Settlers and refugees

The milk that I buy in the small supermarket round the corner turns out to be a “Product of Palestine”, as I had hoped. It comes from the Al-Jebrini Dairy Co. of Hebron. So I guess they must have dairy cattle down in the south of the West Bank. I’ll look out for them when I go to Hebron on Saturday.

One of the “attractions” for anyone who wants to see the occupation of the Palestinian territories at first hand is the “settler tour”, which takes place in Hebron each Saturday during the Jewish Sabbath or “Shabbat”. I have yet to witness this ritual, but I’m told that both Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers take part in it.

The venue is the Palestinian market in the centre of Hebron. The soldiers enter first, around 3 p.m., making way for the settlers, who then wreak havoc by turning over the market stalls, scattering produce everywhere. They cause considerable damage, but I don’t suppose anyone compensates the stall holders.

I’m keen to see as much as I can, whilst I’m here in Palestine/Israel, and to talk to lots of different people. Yesterday I went to meet with two women, both of them mothers, in an Israeli West Bank settlement not far from Jerusalem. This morning I visited a small refugee camp just south of Ramallah.

These are two different worlds. But both of them are inhabited by mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. And, so far as I could gather, most people in both the settlement and the refugee camp just want their children and grandchildren to be able to live in peace.

Both the women in the settlement made it clear to me that, if it would bring about peace, they would be prepared to move out of the settlement and find somewhere to live with their families within the 1967 borders of Israel, in spite of having made the settlement their home around 20 years ago.

The three of us agreed that it would need a miracle for the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to agree to a two-state solution to the conflict. Both mothers would accept a one-state solution, so long as the state were Jewish.

I tried to ascertain what it is that would make a state Jewish. High standards of education, health care and social welfare provision were clearly important to both women. But all that could be equally well provided in an Arab state, in my opinion. A Jewish state would be democratic with every citizen having the right to vote. In my opinion, an Arab state could be equally democratic. (I accept, though, that in practice Arab states tend not to be democratic according to our Western understanding of democracy.)

What it seemed to boil down to in the end is this: A Jewish state would have the (military) means with which to defend itself and Jews would be in control of defence and security.

It seems that the average Jewish Israeli citizen wants to be sure that the Israel Defence Forces can keep any enemies at bay and that Israel’s borders can be made secure against the infiltration of terrorists.

One of my favourite songs is a Taizé chant: “Nie par puissance, nie par force, mais par l’esprit du Seigneur.” (Not by power, nor by might, but by the spirit of the Lord.) I’m afraid I can’t quote chapter and verse. But many of the Old Testament prophets said much the same thing: Don’t put your faith in horses and chariots. Put your faith in the Lord your God.

Peace and security cannot be assured by force of arms. Peace will reign when we put our faith in the God of love, who leads us to do justice.

Peace will not be possible in Israel/Palestine until the refugees who were driven out of their villages in 1948 and 1967 are compensated in some way, so that they can escape the overcrowding and poverty of the refugee camps. There is no realistic prospect of them returning to the villages that they came from. Many of these villages have been destroyed. But their “right of return” needs to be recognised and they need to be compensated for the failure to fulfil that right.

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Where is the Palestinian Mandela?

It has been reported that a 14-year-old Palestinian boy, Wajih Wajdi al-Ramahi, was shot dead yesterday by an Israeli sniper whilst walking near his school in Jalazun, a refugee camp north of Ramallah.

The boy’s father said that he was shot by an Israeli soldier from a watchtower in nearby Bet El. “He was hit directly in the back, and there were no clashes in the area.”

“Clashes” usually take the form of stone-throwing by Palestinian youths, which is met with tear-gas and rubber-coated steel bullets by the Israel Defence Forces. Perhaps the boy had been involved in “clashes” in the recent past and was singled out by the sniper. His father said that “Israeli soldiers target youths and kill them, in order to amuse themselves”.

Perhaps the soldier who killed Wajih Wajdi al-Ramahi wanted to avenge the death of an Israeli soldier who was stabbed by a Palestinian whilst sleeping on a bus a week or so ago.

