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Saturday, March 25, 2017
Diary of Pax Christi visit to Israel and Palestine
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¬†Two of us made the journey, myself, Pat Gaffney and Ann Farr, a member of our Executive Committee. The purpose of our visit was primarily to renew contact with our partners and friends in Bethlehem at the Arab Educational Institute. Their work has expanded since we last met in 2004 with a new project, the Peace-Sumud House. We wanted to discover how we might better cooperate with this work. In addition we wanted to learn first hand of the work of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (Pax Christi International ≠ and a number of national Pax Christi sections support this programme) in order to better promote their work within our membership network and church groups in the UK. 1 October Arrival at Ben Gurion airport and take a sharut /shared taxi to Jerusalem. While in Jerusalem we were based at St George's Hostel, at the Anglican Cathedral in East Jerusalem. Joined the community for evening prayer and it seemed appropriate that we read Psalm 72 as part of that prayer - "Endow the king with your justice O God" , a reminder, if we needed it of the need for justice in this land. On route to Jerusalem we became aware of the first of several religious festivals, that of Sukkot which commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. We saw many Sukkot or booths, built on balconies and in gardens, simple wood or plastic walls with tree branches or reeds as a roof. This festival lasts for seven days during which time many families eat all of their meals in their Sukkah ≠ exposed to the stars, sun and possibly rain! That evening we walked to the Old City and found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of mainly young Muslim women, men and some families, making their way to the Damascus Gate and into the Muslim Quarter. We are in the period of Ramadam. At five o'clock or thereabouts a cannon is fired to mark the end of the fasting period and soon after thousands make their way to the Al Aqsa Mosque. We were pulled along by the crowd, passing stalls laden with food and gifts through the narrow suqs decorated with fairy lights for the season. At each intersection young Israeli soldiers stood with their guns, monitoring the movement of the crowds. Unfortunately we were stopped at the gates of the Mosque ≠ no space for us that night. Those entering would spend at least two hours in prayer before leaving to take a more substantial meal. 2 October Once we discovered which local bus to take we set out to visit the Christian ≠ Muslim Arab village of Bethany or al-Azariyya ≠ from the name of Lazarus. Soon realised that we had taken the 'long route', the route that went around Jerusalem on one of the many newly completed 'bypass' roads, roads that link Israeli areas and settlements but with no stopping or crossing places for Palestinians. Short visit to the Church dedicated to St Lazarus and the tomb which according to tradition is where Lazarus was buried, then to our main task ≠ to find the Comboni Sisters house. The sisters have had a presence here for many years, running a retreat/ conference centre and a kindergarten for local, mainly Muslim children. Five sisters, four Italian and one Egyptian run the centre and serve the community. We had heard that the separation wall had spread to this area but to see it, surrounding the convent and grounds was extremely sad. It winds around the sisters house (and also around the house of the Passionists Fathers) and will eventually leave them on the Israeli side of the wall, separating them from their village and local community. Their main concern is whether or not the children will be able to pass through the checkpoint that has been created in the wall to kindergarten. It may be that the soldiers will require the names of all the children who attend. We also heard that often parents, now unable to pass the checkpoint, send their children to the other side for shopping. The sisters suggested that we go back via the checkpoint and take a much shorter journey back to Jerusalem. This we did, aware that for many Palestinians in al Azariyya this is not an option! In the afternoon we met with Mordechai Vanunu, released from Israeli prison in 2004 after serving an 18 year sentence. We had met Mordechai on our 2004 visit, renewing contact was good but rather depressing. Since his release he lives under many restrictions, including a ban on international travel and a ban on speaking to foreign nationals. In the summer he was sentenced to a new term of six months in prison for supposedly breaking this ban and is in the process of appeal with another nearing in November. Unable to lead the normal life he longs for ≠ his wish is to live in America or Europe ≠ Mordechai lives a different form of imprisonment, a lonely life in an East Jerusalem hotel with days spent walking from one side of East Jerusalem to another. He has made this his temporary home, feeling more comfortable and secure in a Palestinian community. Walking with him through the Old City it became apparent that he is well known and liked. To our great surprise, we also ran into two UK colleagues from a Methodist community in Birmingham, also renewing their contact and solidarity with Palestinian communities and families. 