Buses lined up outside the venue of the Pax Christi International Assembly at noon today to take the 160 participants out on exposure visits. My busload was off to the Jordan Valley to focus on 'Ecological Justice: Promoting Sustainable Peace'.
As we tucked into our packed lunches we passed the one and a half hour journey being constantly reminded that we were in locations prominent in the story of Jesus. We noted the 'Shepherds' Fields' in East Jerusalem, the 'Samaritan Inn' on the road to Jericho and of course the Jordan River where Jesus was baptised. In Jericho itself there was a sign directing visitors to 'Sycamore Tree'! But it was glimpses of tethered donkeys and young men herding flocks of sheep with goats that truly brought me back to the gospels. Also the struggles of today's Palestinian villagers to live under occupation, just as communities in the region did at the time of Jesus.
We visited a community affected by eviction and water scarcity. Getting off the bus we were struck by humidity and heat and the sight of a dry, almost desertified, landscape. Surrounding hills were parched and bare. We heard from a young man how a well that was used by the community for generations dried up after the Israelis surrounded it with several new wells which only Israelis could use. "More than 100 families have left this area in recent years" he said, "because there are no jobs and no water". The new Israeli settlement nearby is not short of water.
Before 1967 the Jordan Valley had a population of 250,000 Palestinians but that has dropped to 64,000. The fact that Palestinians have access to only 10% of the available water is one reason for that, along with evictions and militarisation of the area. Since its occupation in 1967, Israel has monopolised and exhausted the area's water resources. It has isolated 162 agricultural wells in the Jordan Valley, prohibiting Palestinians from using them. It also forbids Palestinians from using the Jordan River and denies them rights to access the water, minerals and shores of the Dead Sea. You would never guess the tensions, observing the Dead Sea away in the distance or visiting with a pilgrimage.
"They can't take away our hope" said our young guide, "even though the occupiers' control of the water is torture to us and it is being used as a weapon". Everything is affected - personal needs, food production, and water for recreation. We heard how Jordan Valley Solidarity is a group bringing people together to struggle to survive on their land. Over Arab coffee we listened to speakers from the Palestinian Hydrology Group, which provides water tanks and storage in villages, collecting and utilising the scant rainfall.
Two young ecumenical accompaniers from EAPPI - one English - spoke to us too, mentioning how recent weeks of Israeli military training in the Jordan Valley has meant some Bedouins and other nomadic pastoral communities being evacuated from their homes and farmers from their land. These groups mentioned are all partners of Pax Christi.
But why is a peace gathering looking at ecological justice? For Pax Christi there is no peace without ecological justice. Work to promote social, economic, cultural and ecological rights is all linked. Armed conflicts and irresponsible natural resource extraction have a significantly negative impact on the way communities interact with their environment - and everyone is affected.
Back in Bethlehem for debriefing, Ann Farr from Coventry, who sits on the Pax Christi International Executive and who had organised our trip, asked us to reflect on the experience.
One of our number, a priest from El Salvador, gave perhaps the most poignant reflection: "Hundreds of thousands come to the Holy Land each year and have great devotion to its holy sites, but how many gain insight into the plight of the oppressed people of this land. There is a clash between religious devotion and faith, which calls on us to tell people's stories and highlight the justice, peace and ecological issues here in the Holy Land." .
Pax Christi at www.paxchristi.net
Palestine Hydrology Group at www.phg.org
EAPPI at www.eappi.org