Will Wajih Wajdi’s brothers now seek revenge? It is unlikely that anyone will be tried for his murder. Israeli soldiers literally get away with murder, as we have seen in the case of a young Palestinian who was shot dead with a tear-gas canister at very close range two years ago. The soldier who fired the tear-gas canister out of the back of a vehicle claimed that he couldn’t see the young man and has recently been acquitted in court.

I can’t condone Palestinian relatives of murder victims taking revenge on Israeli soldiers, who are mostly young conscripts. But it is understandable that they should want to do so. It is perhaps also understandable that young Israelis should want to avenge the death of a comrade.

So where will it all end? Jesus said, as he was being arrested, that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. I think it was Gandhi who said that “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” would leave everyone blind and toothless.

Jesus had the answer. He advised his listeners, who were suffering under the Roman occupation, to turn the other cheek, to go an extra mile, and to give their shirt as well, when their coat was taken from them.

Walter Wink has explained how each of these actions would have been a form of nonviolent resistance. Roman legionaries, for example, were allowed to force a local peasant to carry their pack for one mile only. If the peasant were to continue to carry the pack for more than a mile, the soldier could get into trouble. I can imagine a soldier pleading with a peasant to give him his pack back. The soldier might begin to question whether it is right and just for him to demand that a peasant carry his pack in the first place. He might even begin to question the legitimacy of the occupation.

Until the time of Constantine Christians were forbidden to serve in the army. If a soldier became a Christian, he had to leave the army. The three historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers, and the Church of the Brethren) all sought to revive the discipleship of the early Christian Church. They all promote active nonviolence as the way to overcome injustice and oppression.

In Palestine today it isn’t only Christians who are advocating nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation. Muslims are advocating this too.

Sometimes people ask: Where is the Palestinian Mandela? Well, maybe there are thousands of Palestinian Mandelas. Most of them are probably in Israeli jails. And some of them have been shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

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?

Maintaining core values in the midst of madness

Earlier this evening a close friend sent me these comments:

“Thank you for recording your observations, thoughts, insights. As an outsider, I find the situation in Israel/Palestine truly tragic. The picture you have drawn has done nothing, I’m afraid, to make me feel more hopeful about the future and makes me even more convinced of the basic evil of the Israeli policies. I’m grateful to you for the regular reminders in the midst of this of the core values that must be present if there is ever to be a way out of this.

“I dare say that you will never be the same after this sojourn.

“I was glad to see that you had visited Amos Gvirtz. He really is an inspiration. … Jean Zaru and Kathy Bergen are also known figures to me. Thank goodness there are such people, and the many others you have mentioned, in the midst of this apparent madness.”

I met Jean Zaru today at long last. Our paths haven’t crossed before now, although we have both been involved in the Friends World Committee for Consultation (the network of Quakers around the world), and in the World Council of Churches. Whilst Jean served on the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches, I have only attended the WCC Assembly in Harare in 1998 and the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Kingston, Jamaica, a couple of years ago.

We are both ecumenically-minded Quakers with a commitment to working for justice and peace through active nonviolence. So we share fundamental core values. But there the comparison ends. I am a white anglo-saxon male and have lived pretty much all my life in northwest Europe. Jean is a Palestinian woman living in Palestine.

It is one thing to talk and write about peace, justice, and nonviolence whilst sitting at home or in an office in Evesham or Brussels. It is quite another thing to practise active nonviolence whilst living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

If I get upset about the local college hosting an Armed Forces Day event, I can go along to the event and distribute an open letter to the principal of the college, without fear of being arrested or punished. Jean has done nothing as provocative as that, nor committed any crime, but she cannot travel to Jerusalem, which is little more than ten miles away, without a permit. Although she is due to speak at the Sabeel conference this coming week, she has been refused a permit and has had to put in a second application. If she succeeds in obtaining a permit, she will still face questioning at the checkpoint at Qalandia.

If Jean wants to visit her children and grandchildren in the USA, she cannot travel via Tel Aviv. She has to make an arduous and stressful journey to Amman and fly from there.

