Patience

Peace is a process which takes time, a great deal of time, and patience.

I believe it was Adam Curle who said that the process of reconciliation after a violent conflict takes at least as many years as the build up to the fighting. According to that reckoning, reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis will take well over 100 years. And the process of reconciliation cannot really begin properly until there is a just settlement of the conflict, i.e. an end to the occupation of Palestine.

Those of us who seek peace between Palestinians and Israelis – and that surely includes most Palestinians and Israelis themselves – need a great deal of patience. It is hardly surprising that young Palestinians are losing their patience as Israel continues to demolish Palestinian homes and takes the provocative step of closing the Al-Aqsa mosque for a day. Palestinian youths throwing stones and Molotov cocktails are met with rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas. More fatalities are likely.

There is an urgent need for new negotiations which will lead to a just and lasting solution to the conflict. The international community needs to insist on an immediate end to the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under international law. And there should be an embargo on all arms sales to Israel. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much prospect of that at the moment.

However, more and more countries, now including Sweden, are recognising Palestine as a state. The British government should follow suit, especially after the recent vote in parliament calling for recognition of the state of Palestine. If you live in Britain, you could check out how your MP voted and, according to how they voted, thank them or politely point out the error of their ways.

Quakers here in Brussels are collecting money for kindergartens in Gaza which have been supported by Norwegian Friends for many years. In Britain and Ireland, Quaker Peace & Social Witness, based in London, administers the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) on behalf of the World Council of Churches.

There are things which we can do as individual Quakers and as Quaker meetings. But ultimately we have no control over events in the Middle East. We can only do what we can to sow the seeds of peace and justice and wait for them to grow and bear fruit.

Much patience is called for. Working nonviolently for peace and justice requires a great deal of patience. Indeed, in Latin America peace activists, instead of using the term “nonviolence” or “nonviolent action”, talk about “relentless persistence”.

Patience and relentless persistence are required in personal relationships as well. We need to persist in loving one another, both our nearest and dearest and those who seem to be working against us, until we discover, as Thomas Merton did, that “it is the reality of personal relationships which saves everything”.

This statement is the conclusion of Thomas Merton’s “Letter to a young activist”, which I quoted in my blogpost on “Joy”, published on 21 June. As a footnote to that blogpost I also gave the text of a letter from Isaac Penington to Friends (Quakers) in Amersham, written in 1667. In that letter he tells us: “Watch one over another, in that which is gentle and tender, and knows it can neither preserve itself, nor help another out of the snare; but the Lord must be waited upon, to do this in and for us all.

I’m reminded of a dream which I had quite a few years ago now, at a time when I was suffering from depression. In my dream, I was in a meadow at the bottom of the grounds of a large stately home or castle somewhere in Scotland. I found myself sinking into a bog. I was floundering and beginning to panic. A woman appeared and tried to pull me out, but that didn’t work and she was in danger of being pulled into the bog herself. I then heard someone telling me to stretch my legs down until I felt firm ground beneath my feet. So I stretched my legs down and, lo-and-behold, found firm ground. I was then able to walk out of the bog.

God provides the firm foundation, on which we can stand. No-one else can pull us out of the snare. “The Lord must be waited upon, to do this in and for us all.”

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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.

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?

Three weeks in Palestine: Taking stock

I’ve now been in Palestine/Israel for just over three weeks: nearly two weeks on a Quaker Voluntary Action (QVA) “pilgrimage”, and now ten days at the Friends International Centre in Ramallah.

The QVA project was very intensive. Twelve of us met in Jerusalem on 18 October, joined in the weekly vigil of Women in Black and then went to the Garden Tomb to meet with Linda, a Quaker who works for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and lives in a settlement just outside Jerusalem.

We spent the following week based in a village north of Ramallah. During that week we visited the Friends School in Ramallah, attended Sunday morning Meeting for Worship in Ramallah Friends Meeting House, heard a talk by Thuqan Qishawi, who used to work for the American Friends Service Committee and now works freelance with young people, spent a day picking olives in Al-Jib, a village between Ramallah and Jerusalem, visited Jacob’s Well and a refugee camp near Nablus, visited the Palestinian Association for Cultural Exchange, and visited Efrat, an Israeli settlement south of Bethlehem.

An eco-centre in a village near Jericho was our base for the next couple of days. On our way there we visited the Mount of Temptation and Hisham’s Palace. We spent a morning working at the eco-centre. Then in the afternoon a few of us visited the place on bank of the River Jordan where Jesus is said to have been baptised by John the Baptist. We left for Tel Aviv the following day after a long and arduous hike down a wadi, a steep river valley which is dry during the summer until the rains come in December.

