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.

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Palestinian Christians committed to nonviolent resistance

The ninth international conference of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre began today in Jerusalem. I got there just in time to catch up with the main group of participants as they were heading off to the Melkite church in the Old City. I was greeted by Omar, one of the Sabeel staff whom I met in the office last week. He led me and a few other stragglers down through the Old City. We soon caught up with the people ahead of us.

Most of the conference participants are from the USA. Scandinavian countries are also well represented. I found a few people from England, Scotland, and Ireland. Many, perhaps most, participants are past retirement. There seems to be a good mixture of people from various protestant churches, as well as Anglicans and Catholics. I chatted briefly with three people from Dublin, who turned out to be Methodist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic.

The Melkite or Greek Catholic church, in which we worshipped, is very ornate, similar to an Orthodox church. This is not altogether surprising, since the Greek Catholics use Orthodox rites and liturgy, although they owe their allegiance to Rome. The worship was ecumenical, with Greek Catholic chanting of a prayer, an Anglican sermon (given by Naim Ateek, the director of Sabeel), and one or two Taizé chants. We all recited the Lord’s prayer in our own language.

After the worship we returned to the Notre Dame Hotel, where the conference is being held. Before the evening meal, we watched an excellent film, “The Stones Cry Out”, slightly less than an hour in length, about Palestinian Christians, whose ancestral roots go back to the first followers of Jesus.

In the film, Elias Chacour, author of “Blood Brothers” and now Melkite Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and all Galilee, and other Palestinian Christians are interviewed about their experience of Al Nakba, the Catastrophe of 1948. The Palestinian inhabitants of Kafr Bir’im, including the eight-year-old Elias Chacour, were driven out of the village by Israeli forces and never allowed to return. Many Palestinian villages suffered a similar fate.

The film also told the story of nonviolent resistance in Beit Sahour, a predominantly Christian town next to Bethlehem. In 1989, during the first intifada, a campaign of tax resistance prompted a harsh response from the Israeli military. Furniture and other household goods were confiscated, the town was placed under siege for 42 days, and 40 people were arrested.

The evening session began with an excellent short (less than ten minutes) animated film, which gave a summary of the history of Palestine/Israel since 1947. Maps showed how the Palestinians have lost more and more land. The film was made by Jewish Voice for Peace.

The keynote speaker for the evening was Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, General Secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative, and a candidate in the presidential election in 2005. He showed us how the Palestinians are being confined within a shrinking space. The West Bank and Gaza constitute 22% of historical Palestine, west of the River Jordan. Without Area C, over which they have no control, the Palestinians are left with only 39% of the West Bank.

Mustafa Barghouti believes that it was a big mistake for the Palestinian Authority to go into renewed peace talks with Israel without insisting on a freeze on settlement construction. The continuing expansion of settlements is not only illegal under international law. It is also in contravention of the Oslo Accords.

There has to be a change in the balance of power between Israel and Palestine, if there is to be a just and lasting peace agreement. Palestinian nonviolent resistance needs the support of international solidarity. Mustafa Barghouti said that Israel should be punished, e.g. by a boycott, for its violations of international law. Boycott, divestment, and sanctions must make the occupation costly for Israel.

Sitting on the bus back to Ramallah, I thought to myself: The occupation will come to an end, when the USA decides to stop financing it.

Life under occupation

The afternoon began with a film documenting daily “life” at the Qalandia checkpoint on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah. An Israeli activist took it upon herself to spend each day for about eight years filming what was happening at the checkpoint.

We saw crowds of people in the “cattle pens” pushing to get through the turnstiles, which are reminiscent of the machines which are used to remove the feathers from chicken. Once through the first turnstile, you have to put whatever you are carrying onto a conveyor belt to go through a scanner as at an airport, and walk through an arch to be scanned yourself.

Then you have to show your passport or ID card by placing it up against the glass screen which separates you from the Israeli soldiers who decide whether or not to let you pass through into Jerusalem. If you are an international or a Palestinian with a valid permit you are allowed to go through a second turnstile. There is then a third turnstile at the exit from the checkpoint.

Workers who need to get to work in Jerusalem or further inside Israel face delays of up to two hours. Or they may even be refused entry into Jerusalem. They are likely to lose their jobs, if they don’t turn up for work, or if they are too late too often.

The film also showed scenes of would-be worshippers, including elderly women, being forced to wait for hours in the hot sun during Ramadan.

After the film, Jean Zaru, presiding clerk of Ramallah Friends Meeting, talked to us about the violence being done to Palestinians in the occupied territories. The direct violence, such as the shooting of two Palestinians at checkpoints last week, is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a great deal of structural violence, which is economic, political, cultural, and religious.

The response of many Palestinians to this oppression is to withdraw into themselves (“inner emigration”), to accommodate or adjust to the situation as best they can, or to manipulate the system to their own advantage by fair means or foul. And those who have family connections in the USA or elsewhere may literally emigrate, if given the chance.

