Am I my brother’s keeper?

Many of you will not heard of “Operation Brother’s Keeper”, and I wish I had not. The phrase comes from the story in the Bible in which Cain kills his brother out of envy. When God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain replies evasively, “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The military operation by this name was beginning early Friday in the West Bank, and perhaps far earlier than that. Just a few days prior to Friday, we had visited a small, rural community that had experienced a night raid by several hundred soldiers. The community reported that this was not the first time recently that they had experienced such a raid, complete with sound bombs, home invasions, property destruction and arrests. These are exactly the sorts of tactics that are now being used throughout the West Bank in all major cities in a huge operation, complete with city closures.

The official story is that the operation is reacting to the reported kidnapping of three yeshiva students, the military operation ostensibly exists to find these three students and bring them safely home. The operation as it is being carried out, however, is creating a collective punishment across the West Bank affecting every civilian.

Friday noon, June 13, I was on my way back with a UN officer from a visit to an impoverished community. As we returned to Hebron, we saw that at the entrance to the city, soldiers were searching all cars entering and leaving the city. As we were flagged through, wondering what was going on, I was not especially concerned. The presence of military checkpoints and searches, signs of the ever-present occupation, is unfortunately common in the West Bank. We returned to my quiet neighborhood of Taffuh, on the outskirts of the city of Hebron. I had become fond of Taffuh, a pleasant community with a little grocery below the apartment whose owners were always willing to try to communicate with the ignorant American who spoke so little Arabic. I was fond of my local contact and his wife, who had welcomed me into their midst, and whose children were always so beautiful, funny, and enjoyable to be around.

Afternoon was quiet as I packed for the airport, filled with a mix of emotions. I had been living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem for a month, visiting old friends and making new ones, and taking the temperature of the region. People were tremendously welcoming as always, but to a one, they reported how things had changed for the worse since I had last been in the area in 2011, with more land taken, more threats, more losses. In the face of all this, many had become saddened, but there was also a tremendous and vital determination to work for a more abundant life even in the midst of the many restrictions to which the people are subjected on a daily basis.

On that Friday, I was eager to get home to my family, but already missing the people I was saying goodbye to, especially in Bethlehem, Hebron, and the South Hebron area. Leaving the city in a taxi was no particular problem. I quickly forgot about the soldiers at the entrances to the city, blissfully unaware of what was about to occur.

The airport was lightly staffed late in the evening and passage through was polite, full of “Shabbat Shalom” and “Todah”, polite greetings that belied the activities on the ground where I had so recently lived. For while I was boarding the plane, eating my meal, going to sleep as we flew off to the West, hundreds of heavily armed soldiers had begun to converge on the city of Hebron. By the next day, the Taffuh neighborhood, where I had been living, was a combat zone full of soldiers, who were violently breaking into civilian homes, standing armed on rooftops in a show of force, making arrests, and generally, terrorizing the local population. As I landed and began to read postings on social media, I began to see the incredible suffering that was beginning to take place. It was shocking and heartrending.

Christian Peacemaker Teams made a video of exactly the kind of terror I am talking about. It is a video of a home invasion of a family I am familiar with. Please take a look. Instead of knocking on the door, the soldiers blew open the door with explosives, sending shrapnel through the house, seriously injuring a child. 

Mothers of Israel: Be brokenhearted for this child whose welfare has been treated so callously.  Feel for him and his parents who suffer his wounds in their hearts.

Be brokenhearted for your sons and daughters, soldiers whose consciences are seared by having to carry out such horrible orders, who have to break into such homes with stony faces while listening to the screams of children covered with broken glass and shards of metal.

Do they think of the hearing loss of children, caused by the sound bombs? Do they have nightmares about the way they prevented the access of ambulances? How do they make sense of the command to love the neighbor as oneself, when they are given such orders as these?

In the video, these people – men, women, children, infants – are suffering collective punishment by a foreign government’s army.  Perhaps we forget, those of us who are comfortable here, because we do not know what occupation means. This is what occupation means, and to be powerless in the face of this happening over and over and over again.

Am I my brother’s keeper? We might well ask, “Who is my brother?” There are a LOT of victims here. Israel, the yeshiva students who have been kidnapped are your sons and brothers – and mine. No matter that I do not know them; I am praying for their safe return, and I recognize the necessity of working for their freedom. But the whole civilian population of the West Bank are also our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and friends. And they deserve to be treated with the respect and the rights due to any human being. To the extent that any of us deny the humanity of the people who live alongside us, we miss the point of being our brother’s keeper, entirely.

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