Cathy McLean is a Canadian who has lately lived in Milton Keynes, but last week she was to be found in a rather more dangerous environment. She was staying in a small, sparsely furnished Palestinian house near the scene of several nasty confrontations between Arabs and Jewish settlers, just two miles from the West Bank city of Hebron, a main trouble spot of the past eight weeks.
The retired teacher was there, as an unpaid volunteer on an Israeli tourist visa, despite all the warnings to foreigners against going to the area. She is part of a group trying to do something that international diplomacy has yet to achieve: to observe first-hand the violence in the Occupied Territories and, by doing so, to reduce the level of bloodshed.
For weeks the Palestinians have been urging the United Nations to send a peace-keeping force to the territories. The United States and Israel are opposed to this, but have not ruled out a team of unarmed western observers unrelated to the United Nations. The French and British have shown support and last week Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, also backed the idea.
In Hebron, two observer groups already exist. Ms McLean belongs to a group of Christian pacifists, the Chicago-based Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), which has had a permanent presence in the city for five years, but bring in bands of volunteers for a fortnight every four months. It is tiny, and confined to a small area, but she believes it makes a positive difference, as every little helps.
The second is a team of 85 observers from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy and Turkey known as TIPH (the Temporary International Presence in Hebron). They patrol the city's dangerous streets 24 hours a day by car, noting down what they see. But their findings largely remain a secret to the outside world.
The group first went to Hebron in 1994 after the massacre of 29 Palestinians by Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler, at a mosque there, but its mission lasted only a few months. It was reintroduced in 1996.
There have been proposals led by Norway to expand it to become the observer force for the whole conflict. From the Israeli viewpoint, it has the advantage of being unrelated to the UN, which is seen as hostile and pro-Arab.
But its mandate is limited: its members report to a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee and their own governments. They will not discuss anything of significance with the media. Deadly outrages can be committed by both sides daily, but TIPH will say nothing publicly.
It is far from clear that its presence has made any difference since the intifada began. Human-rights activists and Palestinians say it is better than nothing, but the case is not strong. "I think the Israeli soldiers pay less attention to them now," said Bourke Kennedy, of the CPT. "They know that they note everything down and write reports, but that nothing much happens to them."
As the focus grows on a possible observer force, fears abound that it will be ineffectual. A leaf should be taken out of the Christian peace-makers' book. When Ms McLean gets back to Milton Keynes, she says her job will be to tell as many people as she can about what she saw.
© 2000 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.