“Have I seen awful things? Completely.” Only a few weeks ago, Steve Hynd was observing a protest near Jayyus – a small village in the West Bank, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – when the army fired tear gas canisters directly at the crowd as they were running away. One of the three inch-long steel canisters struck a protestor – standing a few feet away from him – in the neck.
For Hynd, the words ‘police tactics’ are a complete misnomer. “Why would you have soldiers stewarding a protest?” He says such tactics constitute not so much a policing strategy as “an aggressive attack on protest”. Since then, he’s stopped using the term Israeli Defence Force (IDF) – the military wing of the country’s security forces. The phrase, he says, suggests the force is there for defensive purposes, “but I’ve seen it overwhelmingly used for acts of aggression… when you say ‘army’ people understand that armies can be aggressive.”
Tear gas canisters, security forces, mass protest – all of this is a world away from where Hynd, 25, was a few years ago – brewing beer in his beloved local Stroud Brewery in the south west of England where he grew up. At the brewery, which Hynd describes as “no larger than a garden shed”, he was responsible for the entire brewing process. For seven months, he drove a truck around the Cotswold countryside, delivering beer to local pubs.
But as stark as the shift from the west country to the West Bank might seem, for Hynd there is an shared underlying theme – human interaction.
“[Drinking] beer is a social activity”, he says. “I care about people. I want them to be happy.” It’s this unwavering curiosity about his fellow human beings – their lives and stories – that fuelled his desire to come to Jayyus, as part of a volunteer scheme run by the World Council of Churches, overseen by Quaker Peace and Social Witness.
Hynd’s role here has three distinct elements. The first is monitoring human rights abuses at army-controlled checkpoints and in the village. He must be on call 24 hours a day. “If the army comes in at two in the morning, you have to be up monitoring that”, he says. Surprise raids and arrests are a frequent occurrence; the army can come any time between midnight and four in the morning. What are they looking for, I ask? “For ‘security reasons’”, Hynd says, sceptically. “Or ‘looking for a weapon.’” Hynd and his colleagues also act as what he calls a ‘Protective Presence’, just by being there – observing, filming and documenting. He thinks the presence of people like him, recording incidences like midnight raids, make people there – particularly those working for vulnerable communities – feel safer.
The last part of his role is to change people’s awareness of the conflict through blogs and articles. Here, he has his job set out for him. Unlike other Middle Eastern conflicts – like the brutal crackdown in Syria – that recently flared up in a spectacularly violent fashion, catching the world’s attention, Israel/Palestine is more of a slow burner; an intractable issue that generates more low-key, consistent coverage in the western media, but often fails to make the headlines in the way that the war in Libya did. There is a real risk, Hynd says, of such coverage leading to ‘emotional fatigue’. He worries that although “there is so much low level abuse going on”, it has been going on so long that it has become “normalised” in the minds of people back home.
To his credit, despite working in “one of the most loaded political conflicts in the world,” Hynd refuses to take sides. “I don’t feel it is useful to take sides in a conflict. I think it is incredibly unhelpful.” His approach is perhaps more akin to a foreign correspondent – striving to report facts and observations as he sees them – than that of a human rights activist per se. “What I’m trying to do is to try to tell people what I’m seeing …and only put the context in enough for the these observations to make sense” he says.
Cynics might look at the connection between Hynd’s work and a religious organisation with scepticism, or try to taint him with a typical ‘do-gooder’ brush. But listening to him recount these ‘observations’, there is a distinct lack of sanctimony or self-righteousness. If anything, Hynd is not so much ‘an activist’ as a natural journalist, fired by an incessant need to unearth and report people’s stories and embed them into the public’s consciousness. Yet, these stories leave a lasting mark. “Before, I knew about the conflict but I didn’t feel emotionally connected to it.” And now? “You’d have to be almost inhuman not to be moved by the things happening here.”
(You can read more about Steve’s exploits on Hynd’s Blog.)