COMER, Ga. - Brad Smith, a resident of Madison County, has just returned from a peacemaking trip to the West Bank, the site of heated conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Mr. Smith, who lives and works at Jubilee Partners, a Christian organization that helps assimilate refugees from war-torn lands into American society, went to the Middle East for two weeks as part of a 15-member emergency delegation of Christian Peacemaker Teams. The organization seeks to reduce violence by "getting in the way" and is supported by Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Church Canada, Church of the Brethren and Friends United Meeting.
Mr. Smith returned home April 29. Eight Jubilee Partners representatives plan to leave for the Middle East on Tuesday to build a Habitat for Humanity house in a Jordanian village.
A small Christian Peacemaker Teams crew has been stationed in the West Bank for years, but heightened fighting in April prompted the organization to ask for more volunteers to increase the group's visible presence.
"The idea is to be a nonviolent presence in a situation where there's conflict," Mr. Smith explained. "It's kind of like being in a schoolyard fight. If you can get between them you can stop the fight, or at least de-escalate it."
Mr. Smith joined people from across the United States and Europe on the trip. He learned of the opportunity at a Jubilee Partners meeting less than a week before the group was scheduled to leave.
"My first thought was, 'Who can do that?' We just sort of looked at each other and shrugged," he said.
After his wife asked him to consider going, Mr. Smith decided to make himself available for the trip. He has participated in similar visits to Central America, Mexico and Cuba.
NOTHING PREPARED HIM for what he encountered when he arrived in the West Bank. He was torn between awe at the holy place and shock at the conditions.
"In the first week, I was in Jerusalem," he said. "One of the first impressions was just a special feeling of being in the Holy City. There was also the overwhelming and dominating nature of the control system that Israel has in place. It almost permeates every aspect of life for the Palestinians."
Mr. Smith said he saw Israeli soldiers and police everywhere his group went. They passed through many security checkpoints and saw buildings, homes and cars damaged by gunfire. Shell casings littered streets in Bethlehem, he said.
Mr. Smith said he never felt threatened on the trip because the group arrived after the fiercest fighting.
The group spent a week trying to take food to Bethlehem and trying to visit the city of Ramallah, where Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was confined to his compound by the Israeli military. The group traveled by taxi to a village close to Ramallah and was told by residents that the embroiled city was at least an hour's walk away.
"We didn't want to go near the compound. We wanted to see what had happened and to see if anyone needed help," Mr. Smith said.
The group never entered Ramallah. Every time they tried, they were turned away by Israeli soldiers or warned off by local residents.
In Bethlehem, the group tried to take food to Manger Square, where the Church of the Nativity has been the site of a standoff since April 2. The group couldn't get to Manger Square, but members did pass out food to Palestinian families who had been unable to shop for groceries because a strictly enforced curfew prevented them from leaving their homes.
"Daily life was essentially not possible because of the curfews," Mr. Smith said.
AFTER SPENDING TIME in the cities, Mr. Smith's group traveled to a remote cave village south of Hebron, another West Bank city. Members took an hour-long ride in a wagon towed by a tractor to get to the village, Mr. Smith said.
The group helped Arab families in the village harvest wheat and barley.
The tiny village has no school or telephones. Residents use cellular phones because they are far from any land lines. One electric generator provides enough juice to power single light bulbs in the cave dwellings.
"I felt like National Geographic ought to be there," Mr. Smith said. He said the villagers' hospitality impressed the group. While there, they shared a communal feast.
"They don't sit in chairs, and they don't use tables. The food comes out on one big platter," he said. "I'm sitting in a cave in the hills of Palestine eating with this Arab family. It was an amazing experience."
The trip was an eye-opening journey, allowing Mr. Smith and other members of the group to see both sides of the deep-rooted conflict. They saw the Palestinians' struggles and saw how the Israelis were affected by a rash of suicide bombings.
"An experience like this you don't enjoy, but I think it was a good trip," he said. "There were things we did I feel were worthwhile. It's very sad to see, experience and hear about the pain and the loss on both sides."