A significant piece of what we do as Ecumenical Accompaniers is to provide a “protective presence” and accompany people in times of vulnerability.

Yes, we fill out incident reports when some threat, or action against persons or property has occurred; and those reports are shared with a number agencies, including the I.C.R.C. (Red Cross-Red Crescent) and the United Nations.  But much of our ministry is simply being with people and offering “a protective presence.”

In Yanoun, where I am based (for less that one more week), our team of four maintains one person here at all times as a protective presence.  Saturdays we all try to be in residence, as that is the day when area Israeli settlers are most likely to attack or harass folk in this village or its outlying fields. 

The theory is that our presence either reduces the incidents of violence, or the severity of those incidents.  If there is any violence, we are independent witnesses with cameras, video, pens and computers.  (Though the settlers act rather lawless — and with impunity — despite all the reporting that goes on.)

In this blog, I want to share a couple of experiences of providing protective presence.

A couple weeks ago, I visited for two days with our team in the South Hebron Hills.  I got to Susiya. 

Two of us were invited to spent the night with one of the farmers who lives on the edge of the decentrailized Susiya village.  His family was away for a few days, and he wanted some other people there for his security.

We also planned to go shepherding with him the next morning. 

We were wakened before 6 a.m. and greeted by the news that the night before the Israeli army had demolished a settlement vineyard that was on disputed land (There are some ongoing court cases), or in the “no man’s land” buffer area between a settlement and a village. 

For the army to do this is rather rare, but not unheard of.   There are occasional — rare — moments of justice for the Palestinians.

But the problem is that such moments have most often resulted in push back or “price tag” actions against Palestinian property or persons, by disgruntled settlers.

We started shepherding with our host for the night, but later switched, given the situation, to accompany a grandmother and granddaughter shepherding team.

We joined them for three hours.  It was a glorious morning!

It was fun to watch the grandmother have some fiesty exchanges with an army officer, when she took her sheep to graze too close to the military outpost.  (Sheep are such a threat!)

Afterwards, we were blessed with a wonderful Palestinian breakfast on our return to the village!

Then, because of the vineyard incident, we provided protective presence at the village well, a short distance from Susiya.  The village cistern was dry, and that meant over 20 tanker trips to refill the cistern. 

We did this because there was concern about a little “pay back” happening at the well.  So, we did this for several hours.  Other Ecumenical Accompaniers relieved us for the second half of the water runs.  Nothing happened untoward.

Then, about a week ago, we were with a family near Al Lubban ash Sharqiya,  who are desperately trying to hold onto their land and a building on the land, against aggressive and persistent settlers who come from three area settlements. 

While most days something happens on their property, the Sabbath evening is when the most number of settlers and army arrive. 

Parts of the exchange was like a 1960’s American style sit-in, with guitar playing and some Israeli men stripping to their boxer shorts to wade in the cistern next to the spring.

It was very surreal “dance” or movement of parties with the guitar playing, singing, periodic attempts to get into the family home, and the army, settlers, police and Palestinians all milling around with no one able to intervene unless the Palestinians crossed a line in terms of violence.

One stettler was clearly armed. 

My team-mate did document an army officer taking pictures, inside the family home, on behalf of the settlers.  That’s no surprise, as some of the army live in the settlements.

Eventually, everyone went home.  And we had a traditional Palestinian meal with the family.  They were most grateful for how we had spent our afternoon and evening.

I like to think that the Incarnation — God coming in Jesus the Christ — was a divine act of accompaniment with humanity. 

Further, Jesus of Nazareth was not just witness to God’s grace and mercy and love, but he was also a witness to the ugly side of a previous occupation of Palestine — the Roman occupation of Palestine.

He was a witness — a vulnerable One — a friend to victims of that Occupation. 

He was himself a victim of that occupation — the Shepherd who was Love Incarnate!

Grace and peace!

