Profile: Rifat Odeh Kassis, Palestinian Christian human rights campaigner

Fr Victor Edwin SJ, director of Vidyajyoti Center for Christian-Muslim Relations at Vidyajyoti College of Theology, New Delhi writes:

Born in Beit Sahour, Rifat Odeh Kassis has long been active in the Palestinian struggle on a number of non-violent fronts, not least on the national and international rights-based advocacy scene. He was arrested several times by Israel for his human rights and community work. Throughout his career, he has been advocating and actively campaigning for the effective application of international human rights and humanitarian law in Palestine, through various professional and voluntary positions.

In 1988 he started working in the East Jerusalem YMCA as director for its rehabilitation programs in the West Bank. Later in 1996 he started working for some Ecumenical donor agencies representing them in Central Asia where he lived and worked there for about 5 years. In 1995 he helped establishing a rehabilitation program for the Chechen children affected by the war in Chechnya. In the same year he co-founded the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG) together with others. In 1992 he founded the first Palestinian independent Child Rights' NGO- a national section of the Geneva-based global child rights' movement, Defence for Children International (DCI). He served as President of DCI-Palestine three times between 1992 and 2005, becoming the President of the DCI movement at the global level in June of that year and was re-elected for another term in October 2008. Since November 2008 he runs as well the Palestinian section of DCI. During his term as Executive Director of the East Jerusalem YMCA (2000-2004), he initiated and spearheaded the YMCA/YWCA Joint Advocacy Initiative, from which the highly successful Olive Tree Campaign was launched. In the same period he co-founded the National Coalition of Christian Related Organizations (NCCRO) and the Occupied Palestine and Golan Heights Advocacy Initiative (OPGAI) In January 2005, he worked in Geneva as the International Coordinator and Project Manager of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), the scope of which includes monitoring and reporting human rights violations according to international law in Palestine and Israel. From September 2007 till March 2009 he was the WCC General Secretary Special Advisor on the Middle East and since 2008 he was asked by the World Economic Forum to serve on the Global Agenda Council on Children Welfare.

Fr Victor: Give us some information on the reality on the ground: the major challenges Palestinian people face in their struggle against the forces of oppression?

Rifat Odeh Kassis: Let me talk about the four major challenges:

The Apartheid Wall: the Apartheid Wall and its associated regime are contrary to international law. However, Israel has failed to act upon any of their internationally recognized obligations. The wall route, determined by the location of many Israeli settlements in the West Bank, creates a de facto annexation of most of the settlements, natural resources including water reservoirs thereby expanding its borders by seizing thousands of dunums (a unit of measurement of land area) of land.

It manifests a devastating impact on the individual and collective human rights of Palestinians, violates, among others, Palestinians' adequate standard of living and obstructs thousands of Jerusalemite residents from accessing basic services such as health and education.

Settlements: Since Oslo peace accords, settlements have more than doubled and are steadily expanding. Settlements undermine the social and economic ties within the Palestinian society and disrupt the lives and the development of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. The settlers live under Israeli law in Jewish-only settlements, drive on an Israeli-only road system, and benefit greatly from the enormous sums of public money spent on entrenching, defending and expanding the settlements. On the other hand, seizure of Palestinian land for settlement building and expansion in the occupied territories has resulted in the shrinking of space available for Palestinians to develop adequate and basic tools to sustain their livelihoods. Israel stands silent on incidents of violence against Palestinians, trespassing and the forceful takeover of land have often been conducted as part of an intended effort by settlers to expand Israeli control beyond settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

House Demolitions: These policies and practices put many Palestinian communities at risk of individual and mass forcible transfer, which is defined as a war crime and a crime against humanity, because of the coercive environment created by Israel that undermines the Palestinian physical presence and puts pressure on them to move. Moreover, Israel practices punitive demolitions, the purpose of which is to harm the family members of someone suspected of a crime. In East Jerusalem, Israel also forces Jerusalemites to demolish their own homes and remove the rubble at the owners' own expense. The "municipality of Jerusalem" has demolished Palestinian homes and other structures claiming that they are built without permits issued by the municipality. However, permits are notoriously difficult to obtain, with high application fees, lengthy processes and frequent rejections, forming a discriminatory permit regime that makes it nearly impossible for Palestinians to build legally in East Jerusalem.

Child detention: In 2017, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reported that 729 children had been detained or arrested in East Jerusalem alone. In its report, UNICEF noted that ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system appeared to be widespread, systematic and institutionalized.

