Yearly Meeting Gathering of Quakers in Britain, 2-9 August 2014

It was a busy and enjoyable week, spent amongst 2,000 Quakers, mostly British, in Bath in the southwest of England. It was an all-age gathering with babies present and at least two Friends over 90 years old. And there were more than 80 Quakers from other Yearly Meetings, including half-a-dozen from Germany.

I sneaked into the overseas visitors’ tea on Sunday. Although I am still a member of Banbury & Evesham Area Meeting and hadn’t received an official invitation, I justified this on the grounds that: 1. my wife had been invited; 2. I am living overseas; 3. until I moved to Brussels, I was serving as a representative of Britain Yearly Meeting to the Friends World Committee for Consultation. Fortunately few of the other 2,000 Quakers had the same idea and the Friend at the entrance to the tent did not ask me whether I had an invitation. So I was able to enjoy conversations with a number of guests from other yearly meetings. Since I was travelling to and from Bath on Eurostar, I described myself as an “underseas” visitor.

Now, on my way back to Brussels, travelling at high speed towards Lille, I shall take a little time to reflect on my experience of Yearly Meeting Gathering in Bath. The positives far outweigh the negatives:

Meeting up with friends. It was great to meet up with so many old friends. On Sunday morning I joined in some circle dancing after breakfast. It was a large circle, but opposite me I recognised B, a fellow Sidcot old scholar. We last met some time in the eighties, so I wasn’t entirely certain that she was who I thought she was, until I was able to peek at her name-label. When I told her of my marriage, she congratulated me warmly and was keen to be introduced to Sasha. It was good also to meet friends whom I originally got to know when I lived at Woodbrooke in 1978/79, through my involvement in workcamps, through my peace campaigning work, through my active membership of Hampshire & the Islands Area Meeting (2001-2005) and Banbury & Evesham Area Meeting (from 2005), and through serving on various Yearly Meeting committees (Peace Campaigning and Networking group, Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations, and Quaker World Relations Committee).

 Two addresses to the whole Gathering have stayed in my mind: Ben Pink Dandelion’s Swarthmore Lecture, “Open for Transformation: Being Quaker”; and Jan Arriens’ introduction to the theme to be considered during Yearly Meetings over the next three years, Quaker witness in the world. Ben warned of the dangers of individualism and secularism. We are called to live out our Quaker witness not only as individuals, but as a faith community. Indeed, our witness may only be effective, if we act together as a community. We must also beware of losing the spirituality which is the foundation of our lives and witness. Ben said that Quakerism is a Do-It-Together religion. Jan Arriens reaffirmed the mysticism which is at the heart of our Quaker faith. There is a divine spark within each of us and we can each have direct contact with the divine, the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. When we rely on the Spirit for guidance and strength, we are likely to find ourselves engaging in effective witness to truth, equality, peace, simplicity, and community.

 I attended two “journey” sessions on Palestine/Israel. One of these took the form of interviews with four former Ecumenical Accompaniers, who had each spent three months in Palestine as part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). There was a strong feeling that the Yearly Meeting should put out a statement in response to the Israeli attack on Gaza. A small group of Friends drafted a carefully crafted statement, which not only called on the UK government to recognise Palestine as a nation state and condemned the use of violence by both sides in the conflict, but also reiterated our firm opposition to anti-semitism as well as islamophobia. Whilst opposing the aggression of the Israeli armed forces and the occupation of the Palestinian territories, we stand together in solidarity with Jews who are increasingly being subjected to attacks just because they are Jewish. The statement was published before the end of the Gathering and can be found on the website of Britain Yearly Meeting (Quakers in Britain).

 I was pleased to be able to support Sasha (Representative of the Quaker Council for European Affairs – QCEA), Andrew Lane (Deputy Representative), and Sally Sadler (a member of the Bureau of QCEA) at special interest group sessions and in two “journey” sessions. A significant number of Friends attended at least one of these sessions and we look forward to enjoying their support.