Jean is fortunate compared with many of her compatriots. Many young Palestinian men are sitting in administrative detention in Israeli jails. Palestinian families in East Jerusalem and in Area C in the West Bank risk having their homes demolished. Bedouin families are being forcibly removed from their villages and put into “concentration towns” in the Negev. Palestinian farmers are subjected to harassment and are sometimes attacked by Israeli settlers who are rarely brought to justice. When boys throw stones, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) respond with tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets.

Part of the madness is the damage done by the occupation to the Palestinian economy. This has been quantified in a recent World Bank report. If the Palestinian economy were allowed to thrive, the Israeli economy would flourish as well.

Israelis as well as Palestinians would benefit economically as well as enjoying greater security, if there were a just peace agreement, bringing an end to the occupation, and recognising the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis. How long must we wait until the majority of Israelis wake up to this and demand that their government agree a fair peace deal? How long will the Palestinians have to suffer under occupation?

How long can the international community acquiesce in Israeli oppression of the Palestinians? Not long, if more and more of us demonstrate our solidarity with the Palestinians who are suffering under occupation and the Israelis who would also benefit from a just peace.

Meanwhile, we should thank God for all those people, Palestinians such as Jean Zaru, and Israelis such as Amos Gvirtz, who are maintaining core values in the midst of this madness.

An asymmetrical conflict

I’m now receiving news of events in Palestine/Israel from a variety of sources, including Mondoweiss, which describes itself as “a news website devoted to covering American foreign policy in the Middle East, chiefly from a progressive Jewish perspective”.

This week’s summary of events in Palestine/Israel included the following news items, which I have summarised:

Monday 4 November, East Jerusalem. A building owned by the Roman Catholic church, which housed a family of 14, was demolished. Israeli forces and bulldozers arrived at 5 a.m. with a “previously unseen demolition order”, which claimed that the house had been built without a permit. One of the occupants stated that the house had been built before 1967 when Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank as a result of the Six Day War.

Wednesday 6 November, Tulkarem. Israeli Defence Forces raided two villages near Tulkarem. They fired live ammunition, tear gas, and a sound bomb at young protesters.

Wednesday 6 November, Ramallah. Shots were fired from a Palestinian car at Israeli soldiers in Ni’lin, a village near Ramallah. Another car tried to run over an Israeli army commander, who then fired shots at the vehicle as it sped away.

Thursday 7 November, Hebron. Israeli settlers set two cars alight in a village near Hebron.

Thursday 7 November, Bethlehem & Nablus. Two Palestinians were shot and killed in separate incidents at roadblocks near Bethlehem and near Nablus.

Friday 8 November, East Jerusalem. A 16-year-old was hit in the face by a stun grenade during clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces at a road junction near Abu Dis. He lost consciousness and suffered from internal bleeding and a skull fracture.

Friday 8 November, Bil’in. Dozens of Palestinian and international activists were injured as Israeli forces fired tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets, and stun grenades during protests in Bil’in and three other villages which had been sparked by the killing of two Palestinians at roadblocks the day before.

Friday 8 November, Bethlehem. There were clashes in Bab al-Zawiya, a neighbourhood of Bethlehem, following the funeral of a 23-year-old Palestinian who had been shot at a roadblock near Bethlehem the day before. Palestinian protesters threw rocks and empty bottles. Israeli soldiers fired tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber-coated steel bullets.

Friday 8 November, Efrat. Two Israeli settlers were injured when a Molotov cocktail was hurled at their car on a road near Efrat, a settlement south of Bethlehem. The car was burnt out.

Both Israelis and Palestinians are responsible for acts of violence which cause suffering and cannot be condoned. But: “In the asymmetry of relations between the growing state of Israel and the shrinking non-state of Palestine, doing nothing is a deeply partisan act.” (Anon)

I guess I’m doing my best to be bipartisan here, which means being willing to talk to – or, better still, listen to – anyone and everyone. We were reminded during Meeting for Worship this morning of Britain Yearly Meeting’s Advices & Queries no. 17, which begins with a query: “Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern?” And we are advised: “Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you.”