3 October An early start, meeting with the newly arrived group of Ecumenical Accompaniers at the Mount of Olives Hotel. They come from a wide range of countries, South Africa, Norway, Poland, Switzerland, Sweden Germany and the UK. We were particularly delighted to meet three people form Pax Christi Germany, Mechtild, out for her second stint as an Ecumenical Accompanier and Brigitta and her husband, a former EA visiting contacts in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. We began with a briefing with Angela Godfrey Goldstein, advocacy officer for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. ICAHD is a nonviolent, direct-action group originally established to oppose and resist Israeli demolition of Palestinian houses in the Occupied Territories. Their activities have now expanded to other areas - land expropriation, settlement expansion, by-pass road construction, policies of "closure" and "separation". In August, Angela gave a paper at the UN international conference of civil society in support of Israeli-Palestinian peace, held at the European Parliament in Brussels. ( Our coach took us to the wall between Abu Dis and al Azariyya to a housetop of Palestinian houshold to get a view of the illegal building programme taking place around Jerusalem. Angela showed us a huge Israeli Police station built for 'security' purposes on the hillside opposite. She explained that this was built in preparation for a settlement development in the region of Nof Zion. Just below the house was a former Palestinian Hotel, the Cliff Hotel, now a 'disputed' building taken over by police and soldiers who patrol the wall and the al Azariyya checkpoint. From the rooftop we could see the path of the wall, showing how it has taken the maximum 'free', undeveloped land for Israel, leaving the most densely populated land for the Palestinians. The wall that we see in this area is cement, eight m high, typical of the wall built throughout Palestinian areas. Elsewhere, out of the city and nearer to settlements attempts are made to make the separation fences more attractive! The building of the wall and the expansion of settlements in Jerusalem has enormous impact on the Palestinian community. They divide Palestinian from Palestinian, family from family. They further isolate East Jerusalem and the people who live there from the West Bank and in some cases people with West Bank IDs are being made 'illegal' in their own homes as they are left behind on the 'wrong' side of the wall. They contribute to the running down of the economy ≠ market towns and trade between towns is made impossible in a process that Angela described as 'de-developing' Palestine. They aggravate the existing economic divide between East and West Jerusalem. While Palestinians pay rates and taxes, less than 10% of the budget is spent on them. So, in West Jerusalem one can find 33 municipal swimming pools, in East Jerusalem 3. In West Jerusalem 26 libraries and in East Jerusalem 2. Entire areas in East Jerusalem are without sewage systems paved roads or refuse collection (Statistics from B'Tselem). Driving through one of major settlements, Ma'ale Adumin, dramatically illustrated this contrast. It had gardens, parks, flower-lined roadways, the shopping malls. How much water must be used to create this beauty? Built in the desert, this settlement is home to 40,000 settlers, covering an area of 53 sq km. Ma'ale Adumin has been built to surround the eastern part of Jerusalem and in this way cut the West Bank in half. On the edge is an industrial estate which draws on cheap Palestinian labour ≠ allowing people in for work only. Angela commented on heavy pollution and environmental damage caused by such estates and the infrastructure developed between them, for example, the 6 lane highway, for use by Israeli's only, that will link Jerusalem to Jericho. Our final stop on the East Jerusalem settlement tour was above the Nof Zion settlement development. It is in the area of the that the Police Station we saw from al Azariyya , ready to provide security for the expansion of the settlement that will contain houses, schools, parks as it grows down the hill. We noted on the bill-board promoting the sale of flats and houses that some of the marketing is being undertaken in the U.S. A rather depressing day as the enormity of the structural divide and injustice hits home. No wonder that many are now calling this an Apartheid State ≠ with its features of displacement and dispossession, ethnic cleansing, separation, disenfranchisement and so on. 4 October Another feast day ≠ the feast of St Francis. Later, in Bethlehem, we were to discover that many of the Christian churches in the West Bank apply for travel permits for parishioners on Christian feast days ≠ to enable people to travel out to Jerusalem. A creative, nonviolent way of pushing the