 I found programmed worship organised by the Friends World Committee for Consultation most inspiring. There was spoken prayer and a sermon with a message of hope in a time of crisis. Without the hope which derives from our faith in God, we cannot be patterns and examples bringing love and peace into a fearful and war-torn world.

 I twice joined some other “owls” for some late-night singing of simple songs, mostly rounds. That was great fun and perhaps a foretaste of the community choir which I hope to join in September.

There were very few negative aspects of the Yearly Meeting Gathering, so far as I’m concerned, the chief one being that my wife had to return to Brussels half way through the week! The accommodation at the university was lacking in some respects (no cutlery, crockery, or kitchen utensils in the kitchen, so lunch preparation was a little difficult), but the cost of the accommodation for a whole week was very reasonable.

I wished I could take all my friends back with me to Brussels. I shall have to be content with the prospect of meeting up with them again at Yearly Meeting at the beginning of May next year – God willing.


A problem to every solution

During the “Troubles” Denis Barritt wrote a book entitled “Northern Ireland: a problem to every solution”. This seems to apply equally well to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A two-state solution is problematic, because a substantial number of Israeli “settlers” would have to leave their homes, Israel fears a loss of security if it does not control the border between Palestine and Jordan, and the rights of Palestinians within Israel may not be guaranteed. There is also a problem in that, although there are rather more Palestinians than Jews living in Palestine/Israel, the Palestinian state would be in possession of much less than half of the land.

A one-state solution would be seriously problematic from a Jewish point of view, because Palestinians would be in a majority. This would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. This may be desirable from the point of view of many Palestinians (and some secular Jews). But it is anathema to most Jews and certainly to the government of Israel.

How about a three-state solution, i.e. two states within a state? No doubt there would be all sorts of problems associated with that as well.

It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that a continuation of the status quo would not be a solution at all. The on-going occupation of the Palestinian territories is taking a heavy toll on the Palestinians, especially in Gaza. Israelis are suffering as well.

According to what I’ve read, there is a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians in favour of a two-state solution. But if by some miracle both Israel and Palestine agree to a two-state peace settlement, both governments will face considerable opposition within their own camps.

Zionist Jews are convinced that they are called by God to establish Jewish sovereignty over the whole of the Land of Israel. It is no good talking to them about the human rights of Palestinians, because such rights are irrelevant so far as they are concerned. The security of Jews and the Jewish state, eventually covering the whole of the Land of Israel, is paramount.

There are probably relatively few Jews who take quite such an extreme position. I believe most would wish for the rights of Palestinians to be respected as far as possible. Unfortunately a significant number of ministers in the coalition government seem to be bent on extending Israeli control over the West Bank. And they seem to care little that they are sabotaging a two-state solution.

On the Palestinian side I hear a growing number of people saying that there should be a single secular democratic state covering Palestine. Their arguments are persuasive. They say that any Jewish state is by definition racist. Racism and apartheid should not be tolerated in Palestine/Israel any more than it was in South Africa.

Whilst many, perhaps most, Palestinians would be happy in a single secular democratic state covering the whole of Palestine/Israel, Jews would not be. They would be very fearful. They would at the very least lose the privileges that they currently enjoy both as a result of racial discrimination within Israel and as a result of the occupation of the West Bank.

I think most Jews would only be content in a state in which they are in a majority. They need to feel that they have control over their own destiny. Would such a state be sufficiently “Jewish”, if all the citizens, regardless of race or religion, had equal rights? This seems to me to be a key question. If it is answered in the affirmative, I see no reason why such a state should not be acceptable to both Jews and Palestinians.

One problem which has to be addressed in any peace settlement is the right to return of Palestinian refugees. According to BADIL, the Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, “Out of 11.2 million Palestinians worldwide, 7.4 million (66%) are displaced.”

