Our Pax Christi UK group was sitting in a café in the old city of Jerusalem enjoying our final Falafel before returning home. Ground chick peas and salad wrapped in pitta bread is a staple here and we've had it most lunchtimes. Another group, dressed bright turquoise with yellow scarves, joined us at the two tables either side. The all black group hailed from the Catholic Archdiocese of Capetown and we were delighted to share stories about our two pilgrimages.
As we chatted, it struck me as ironic that this group - 25 years after the end of apartheid, during which South Africa's black community faced severe repression - was now free to visit Jerusalem and yet the majority of Palestinians in Bethlehem, six miles down the road, cannot.
Control of Palestinian movement has been a feature of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territory since 1967. However, in recent years, the draconian system of movement controls used by Israel has become increasingly institutionalised and restrictive. The permit system put in place in the early 1990s which requires that all Palestinians obtain military issued permits to move between the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem or to travel abroad is now complemented by a system of roadblocks, gates, checkpoints, the Wall and other obstacles to movement in the West Bank. All of these factors contribute to forced displacement, severely limiting Palestinian access to basic resources including land and water and basic services including health care and education, and perpetuate a system of segregation and legal and structural inequality between Palestinians and Israelis.
We've witnessed it during our visit to the Holy Land and my own view is that it is nothing less than apartheid: separate buses, Israeli-only roads, Israeli-only settlements, regulated movement, evictions and the stealing of land. Anti-semitism smears have been used far too often to try and silence those working for Palestinian rights. Church leaders too have been overly sensitive about this, and about losing access to the Holy places for Christian pilgrims if they speak out publicly.
Thank goodness Pax Christi International, at the global assembly we attended in Bethlehem, has stood up for international law and called for an end to the occupation of the West Bank, a ban on Israeli settlements, and a boycotting of settlement products. There is a call for Israel to dismantle the intimidating separation Wall - now more than 400 miles long - that at Bethlehem encircles the town. It also supports those partners - both Palestinian and Israeli - working non-violently for peace in the Holy Land. Pax Christi's Secretary General, José Henríquez, who was prevented from attending the assembly last week, reflected: "I am living this experience in deep solidarity with the Palestinian people. This is only a small part of what they have to experience when they are denied access to East Jerusalem for medical care, family reunions and even for religious celebrations."
Earlier today in Jerusalem we joined pilgrims from around the world visiting the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I joined those touching the 'Stone of the Anointing' which traditionally lies above Calvary and the spot where Jesus was anointed and laid in the tomb. Touching the lives of Palestinians was especially meaningful too, and being aware of the presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in today's world in all those inspirational people and communities that we met who build peace and justice. Did Pax Christi focus too much on showing solidarity with the people of Palestine? No - our reference point was the Catholic Social Teaching themes of Peacemaking and the Option for the Poor.
Back in the 80s, trying to build up momentum for tackling apartheid in South Africa, a constant stumbling block was the accusation of taking sides. There was a niggle that Nelson Mandela and those who confronted the political structure were people of violence, despite all the killings and violence suffered by the black community. Theologians such as Albert Nolan challenged this, taking the view that to say nothing was tantamount to siding with the oppressors. The Churches grew their solidarity with the black community. Just as public understanding of the black struggle changed very quickly towards the end of the 80s, so too might understanding of the Palestinian struggle. One day, Palestinian friends from Bethlehem will be able to meet up with us in a café in Jerusalem.
Pax Christi members now dispersing back to their home regions have been deeply moved to have renewed our commitment to creating a more just and peaceful world in Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace.
Read all Ellen's blogs from Bethlehem here:
Hebron: A microcosm of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict - 7 (Pat Gaffney at Hebron)
Palestinian Bedouins: "international people are our voice in the world" (Ellen with Bedouin)
Pax Christi's pilgrimage supports the 'Living Stones' (PC Int at Bethlehem wall)
Columbia's women peacemakers honoured by Pax Christi - 4 (PCUK with Rosa)
Bethlehem: Pax Christi marks the Nakba - 3
www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=27441 (Nakba Vigil)
Ecological Justice issues in the Jordan Valley - 2 (Ellen with group touring)
Pax Christi's International Assembly opens in Bethlehem- 1 (UK group)
Pax Christi Statements:
Israel bars Pax Christi leader from attending anniversary celebrations in Bethlehem
Pax Christi Bethlehem Commitment
Pax Christi calls for recognition of state of Palestine, ban on settlements