boundaries we thought! And it is also the Jewish feast of Simhat Torah ≠ Rejoicing for the law. Bad planning on our part as many of the Israeli offices and sites we had hoped to visit are closed. Later reading the Jerusalem Post we discover that 7,000 evangelical Christians had joined the annual parade through Jerusalem ≠ some 1,500 from Brazil. As we leave the Old City we were caught in a terrible human crush and appreciate the difficulties that Muslims have entering and leaving the city through just one gate during Ramadam. We hear that in the evenings, as Ramadan days draw to a close, age restrictions are placed on those who try to enter the Old City. It is not only in the surrounding area that we see the policy of squeezing the Palestinian community into ever smaller areas ≠ it happens here too. We move to Jerusalem, having found a driver with yellow plates who can move between Jerusalem and the West Bank. We enter Bethlehem via Beit Jala checkpoint, smaller and far less hassle than the Gilo terminal. (The word terminal is used rather than checkpoint because of the scale and nature of this crossing. Gilo os the name of a nearby settlement). We are dropped off at the Lutheran Church in the Old part of Bethlehem and met by one of the sisters from Mary's House the Bridgettine Convent guest house where we stay. In 2002, just a few months after their arrival in Bethlehem, during the Israeli incursions, the house was taken over for several days by Palestinian fighters and the sisters were held hostage. Much of the house was damaged as the Palestinians shot out and the Israeli's fired in. The Vatican became involved in negotiations to get the sisters released and to allow the young Palestinian fighters out (the sisters told us that most were simply young men from Bethlehem who were not really soldiers at all). The house was further damaged when the Israeli's entered Bethlehem and searched the house for Palestinians. Instead of asking for entry from the sisters they simply broke down the doors. Despite their experience, the sisters decided to remain in Bethlehem. 5 October An early start as we left Bethlehem to drive towards Tulkarem in the North to meet the EAPPI team there. We leave through the Gilo terminal, now linked on both sides to the wall, and experience chaos. This is a Friday morning and many Muslims from Bethlehem and beyond attempt to pass through to Jerusalem and the Al Aqsa Mosque for Friday prayers. The approach road is narrow and is almost impossible to pass with cars and minibuses off-loading hundreds of people. There are lines and lines of mainly older men and women (we later heard that preference is given to men and women over 50 years of age) who will have to pass through the gates and turnstiles of the checkpoint showing their passes for travel. We know from the reports of our EAPPI friends who do checkpoint duty here that this wait can last for hours and that the treatment of people is often humiliating. A system of funnelling larger groups of people through ever narrower roads and passageways ≠ is a deliberate attempt to break the spirit. We drive through, showing our passports twice. On the Israeli side ≠ which is actually Palestinian land that has been confiscated with the development of the wall, an absurd attempt at creating 'normality' with a roundabout decorated with beautiful flowers and as we look behind us a sign on the wall saying "Peace Be With You". This is almost obscured by the horrific covered walk-ways and turnstiles through which the Palestinian people must pass! Because we are travelling with a yellow number plate, our driver could use the by-pass roads. Our journey to Tulkarem took about 90 minutes. If Palestinians wish to travel to this town the journey, across country back-roads, can take anything up to 4 hours. Our destination was the Anabta checkpoint, a few miles from Tulkarem where we met the EAPPI team, Hayley from the UK, and Magnus and Joanna from Scandanavia. At the end of their three-month stay, they told us that part of their work has been monitoring at this and other checkpoints - logging how many cars and people are waiting, how long it takes to pass through, how many people are stopped for questioning and so on. If people, mainly young men, are stopped and questioned The EAs may intervene, asking what is happening and why. All of this information is passed on to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). They explain that sometimes, for no reason whatsoever, checkpoints can be closed. In the short while we are there the cars and vans build up on both sides. One car was pulled over and the Israeli police are called to check documents. And all of this on Palestinian land. We then moved on the checkpoint of Beit Iba, on one of the entry roads to Nablus. More substantial than Anabta, this has permanent buildings, a watchtower and iron turnstile gates through which everyone must pass. We go through the ritual of showing our passports and being told it is not 'safe' on the other side. We watch a little donkey drawn cart moves back and forward transporting goods for people passing from one