We gathered on the terrace of the Austrian Hospice in the Old City of Jerusalem – twelve members of a Quaker Voluntary Action (QVA) “pilgrimage” to Israel and Palestine. We had met at a preparation day in Selly Oak, Birmingham, at the end of August, but needed to introduce ourselves once again. We conversed for a while before setting off through the Old City to meet up with another QVA group. They had already spent a week in Ramallah and would be spending four more days in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The two groups all trooped off together to join the weekly vigil of Women in Black. We found a few men as well as women, mostly dressed in black, holding black placards in the shape of a hand with white lettering in English, Hebrew or Arabic saying: “Stop the Occupation”. Most of us took one of the placards and joined the vigil. Some sat on stone benches nearby. We were in an open space on the corner of an intersection of two major roads and were clearly visible to passing traffic. Some drivers hurled abuse. Others showed their support by hooting or giving a thumbs up sign.
A leaflet handed out by one of the women stated:
“We, Women in Black, Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, have held a protest vigil for 24 years to express our belief in peace and our demand that the occupation come to an end. Our black attire symbolizes the suffering and tragedy of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. We represent diverse views, but our call to ‘End the Occupation’ unites us all.
“We therefore declare:
“End the occupation… because Israel’s imposed rule over three million Palestinians is morally wrong and obstructs the path to peace.
“End the occupation… because collective punishment against an entire nation, brutal military presence, mass arrests, torture, the closure of towns and villages, the demolition of homes, assassinations, and severe acts of oppression – violate international law and undermine the foundations of decency and morality.
“End the occupation… because the occupation serves and abets Israeli settlements in the occupied territories in defiance of international law.
“Unless Israel ends the occupation, there is no hope for peace, security, a healthy economy, or a just and democratic society
“The Intifadah, with the exception of various unacceptable acts, is fundamentally an expression of a nation’s rebellion against occupation.
“Despite reversals in the peace process, we are more convinced than ever that there is no military solution to the conflict.
“Only an end to the occupation will bring peace.
“Against violence, racism, and all forms of terrorism aimed at innocent civilians!
“For peace based on the just interests of both peoples!”
After a late lunch we went to the Garden Tomb where we met Linda, a Quaker who works for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and lives in a settlement overlooking Jerusalem. Linda has built up friendships not only with her neighbours in the settlement but also with Palestinians in neighbouring villages. During the last intifada she was involved in distributing food to Palestinians. She told us that taking positive practical action was her way of opposing war. She also told us about the Hope School for Palestinian orphans, which receives financial support from Sunderland Local Quaker Meeting. Linda encouraged us to talk to Jews back in the UK, because the Israeli government will listen to what Jews have to say.
After a short Meeting for Worship at the Garden Tomb we took a bus to Ramallah. From there two minibuses took us to the village of Jifna, where we will be staying for the next seven days. As we were boarding the bus to Ramallah there was an incident, in which some people almost came to blows. A Palestinian who had found a bus for us told us to board the bus. As I was doing so, a woman barged past me onto the bus and hauled her daughter on as well. There was then quite a commotion with people yelling at each other in Arabic and pushing and shoving. I had no idea what it was all about or what I should do, but Jasmine, who is leading our group, suggested that I get out of the way and let the local people board the bus. This seemed an eminently sensible thing to do. It turned out that there was room for us all on the bus and the commotion had been entirely unnecessary. I guess some of the Palestinians were going out of their way to help us as welcome visitors to Palestine. But others, who had been waiting a long time for a bus, understandably resented the preferential treatment that we were being given. Perhaps there’s a moral to this story…