Jim

I have been sent by the United Church of Canada to participate in the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).  Should you wish to re-post or publicize any of this content, I welcome your direct request, via the comments section of this blog.  Thank you!

Last Sunday night I had the wonderful privilege of listening to a group of Christians in Nablus.  It was a profound conversation about what it is like to be a Christian in and under the Israeli Occupation of Palestine.  

The situation is pretty bleak.  The group I spoke with are pretty discouraged.  They feel abandoned by the wider world and the wider Christian community. 

They asked me to share their experiences, because they feel that “no one is telling our story.”

I was told they see no future for the Christian community beyond about 15 to 20 years. 

“The future is black…” they said.

It isn’t that they were all having a bad day.  They told me that they feel as if they are “the forgotten ones in the Occupation,” and that they are “paying the price for what some Europeans did in the Holocaust.”  (That the creation of the State of Israel was a response to the Holocaust.  It initially displaced Palestinians — Christians included — and it has further led to the Occupation of the Palestinian Territories with the wider world largely silent about the Occupation.)

Nablus is in the heart of the large northern lobe of the West Bank.  In the Biblical narrative, we know it as Shechem and Sychar — the very heart of Samaria. 

We are meeting in what was the cradle of Christianity.

Earlier in the evening, I had experienced worship with them in their Greek Catholic Melkite Church.  The sanctuary was comfortably filled.  It is a very, very beautiful and modest church.  The liturgy was in Arabic, with some lovely chanting and choral responses. 

After worship I sat with these 16 congregation members.  There was a variety of ages and occupations — male and female.  They are part of a larger Christian community in Nablus, which has shrunk from around 3,300 to just 600.  (They told me a similar decrease has happened in Gaza.)

I had initiated the conversation some weeks ago, as I was finding coffee after worship rather superficial, especially when we had little language in common.  Their priest, Father Yousef Sa’adah was very helpful in arranging the meeting for me.  He has become a very good colleague for me.

But with a good translator for me, the conversation was anything but superficial!  They were quite candid.  To say the least, they are disheartened on many levels.  It’s hard to find good jobs in the pre-dominantly Muslim city.  Many in the Christian community are unemployed or under-employed.  It is a small community in which young people have trouble looking for prospective husbands or wives who are Christian.

Their children are part of the Christian minority.  One family said their daughter is one of 16 Christians in a school of 500 students.  The Christian-run schools are too expensive given peoples income levels.

There were many threads of conversation as they shared the reali.ty of their lives:

They do not see the “Arab Spring” as having been good for Christians in the countries where it has resulted in a change of government.  They are perplexed that the United States — a so-called Christian nation — has backed these changes.

They fear that Palestine could become an Islamic state with disregard for Christians.  However, they are grateful that Yasser Arafat, enshrined in the school curruculum the study of Christianity for Christian students while the Muslim students study Islam.

It is further perplexing that Conservative Christians — largely in America — appear to back the Occupation and the Zionist expansion of Israel into the West Bank.

They are tired of being without basic human rights, having their dignity eroded, and being treated like animals in the military-security check-points.

They resent not being free to travel to Jerusalem to see the holy sites of the Christian faith.

They affirm that they are nurtured by their faith in Christ — and their faith in God. 

Their churches have nominal members who do not worship regularly, just as we do in North America. 

They asked me about life in the church in Canada.  We identified some similar challenges.

Afterwards, a dozen of us shared a mean together.  I am grateful that I had an opportunity to listen and to bless and encourage them.

They will continue to be on my mind and in my heart.  Especially when I celebrate World Wide Communion Sunday on October 7th.

Grace and peace,

Jim

I have been sent by the United Church of Canada to participate in the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).  Should you wish to re-post  or publicize any of this content, I welcome your direct request via the comments section in this blog.  Thank you! 

 

Yesterday morning was one absolutely glorious morning for Yanoun!

We had the great joy of hosting the Ministry of Education of the Palestinian Authority, and representatives of the Japanese government and UNICEF in Palestine, for the official launch of a new school year in Palestine.

