Focus on Israel/Palestine
I have been asked to write about my eight week stay in Bethlehem, from 3rd February until 31st March.
The background to my trip
Where I lived in Aida Refugee CampI suppose the starting point should be, why? Why spend eight weeks in Bethlehem. Well for me, the story started with Greenbelt. This is an annual festival focusing on Faith, Arts and Justice. For several years Tracy and I had attended the sessions on Israel/Palestine and felt the sense of great injustice in this troubled land.
Following the Church retreat in 2012, we got speaking to Anne Mohan and Anne Pelham about the possibility of visiting Israel. A few weeks after this, Bishop John announced that he was leading a pilgrimage and we signed up straight away. We spent 10 days with the group of 85 and our Bishops (John and Andrew) early in 2013 on a wonderful tour of the Christian sites. But we also saw the occupation in practice and were shocked to see it, as are most visitors, for the first time.
I resolved to try to do something personally, and so applied to be an Ecumenical Observer, under a programme run by the World Council of Churches, for three months. I was very disappointed not to be selected, especially as I felt a strong sense of God calling me to become involved in working for peace in Israel and Palestine.
Of course, God always has a plan. Later in the year, in August 2013, we went to Greenbelt as usual and, this time, the Kairos Britain document was launched. This was a response to a call by the churches in Palestine for support to accelerate the achievement of justice, peace and reconciliation in the Holy Land. As I sat listening to the launch, I knew that this was God’s plan for me. On our return we proposed a Kairos Action Plan to the PCC, which was approved.
I felt that I needed to learn more about Israel/Palestine. In October, following discussion with Tracy, I decided that I would go to Israel/Palestine on my own. I had met Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem and knew that they had a home-stay programme, so I contacted him to ask them to arrange accommodation for 8 weeks. I then booked my ticket.
The Aida Refugee Camp
I stayed with a family in the Aida Refugee Camp, just inside the 24 foot tall Separation wall which surrounds Bethlehem. Palestinians from over 400 villages fled during the 1948 Israel/Arab war, which broke out the day Britain left Palestine and the day the State of Israel was announced. The people who fled to Bethlehem lived in tents for several years under the auspices of the UN. The grandfather of Ayed, the person with whom I lived, was the sheik of his village and owned large flocks of sheep and goats and had many olive trees. He and all his family moved to live in the camp, where he got a job working for the UN distributing food. From sheik to labourer – the loss of dignity and status for the family was extreme.
Gradually small rectangular huts and then concrete buildings replaced the tents - now the camp is a dense network of houses which have been extended upwards and outwards to fill all available space.
The separation wall was built in 2004 close to the camp, cutting it off from the open Bethlehem land. A large metal gate allows the Israeli Defence Force to enter the camp, as they do most days. They fire tear gas and sound grenades at the children, who throw stones back. Last week they also sprayed houses with sewage. In 2006, Ayed’s nephew, aged 12, was playing on the balcony of the house opposite and facing the watchtower. A soldier in the tower shot him using a sniper rifle. Fortunately, he survived. However, Ayed’s son was deeply affected psychologically by what had happened to his cousin and found the daily tension very difficult to handle.
Despite all this, Ayed and Ghader, his wife, were wonderful hosts who looked after me really well. They are a Muslim family, as are the majority of people who live in Bethlehem. We had great discussions about Christian and Muslim beliefs and I was surprised how much Ayed knew about the Bible (and how little I knew about the Quran and Islam)
How I organised my time
While in Bethlehem, I spent much of my time based at the offices of the Holy Land Trust (HLT). They provided a desk and logistical support. Some of the time, I travelled with groups on guided tours (with HLT guides). Other times I travelled with HLT staff on visits to places and families (such as those whose homes had been demolished). I also had a trip with a Bedouin out into the desert with Ayed. I met a Jewish settler and was invited to spend some time at the settlement.
An American couple invited me to spend a few days in Galilee. We visited Ibillin to meet Elias Chacour (author of “Blood Brothers”), visited Capernaum and Tiberias, and spent a day learning about the Jordan Valley. For trips into Israel, I was on my own, as the Palestinians are not permitted to enter Israel without a permit. This means I had to go out and back through the checkpoint, a sobering experience, to say the least. I had a day in Tel Aviv and visited the national holocaust exhibition Yad Vashem.
At weekends I would set off walking and explore parts of Bethlehem, such as the Shepherd’s Fields (where the angels appeared to the shepherds) and Solomon’s Pools (actually built by Herod to store water for use by Bethlehem and Jerusalem). On Sundays I went to the East Jerusalem Baptist Church near the Old City in Jerusalem.