Jean advocated nonviolent resistance as the Christian response to oppression. Jesus’ way was to oppose evil without becoming evil oneself. He preached the reign of God, which is free of domination. “Struggle changes us. It gives us life. … It not only transforms us, but also makes us transforming people.”

The second of three speakers was a human rights lawyer working with the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association. There are 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, including 15 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, nine of whom are being held in administrative detention.

Prisoners can be kept in administrative detention for six months at a time. But the detention order can be renewed indefinitely, sometimes for as long as eight years. Detainees are not charged and their lawyers are not allowed to see any evidence which may (or may not) justify their incarceration.

According to international law prisoners who have committed crimes in an occupied territory must be imprisoned within that territory, not inside the occupying country. But all Palestinian prisoners held by the Israelis are held in jails within Israel. This means that family members are often not able to visit them, because they are not able to obtain the permit required for entry into Israel.

What can we in the West do? Campaign for a boycott of G4S, which provides security in Israeli prisons and interrogation centres, and at checkpoints.

The third speaker was Sam Bahour, managing partner of Applied Information Management, a Palestinian business which provides “professional and independent consulting and research”. Sam explained how Israeli control of Palestinian infrastructure restricts economic development.

Palestinians who are experts in particular fields, but who live in other parts of the world, are not allowed to enter Palestine. Israel controls all the borders, including those between the West Bank and Jordan and between Gaza and Egypt. The journey between Ramallah and Bethlehem – only about 20 miles as the crow flies – takes about 1 hour 45 minutes because of the circuitous route: south to Qalandia, east to the Jordan Valley, south towards the Dead Sea, and then west to Bethlehem. And there are three checkpoints on the way.

Sam told us about his daughters’ reading of history and prediction of the future. There was the “Catastrophe” of 1948 when many thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes. Palestinians have been trying in various ways to reclaim their homeland ever since.

War and armed struggle hasn’t worked. Appealing to international law hasn’t worked, because the superpowers turn a blind eye to Israeli violations. Negotiations with Israel brought the Oslo Agreement which has allowed Israel to entrench the occupation and further colonise the West Bank. The “facts on the ground” created by Israel make a two-state solution virtually impossible.

So, Sam’s daughters say, we will let Israel have everything, the land and the people. We will then campaign for our civil rights within a unitary state. It may take some time. But we will win.

A day in Jerusalem

I set off rather later than intended this morning. Then it took longer than usual to get through the checkpoint on the way to Jerusalem. The bus that I caught from Ramallah only went as far as the checkpoint at Qalandia. We all had to walk through, instead of going through on the bus. There was then a hold-up, because the Israeli soldiers refused to allow a teenage girl to go through. Presumably she didn’t have the right papers.

So it was past eleven o’clock by the time I reached the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre in East Jerusalem. I found Bridget, a British volunteer, folding hymn sheets to go inside orders of service for the worship on the last full day of next week’s international conference. I set to work inserting the folded hymn sheets into the orders of service which we had folded and stapled yesterday.

I was able to do one other task before I left the office: numbering sticky spots to go on conference participants’ name badges, so that they will know which table to sit at either during meal times or during group discussion sessions.

As I was about to leave, I was invited to stay for lunch. I was tempted. Lunch had been good on both the previous two days. But I had to get away in order to find my way to Karmon Street in West Jerusalem in good time for Meeting for Worship at two o’clock.

There’s a tram line which runs all the way from a settlement in East Jerusalem to Mount Herzl in West Jerusalem. I’m told that Palestinians are discouraged from using it. They use the buses which run from the Qalandia checkpoint to a bus station near Damascus Gate.

I took the tram, which is, of course, much quicker and more comfortable. It would also have taken me all the way to my destination, if I hadn’t got off one stop too soon. I studied the local map at the tram stop and my own less detailed map of Jerusalem and decided that I would do better to wait for the next tram to take me to the next stop. The trams run every seven minutes or so. It would have taken me a lot longer to walk.

The Quaker Meeting for Worship was held in the ground floor flat of one of the two Quakers who live in/near Jerusalem. Maureen is still in the process of moving from Oxford to join her husband, who is Israeli. Linda, whom I had met at the Garden Tomb at the start of the Quaker Voluntary Action “pilgrimage” that I joined last month, works for the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority and lives, with about twenty cats, in a settlement just outside Jerusalem.

After meeting in silent worship for half-an-hour, we had a fascinating discussion about the archaeology and ancient history of the Middle East. Actually, I basically listened to Maureen and Linda’s discussion, perhaps throwing in the odd question. Both of them are far more learned than I am about these subjects. Linda, who is a botanist, told us of her plans to take part in an archaeological excavation in Jordan. She will be trying to sort out and study organic matter: seeds, pollen, and maybe textiles and rope.

I forget whether it was Maureen or Linda who pointed out that studies of people’s DNA in the Middle East show that Palestinians and Israelis have much the same DNA. It seems that both are descended from the Canaanites.