As well, Yanoun received a long-awaited — and desperately needed — new  school bus to transport its senior students to Aqraba.  This new bus is thanks to the generosity of the people of Japan and UNICEF.

The bus is a very big deal in this rather poor village, where maybe half the families of the village have old, beat-up small cars.  It’s a nicer bus than I ever rode to school.  And it has seat belts.  Yahoo!

I admire the generosity of Japan, given the mess it has to clean-up in its own backyard following the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

For what may be Palestine’s smallest surviving village, this event was awesome.  Our mayor, Rasjhid Marrar was in fine form.  And one bonus in all this, is that such a high profile international event helps keep Yanoun on the map of Palestine.  (It came close to being wiped-out by Israeli settler attacks 10 years ago.)

It is also somewhat political (Isn’t everything in Israel and Palestine?!) for the P.A. to hold the event here.  Because upper Yanoun sits in “Area C” — which is a military controlled area — surrounded by settlement outposts (and a military post) which still would like to see Yanoun fully in their control, with all the villagers long gone.

We hope there are no reprisals for this.  But that would not be unusual!

Girl and boy scouts were out in full force from Aqraba, providing color party, drums, and leading the national anthem.  Yanoun students were all looking their very best, rolling with all the media attention and UNICEF photographers.  Their tiny four room school was “under the microscope.”

The men and women of Yanoun had slaughtered a few sheep and prepared an abundance of traditional Palestinian food for the occasion.

We welcomed Jean Gough, Special Representative of UNICEF in the Occupied Palestinian Territory; Hideaki Yamamoto, deputy representative of Japan’s Representative Office to the P.A., Lamis Alami, Minister of Education for the P.A., and our own Pauline Nunu, Director of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).

The theme for the event was “My Right To Education — My right to safe access to school and to a child-friendly learning environment.”  One of the posters for the event had a large picture of four children with backpacks going through a military-security check-point. 

Below the same photo, on the cover of the press kit., was printed, “Many Palestinian children encounter access restrictions on their way to school in the West Bank.”  How very true!

I am delighted to share with my readers this good news story. In the midst of the Occupation, there are still many moments of celebration and delight.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

I have been sent by the United Church of Canada to participate in the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).  Should you wish to re-post, or publicize any of this content, I welcome your direct request via the comments section of this blog.  Thank you!

Last week I drank from Jacob’s Well in Nablus.

I had been looking forward to this, given that the community where I am living for three months is only a few kilometres from Nablus.

In the Christian tradition, we know Jacob’s Well as the well of Sychar, where Jesus had the lengthy conversation with the Samaritan woman.  (John 4:4-42.)

It was wonderful to taste the water, and live into the story, and the promise and the gift of “living water” in Christ.

Built over and around the well is Jacob’s Well Orthodox Church.  Next door is Jacob’s Well Orthodox Monastery.  Actually, the church is dedicated to St. Photina the Samaritan. 

(Photina is the name traditionally given to the woman at the well. )  For centuries there has been a church of some kind on the site.

Jacob’s Well church is extraordinarily beautiful.  It is rare for services to be held there, as the Orthodox community also has a very beautiful church in Rafidia, the Christian sector of Nablus.  Last Sunday we worshipped at Jacob’s Well with a couple of bus loads of Greek pilgrims.

(Two weeks ago in the Rafidia church, I enjoyed one of the most beautiful inter-generational services, I have ever experienced in my life.  There was outstanding antiphonal choral work — all in Arabic  — by mostly men singing in the two transepts.  The half domes of the transcepts above them, caused the music to fill the sanctuary magnificently!) 

As near as I can tell from available reports, there has not been a worship service at Jacob’s Well for a couple of years — in part, I understand, because of a tragedy that occurred there in 1979.  This is what makes a visit so bitter sweet.