side to another. Few cars are allowed to pass. This has been another base for our EAPPI colleagues. For their three months they lived in Tulkarem. They described their time there very warmly ≠ having made strong friendships with the people. They also told us that the refugee camp in Tulkarem, established after 1948, is home to 18 thousand people, living on 1 sq Km of land. We drove back to Bethlehem, dropping the EAPPI team in Jerusalem for their farewell service. The re-entry to Bethlehem is far worse than the leaving. Once through the security checks the road is totally log-jammed ≠ nothing can move as cars and vans now pick up people who had left in the morning. The placing of the terminal at this point must be deliberate ≠ into the most narrow of roads! Meanwhile, the road which used to be used, wide and easy to pass, is now only accessible to Israeli cars and coaches who come to visit Rachel's Tomb. In Bethlehem we made our first visit to our partners at the Arab Educational Institute. Here we met with Director Fuad Giacaman and Anton Murra Assistant Director and Youth Coordinator. We sit in on a meeting of the student group ≠ young students from Bethlehem and Abu Dis Universities. Their discussion topic for the evening is 'Tolerance' in relation to Christian understanding and solidarity with the fasting of their Muslim friends during Ramadam. We heard that at on another evening AEI groups had come together at the end of the day to share an Iftar meal (the meal that breaks the fast). 6th October To Rachel's Tomb and Wall!. Since our visit in 2004 the wall has now totally encircled this North part of Bethlehem, taking with it olive groves and farm land from the Palestinian community and destroying the life of those who persist and stay put in the shadow of the wall. Our first stop was at the Aida Refugee Camp and the Al-Rowwad Cultural & Theatre Training Centre. This centre runs educational support programmes for children at UN schools in the camp and uses art and drama as a way of enabling people to express their reality. The Arab Educational Institute is seeking ways of cooperating with the Centre, which works almost totally with a Muslim community. From the roof-top of the Al Rowwad centre we could see the wall snaking around the camp and Rachel's tomb. We were shown a small stage that had been build below part of the wall where young people had already participated in a number of performances. We saw examples of art-work created by the children on the wall surrounding the Intercontinental Hotel( this seemed very weird to us a huge hotel towering over the refugee camp!). These captured the names and images of the many Palestinian villages from which families in the camp had been removed in 1948. More of this can be seen on the website Our guide for the morning was Toine van Teffelen, who is the Development Director of the newly formed Peace-Sumud house near Rachel's Tomb ≠ a project of the AEI. We followed the path of the wall ≠ past Palestinian houses and workshops ≠ just meters from the wall ≠ that have now been abandoned. How can anyone live in such a place? When people leave their homes and businesses they also leave their assets and their livelihood! The wall passes near the Caritas Children's Hospital and the Bethlehem Inn and we heard of a weekly prayer vigil now takes place there. We walked on to one of the most desolate sites, the house of Claire Anastas which is now surrounded on three sides by the wall. We had met Claire and her family on our last visit when their house was still relatively open. The wall has been built in this way, 'entombing' Claire's house, to 'protect' Rachel's Tomb and access to the Tomb. The road is now a dead-end. Claire and her family are determined to stay and to share their experience. To offer some encouragement and support the AEI has started a Peace - Sumud house in a nearby apartment. We have a meeting at the Peace/Sumud house where a young volunteer from Hamburg, Mattias Stahlschmidt is based. Matthias, a theology student, has been placed here by his Lutheran church in Germany. The word 'Sumud' means steadfastness and attempts to illustrate the rootedness and persistence of the nonviolent resistance of the Palestinian people. The Peace ≠ Sumud House is a place for people to meet and celebrate, a place from which nonviolent actions against the Wall can be undertaken a place that aims to support the regeneration of local business by its presence. We hope to explore ways in which we can learn from the work of the House and create greater solidarity actions in the UK. We have already contributed to a book that is to be published on creating a pedagogy of hope and sumud in the shadow of the Wall. We also viewed a new CD presentation 'Rachel's Wall', with the stories of four or five families in and around the Rachel's Tomb area and we will work with Toine on producing support materials for use with the CD. We heard that a group from Gouda in the Netherlands had visited during the summer, taking part in workshops and art-related activities with the women's and youth groups. They helped to produce collage