There was some discussion of the story of the Exodus, which is central to both Jewish faith and Christian liberation theology. It seems that only a small group of people left Egypt and crossed the River Jordan into Samaria, which now forms the northern part of the West Bank. It seems likely that the walls of Jericho were brought down several times by earthquakes rather than by a trumpet blast.

The conversation wasn’t only about ancient history. Linda told me about the Hope School for Palestinian children with special needs, which is situated in Area C between Bethlehem and the settlement where she lives. Quakers from Sunderland in the northeast of England have provided funds to furnish the newly-built school dining room.

At the end of the afternoon Linda kindly gave me a lift from Maureen’s flat to the Old City. The trams and buses stop running before sundown on Fridays at the start of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. As we drove towards the Old City, Linda pointed out the President’s house and other notable buildings, such as the YMCA, which seems to me to be an upmarket hotel from what she was saying.

Linda dropped me off at the Jaffa Gate, so I was able to enjoy an amble through the Old City to the Damascus Gate. The main streets and alleyways are lined with shops selling all sorts of souvenirs, jewellery, T-shirts, scarves, dresses, footwear, etc. There are a few food shops as well, and restaurants and barber shops. I wandered down through the Christian Quarter and then along to the Damascus Gate, so all the shopkeepers were Palestinian. It was getting near to closing time, but there were still quite a few tourists wandering through the streets. One or two groups of Orthodox Jews passed by. A group of tourists gathered round their guide at one point. I couldn’t really hear what he was saying, but it sounded like Russian or Polish to me. There were also Palestinians going about their business. It was dark by the time I emerged from the Old City through the Damascus Gate.

The buses to Ramallah are quite frequent. And they are fast as far as the checkpoint at Qalandia. So I was back “home” at the Friends International Centre around 6.30 p.m. I cooked myself a simple meal (and ate it) and then sat down to work through my e-mails.

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.”

“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).”

My kind of religion

I’m about half way through reading Jean Zaru’s book, “Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian Woman Speaks”. She tells of the suffering of Palestinians since the “Catastrophe” of 1948, and focusses in particular on the wholesale violations of human rights under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem since 1967.

Jean Zaru is the Presiding Clerk of the small group of Quakers in Ramallah. She is well respected in the ecumenical world, having served on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches.

In the first chapter of her book she writes:

“For forty years, I have been walking that edge where the spiritual meets the political. For me, the two have always been integrated. My spirituality is rooted in the human dignity and human rights of all people, and the sacredness of Mother Earth. I feel compelled to work for a world in which human freedom and dignity can flourish. Spirituality can bring life and vibrancy and imagination to my struggle, but of course I recognize that the mixture of religion and politics can also fuel the most extreme and violent acts and lead to systems of self-righteous repression.

“Many activists mistrust religion and spirituality, sometimes for good reason. But each of us finds ourselves engaged in the work for peace and justice because something is sacred to us – so sacred that it means more than convenience or comfort. It might be God, or the Spirit, or the sacredness of life or belief in freedom. Whatever it is, it can nurture us.

“Many people want religion, but they want it in its place apart from their business, their politics, their luxuries and conveniences. My own experience is that religion cannot be lived except with one’s whole everyday life, and what cannot be humanly lived is not religion. Religion involves commitment and relationship, and relationship is action and engagement in the real issues of life. But there is no relationship without love, only waste, strife, madness, and destruction. Love makes it necessary to find the way of truth, understanding, justice, and peace. My kind of religion is a very active, highly political, often controversial, and sometimes very dangerous form of engagement in active nonviolence for the transformation of our world.”

This is the kind of religion that the world needs, a religion that unites people in a struggle for peace, justice, and sustainability, and in the celebration of life.

Religion is too often divisive and destructive. I saw this during the Troubles in Northern Ireland where religious division led to bombings and shootings and people being driven out of their homes. Somewhere amongst all my slides I have an image of a boarded up florist’s shop in Lurgan. The sign over the shop said: “Say it with flowers!”

Now I see the destructiveness of divisive religion in Palestine/Israel. Of course the religious division is bound up with political, economic, and cultural divisions, just as it was in Northern Ireland. Religion is used to justify taking away people’s land and building illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Whilst talking about peace talks, the Israeli government continues with the construction of houses for Jews only in East Jerusalem, where Palestinian houses are regularly demolished. The Israeli government wants to establish Jewish control over the whole of Jerusalem and is in effect annexing much of the West Bank, leaving half a dozen “Bantustans” under the administration of the Palestinian Authority.

Don’t get me wrong! I don’t want to give the impression that all Israelis are bad and all Palestinians are good. As Tolstoy said, the line between good and evil passes through every human heart. It is the policies and actions of the Israeli government that I object to. Acts of violence are committed by both sides, but it is not a symmetrical conflict. Palestinians are subjected to systematic violence and oppression, whereas Israelis may occasionally be the victims of more-or-less random acts of violence.

If the conflict is waged with weapons of violence, Israel will win easily because of overwhelming military superiority. Many Palestinians – with the support of Israeli activists – are therefore choosing to conduct a nonviolent struggle for justice. They need our support.