One of the priests, Father Archimandrite Philoumenis, the abbott of the monastery, was brutally murdered in the church by an axe-wielding  Zionist.   Apparently a “cross” was cut in his face, his eyes plucked out, and the four fingers and thumb or his right hand cut off.   The church was also desecrated. 

All this came a week after a Zionist group had claimed the church as a holy site and demanded the removal of the crosses and icons. No one has been arrested or charged with the muder.

Now there is an icon in the church, commemorating the martyrdom of the priest. And Father Philoumenis is buried just outside the entrance to the church.  His grave is hard to miss on the way inside. 

The resident Orthodox priest told me about his continued harassment from Israeli settlers around Nablus.  They would like to drive him away.

While it seems like an extreme story, it is not an isolated story, with settler violence unleaseashed against Palestinians, occasionally with a view to reclaiming major and minor holy sites.  Sometimes a holy site is the excuse to take a piece of land for a new settlement.

Our team is in regular conversation with a family which is under daily harrassment or attack from Israeli settlers — from the Eli, Shilo and Ma’ale Levona settlements — on their land near the village of Al Luban as Sharqiya.  The 85-year-old grandfather has “tabo” — which is undisputed legal title from the days of the Ottoman Empire. 

The settlers want his land, the water spring on the land, and an old building, used as a jail by the Jordanian police when Palestine was part of Jordan. 

Why reference this situation? Because the settlers latest excuse for continued harassment and wanting to take-over the site, is: “Moses swam in the spring here!” 

When I heard this, I burst out laughing; as did a Nablus priest, I shared this information with.  We laughed, because scripture and tradition has it that Moses did not reach the Promised Land.  (As well, there are many Jews and Christians who understand Moses as a mythological figure.)

Jesus words to the Samaritan woman, over which mountain was the true place to worship God (Mt. Gerizim, or Jerusalem), is somehow quite prophetic in this situation:

“Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem… God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

It isn’t about mountains — which one is more sacred — or about buildings — or even holy sites!  (As helpful as they may be to our worship, and the illumination of the sacred stories.)  God is Spirit — above and beyond — who can be worshipped anywhere — anytime —- and will not be contained or limited by, or in, our holy sites!

Ironically, Orthodox tradition has it that St. Photina was a martyr who was tortured and died by being thrown down a well by Emperor Nero.

I keep returning in my mind and heart, to the testimony of Palestinian Christians who remember a day before 1947 when Jews,  Palestinian Muslims and Palestinains Christians lived side by side peacefully.  They knew each others traditions and were cooperative neighbours who worked together for the commonwealth of their communities.

I fear that memory is fading as an older generation dies off.   We need that memory and vision kept alive!  It is strangely closer to the vision Jesus gave at the well that day. 

“A time is coming…” says Jesus. 

May it keep coming!  May we discover it anew!

“Phontina” means “the enlightened one.” 

Then, let there be Light, that we may be enlightened! 

Grace and peace,

Jim

I have been sent by the United Church of Canada to participate in the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).  Should you wish to re-postr or publicize any of this content, I welcome your direct request, via the comments section in this blog.  Thank you!

 

About once a week we take a trip into the Jordan Valley.  Sometimes it is relatively routine — touching base with a person or a community, but most often it is in response to a call asking us to document and report on incidents — sometimes ghastly incidents — related to the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank.

The Jordan Valley is compellingly beautiful, even in the height of summer when everything is so dry.  The imposing hills on both sides of the valley are truly majestic!

In Yanoun, where we are stationed, we are 17.5 kilometres from the actual Jordan River, and easy walking distance from the edge of the valley.  We walk to the edge at least once a week and enjoy a commanding view of the valley.  Most often we do this at sunset.  Our viewing point is “a thin place.”  

Lately, the third verse of that great Welsh hymn, by William Williams (1717-1791), “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah,” comes to mind, as I find the overall scene or situation in the valley quite disturbing. 