hangings of Palestinian houses and colourful art/graffiti along the wall near Claire's house to give some life and colour to the wall! This might be a model that we could encourage with Pax Christi members in the UK ≠ those with particular skills in the arts, communication etc could volunteer in future summer camps? In the afternoon we visited the AEI Communications Training Centre and met with Elias Moussa Abouakleh who is the Finance Director of the AEI. Thanks to funding from the Netherlands the Centre has been re-equipped with new computers and a sound studio which will enable training programmes to be held here. Many students in and around Bethlehem do not have access to computers in the home so this project is a real asset. We spent the evening with the family of Faizah, a member of the AEI women's group who lives in Biet Jala. It was a wonderful experience to break the fast with the family and enjoy a wonderfully presented Ifta meal while catching up on family news of weddings, university courses and the joys of English homework! 7 October A quite morning at Mary's House catching up on the week followed by a visit to the home of Fuad and Sylvana Giacaman for lunch. Fuad is the Founder and Director of the AEI, wonderfully supported by his strong wife Sylvana. I was fortunate enough to stay with them on my last visit and get to know their children and grandchildren. Again, we were overwhelmed by the hospitality of our friends, making time for us on the only quite day they have! Late in the afternoon we walked back to Bethlehem ≠ with Fuad accompanying us in what he called a 'walk and talk' experience, telling us the history of the area, who owned which pieces of land, who had left and so on. This reminded me of the privilege of being part of the Pax Christi family ≠ getting to know people not in a purely functional way but as friends and partners in peace. 8 October A morning with the AEI women's group at the Peace-Sumud House. This was chaired by Jala a former English teacher. The new EAPPI group who are based in Bethlehem join us, Johanna, Susan, Hilda and Mechtild from Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and Germany. The meeting began with a reading from the Pax Christi Peacemaking Day by Day booklet which the group use on a regular basis (it seems that this booklet is very popular ≠ luckily we brought more with us). The group then shared some of their activities from the past year: visits to elderly members of the community, their peace-actions at the wall on UN Peace Day; their sit-in and prayer at the Church of the Nativity and importantly their solidarity with one another and especially with Claire and her family. One woman phrased this beautifully, "We empty our sorrows together". Aysara, a Muslim member of the group offered a presentation on the Taraweeh prayers recited during Ramadam and reminded us that these particular nights ≠ towards the end of Ramadam were especially important when the Gabriel revealed the Qur'an. Each of us 'guests' had chance to speak and to open discussion on how we might keep in contact. One concrete idea that emerged was a joint focus on International Women's Day in 2008 ≠ linking women in the UK with women in Bethlehem. Ann presented the group with a candle from the Catholic Women's Network, explaining the logo of women with diverse skills working together. We also left a number of books with the group, writings and reflections from women theologians. It is good that our EAPPI friends will keep links with this group. This networking on the ground seemed to be a really important process. The EA's apartment is quite close to the Peace-Sumud house ≠ this is to enable them to get to the Gilo terminal at 4.00 am in the morning for their checkpoint duty! They go at this time as most men, trying to get through to the Jerusalem side in search of work, get to the terminal at around 3.00 am, sleeping on the road until it opens at 5.00am. Our estimation of the work of the EA's soared when we heard this! We then had very practical meetings with Toine, trying to capture some the ways in which we might be able to cooperate the work of the AEI and the Peace-Sumud house in particular. At the end of the day we made a short visit to another NGO, Wi'am the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center and its Director Zoughbi Zoughbi. He had been in the UK in the summer as a guest of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and had contributed to the National J&P Conference, Called to be Peacemakers. It was good to see him on home ground. Wi'am also runs a summer camp each year, offering creative opportunities during the school holiday time for children and young people. 