Tens of thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes in 1948 and 1967. They and their descendants are still living as refugees. Not all of them would want to return to their ancestral homeland. But any peace settlement has to address their right to return. They should, at the very least, be given some form of compensation which will enable them to escape the poverty and overcrowding of the refugee camps.

Gaza and the Responsibility to Protect

The situation in the Gaza Strip is dire.

The United Nations has warned that the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt is making Gaza “uninhabitable”. Food is becoming scarce and increasingly expensive. There is 40% unemployment. Water supplies are intermittent, because pumps are not operating for much of the time due to lengthy power-cuts. Sewage is flooding the streets in some areas, because the pumps are shut down more often than not. There is a fear that water supplies may become contaminated and people’s health is already suffering.

This is not a natural disaster. It is man-made. (Well, I suppose a few women might have had a hand in it.)

Much of Gaza’s supplies used to come through tunnels under the southern border with Egypt. But the military government of Egypt has destroyed or blocked or flooded all the tunnels. Some supplies are allowed into Gaza from Israel, but only about half of what is needed.

Restrictions on the import of construction materials are being relaxed, because the Israeli government recognises that the laying off of thousands of construction workers, when unemployment is already high, would not be good for security.

What would really make a difference is a resumption of fuel supplies, so that the power station can start up again and people can run generators. Until that happens, people are being denied access to water and proper sanitation.

This is a humanitarian disaster which calls for humanitarian intervention.

Why does no-one mention the “Responsibility to Protect”, which has been used to justify military intervention in Iraq and Libya?

I’m not suggesting that there should be military intervention. That would only make matters worse. I am suggesting that there should be concerted humanitarian intervention by the international community. If that means paying for the fuel which Gaza needs, then the international community should do that. The U.S. should stop all military aid to Israel and divert the money to humanitarian aid instead.

Israel, as the occupying power, is failing in its responsibility to protect the inhabitants of Gaza. Although it may not have any soldiers on the ground inside Gaza at the moment, Israel effectively controls the territory and can invade at any moment. Israel controls the borders and patrols the coast. Israel is responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

According to the UN doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), when a state fails to protect its citizens, the international community has a responsibility to intervene to protect people. An occupying power is responsible for the welfare of the inhabitants of territory which it occupies. Israel is failing in its responsibility to protect the inhabitants of Gaza, so the international community should step in.

If the Western powers thought it necessary to launch a military expedition, I’m sure the ships and equipment and personnel could be found. So they could surely be found for a humanitarian expedition. But where is the flotilla of ships bringing supplies to the people of Gaza? Would Israel dare to hinder them from delivering humanitarian aid, if the US and European governments were behind it? I doubt it. If they did, they would find themselves totally isolated.

Another day in Palestine

I wonder how much of what is happening here in Palestine and Israel reaches the news in Europe or North America. Have you all seen pictures of streets flooded with sewage in Gaza? Have you heard about the attack by Israel Defence Forces on students at Al-Quds University and on a nearby village, during which 40 Palestinians, including many students, were shot with rubber-coated steel bullets? Do you know about the Prawer Plan to evict Bedouin families from their “unrecognised” villages in the Negev?

The streets flooded with sewage are in Zeitoun, an eastern district of Gaza City. A sewage pumping station is shut down for 18 hours per day because there is no electricity. Only a limited amount of electricity comes into Gaza from Israel. And the one-and-only power station in Gaza has had to shut down because of a lack of fuel.

Diesel used to be imported through tunnels under the border with Egypt. But all the tunnels have been closed. The Energy Authority in Gaza was buying fuel from Israel through the Energy Authority in Ramallah. But the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is facing a financial crisis. So it is insisting that the Energy Authority in Gaza pay the same fuel tax that people pay in the West Bank. The Hamas-controlled Authority in Gaza cannot afford to pay the tax.