When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside…”

In that hymn, crossing Jordan is about facing death without fear, and trusting that God will land you safe on the other side.

But that is not what my angst is about.  What I see are signs of the death of communities and signs of the death of some ancient ways of living on the land.  People are suffering.  The goal is to drive them off their land. 

Yes, some of this has been going on since 1967.  But, by all accounts, there is a rather ugly accelaration of harassment, demolitions, notices of coming demolitions (The army has a demolition budget that must be used-up by year end.), the confiscation of water tanks, sheep and cows (held for ransom by the army) and the denial of some of the most basic necessities of life to Bedouins and villagers (shelter, water, sanitation, and electricity).

I have seen port-a-potties — portable toilets — that are given demolition orders by the Israeli army as soon as they are erected for use.  This denies basic sanitation to numerous clusters of bedouins. 

We have talked to village leaders where good water wells have been demolished by the Israeli army.  This means land that had been irrigated for decades is no longer productive and providing people with a livelihood.  It means the village functions with fewer water resources.

I have stood, quite aghast, while villagers chronicle wave after wave of demolitions of their homes and animal shelters by the army.  All this is an attempt to erase whole villages from the map, displace people, and free-up Palestinian land for new settlements.

I have seen land that was confiscated from Palestinians decades ago, for alleged military purposes, suddenly given over to settlers for farm land — that land now irrigated and farmed. 

We have talked with farmers who have had to pay “ransom fees” to retrive livestock or water tanks which were confiscated by the army.

After a couple of months here, you start to see the outline of the strategy to take the Jordan Valley from the Palestinians.

I came to these experiences knowing only a little bit about the geography of the Jordan River Valley and the Dead Sea.  But a couple weeks ago, I wanted to know more, so I went online and was surprised to learn that the Jordan Valley is a “rift valley.”  “The Dead Sea Rift” is a natural boundary which separates the Arabian plate from the African plate.  (A case for fusion cooking, I think.)

Joking aside, I suggest there is also a political rift here.  And that rift is not just between the Palestinians and the Israelis.  I think the wider international community has accepted — even trusted (in peace accords) — that a future Palestine would embrace or retain the West Bank in some kind of a “two-state solution.”  (Something reasonably close to the 1949, 1967 “Green Line.”)

By all signs, Israel is poised to take the Jordan Valley.  It is in the process of driving as many Palestinians as possible out of the Jordan Valley — with a view to annexing the valley holus bolus!

In fact, several Israeli politicians have said there will be no State of Israel without the Jordan Valley.  Obviously, the valley is a very productive area with enough water, if the water is carefully managed (which it is not at the moment). 

Further, if we ever get to a two state solution, Palestine will not be the West Bank anymore — as Israel will relinquish the West Bank, but continue to hold it tight.  This is exactly what it is doing now, by virture of a military occupation that declares the area as “Area C” — which means “for military purposes” and “under military control.”

Yes, there is a rift involving public perception and international expectations!  There is a rift between our hopes and expectations in the international community, and the emerging reality on the ground! 

I see — or anticipate– the loss of the West Bank for Palestine!  I fear for what will be for the Palestinains as they are forced onto smaller and smaller tracts of land.

As I “pilgrim through this barren land,” I am grateful for glimpses of some ancient ways of life that are disappearing quickly.  I am grateful for those glimpses of what was.

Do guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah!  Bid the root cause of my anxious fears to subside!

Guide us, O Thou Great Jehovah!

Grace and peace,

Jim 

I have been sent by the United Church of Canada to participate in the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).  Should you wish to re-post, or to publicize any of this content, I welcome your direct requests, via the comments section in this blog.  Thank you

It’s almost three months since he was shot in the back — close to his back bone — at short range — by an Israeli settlement security officer.  And Nadjer Assad Nadjer is recovering slowly.

We met with him, about a week ago, in his home town of ‘Urif.  He was amazingly open about his situation, and in reasonable spirits given what he has been through. 

