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Thursday, October 14, 2004

Heroism in the Holy Land: Chris Brown beaten for walking children to school

by Alison Weir

San Franciscan Chris Brown was beaten by Israeli settlers with a bat and chains and his head smashed with a rock simply for walking Palestinian children to school.
There are a small number of people around the world who exhibit extraordinary courage. An even smaller number commit repeated acts of heroism. San Francisco resident Chris Brown is one of them.

On Wednesday morning, Brown, with his colleague Kim Lamberty, was on the other side of the world walking children to school. The children were like any other children – except for one thing. They were scared. Not that they would fail a test, not that their teacher would call on them with a difficult question, not that they would lose a schoolyard game. These children were scared that adults would physically try to attack them.

They were right.

It was a bright morning. There were two girls and three boys, and they ranged in age from 6 years old to 11. Chris, 39, and Kim, 44, were there to protect them. The children were Palestinian.

The graffiti across the street from his apartment in Hebron is aimed at Chris Brown, who grew up in apartheid South Africa and has joined the Palestinians in their struggle against apartheid.
Chris and Kim are volunteers with an organization called Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), which provides nonviolent intercession in areas of violence. They serve in the West Bank city of Hebron, where Palestinian civilians are frequently attacked and harassed by Israeli settlers. The presence of such international witnesses often reduces this violence.

Children in a small village outside of Hebron, Tuba, attend school in the neighboring village of Tuwani. The problem is, Israeli settlements lie between Tuwani and Tuba. The route around these settlements is over 6 miles – too long for small to children to trek twice a day. There is an alternative route between settlements that reduces the journey to a little over a mile. Villagers asked CPT to accompany the children on this shorter route.

To get to their school in Hebron, children must pass Israeli soldiers.
Last Wednesday, Chris and Kim picked the children up from their village at 6:30, and all began walking to school. Part of the way there, settlements on either side, Kim and two of the children had gotten a little ahead and were just turning a bend in the road, when Chris saw them suddenly stop and begin running back, screaming.

Then he saw why.

“I saw men with black masks on, dressed all in black, wielding chains, one carrying a bat, most of them wearing black.” As the five men rushed at them, Chris called out, “Please don’t hurt the children, please don’t hurt the children.”

The men smashed a rock to his head, knocking him to the ground, and began beating and kicking him with steel-toed boots. The attackers tried, unsuccessfully, to break his left wrist and dislocate his shoulder.

“I said, ‘Why are you doing this? All we’re doing is walking children to school – we’re nonviolent,” Chris told them. “We’re Americans.” An attacker laughed, and Chris heard a man say, in a heavy Israeli accent, “They’re Americans.”

Kim, meanwhile, lay face down, not moving as the men kicked and beat her. She says much of the attack is a blur – “It’s almost like for a moment you leave reality … I just remember thinking, ‘If I just lie here like I’m unconscious, maybe they’ll leave me alone.’”

Finally, the men sauntered away, stealing Kim’s waist-pack containing her money, passport and cell phone. Unable to walk, she crawled over to Chris, who still had his phone and was able to call for help.

Upon receiving Chris’s call, two CPT members rushed over immediately, despite fear that the attackers might still be nearby. They called for an ambulance on the way, and arrived to find Chris and Kim bleeding and in enormous pain.

Twenty-five minutes later, Israeli officials, who, according to international law, are responsible for the safety of all civilians under their occupation, finally arrived, having taken half an hour to cover the 10-minute distance. The officials took statements, provided an ambulance to transport Chris and Kim to an Israeli hospital, but made no effort to find their assailants.

At the hospital, Kim was found to have a broken arm, a severely injured knee, and bruises across her head and body. It is still difficult for her to move. Chris has a punctured lung and broken ribs and is similarly covered with cuts and body-wide contusions. He is still in the hospital. The children, who were able to flee immediately, are largely unhurt, physically.

Who committed this vicious assault? Why? What kind of people try to prevent small children from going to school?