9 October Anton Murra of the AEI had arranged for us to visit the Terra Sancta school run by the Franciscans in the heart of Bethlehem. A boys school, there are 1,200 pupils from pre-school to grade 12. Around 70% of the students are Christian, the reminder Muslim. As a 'private', which means church-run school, it receives no money from the PA and has to raise all its own funds. Those who can make a small contribution are encouraged to do so but the Principal, Fra Marawan Di'des, told us that most of the running costs are met externally. We had an opportunity to visit on of the classes, where the students were studying in English the impact of globalisation on world trade! We met with the English coordinator, a young woman who had worked in the US and had recently returned to Palestine. She spoke of her use of drama to open the students to contemporary issues such as the Iraq war, human trafficking global warning and so on. We shared with her the idea of the Pax Christi schools contest ≠ where young people produce a power-point on a peace topic and promised to send this to her and to Anton. She also spoke of the value she place on the work of the British Council but was disappointed that much of their Palestinian programme seems to be reducing. We said that we would try to follow up on this. We also talked of the possibility of making links with students here and students at a school in the UK Later in the day we visited workshop of the Holy Land Arts Museum which supplies Pax Christi with olive wood goods. Joseph Giacaman who runs the shop introduced us to his son Elias who is a craftsman working on olive wood goods. In their work-yard they showed us olive wood that was being left to mature. The wood comes from trees that have been pruned, no trees are destroyed. The family have had this business since the 1920s passing on skills form one generation to another. At one time they employed around 20 people. Now only 6. Without tourism and export opportunities there is no demand for goods so skills are lost and there is grave unemployment. Both Joseph and Elias have great pride in their work and in some of the early pieces of mother of pear, carved by Joseph's father. These will never be sold ≠ they are works of art and there are no longer crafts men who can produce goods of such quality. We explained that we used the sale of the olive wood goods to raise awareness about life in Bethlehem and to talk about the impact that occupation has on the lives of people in the West Bank. Farewells with promises to keep in touch and visit again rounded our visit. We left with very mixed emotions. Incredulity at the news we heard on our visit that Tony Blair, the new Peace Envoy to the region expressed his great surprise at how things are in Palestine. Depression at the 'carving' up of Palestinian land with the wall, the roads and the settlements which seem to make the possibility of a two-state solution impossible to imagine. Admiration at the friends and partners we had met ≠ their determination to make a difference, to resist nonviolently, to give hope to one another. Resolve, to do the little we can to be with these friends ≠ to share their story, encourage others to be in solidarity with them and speak up to those who are involved in political decision making to urge a just solution for the people of Palestine which will bring real peace and security to both Israel and Palestine. Useful contacts and websites Arab Educational Institute (affiliated to Pax Christi International) Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) Gill Swain ≠ an Ecumenical Accompanier from the UK currently in Hebron is writing a regular blog for the Daily Mirror. B'tselem, Israeli Information Centre on Human Rights UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Israeli Coalition against House Demolition (ICHAD). Resources Available from Pax Christi Olive Wood goods from Bethlehem. We have a range of Olive Wood Stars - single £1.00, set of 5 £5.00 or Plain live Wood Crosses ≠ single £1.50, set of 5 £7.50 and Mother of Pearl Dove Brooches at £2.50 each. Living Under Occupation: Daily life for the People of Palestine. Produced by Pax Christi. Price £6 Voices for Peace: Changing perspectives on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Produced by group of European Catholic Development agencies. Price £2 The Iron Wall a 52 minute DVD documentary on Israel's settlement programme and the separation wall. Can be borrowed from Pax Christi, handling charge £10.00. Also see website The Children of the Nakba. A 28 minute DVD of stories recounting events of 1947 and 1949. Study guide included. Produced by the Mennonite Central Committee. Can be borrowed from Pax Christi, handling charge £10 Actions Write a letter of support to Mordechai Vanunu and arrange to send him Christmas cards. Address: PO Box 20102, Herodotus Post Office, East Jerusalem 91384, via Israel. Take part in the End Israeli Occupation: Peace for All Lobby of Parliament on 28th November between 2 ≠ 6 pm , Westminster, London. The lobby will focus on questions of international law, the illegal wall, democratic principles for the people Palestine. Contact the Pax Christi office for more information or download the leaflet from Encourage your parish/school to take part in the Christmas Messages to Bethlehem project ≠ between Pax Christi and our partners the Arab Educational Institute. Look at the Pax Christi website for details or contact the office. Source: Pax Christi
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