I share his story, because his experience is not at all unusual.  It is in continuity with so many other stories I keep hearing.

To say it’s been hard for Nadjer, is not just an understatement.  It’s been difficult physically, and psychologically.  He says it has severely strained a marriage that was just a month old when he was shot. 

He showed us his wounds.  When he did this, I was sitting beside him, such that when he yanked-up his T-shirt, I ended up with a closer look than I needed — and this conclusion: He is very, very lucky that major organs were not hit and damaged!

It all began, when settlers trespassed Palestinian land and started fires in the dry wheat and grass of the hills outside the village of ‘Urif.  About 150 dunums were burned, in all. 

Word obviously spread, and when he heard, Nadjer acted instinctively to a call to extinguish a fire in his family field.  He quickly went to the field.  

“My only concern was to stop the fire.  I did not think about who was responsible for the fire.  We were doing it by hand.  Sometimes the fire brigade has trouble reaching the fields,” he recalled.

Many people came out from the village.  The scene escalated with the army present to defend the settlers from the Yizhar settlement near Nablus. 

He worked to put out the fire, until he was accused of carrying a knife.  While he had no knife, or weapon of any kind, he was grabbed and handcuffed and thrown on the ground and beaten. 

“I was handcuffed and lying on the ground.  When things went quiet, I thought everyone had gone.  I looked around as best I could, and I thought it was safe to get up.  I thought they had left.”

When he tried to get up, that’s when he was shot in the back.

“I could see an ambulance, but it wasn’t allowed to come near to help me. After I was shot, I thought I was going to die.  But I came back to life,” said Nadjer.

While the army did not intervene to protect the Palestinains, and got involved in firing tear gas, he does credit one soldier with putting a compress on his wounds.

Since then, he’s had surgery, numerous trips to the hospital, and some physiotherapy.

“I have limited movement, and everything is very difficult,” he said, “I had wanted to build a home, a home with my wife, now everything is destroyed.”

Today he cannot walk without a cane.  He can’t straighten his leg, and he has constant pain.  From the surgery, he now has a steel plate in his back.

Prior to the attack, he worked as a labourer, with his father in a local quarry.  

When I left him, to return to our village, I was sad that his life will never be the same.  I wished him healing and strength.  I privately added him to my prayers.

His exit wound is far more than physical.  Sadly, the settlers who have penetrated the heart of the West Bank have found a sure fire way to alienate their Palestinian neighbours and give common folk good reason to resent their intrusion.

Some people, like Nadjer,  will share the scars of the Occupation all their lives.

Grace and peace,

Jim

I have been sent by the United Church of Canada to participate the the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).  Should you wish to re-post or publicize any of this content, I welcome your direct request, via the comments section in this blog.  Thank you!

“I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”                      – Psalm 121:1.

In Palestine, you can’t help but look at the hills.  They are all around!  They define so much of Palestine.

Even in these arid months, when everything is various shades of brown, they have their own beauty and grandeur, with one hill majestically rolling-on — after — and into another. 

Despite being rock, with shallow patches of soil, sometimes these hills are dotted with olive trees.  They are also pasture to shepherds and their flocks, creating some idyllic pastoral scenes.  Often they have been tamed over the centuries with terraces.

The hills are alive! They are the life of local peasant Palestinian farmers, and Bedouins living off the land in the Jordan Valley.  

In reality, the West Bank is all about hills — both geologically and politically.   It’s about who’s on top of any given hill: Pasture for farmers, a Palestinian village, or an Isreali outpost, settlement, or an army post?  You quickly learn to spot, who is on top.

The current Israeli-Palestinian conflict is largely about who will have most hills at the end of the day.  

In Yanoun, where I serve for three months with the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), there’s a piece of me that does not want to lift up my eyes unto the hills when ever  Psalm 121 comes to mind — which is often as I walk the Yanoun valley!  (The hills actually cue the psalm in my mind.) 