Fr Victor: How does the Presidency of Mr Donald Trump adversely affect any possibility of peace efforts?

Rifat Odeh Kassis: USA was never a neutral party to the conflict. It was always a strong alley to Israel and provides it with financial assistance and blind loyalty which encouraged Israel to keep, sustain and maintain its occupation and violations to international law and UN resolution.

Trump's latest announcement of Jerusalem as Israel's capital disregards all of the UN's resolutions and policies, and having the United States play a role in forming public opinion in the world, this announcement might be able to ultimately influence the UN's policies. This was clear with the latest elimination of US funding of the Refugee Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA). This financial cut was meant to influence and eradicate the Right to Return for the Palestinian refugees. Also, Trump's announcement does not only affect the negotiation process, and all of the peace talks in the future, but it also exposes the United States as a biased entity in favor of Israel. It also disregards and violates the basic human rights of all Palestinian, especially those who holds a Jerusalem ID, who will be deprived of their basic human rights and the right of Palestinians to self-determination.

Fr Victor: Tell us how do the Palestinian Christians as well as Palestinian Muslims face the unjust situation drawing from their respective faiths?

Rifat Odeh Kassis: The occupation does not differentiate between Muslims and Christians, but rather treats them with equal racism and discrimination. A large number of Palestinian Christians and Muslims, living east of the Apartheid wall, are unable to access holy sites in Jerusalem. Since permits are only granted for a limited number of people, and usually only on major religious holidays, even when Palestinian Christians and Muslims are able to reach Jerusalem, roadblocks and checkpoints around the Old City create yet another obstacle to reaching religious sites. Also, Gazans are generally unable to obtain permits to leave Gaza, even on religious holidays.

Many racist and discriminatory policies are applied on Muslim and Christian Palestinians. For one, Israel applied the Nationality and Entry Law which prohibits Israelis and Palestinians living in Jerusalem who marry residents of occupied Palestinian territory from residing with their spouses within Israel, including occupied East Jerusalem, denying by that any kind of family unification, be it a Christian or Muslim family. Secondly, the Israeli authorities revoked the status of more than 14,500 Christian and Muslim Palestinians, from East Jerusalem since 1967 and pushed them out of the city.

It is noteworthy to mention that the area of the Old City of Jerusalem, where the religious sites are located, is exposed to excavations carried out by Israel, and financed by right-wing political parties, which threatens the Old City's stability and the sites structural safety and sustainability,in an attempt to change the identity and character of the Old city.

Moreover, Israel is trying to pass laws that retroactively impose taxes on properties belonging to institutions owned by all churches in Jerusalem, which is against the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, which states that all holy places, buildings, religious sites, and all places owned by any church, are exempted from paying taxes. These laws will make the future of churches in Jerusalem uncertain. It will inevitably destroy churches, hospitals and charitable associations run by the church.

Fr Victor: In your reflections you pointed out that your land has a universal mission. Would you kindly explain your statement?

Rifat Odeh Kassis: What I meant with it is what we had written in Kairos Palestine document and I quote:
"2.3 We believe that our land has a universal mission. In this universality, the meaning of the promises, of the land, of the election, of the people of God open up to include all of humanity, starting from all the peoples of this land. In light of the teachings of the Holy Bible, the promise of the land has never been a political programme, but rather the prelude to complete universal salvation. It was the initiation of the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God on earth."

Rifat Odeh Kassis: We added in 2.3.1 "God sent the patriarchs, the prophets and the apostles to this land so that they might carry forth a universal mission to the world. Today we constitute three religions in this land, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Our land is God's land, as is the case with all countries in the world. It is holy in as much as God is present in it, for God alone is holy and sanctifier. It is the duty of those of us who live here, to respect the will of God for this land. It is our duty to liberate it from the evil of injustice and war. It is God's land and therefore it must be a land of reconciliation, peace and love. This is indeed possible. God has put us here as two peoples, and God gives us the capacity, if we have the will, to live together and establish in it justice and peace, making it in reality God's land: 'The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it' (Ps. 24:1)."

Fr Victor: What are the signs of hope that you and your colleagues who are defenders of human rights discern in these hard times?

Rifat Odeh Kassis: The first sign of hope is the slow yet steady shift from the world dealing with Israel as a "democracy" to stating that Israel is an Apartheid state. The breach in international treaties and accords are increasingly transforming the UN's lack of accountability and blind loyalty it has for Israel into a blunt acknowledgement of it being and Apartheid state. The constant creation of settlements and unlawful military interventions that Israel is constantly seeking, exposed Israel to the world as an apartheid state, as many researchers and human rights activists and experts have concluded in their reports and research, (such as Richard Falk and Virginia Telly's last ECSWA report, John Dugard, Jimmy Carter and many others).

