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'Aggressive pacifists' put their faith on the firing line

Christian Peacemaker Teams strain to shield Palestinians and cool Israeli tempers

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How do you walk into a war zone and try to make peace? Not in the political, signing-of-treaties sense, but on a human level, day by day?

For some Christian activists from the US and Canada, peacemaking means standing at a checkpoint amid thrown stones and tear gas, trying to prick a soldier's conscience. It means doing simple things at moments of high drama, such as staying at a family's house to allay fears of demolition or walking kids to school during an edgy curfew. It means comforting a terrified woman.

These activists, members of a Chicago-based group called Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), choose to live in a strange universe known as H2, the Israeli-controlled enclave of the West Bank city of Hebron.

Here roughly 30,000 Palestinians endure curfews and other Israeli military restrictions intended to protect around 450 Jewish settlers. The settlers exist in a sort of perpetual Alamo, the Palestinians in an almost ceaseless lockdown. Violence is frequent.

The CPTers, as they call themselves, aren't in it for an easy time. They must constantly balance their commitment to be "aggressive pacifists" against the danger such a life entails.

Apart from unsuccessful efforts to establish a dialogue with the settlers and a week of riding an Israeli bus line that had been struck twice by suicide bombers, the CPT's work focuses on one side. "We're protecting the Palestinians," says CPTer Anne Montgomery, a wrinkled, wiry Catholic nun who has been getting arrested for pacifist causes since the early 1960s.

The activists say they are not against Israel, the settlers in the West Bank, or the Israeli security forces. What they oppose is the occupation of the Palestinian lands Israel seized in the 1967 Arab- Israeli War and the violence that accompanies it.

So when CPTer Pierre Shantz, a young, fiery Canadian who once worked in an auto parts factory, strides out to a Hebron roadblock to watch Israeli soldiers confront a group of stonethrowing Palestinian youths, he cuts right to the occupation.

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