My stay in Bethlehem coincided with the 3rd “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference. As this international conference was in the hotel about 100 yards from where I was living, I decided to attend. It was a very interesting week and I learned a lot about Christian Zionism and its relevance to this conflict. David Cameron called to meet Mahmoud Abbas at this hotel during the conference.
I was extremely fortunate to be able to undertake such a wide range of visits and to meet so many wonderful people. I have lots of memories of this place, which touched my heart.
What I learned
While in Israel and Palestine I documented all my encounters and followed these up with personal discussions and research on the internet. I now feel that I have a grasp of many of the complex issues, such as the control of water resources, the restrictions to movement, the house demolitions, the Jewish Settlements, the legal discrimination, the control of the land, and the economic conditions. This information will form the basis on my work of advocacy now that I am back in the UK.
Living in the West Bank was, for me, a good experience. Everyone I met welcomed me; many people in the street thanked me for coming, even the poorest families offered hospitality including wonderful food. Wherever I went I was invited to sit down and talk, to have a coffee and share time with people. They all told me their stories and they were very moving. I felt privileged to share these stories and amazed at the strength and resilience of the people under occupation. I began to understand the importance of the land to the Palestinians.
The stay was also good for me physically. I walked a great deal around the very rocky and steep terrain around Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. I ate a lot of vegetables and rice and not a lot of meat. And I enjoyed the sunshine and warmth at this time of year.
There were a few times when things were not so nice. While I was living in the camp around 6 people were shot (mostly with rubber bullets) and last week someone died after collapsing in a tear gas attack.
I travelled through the checkpoints and these are horrendous. There are long queues for Palestinians and often their permits are cancelled “for security reasons”. This leads to a lot of tension. They get angry because they are delayed and subjected to inhumane treatment and intrusive searching. Young soldiers are placed behind plate glass and must be very nervous.
There were guns everywhere. One day I noticed that the young lady sitting next to me on the bus dressed in casual clothes was carrying an automatic rifle. It seemed normal to everyone else! One day, I was threatened with a gun by a soldier when, waiting outside the gate for a lift, I approached the checkpoint innocently to respond to his challenge. I realised how easy it would be to get shot with people so nervous.
I witnessed the soldiers entering the camp and firing tear gas and sound bombs – a tear gas canister fired at the house came into the apartment. There seems to be little justification in terms of Israel’s security. Two weeks ago the children were told to stay off the streets by the elders of the camp. The IDF increased their incursions into the camp in order to increase tension.
I also witnessed the security in Hebron, which is probably the most sensitive place. Some doors of Palestinian houses have been welded shut and the residents have to travel across the roofs to get out!
In fact, the only time I felt unsafe during my whole time there was when soldiers were present.
All the Palestinians I met wanted peace. Their aspirations were not for one-state, or two state, but to be able to take their children to paddle in the sea, to visit Jerusalem, to grow crops and to be treated with respect and as an equal. Not so much to ask you would think. But so difficult to achieve.
Impact on me
While in the West Bank, I had a real sense of living in the land of the Gospels, among a people who are the descendants of the early Christians. When someone asked one of the Palestinians how long he had been a Christian, he answered “about 2,000 years”! I was treated to the same hospitality that the angels who visited Abraham received, and it felt humbling. The gospel was real to me, the stories of Jesus teaching and ministering to people living under the Roman occupation, so relevant to today. I felt a greater need of Jesus than ever before, and a greater sense of his presence with me each day.
I had been worried about leaving Israel as I had heard some scary stories about the treatment of internationals. I know people at Church were praying for me. Just a week before I left, the Israeli court bowed to international pressure and ordered the Israeli security to act more humanly at the airport. I was grateful for those prayers and the ease with which I got through the security.
I see with new eyes the beauty and peace of our land. I am grateful every day for plentiful clean water. I am grateful for being able to travel freely and to feel safe. The people I left had none of these.
I was overwhelmed with the wonderful support and interest shown by St Johns while I was away, and am deeply grateful for the prayers, the interest shown, and the great welcome I received when I returned.
The next steps
I have arranged to show a short film on 23rd April and will be talking about my experiences. I have been asked to do two other talks, one to the MU and the other to the Baptist Church.
I am still assimilating all that I have learned and aware of how complex the situation is. I have lots (5) of books to read and will continue to monitor what is happening using Twitter and Facebook.
To some extent, being back in England is more difficult for me, in terms of working for peace. I feel deeply about the situation in Israel/Palestine, but here the media and the politicians do not give it much attention. This is why the Churches are so important. I am delighted that our congregation is giving this issue prayerful consideration and hope that other Churches follow our lead as we consider whether to become a Kairos Congregation.
For more details click on the “Concerned for Creation” tab on the Church website.