So Hamas blames the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Israel. The Palestinian Authority blames Israel. And Israel blames the Palestinians for not getting their act together. Meanwhile the sewage in the streets is a serious health risk. Children are already suffering from vomiting and diarrhea.

This is only one of many serious problems which Palestinian families in Gaza are facing because of the lack of electricity. It is difficult for students to study. And hospitals are struggling to cope. The siege of Gaza is causing other problems too. Many children are suffering from malnutrition. Buildings destroyed by Israeli bombing cannot be rebuilt, because Israel is blocking the import of construction materials. There is widespread unemployment and people are dependent on aid.

Mads Fredrik Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor who has worked in Gaza, gave a powerful presentation at the Sabeel conference today. He showed video footage of Gaza City being bombed. This was during either Operation Cast Lead (27 December 2008 – 18 January 2009) or Operation Pillar of Salt (14-21 November 2012). During Operation Cast Lead more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.

Many Palestinians in Gaza have been killed by drone attacks. Families, who may be asleep in their beds, may be warned, by a “knock on the roof” from a small rocket, that they have four minutes to leave the house before it is destroyed by a bomb.

Just a few days ago Israeli naval forces captured two fishermen off the coast of the Gaza Strip and seized their boat. This is typical of the harassment that fishermen face.

Why is it, that Israel can terrorise the people of Gaza with impunity?

Since no-one was killed, I suspect that the attack by Israel Defence Forces on students at Al-Quds University went unreported in the international press. Such attacks cause serious disruption to young people’s education. And they are bound to have unseen psychological effects as well as causing physical injuries. It is no wonder that many Palestinians come to hate Israelis.

The Prawer Plan is currently going through its second and third readings in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. It provides for the removal of Bedouin families from “unrecognised” villages and their resettlement in towns which are already overcrowded. Nearly 40,000 people will be displaced. On Saturday I shall be joining other participants in the Sabeel conference on an excursion to the Negev to see what is happening.

Gaza under siege

There’s an ice cream parlour across the road from the Friends Meeting House and the Friends International Centre here in Ramallah. I went there again this afternoon. It was my third, or possibly fourth, visit. This time I was with Kathy Bergen, who used to run the Friends International Centre, and a Palestinian friend of hers. I especially like the vanilla and chocolate chip ice cream.

Along the road, close to the Manara, where six roads converge in the centre of Ramallah, I bought today’s English language edition of Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper which often carries good reports on what’s happening in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as well as in Israel. Dorothy Naor of New Profile invariably includes articles from Haaretz in her daily, or two or three times daily, e-mail bulletins.

A couple of days ago she included an article from Al Jazeera, reporting on lengthy power cuts in Gaza, due to a lack of fuel:

“Gaza power plant shuts down as fuel runs out

“Fuel shortage at facility supplying a third of the Palestinian enclave with electricity leads to power outages.

“The Gaza plant supplies about a third of the territory’s electricity needs.

“A shortage of fuel has halted the production of electricity across the Gaza Strip, the Energy Authority in the Palestinian enclave said.

‘The power plant has been shut down due to fuel shortage. The stock of fuel is zero. All parts of life in Gaza will be affected.’ Fathi el-Sheikh Khalil, the authority’s deputy chairman, told Al Jazeera.

“The electricity supply had been cut off across most of the territory on Friday morning.

“Khalil blamed the power outage on Israel’s destruction of tunnels used for bringing fuel to Gaza and accused the Western-backed Palestinian Authority of charging Hamas too much for its fuel.

‘Less than 50 percent of the needs of the Gaza Strip are currently covered by electricity from Israel [and] we can no longer get Egyptian fuel due to the destruction of tunnels from Egypt,’ he said.

“The Palestinian Authority pledged last week to deliver fuel to Gaza without a usual tax, allowing the Hamas government to buy 400,000 litres of fuel a day.

“But the Authority cancelled its offer of a tax exemption, Khalil said in a statement, making it difficult for the Gaza authorities to afford the fuel.