Secondly, Palestinians everywhere are uniting and creating connections between each other through their strife for a united Palestine and their fight over a just cause. Also, the youth are participating in the struggle against apartheid and occupation, the great right of return march in Gaza and popular resistance in many villages in the West Bank are getting stronger, which has made advocacy to establish a well-informed public opinion stronger than ever before.

Thirdly, the number of states supporting Palestine in international arenas and UN bodies condemning the ongoing Israeli human rights violations as an occupying power, as well as supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state is increasing.

Finally, the constant strengthening of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement that is achieving success internationally and raising awareness toward the Palestinian cause, by reaching and communicating with communities to encourage them to boycott occupation and seize the financial and cultural support many countries give to Israel. In addition to the civil society's engagement and the growth in international movements and communities standing in solidarity with Palestine and requesting Israel be held accountable for its human rights violations in the ICC.

Fr Victor: Tell us how does 'Resistance' against oppression in Palestine become a genuine tool for Peace and Reconciliation?

Rifat Odeh Kassis: In Kairos Palestine document we wrote: "The aggression against the Palestinian people which is the Israeli occupation, is an evil that must be resisted. .... Primary responsibility for this rests with the Palestinians themselves suffering occupation. ... responsibility lies with the perpetrators of the injustice; they must liberate themselves from the evil that is in them and the injustice they have imposed on others."

We added: "Resistance is a right and a duty for the Christian. But it is resistance with love as its logic. It is thus a creative resistance for it must find human ways that engage the humanity of the enemy. Seeing the image of God in the face of the enemy means taking up positions in the light of this vision of active resistance to stop the injustice and oblige the perpetrator to end his aggression and thus achieve the desired goal, which is getting back the land, freedom, dignity and independence."

Finally, we wrote: "The aim is to free both peoples from extremist positions of the different Israeli governments, bringing both to justice and reconciliation."

In brief, liberating Palestine and the Palestinians from their suffering will equally liberate the Israelis from their oppression and aggression and would provide an opportunity for reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. But first, we need to end the oppression, the occupation, the Apartheid and racism against the Palestinians, while the Israelis, as oppressors, need to repent on their injustices committed against the Palestinians, the oppressed. After this peace with justice and true reconciliation will prevail.

Fr Victor: How do the Palestinian Christians consider the mission of their respective churches in their struggle for Justice?

Rifat Odeh Kassis: First of all, Palestinian Christians came together and started the Kairos initiative, which declared a unified stance against the Israeli occupation and its constant violations. Palestinian churches consider themselves part of the Palestinian struggle against occupation, despite Israeli propaganda that aims to convey the struggle as a religious fight between Jews and Muslim.

Second of all, Palestinian churches seek to raise awareness about the Palestinian struggle internationally and locally. Palestinian Christians and churches have been able to persuade churches in the United States and other countries, through advocacy, to divest from funding millions of dollars to Israeli occupation. Moreover, churches in Palestine play a great role in the Palestinian society by providing social services and raising awareness about Palestine in their own congregations during Mass.

Finally, churches in Palestine have played, and still play, a pivotal role in the struggle against occupation by creating movements advocating for Palestinian rights and fighting occupation, establishing educational institutions, and providing basic services through charitable institutions. In addition, churches have been a safe sanctuary for people in need, when as they opened their doors during the last war on Gaza in 2014 and gave shelter to Gazans whose homes were destroyed by Israeli bombardments.

Fr Victor: How could Indian Church participate in your struggles for justice and peace?

Rifat Odeh Kassis: A call for the renovation of the strategic ties and relations between the Indian and Palestinian peoples, would significantly improve the Palestinian struggle for peace and justice. In addition, the Indian church can play a role in forming public opinion and raise awareness about the Palestinian situation among their respective congregations.

A change in the pilgrimage style of Indians visiting the holy sites would also make a difference, by taking more time to visit Palestinian Christians, and staying in Palestinian cities during their travel, which would strengthen the connection between Palestinian and Indian Christians.

The Indian church can encourage the creation of a movement that advocates for Palestinian rights and takes a stronger stance against Israeli violations, as well as promoting the boycott and divestment of Israel until it complies with its responsibilities and obligations under international law.

Tags: Holy Land, Israel, Palestine, Rifat Odeh Kassis, Fr Victor Edwin SJ

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