It is unlikely that non-Israeli Americans will ever learn the names of the attackers, since Israel rarely shares this kind of information with its “ally.” We do know, however, the type of people who attacked Chris, Kim and the children. And we do know why.

To answer this, it’s necessary to first take a lightning trip through Israel’s strange history. The nation of Israel was created only a little over 50 years ago, and its purpose was to be “Jewish state.” While people throughout the world were profoundly sympathetic to this goal, there was one major problem: two-thirds of the inhabitants were Palestinian Christians and Muslims.

As a result, Israel’s creation entailed the forcible expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians. Many of these people ended up in the West Bank and Gaza.

In 1967, the situation worsened, when Israel expanded its borders in the Six-Day War, capturing the West Bank and Gaza. Immediately, the Israeli government began confiscating Palestinian land in these newly occupied areas to build Jewish-only settlements.

As might be expected, such actions are illegal – both because a government cannot just take other people’s land, and also because the acquisition of territory by conquest has been deemed illegal by the international community. The United States cannot decide – simply because we have the military might - to kick Canadian farmers off rich farmland and give the farmers’ land to Americans – and then say that this is American land for all eternity. Yet, this is what Israel is doing to Palestinians.

Many Israelis oppose these settlements, considering them illegal, immoral and bad for Israel. Many of those who go to live in them are economically disadvantaged Israelis simply availing themselves of subsidized homes.

A significant portion of these settlers, however, are a far different story, and these are the settlers that the villagers around Hebron, in particular, are facing. This group is made up of religious fanatics who believe that only Jews have the right to live in “Eretz Israel.” They move onto Palestinian land, they say openly, to “redeem” it and to “cleanse” it of Christians and Muslims. These settlers are notorious in Israel for their extremism, violence and deeply racist religious beliefs.

For Palestinians around Hebron, it is like living next to KKK members who can kill you with impunity. Murders of Palestinians are rarely prosecuted, and when they are, little results. For example, three years ago, when a settler was found guilty of killing an 14-year-old boy by breaking his neck, the punishment meted out was a fine and six months community service.

“It’s just like South Africa,” Chris Brown says, “only worse.” South Africa, many point out, didn’t use F-16s against its Bantustans.

Brown should know, having spent the first eight years of his life under South African apartheid, and then returning to fight apartheid as an adult, being imprisoned, largely in solitary confinement, for a year and a half.

Brown went to Palestine to oppose such a system and to reduce the violence costing so many lives – both Israeli and Palestinian. From the very beginning of the current uprising, Palestinians called for an international presence that would reduce the violence. While the U.S. government, at Israel’s behest, blocked United Nations efforts to provide this, nonviolent activists from around the world, including Israel, have tried to fill this need.

Long before the attack on him, Brown knew what he was getting into. Israeli forces and settlers are not gentle in their treatment of peace activists. In June 2001, Israeli peace activist Neta Golan joined Palestinian villagers in a nonviolent march. An Israeli soldier twisted her arm until it snapped. In March 2003, Rachel Corrie, 23, participated in a tiny sit-in to prevent a Palestinian home from being demolished. An Israeli military bulldozer two stories high crushed her to death. Two weeks later, Tom Hurndall, 21, tried to help Palestinian children away from Israeli gunfire. An Israeli sniper shot him in the head.

Yet the need for the world to do something has continued to grow. While Americans are well informed about the tragic deaths of Israeli children, very few realize that approximately six times more Palestinian children have been killed, and that their deaths occurred first.

For three and a half months, Palestinian children were being killed – often by gunfire to the head – and the world’s governments did nothing. If this had been stopped, it is quite likely that not a single Israeli child would have died.

While Chris’s knowledge of this situation compelled him to do something about it, most Americans have little awareness of these facts, because so little of all this is reported in the American media.

The attack on Chris, Kim and the children is a case in point. While the BBC, Agence France Presse, Israeli newspapers and a wide variety of other international media reported this attack on American citizens immediately, the Associated Press, inexplicably, sent out no report on it for a day and a half – and this only after numerous people had called complaining.