“Daily blackouts

“The Gaza plant supplies about a third of the territory’s electricity needs.

“In addition to the power plant, which produces up to 65 megawatts, Israel feeds the strip with 120 megawatts and Egypt pours in 27 megawatts.

“Gaza residents have endured around eight hours of daily blackouts in recent years because of fuel shortages. The Gaza Energy Authority said the power plant’s closure means Palestinians could suffer 12 hours of daily blackouts.

‘The plant will remain shut until fuel supplies resume from Egypt through the tunnels or the Rafah border crossing, or from Israel if the Palestinian Authority agrees not to impose the heavy taxes,’ said Khalil.

“In September, the Gaza Energy Authority warned of an impending shortage of fuel and called on Egypt to resume deliveries to the territory.

“Relations between Cairo and Hamas have deteriorated since the Egyptian army ousted President Mohamed Morsi in July.

“An Israeli raid to destroy a Gaza tunnel ignited clashes late Thursday in which tank fire killed four Hamas commanders and five Israeli soldiers were wounded, officials from both sides said.”

With the closure of the tunnels, Gaza is once again under siege. Although food supplies are allowed in and no-one will be allowed to starve, food prices are very high. Coupled with power cuts and overcrowded living conditions, the siege is creating an intolerable situation for the people living in Gaza, which is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth.

A call to prayer and action

Five times a day loud-speakers broadcast the call to prayer. Earlier today at one of the prayer times I stopped to listen. It was good to be reminded of the presence of God, the Spirit in whom we live, move and have our being. What a good idea it is, to stop for a while five times a day and pray or commune with God in some way. How many of us manage to do that even just once a day? When I’m on my own, as I am here in Ramallah, I usually set aside breakfast-time for devotional reading. The moment of silence at the beginning of other meals is usually too short. But I guess I can change that.

I had a surprise visit this evening from Marlies and Sytse, a Dutch Quaker couple who arrived in Ramallah today and will be running a workshop tomorrow. They offer a combination of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project), and nonviolent communication skills. We met in somewhat inauspicious circumstances towards the end of last year. Now we happened to be in Ramallah at the same time. It was good to see them again and share news.

Marlies and Sytse came today from Gaza where they have run a workshop. At one stage when the participants were getting over-excited, they heard the call to prayer and suggested that everyone stop and listen. This had a suitably calming effect on those present, including those who were not in the habit of praying.

This land is much in need of prayer and prayerful people. Marlies and Sytse told me that they had heard an explosion close to where they were when the Israelis retaliated against the firing of two rockets from Gaza. And when they were entering Gaza at the Erez crossing from Israel there was an explosion only about 100 meters away. An Israeli soldier told them not to worry. I speculated as to whether perhaps the Israelis were blowing up a tunnel. The closure of tunnels by both the Egyptian and the Israeli military is putting a stranglehold on Gaza, where food prices are rising rapidly and construction work is grinding to a halt because of a shortage of building materials.

So the people of Gaza especially need our prayers at this time.

The trouble with prayer, real prayer, is that it tends to become a call to action. We may begin by calling on God to act. But if we open our hearts to God, we are likely to hear God calling on us to take action.

A long time ago I wrote (in an article in The Friend):

“We need both a deeper spirituality and a more outspoken witness. If our spirituality can reach the depths of authentic prayer, our lives will become an authentic witness for justice, peace, and the integrity of creation, a witness which becomes the context for our prayer. Out of the depths of authentic prayer comes a longing for peace and a passion for justice. And our response to violence and injustice is to pray more deeply, because only God can show us the way out of the mess that the world is in. And only God gives us the strength to follow that Way.”

I have discovered that when we make choices based on prayerful consideration, miracles can happen and apparently intractable situations can be transformed. Enemies can become friends both on a personal and on an international level as relationships are transformed by love. It is in our own interests to love our enemies. I pray that more and more people may discover this through prayer and action.