Friday prayers – Christian Peacemaker Teams – Nelson Mandela

Friday mornings are quiet in Ramallah, like Sunday mornings used to be in Britain. Today I got to go along to the mosque for Friday prayers around 11.30. A visiting Quaker friend and I were taken along by Saleem, whose wife works as a part-time administrator for the Quakers here.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God. And I learnt at a workshop at the recent international conference of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre in Jerusalem that “Islam” means submission to God (Allah) and that, broadly-speaking, anyone who submits to God is a Muslim.

So it felt right to join my Muslim brothers in prayer, to bow to God along with Saleem and everyone else, and to kneel and prostrate myself with my forehead touching the carpeted floor. Would that it were as easy to submit myself to God inwardly as it is to submit myself outwardly.

Apart from occasional references to Muslims and the Quran, I understood nothing of the sermon. If I come to Palestine again for any length of time, I shall want to make a serious attempt to learn Arabic.

Christopher Hatton, a British Quaker who has been living in Hamburg for ten years, appeared just as I was about to set off with Saleem for the mosque. Christopher came along with us. He knows some Arabic, but I don’t think he understood much more of the sermon than I did.

Christopher was on his way to Hebron. He is about to begin his third stint with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Palestine. CPT aims to support Palestinian nonviolent resistance to injustice.

A couple of years ago Christopher served with CPT in the South Hebron Hills. One of their tasks was to observe the goings-on at “flying checkpoints” which were being set up on the roads by the Israeli occupying forces. The Palestinians, mostly shepherds going about their work, were treated less violently when CPTers were watching.

Christopher is now going to spend five weeks with CPT in Hebron, where a growing population of Israeli settlers is harassing the Palestinian inhabitants. The harassment is worst on Saturdays, when settlers, with the protection of Israeli soldiers, go on the rampage through the market. I plan to visit Hebron next Saturday and may get to witness that

When Christopher and I got back from visiting the mosque this morning, I opened up my laptop to show him some photographs. There was the news that Nelson Mandela had died.

I remember watching on TV when he walked out of prison in 1993. Few Nobel Peace Prize laureates deserve the prize as much as he did. After spending 27 years in prison (all but the last year or two on Robben Island), he negotiated a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy, offered white South Africans reconciliation and forgiveness instead of retaliation and retribution, and voluntarily relinquished power at the end of a five-year term as president.

No doubt it helped that F.W. de Klerk and other leading white politicians recognised that the writing was on the wall for South African apartheid. They had the choice between a negotiated transition to majority rule and a likely bloodbath.

When will Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers in the Israeli coalition government realise that the writing is on the wall for Israeli apartheid? They have a choice between a two-state solution that does justice to Palestinian aspirations (and that has to include recognition of the right to return of refugees from 1948 and 1967) and a long battle against Palestinian resistance which could eventually result in majority rule in a single democratic state.

But perhaps the real question is: How much longer will the world tolerate Israel’s apartheid policies and their oppression of the Palestinians?

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“Peace!” “Peace!” But there is no peace.

The streets in the centre of Ramallah are crowded and bustling. Cars make slow headway because of all the people in the road. There’s no question of striding out, if you want to walk anywhere. That didn’t matter to me too much when I went shopping this afternoon. I didn’t really have a particular destination. I was just looking for a shop that sold fresh milk. I found a couple of shops that had long-life milk and bought yoghurt and eggs in one of them. I then found a shop selling fresh milk, but it was from Israel and I prefer to support local, i.e. Palestinian, producers. Fortunately I spotted Palestinian fresh milk a little further along the shelf. Mission accomplished! I now have milk for my tea again.

Living here in Ramallah, one might imagine that this land is at peace. But one only has to read the right news sources to realise that there are so many human rights abuses going on daily that the situation cannot be described as “peaceful” by any stretch of the imagination. People have their land confiscated, their houses demolished, their olive groves vandalised. They face lengthy delays and harassment at checkpoints, if they have to go to work in Jerusalem or elsewhere in Israel. Many people are not allowed to leave the West Bank or Gaza at all. This quite often results in families being separated. Hundreds of young men are languishing in administrative detention, i.e. detention without trial, in Israeli jails. Now and then a demonstrator is killed by a “rubber” bullet or dies from injuries sustained three or four years ago.

Three news items have struck me especially today.

Most shocking, perhaps, is the news that the municipal authority of Jerusalem, which rules over occupied East Jerusalem as if it were part of Israel, has posted demolition warrants on 200 apartment blocks in two Palestinian neighbourhoods. The owners of the buildings have 30 days in which to register their objections. If the apartment blocks are eventually demolished, more than 15,000 Palestinians will be made homeless.

Meanwhile, the construction of houses continues apace in Israeli West Bank settlements, which are illegal under international law. One wonders whether the Israeli government is intentionally trying to sabotage the current peace talks with the Palestinians.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is not going out of his way to make a two-state solution viable. On Sunday he announced that once “security fences” have been constructed along the borders with Egypt and Syria, a “security fence” will be built along the border between Jordan and the West Bank. He is reviving plans that were scrapped ten years ago because of international pressure. He claims that Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley need to be protected from Syrian refugees across the border in Jordan. Israel clearly intends to maintain control of the border between the West Bank and Jordan, so that any Palestinian state would not have control of its own borders.

At present the Palestinian Authority (PA) really only has control over Area A, five separate “cantons” in the West Bank, which Palestinians describe as “Bantustans”. The PA is responsible for the administration of Area B, villages and agricultural land around the major towns, but Israel has control of security. From time to time the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) carries out military training exercises in Area B. This may involve “simulating” the taking over of a village. Amidst gunfire and shelling the village is overrun by soldiers, who have no regard for the local inhabitants. It has even been known for soldiers to burst in and take over a house, causing great distress to the people living there. Several villages south of Nablus have been warned that such exercises will take place on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week.

Jean Zaru, presiding clerk of the Quaker Meeting in Ramallah, writes in her book, “Occupied with Nonviolence”: “The Oslo Accords presented the world with misleading images of peace and we were left with a difficult and hard reality on the ground. The international media referred to the Accords as historic because they brought peace and reconciliation. I often quote the words of the prophet Ezekiel who speaks of false prophets, ‘Because they misled my people, saying, “Peace”, when there is no peace’ (Ezekiel 13:10).”