North of Tel Aviv we visited Dorothy Naor of New Profile and Amos Gvirtz, a veteran peace activist. Both of them impressed me greatly.

Half of the QVA group returned to Britain on 29 October when the QVA “pilgrimage” ended. Two of us enjoyed a train ride to Jerusalem, where Harriet wanted to stay and do some sight-seeing. I took a bus to Ramallah and somehow managed to find my way to the Friends Meeting House and the Friends International Centre (FICR) without getting lost. Hekmat, who has been keeping FICR going since Kathy Bergen left in July, was waiting for me along with three of her children.

Since I have been in Ramallah, the pace of life has been more relaxed. I have succeeded in posting something on my blog every evening, although this has meant some very late nights. I’ve met quite a number of people, largely thanks to Kathy Bergen, who is back in Palestine/Israel for a couple of weeks and will be attending the international conference of Sabeel, the Palestinian liberation theology centre in Jerusalem, 19-25 November. I’ve spent quite a lot of time “working” on my laptop, avidly reading about what’s happening in Palestine and Israel. So I’m piecing together a picture of what the occupation of Palestine means for the people living here.

I’m looking forward to meeting whoever comes to Meeting for Worship on Sunday. And some time next week Jean Zaru, the presiding clerk of the Meeting should get back from the States in time to speak at the Sabeel conference. Having just read her book, “Occupied with Nonviolence: a Palestinian woman speaks”, I’m keen to meet her at last.

Just living in Ramallah is quite an adventure for me. Even going shopping is exciting. I’m still not sure where to find everything that I want.

I won’t just be stopping in Ramallah, though. Next Friday I shall meet for worship with Linda and another Quaker in Jerusalem. From Tuesday to Saturday the following week I shall take part in the Sabeel conference, which includes an excursion to the Negev where Bedouins are being evicted from their villages. A week later, I’m planning a visit to Bethlehem followed by a second visit to Efrat. Before I return to Europe on 16 December I hope also to fit in trips to Hebron and Nablus. So I expect to have a few more stories to tell.

There can be no peace without justice

This evening I went out for a meal with Kathy Bergen and two of her friends here in Ramallah, Lois and Khalil. I joined the three of them in a Mexican restaurant, which they said had opened two years ago. Nowadays you can find quite a variety of restaurants and cafés in Ramallah: Chinese, Italian, “Charlie Fried Chicken”, etc., although I have yet to find an Indian restaurant. Unfortunately the restaurant that we had chosen turned out to be rather noisy. But it may just have been because it is Thursday night, the start of the weekend here.

Because of the noise, it was difficult to hold much of a conversation, but I did ask Khalil what he thought about the current peace talks between Israel and Palestine. He said that they are not peace talks but “capitulation talks”. The Palestinians are being expected to capitulate to Israeli demands. The Israelis have suggested, for example, that the Jordan Valley be given to Israel on a 99-year lease, and that the border between Israel and the West Bank should follow the “separation barrier” instead of the Green Line that was drawn in 1967.

How can the Palestinians be expected to give up more land? They have already had so much taken away from them. There was Al Nakba, “the Catastrophe”, in 1948, when many were driven out of their villages and became refugees, the war in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, and, during the past 20 years, the de facto annexation of Area C which covers 61% of the West Bank.

Area C includes a significant number of Israeli settlements well inside the West Bank. These will have to be given up, if a Palestinian state is to be viable. There are several settlements in the Jordan Valley with a total population of about 9,000. But there are about 56,000 Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley, mostly in Jericho, but also in villages such as Auja, which I visited with a Quaker Voluntary Action group about a fortnight ago.

Should Israel be given control over the Jordan Valley (and its fertile land and water resources), which they claim they need as a buffer zone against potentially hostile Arab neighbours? Or does a Palestinian state have to include the Jordan Valley, if it is to be viable? Israel has already stolen much of the land and the lion’s share of the water in defiance of international law. Should this be tolerated?

