Pax Christi: 'Building bridges not walls' in the Holy Land

 The harsh reality of life for both Jewish and Palestinian people in the Holy Land was graphically described in an illustrated talk given by Pat Gaffney, general secretary of Pax Christi, at Holy Apostles, Pimlico on Monday night. Pat recently visited the region with a delegation from Pax Christi International. Over Christmas they stayed with Christian and Muslim families in Bethlehem. "It's just a 20 minute journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem," she said, "but most of our Palestinian friends had not been allowed to go there for five years." Those Palestinians who do attempt to travel anywhere can be held up for many hours waiting at checkpoints - "armed by vulnerable and nervous young Israeli conscripts - a recipe for disaster" Pat said. "When you are an international you can travel around the country very quickly. It was a terrible feeling passing those long queues of tired people." The group prayed with Jewish friends in Jerusalem and placed prayers in the Temple Wall. They also visited hospitals, schools, churches and community groups in the Occupied Territories. Pat said life in both communities felt tense. "900 Israelis have been killed by suicide bombers. People live in fear of going on buses or into cafes. Each time there's an attack, Israel responds with house demolitions resulting in many Palestinian deaths. It's a vicious circle of violence." Although Pat said she was encouraged by talk of a ceasefire, she felt: "That is really just the tip of the iceberg. The underlying causes need to be examined." One of Pat's photographs depicted a mural of a refugee camp - rows of tents with lines of barbed wire on one side, on which hung many keys. She explained: "In 1948, more than 500 villages were cleared. The people from them were forced out and many still live in 59 refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Syria. Those are the keys to their lost homes." Pat said: "There are 800 Jewish settlements now in Palestinian territory. Each one is very modern and well equipped with its own private road guarded by solders at hundreds of checkpoints. The people there are so isolated they must feel miserable." In Hebron Pat said she was shocked to see a small number of fortified Jewish houses in the town centre. "5,000 Israeli solders are posted there to guard them." Another security feature causing great tensions is the Separation Wall. Pat described how one small town - Kalkya - is now completely encircled by the high concrete wall and electric fence. "There is just one entrance now" she said. "it's so sad. The people had good relations with the settlers who used to come down to the market. That has completely stopped. People understand that the Israelis need to protect themselves, but this wall is taking over farmland, water sources, and cutting off communities." Pat said she was "horrified" to see the wall now also snakes round Bethlehem. "Two or three Christian families have been completely cut off and will have to leave." Throughout her visit Pat said she was very impressed with the kindness and hospitality of the Palestinian people. At one girls' school she said pupils were "smart, articulate and desperate to tell us about what was happening." During their visit, she said, the delegation held art and writing workshops with young people, telling them about the Berlin Wall and Northern Ireland experience. Pat explained that Pax Christi runs a number of projects to promote peace in the Holy Land. They support Israeli groups working for peace, including conscientious objectors and their families and organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights. They take part in an accompaniment programme started by the World Council of Churches, in which trained volunteers spend three months working in Jewish and Palestinians communities, with duties such as taking children to school and monitoring checkpoints. And they have started a campaign to raise awareness of the Partition Wall currently being built, named after Pope John Paul's statement: 'People Need Bridges - Not Walls. If you would like more information about Pax Christi and its work, call: 0208 203 4884 or visit:

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