Saturday, 27 August 2011

Occupied with justice – A visit to the Holy Land

A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Greenbelt Trust festival programme in August 2011. Grateful thanks to all at Amos Trust for organising the visit.

 Zoughbi Zoughbi, a Palestinian Christian and the Founder and Director of the ‘Wi’am’ Conflict Resolution Centre, offers us all sweet tea in small glasses and, thankfully, fills us with some much needed hope. “Having hope”, he says, “is a form of non-violent struggle. And it keeps us sane!” Zoughbi is a big man with an over-sized heart to match his over-sized frame. “I am against the system, not against the Israelis. All are created in the image of God.”

Wi’am’s modest offices are in Bethlehem, our base for most of the week, and are overlooked by a stretch of the Separation Wall several metres high. The Wall is a constant reminder of a conflict that not only needs peace but justice and reconciliation too. Zoughbi believes the times are changing though. He has little expectation that the traditional power elites will ever achieve much. He puts greater faith in the energy of ordinary people and ‘civil society’. “We used to ask each other ‘what faction do you belong to?’” says Zoughbi, “PLO, Popular Front, Hamas?’ Now we just ask, ‘are you on Facebook?’”

This was certainly not a traditional pilgrimage to see the Holy sites or walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We were here on a different kind of pilgrimage, to hear from the living witnesses and to see for ourselves the reality of the ‘facts on the ground’ in year 44 of the Israeli Occupation.

After just a few days, a clear and very disheartening picture was emerging. This is the ‘Holy Land’ in name only. In practice, it is the land of checkpoints, of house demolitions, of segregated roads, of ever-expanding Jewish Settlements, of water expropriation, of harassment.

One morning we leave our beds at 4.30am to join hundreds of Palestinian workers queuing to pass a checkpoint to get into Jerusalem. They line up along a narrow, barred passageway and then have to push and shove their way through a full-length turnstile that opens and closes at arbitrary intervals creating unnecessary rush and panic. It seems to have little to do with maintaining security and much to do with creating a daily grind of indignity and humiliation.

Like the Western (‘Wailing’) Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem where prayers are stuffed into the crevices of the stones, the newer Wall is also the place for heavenly supplications. But rather than on tiny pieces of paper, these prayers are written with cans of spray paint for all to see.

“You stole our land but we are the criminals”

“Build bridges not walls”

“Where ever there is injustice, there is my home”

“Once a human rights teacher was born here”

“Jesus wept”

“Free Palestine!”

Some prayers work best as pictures. The graffiti artist Banksy has been to Bethlehem too and stencilled his peace dove wearing a bullet proof vest.

The construction of the Wall, often cutting deep across the 1967 border line, divides villages, cuts farmers off from their land, children from their schools, businesses from their customers and labourers from their jobs.

In West Jerusalem we meet Mia from ICAHD (The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions). Mia, a secular Jew, leads us on a tour to explain what passes for planning and house building regulations in the occupied territories.

We see a poster that neatly sums up this bureaucratic aspect of oppression: ‘Kafka is alive and well and working for the Israeli Civil Administration.’ For me, as the only Jew in our Group, Mia and her ICAHD colleagues are not just working as secular humanitarians, they are upholding all that is best in Jewish ethics and the teachings of the Hebrew Prophets.

During our week we meet many inspiring individuals, who are passionately committed to a non-violent, democratic and faith based approach to healing Israel-Palestine. As Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust tells us, “It’s not about good Palestinians and bad Israelis. It’s about standing up for human rights.” In Hebron, a real flashpoint between Jewish settlers and local Palestinians, we meet Kathy Kern of Christian Peacemaker Teams. Kathy takes us onto her rooftop to survey the streets and homes that have been abandoned by Palestinian families driven out by the ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist Jews. Kathy appears worn down but determined to stand by, witness to, and record the ongoing dispossession of her neighbours.

We end our visit on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, if not walking, then certainly paddling in the footsteps of Jesus. We are reminded that this is the spot where he blessed the peacemakers and, following the crucifixion, where he appeared to his despondent disciples to give them renewed hope. It’s a timely moment of inspiration for us all as we end our pilgrimage and reflect on what small part we can play to bring a just peace to the Holy Land.

Banksy strikes in Bethlehem 2007

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