I’m not a great fan of Tony Blair, but he says: “Along the Jordan Valley you have immensely rich agricultural land. It’s hard to see frankly how in the future you’re going to have a Palestinian state that doesn’t include that. … What we’ve got to try to do I think, even in advance of final agreement, is to give people on the Palestinian side a sense that the world is changing and that they can see the prospect of a genuine state opening up before them, … Likewise for the Israelis of course [we must show] that the security concerns… are going to be taken account of.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24802623)

It is indeed essential to heed Israel’s legitimate security concerns. But the path to peace and security is not through the creation of an apartheid state in which Palestinians are confined within half-a-dozen “Bantustans”. There can only be peace with justice. The human rights of both Palestinians and Israelis, wherever they live, must be safeguarded in any solution to the conflict. At present the occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, and discrimination against Palestinians living in Israel mean that many Palestinians are denied their basic human rights.

I don’t wish to be pessimistic, but I find it difficult to imagine that the current peace talks will result in an agreement. There are too many intractable issues: the status of East Jerusalem, the future of the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the right of refugees to return to their homeland,…

We are told that US Secretary of State John Kerry will submit a peace plan, if the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators fail to reach agreement. If that peace plan is fair to the Palestinians, I can’t imagine that the Israeli government would accept it, especially with Avigdor Lieberman back as Foreign Minister, having been acquitted of corruption charges.

Will the international community then stand by wringing its hands as Israel continues to extend the West Bank settlements, “which are illegal under international law and a major obstacle to peace”, as the EU frequently complains? Or will we demonstrate our solidarity with the Palestinians (and Israelis who should also be allowed to live in peace and security) by joining their boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign?

“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).”

Amos Gvirtz: man of passion and compassion

Yesterday (Monday 28 October) was the last full day of the Quaker Voluntary Action project which has taken 12 of us to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus, Jericho, Tel Aviv and neighbouring villages. We met for several hours during the afternoon and evening with Amos Gvirtz in his home on the kibbutz in which he has spent all his life.

Amos Gvirtz is a nonviolent peace activist and a passionate proponent of justice for the Palestinians throughout Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He had a lot to tell us. Before the war of 1948 Jews formed 10% of the population and owned 1% of the land. During that war most of the Palestinians were driven out of what is now Israel, so that now Jews make up 80% of the population and own 97% of the land. Whilst Israelis call the war in 1948 the “War of Independence”, Palestinians refer to it as the “Naqba” or “Catastrophe”.

Since 1967 Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) have grown inexorably. The policy of the Israeli government is de facto annexation of Area C, which comprises 54% of the West Bank. Palestinians who own land in Area C or in East Jerusalem have their land confiscated. Many Palestinian families have had their homes demolished. And Israel is taking 80% of the water in the West Bank. Palestinians experience these violations of their human rights as a war of a military power against defenceless civilians.

The population of Israeli settlers in the West bank has grown from 110,000 in 1993 to 204,000 in 2000 and 320,000 in 2013.

As land confiscations and house demolitions continue, there is a “war process”, no real “peace process”.  If Israel were serious about wanting peace, they would stop the demolition of Palestinian homes and the continuing construction of settlements. “On the ground, the one-sided war against the Palestinians is continuing.”

If Israel were “persuaded” by the international community to agree to a two-state solution and settlements had to be evacuated, the settlers would not go quietly. Would the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) remove them forcibly? Amos thinks that such a scenario would lead to a civil war.

The Palestinians have to choose between violent resistance and nonviolent struggle. If they choose violence, Israel will always win because Israel has overwhelming military power. Violent acts by Palestinians are used by the Israeli government to justify the continuing repression of the Palestinians in the name of security. Nonviolent action on the other hand would mean that Israelis would no longer fear for their lives and could no longer justify abuse of the human rights of Palestinians.

Israelis can take nonviolent action through conscientious objection to military service or to serving in the Occupied Territories. And they can refuse to buy products from the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The international community can engage in boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). Amos agreed that a boycott of settlement products would hurt Palestinians working in the settlements. This demonstrates the willingness of Palestinians to suffer themselves in the struggle for justice rather than inflict suffering on their enemies, the Israelis. There needs to be an escalation of nonviolence on all sides of the conflict. Israelis should be taking part in this nonviolent struggle.

Amos was most passionate when talking about the plight of the Bedouin in the Negev, the southern part of Israel. About 1,000 houses are being destroyed each year by the Israelis in order to force the Bedouin out of about 45 “unrecognised” villages into two densely populated towns. Many acres of crops such as wheat and barley have been destroyed. The highest rates of unemployment and poverty in Israel are to be found in the two “concentration towns”. Amos describes the action against the Bedouin as an act of war. There has, however, been very little publicity. Israel is failing in its responsibility to protect its own citizens, but the international community seems to be turning a blind eye. More people need to visit the Bedouin and demonstrate their solidarity and support.