Why? Because the hilltops are a graphic reminder of why I am in Yanoun, with other internationals.

Yanoun just may be the smallest surviving Palestinian village in the West Bank.  EAPPI maintains a team here 24/7/365 as a “protective presence.” 

(We also relate to and support 30 nearby villages with similar experiences and issues (land, water, demolitions, settler violence, army incursions etc.), and also the Christian communities of Nablus.)

First, and foremost, we are a protective presence and “witnesses,” because Yanoun routinely experiences settler attacks from the nearby Itamar Israeli settlement and outposts.  Yanoun is all but surrounded!  And a few of the Itamar folk are very aggressive.

To be honest, it’s a challenge to photograph the phenomena of being surrounded.  But there is one to the right, one to the left, one across from Yanoun with army presence – and one right above us!  The closest is only 400 m away!  Way too close for comfort!
 

There has been conflict at times in Yanoun as the settlers have tried to drive them out, and off their land.

The problem is that Yanoun is “in the way.”  It is in the way of a swath of settlements, and outposts running from the border between the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel on the west, right through the West Bank to the Jordan River valley.

There are now several of these bands of settlement right across Palestine. 

These bands have often been been achieved through settler violence toward locals, army muscle, the confiscation of property, land, and water, and the demolition of homes and tents.

In simplest terms, it’s the living-out of the words of Ariel Sharon:
“Everybody has to move, run and grab as many (Palestinian) hilltops as they can to enlarge the (Jewish) settlements because everything we take now will stay ours… Everything we don’t grab will go to them.”  — Ariel Sharon, Israeli Foreign Minister, addressing a meeting of the Tsomet Party, Agence France Presse, Nov. 15, 1998.
 

At the same time, he also said, “It is the duty of Israeli leaders to explain to public opinion, clearly and courageously, a certain number of facts that are forgotten with time. The first of these is that there is no Zionism, colonialization, or Jewish State without the eviction of the Arabs and the expropriation of their lands.”

Yes, who ever has the most hills wins!

And the Palestinains are losing right, left, and centre!  They have been losing this one for a couple of decades!

Now, despite my hesitation, I do look to the hills when Psalm 121 comes to mind, and I will look to the God of justice and mercy, who companions us on the journey.  I hope and pray this One who neither sleeps nor slumbers will call us all — Israelis, Palestinains, and internationals; Jews, Christians and Muslims — to our best selves, to our best values, and to our sacred teachings and stories about how to be with one another — here, and anywhere!

Grace and peace…

Jim

I have been sent by the United Church of Canada to participate in the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). Should you wish to re-post, or to publicize any of this content, I welcome your direct requests, via the comments section in this blog.  Thank you!

One day in late July, we went pretty close to the Gaza Strip.  We went about as close as you can get these days, and found ourselves on “holy ground.”   

We went to the town of Sederot, into a 25 year-old kibbutz, only two miles from Gaza.  We spent a couple of hours there.

Sederot is one of those communities which — at the moment — experiences occassional rocket fire from Gaza.  However, in the past, it has experienced extremely intense and unrelenting rocket fire.  Barage after barage is more to the point!

We were visiting Nomika Zion, from The Other Voice.  (www.othervoice.org)  We were crammed into the living room of her home.  She kept us spellbound with her story of living in great fear — reaching a breaking point — deciding to do something — and coming into a constructive place beyond hatred.

Two days before we were there, Sederot fielded two rockets from Gaza.

Nomika Zion told us that there have been thousands and thousands of rockets launched on Sederot over the last few years.  In the beginning they were rather primitive, but the rockets have become more and more sophisticated over the years.

“Over the last 11 years, we are living under a rain of rockets,” said Zion, “The impact on peoples lives is enormous and dramatic.  It’s easier to survive a three week war than an ongoing conflict.”

