Back from the Mideast, a peacemaker talks of hope

June 09, 1994|By Traci A. Johnson | Traci A. Johnson,Sun Staff Writer

Dale Aukerman did not consider himself a wise man. As he traveled in the Middle East, the guest of Palestinian families from Jericho to Bethlehem, he was simply a Christian hoping to help find a way to bring peace to a divided Israel.

Mr. Aukerman was part of a nine-member Christian Peacemaker Team [CPT] visiting areas of the West Bank and Gaza from May 11 until May 23.

"We went in with a concern for peace and justice for the Palestinians but with an equal concern for the health of the Israelis," said Mr. Aukerman. "It is our earnest hope that a measure of peace, a great measure of peace, can come to this region."

Participants of the CPT project, sponsored by the Mennonite Church, the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Church of the Brethren congregations of Canada and the United States, talked with Palestinians and Israelis to learn how the peace process affects them.

Mr. Aukerman, 63, is a former pastor of several Brethren congregations and an author. He said the team met with the people on both sides of the conflict, offering hope to all and denying prayers to none.

"When people on both sides are killed, you have the people close to them who are incredibly bereaved, upset," Mr. Aukerman said, sipping tea in the living room of his log cabin home in Union Bridge.

"It is important that people can grieve and try to feel for the people on the other side," Mr. Aukerman said. "When one loses a loved one, we can all sympathize with one another.

"And then there is a sense of sadness that is felt by us [the CPT], and we work with and pray for the families, and bridge the gap."

The gap between the Israeli and Palestinian factions seems more like a chasm, though the two groups appear to be moving toward a peace agreement, with the Palestine Liberation Organization now controlling the Gaza Strip and a portion of the West Bank.

Mr. Aukerman recalls the day Israeli troops left Jericho.

"It was the first day of the celebration. There was a sense that this was a new day because they felt free. It was sort of, 'We don't have the occupation troops on our backs,' " he said. "In Gaza, there was some sort of relief, too, that there were no troops around."

But the CPT knew the conflict was far from over.

Everyday scenes still included fearful young Israeli settlers walking through the streets with their fingers poised on the trigger of semiautomatic weapons.

Palestinians in the area kept out of the way.

The Christian Peacemaker Team's itinerary included meeting with the mayors of Hebron and Ma'ale Adumin, an Israeli settlement; and participating in a vigil held by the Women in Black, an Israeli peace group opposed to the occupation of the West Bank. Its members have for the past few years met every Friday at noon to hold a two-hour vigil in Jerusalem.

The team also held a vigil in the Ibrahim Mosque in Hebron where, on Feb. 25, a New York doctor-turned Israeli settler fatally shot 46 of the 800 Palestinians who were kneeling in morning Ramadan prayers.

Mr. Aukerman said they visited the family of Marwan Abu Nejm'h, who was killed in the mosque massacre, and talked with the man's 9-year-old son Musab, who was worshiping with his father that day.

"The boy said he heard something that sounded like an explosion," Mr. Aukerman said, pointing to the dead man's picture on a poster he had brought back from the Middle East. "And then the soldiers were firing on people as they tried to get out of the exits."

Theirs was an acute loss, Mr. Aukerman said, but there were other lives to be honored, families to be prayed for -- victims of retaliation: eight people killed (several 14 to 16 years old) and 40 wounded when a car packed with explosives blew up beside a bus picking up students in Afula in northern Israel on April 6; six Israelis killed and 28 wounded in the bombing of a bus in Hadera on April 13.

"We were remembering the victims of the massacre in the mosque and prayed for their families. But we also were remembering those who were killed in the bombing of the bus in Hadera shortly after the massacre and their families," Mr. Aukerman said quietly.

"Tragedies on both sides."

The peace talks represent a glimmer of hope for the future of Israel, Mr. Aukerman said. But he sees another.

"The thing that is really hopeful is when people see the human nature rather than dehumanizing one another.

"Even the soldiers would show their better side of human nature. See here, in this picture?" Mr. Aukerman pointed to a photo taken by a Swedish photographer on the trip.

A Palestinian man pushing a cart is surrounded by Israeli soldiers. But one soldier is writing, his rifle slung over his shoulder, as the Palestinian man smiles beside him.

"What happened was the man with the cart asked the photographer to send him a copy of this photograph, but the Palestinian man could not write the address in Roman [Western] script," Mr. Aukerman said. "The soldier could, so he wrote down the man's address for him to give to the photographer."

Mr. Aukerman smiled and laid the picture among the papers and the poster on his coffee table.

"One of the most important steps that the people must take is to rediscover their humanity," he said.

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