Running to a nearby Palestinian village under attack by Israeli settlers, Twilla Welch didn’t hesitate to physically break through the line of soldiers blocking her way.
“I remember all I was thinking as I ran past the soldier who was two feet away from me with his big gun is that I have to get to that village,” said Welch, who along with husband Mark recently returned from a three-week peace mission to West Bank with the Christian Peacemakers Team. “That’s when it occurred to me that I was not afraid, I was not afraid.
“We had a responsibility to try to keep the people safe because that’s what we’re there to do.”
After safely getting past the soldiers she, her husband and two other CPT members learned the attackers had doubled back and were attacking the livestock, a critical component of survival in the region.
By then a number of Palestinians began picking up stones and yelling ‘Allāhu Akba’ (God is Great) and began heading towards the line of soldiers.
“That’s when I started to openly sob because I thought I was going to be a witness to a blood bath,” said Twilla. “That’s when all hell broke loose, tear gas bombs were going off just car lengths away and at first I was shocked by the sound because I didn’t know what kind of bomb it was, but we quickly saw that everybody remained standing but one man who collapsed.”
The Penticton couple and a paramedic attempted to go to the fallen man’s aid but we’re blocked and could only stand and watch while waiting for an ambulance that arrived 45 minutes later. They never learned the victim’s fate.
While they did have high-powered weapons pointed at them, they were never physically attacked.
“I was just really hoping that these young boys wouldn’t get jumpy or nervous,” said Twilla. “I don’t think they would want to shoot us deliberately but you never know if they get frightened. That was not a comfortable situation for me, but still we stood there and did what we had to do.”
Mark vividly recalled the incredible feeling of oppression and pending violence that lasted throughout the trip.
“It was almost physical in nature and it weighs on you very heavily,” said the head of the in-patient psychiatric unit at Penticton Regional Hospital. “For a lot of children — we’re talking about five and six year olds — who have to go through military checkpoints to get to the schools everyday.
“They’re liable to have their school bags searched by soldiers carrying machine guns. Education, health care, these are things that are completely curtailed by the occupation and that was something that we really had to be there to experience.”
He noted it was hard to guess the impact on those children.
“Your guess is as good as mine, but in some way they would be very severely affected in terms of their social growth and their ability to trust,” he said, adding a staggering percentage of kids had witnessed some form of violence against a family member.
“I think that sort of day-to-day, minute-to-minute grind is a constant reminder that you’re under somebody else’s thumb,” said Twilla. “It was heart-breaking really, really heartbreaking. “It’s shocking and I don’t think anybody who experienced what we did could not be moved or changed in some way, as well as angry and hurt and concerned for the future.”
However, what surprised them even more was the graciousness of the Palestinian people in spite of the oppression and their resolve to maybe one day live again in peace with their neighbours.
Also their adaptability. Twilla remembered watching from her apartment window as an elderly woman carrying a small child and groceries could only access her home by a two-storey ladder from the rear of the building because her house — its front door welded shut — fronted on a street she was not allowed to use.
Prior to going on the journey, Twilla did not have any delusions about solving all the problems but did have the expectation of at least making a small difference.
She wasn’t disappointed. That time came while she was standing face to face with a young, armed soldier whose his eye she happened to catch despite his best efforts.
“He had these beautiful green eyes and I said to him it’s sad for everyone and he said: ‘Is it sad for me?’ and I said: ‘yes it’s sad for you, it’s sad for everyone,’” she recalled. “And there was no denying the tension that left his body, his eyes softened and his demeanor changed.
“So I looked at this young man and he said: ‘Todah’ which is thank you in Hebrew and I said thank you in English. We’re not going to solve the world’s problems but that young soldier was changed, I was changed, that was my moment.”
Mark and Twilla agreed the mission was worthwhile and neither would have to think twice about returning to continue the work.
“How can these things ever leave you alone” said Twilla. “It’s not possible to not want to go back and in some small way help people you care about.
“I want Israel to be a success but a success in a way that’s a humane example of how we are intended to treat one another — that is what God has in mind.”