A six-month study of the San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage of children’s deaths reveals a similar pattern of omission. Analysis of their headline stories found that the paper had reported prominently on Israeli children’s deaths at a rate 30 times greater than Palestinian ones. While 150 percent of Israeli children’s deaths had resulted in headline coverage - some deaths generated multiple stories - only 5 percent of Palestinian children’s deaths received parallel coverage.

Chris feels that Americans have an intimate connection to this carnage, because it is American tax money to Israel that is fueling the violence. While most Americans are unaware of this connection – again, studies show that news media rarely report it – the fact is that U.S. taxpayers give Israel over $10 million per day, far more than to any other nation on earth. This is more money than that allotted to all of Sub-Saharan Africa. Israel’s population is approximately the size of the greater Bay Area.

Meanwhile, Chris Brown recovers in a hospital bed in Israel. Numerous Israeli friends come to visit, outraged at the actions of their government, and grieving with him at the escalating violence. His Palestinian friends are not allowed into the area, but they send their support, prayers and thanks. And wait for the next assault.

In Gaza in the past week, there has been massive carnage. Dozens of Palestinian men, women and children have been killed, hundreds injured. By the time this piece is printed, it is possible some innocent Israeli lives will be lost as well. Over 140 Palestinians were killed before the first suicide bombing; now the violence seesaws back and forth, with the Palestinian death rate approximately three times greater than the Israelis. All these deaths, Chris feels, are tragic.

Americans, Chris points out, have a responsibility to work to bring this to a stop. He asks people back in San Francisco to “put pressure on (Congresswoman) Nancy Pelosi, (Sen.) Barbara Boxer and (Sen.) Dianne Feinstein to demand that Israel remove the settlements.” He points out that all three have “a notorious record of always voting for everything that Israel wants. This is unacceptable.” All three receive massive pro-Israel PAC funding. Chris believes that enabling the Israeli government to continue actions that result in escalating violence, “is not being a friend to Israel.”

Regarding the attack, Brown says that he wants “to hear statements from the floor of the House and the Senate that this kind of thuggery is not accepted in any democratic society.”

“The settlement that the attackers came from, Ma’on, isn’t even supposed to be there,” Chris points out. “It was supposed to be dismantled,” according to a plan presented to the U.S. months ago.

Chris says that as soon as he’s recovered, he’ll return to Hebron, to escort Palestinian children to school. He hopes to be back on the job by the end of the month. Asked whether he worries that next time he may be killed, he thinks it over and then replies: “Yeah, probably one day they’ll succeed, if I keep going on the path that I will go.” He explains that he’s “not looking for martyrdom” and insists that he’ll take “as many precautions as possible” while he’s in Palestine, but finally concludes, “If I have to die to see this country free, I’ll do it …

“I like to quote Archbishop Oscar Romero,” Chris says: “‘If I die, my spirit will rise up in the lives of the other people, and they’ll keep going on.’”

Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew, www.ifamericansknew.org. Email her at alisonweir@yahoo.com.

School journey blocked

Hebron, West Bank - Monday morning members of the Christian Peacemaker Team again escorted children from Tuba to their school in Tuwani in the South Hebron hills. They attempted to follow the same path, past the Ma’on settlement, as Chris Brown and Kim Lamberty had taken when they were attacked and badly injured last Wednesday, Sept. 29.

Despite a military permit confirming the children’s right to pass, the army and the settler security police blocked their path, declaring it to be a Closed Military Zone. After long negotiations, the Israeli police finally allowed the children to pass with a police escort but without their CPT accompaniers.

On their journey home, the children, with their CPT escort, were forced to take a 10-km detour along ill-defined sheep tracks.

The actions of the military have made it clear that they are responding more to the wishes of the settlers than to the needs of the school children. Indeed the lieutenant in command said outright, “Ten km is not a long way to school. I went further than that. They can take a tractor like everyone else. These people are used to it.”


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