Saturday, June 28, 2008

Speak out to protect the children

First published: Saturday, June 28, 2008

They come in the middle of the night, some with blackened faces. They prefer the darkness, these men and women who take food and clothing meant for orphans and needy families.

Shortly after midnight on April 30, these Israeli soldiers drove through the streets of Hebron to raid the sewing workshop in a Palestinian girls orphanage. Taken by surprise when my Christian Peacemaker teammates found them there, they would not answer Art's challenge, "Is this the way you fight terror -- stealing clothing and sewing machines from a girls' orphanage?"

"Look at yourselves. Now tell me who the terrorists are." Could Art's words have been ringing in their ears as they discarded their loot at the municipal dump?

On Feb. 26, the Israeli army had ordered the Islamic Charitable Society to close the orphanages and schools it oversees in Hebron, along with the central warehouse and bakeries that serve those facilities. The army claimed there was a connection to Hamas. The ICS staff told us some employees are members of the political party Hamas and others belong to Fatah, but that neither party controls the charitable organization.

"If the army has evidence proving any ICS employees are involved in illegal activities," they added, "arrest those individuals and bring them to trial. Don't make the orphans and students suffer."

Those pleas fell on deaf ears. In March, the army raided the ICS central warehouse and took away school buses, clothing and food.

We walked through that ransacked warehouse -- shelves stripped, doors smashed, broken glass on the floor -- one more instance of the violence faced by people who ask our group to work with them as they attempt to resolve conflicts nonviolently. Christian Peacemaker Teams' commitment to nonviolence and peacemaking evolves from the life and teachings of Jesus. Besides Hebron, we also have teams in the nearby village of At-Tuwani and in Colombia and Iraq.

The army gave the Islamic Charitable Society until April 1 to vacate its buildings. In support of the children, and in keeping with Christian Peacemaker Teams' practice of getting in the way between oppressors and the oppressed, we slept on mats in the boys' and girls' orphanages for several nights at the end of March and start of April. The soldiers did not come.

A few weeks later, they did return in the night -- not to the orphanages but to one of the bakeries. They set fire to the commercial oven, smashed walls and ventilation pipes and drove away into the darkness.

While the army has been making its late night rounds, people in the West Bank and Jerusalem -- men and women, including Christians, Jews and Muslims -- concerned with human rights and the welfare of children have been raising their voices in the light of day. European Union Vice President Luisa Morgantini called the decision to close the ICS schools an "arbitrary and illegal action perpetrated by the Israeli military against the civil population."

Former President Jimmy Carter called for "people of good will to join me on behalf of the orphans and students ... so that 240 children will not lose the place they've come to know as home and 1,700 students will not be thrown out of school."
Rabbi Arik Ascherman of the Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights, forbidden by Israeli law from entering the area of Hebron where a news conference was held, phoned in his message of support. The Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, was one of the first to speak out: "How pathetic is an occupation army that empties out warehouses of food and clothing earmarked for orphans."

In times like these, when Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan Maguire joins the struggle by sleeping in at the girls' orphanage, you and I can also speak out for the children of Hebron. We may not be presidents, vice presidents, rabbis, journalists or Nobel laureates, but our individual voices are critical. We can make ourselves heard. We can contact the Israeli embassy in Washington and ask that the closure orders be rescinded and the ICS compensated for its property. We can phone our representatives in Washington and ask them to bring America's influence to bear on behalf of the orphans and students in Hebron.

Or we can do nothing. The children will never know.

Paul Rehm, who lives in South Westerlo and retired as director of purchasing for Stiefel Laboratories, is a reservist with Christian Peacemaker Teams. He can be contacted by e-mail at

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