned my way to an always belief in God through the Gospels and a never belief in violence,” said Levin, who was Middle East Bureau Chief for CNN in Beirut when he was kidnapped in 1984.

Levin works in Hebron, a West Bank city where settlers and Palestinians live in constant tension and heavily armed Israeli soldiers patrol the streets. In the Old City of Hebron, he said, the Palestinian population has dropped from about 10,000 11 years ago to about 1,000 today. The constant harassment from settlers has driven the Palestinians out.

And since 1994, he said, the settler population in the West Bank has doubled from 250,000 to 500,000.

In a PowerPoint presentation Levin, who is Jewish, showed settler harassment in action: trash strewn around Palestinian homes, youths stoning Palestinian houses, olive trees uprooted from orchards, threatening graffiti sprayed on walls.

He showed Israeli government actions that add to the misery of Palestinians: steel gates barring the way into the Old City, roadblocks, and a towering wall snaking through Palestinian territory that the government claims will keep terrorists from attacking Israel.

The abuse of Palestinians, Levin said, has “horrified” hundreds of thousands of Jews in Israel and abroad. Some have come to work with CPT and other peace groups.

Levin noted that none of the Hebron settlers work; they are supported, he said, by donations from “radical” Jews and Christians (who believe that God gave the land solely to the Jews.)

Israeli soldiers are forbidden to touch settlers,” he said, “but they can and do beat up on Palestinians and worse.”

At the same time he is dismayed by Palestinian violence, such as the recent suicide bombing that left six dead in the Israeli coastal town of Netanya.

Levin told of a visit to the village of At-Tuwani outside Hebron, where settlers cut down 100 olive trees, claiming that they were too close to the settlement orchard, although the orchard, he said, was on confiscated land. CPT helped replant with 100 trees donated by the YMCA, but settlers destroyed these one month later, while soldiers watched.

After a second planting, again with help from the YMCA, soldiers took on the job themselves and dug up every one of the new trees. Levin showed the progress of planting and destruction in his PowerPoint display.

Levin, like all members of CPT, is committed to non-violence, and in Hebron his task is to get in the way of conflict and help defuse tension. Although CPT members try to engage in dialogue with settlers and soldiers and to pray for the welfare of all sides, they spend much of their time trying to protect Palestinians.

“It is a frightening way of life for Palestinians,” Levin said. “The settlers interfere violently with Palestinian kids trying to get to school.” CPT members escort these children to school, they intercede for Palestinians detained by soldiers, they stay in homes under attack by settlers, and they try to publicize the abuse inflicted on Palestinians.

“It’s not an easy job trying to discourage or prevent physical violence,” Levin said, “but Sis and I are convinced someone’s got to do it.” It is also difficult to get the truth of the situation out to the public because, he said, “there is a concerted effort to portray the story in one direction.”

The U.S. media, he said, fails to report that mainstream Arab leaders are opposed to terror as a tactic. “You are not supposed to know that,” he said. After a major Arab group recently adopted a statement opposing violence and terrorism, Levin said, “It was not reported in the press. You’re supposed to believe they are all terrorists.”

“I don’t condone violence by Palestinians,” Levin said, “but I do comprehend it.” CPT members, who are committed to peaceful conflict resolution and dialogue, encounter official hostility, he said. “We are detained and arrested and attacked by settlers, who know we are not violent.”

The answer to the tragedy, he said, is to engage in socially responsible investment and disinvestment, socially responsible travel – visiting ancient sites as well as refugee camps and confiscated lands, socially responsible dialogue with groups from all faiths, and socially responsible articulation – taking care, for instance, to name the Israel government, not Israelis, as responsible for the occupation.

His wife Sis also presented a path to peace – working with children and youth through the Bethlehem Violence Peace Education Mission. “I teach,” she said during the event at St. Joseph the Worker. “It’s all I know how to do.”

She “teaches teachers how to teach peace,” at every level, from preschool through college, demonstrating how to train students in conflict transformation, violence prevention and how to become resilient in spite of ongoing trauma.

The group is “very much interfaith,” she said, and they teach that “there are many, many alternatives to violence” and that “conflict is an opportunity for creativity.”

During a PowerPoint presentation she displayed a photo of a young Palestinian boy throwing rocks at an Israeli tank. “We don’t do that any more,” she said, referring to her students. Then she projected the photo of a tank covered in flowers onto the screen, an exercise in transforming violence.

With her Christian conviction – “Jesus didn’t leave us any wiggle room for killing.” – and her experience living in the Middle East, she is profoundly devoted to non-violence. “I teach this to children,” she said, “because I firmly believe they’re going to lead us out of this.”

Palestinian women hold up pictures of kidnapped members of the Christian Peacemakers Teams (CPT) in Iraq during a demonstration in the West bank village of Litwanyah, Dec. 2, calling for their release.
RNS PHOTO/REUTERS/Nayef Hashlamoun

 

A Palestinian woman embraces an olive tree after it was destroyed by Jewish settlers on Nov. 27.
RNS PHOTO/REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini

 

Britain’s Norman Kember (C), who was kidnapped in Baghdad on Nov. 26 and threatened with death, was part of an anti-war demonstration in London on March 19. Colleagues say Kember is a committed Christian and life-long peace campaigner.
RNS PHOTO/REUTERS/Fellowship of Reconciliation


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