Zion reminded us that stress over years affects immune systems and defense systems, “to the point that you cannot cope.”  The people of Sederot experienced clinical depression, and were the victims of shock and anxiety.  Many people left Sederot, and about 100 small businesses have closed in Sederot and the region.

“Twenty-five thousand people have been traumatized in one way our another,” said Zion.

“If you are lucky to not get hit or injured, you are still traumatized — traumatized by the situation.”

She explained that safety became the preoccupation of ones mind: all the time wondering if family members and friends were safe.  The overarching concern, while doing everyday tasks about town, was the problem of having only 5 to 10 seconds to get to a safe room or a shelter.

“It becomes an emotional project — which route I am going to take — can I find a shelter?  It’s like Russian roulette — you don’t have a place to run.”

Now Sederot is the most sheltered city in the world.  A great deal of money has been spent on community shelters, fortifying schools, and hundreds of safe rooms have been added to peoples homes or incorporated into new home construction. 

“How painful that the money goes to security and not other social needs,” she said.

When things were particularly bad, night after night, families had to sleep together in their safe rooms.

“That’s what happened to the family life — to the intimacy.  It’s very difficult.  People had to sleep together,” said Zion.

Over time, she became depressed, “down,” and hopeless. She came to feel guilty about raising her children in Sederot.

At one point there was some group therapy offered in the community. She says it actually saved the community. But at the same time, older children were asking, “Why raise us here?”

She said politicans came and went, nationally, and each tried to benefit politically from the situation with Gaza.  She said the dominant mood became, “Destroy Gaza! Destoy Gaza!”

Yet, somehow in the midst of all that mayhem, she remembered that Sederot had enjoyed a rather close relationship with people in Gaza people prior to the 1st Intifada.  (Dec. 1987 to 1993)

“There had been an Arabic market in Sederot, with many farmers from Gaza. Of course, I never forgot there was an occupation, we were never equal in that sense.”

In Sederot and beyond, the language of fear and hostility with each side demonizing the other, reached a fevered pitch.

“It became more and more extreme!” she recalls.

In January 2008, the rockets were 50 to 60 per day — 25 per cent of the population of Sederot moved out.

In the midst of that fear and chaos, she gathered and established a group that is now called, “The Other Voice.” It started with 20 people, of different ages and backgrounds.  In the beginning they shared their feelings and discusssed the cycles of violence and revenge.

As a group, “We are not ready to tolerate these extreme voices,” she said.

“We refuse to see the people of Gaza as enemies — but neighbours and victims as well — worse than we are — maybe 10 times more.”

“We believe in dialogue.  We wanted to reach out.  This is how it all started,” said Zion.

It took time as they began to talk to people from Gaza by telephone. They called old friends and contacts.

“We could listen to them over the telephone — share views, and feelings.”

“One contact led to another,” she recalls, “We opened a human channel of communication with Gaza.”

“We were not popular with everyone in Sederot. And in Gaza they risked their lives by talking to us.  One friend was captured and tortured in Gaza.”

“In Israeli society, over the years, there have been so many wars.  One war has led to another, all our life.”

Zion says the predominant pattern of thinking in Israeli society is “the next war, the next war, the next war…” 

“You cannot discuss an alternative!” she exclaimed.

“We just lost our ability to see the other side.  We lost our capacity to see the Palestinians as human beings.”

“When we lose our empathy, we lose part of ourselves as human beings.  The majority just don’t care anymore!  It’s like we are on different planets.”

“Palestinians are treated as invisible, as if they don’t have faces, voices, an identity.  They are treated as if they have ony one identity: as terrorists or political terrorists. This is why you lose your empathy.”

“You only hear in the news when there is a violent incident.  In the news there are many manipulatiosn — many spins.”

“When you stop seeing the other as a human being, eventually you stop being human yourself.”

The goal of The Other Voice is to “make the invisible visible.”

“We are trying to not see Hamas as a dark demon on the other side.”

In late 2008, with the Israel invasion of Gaza, she found herself quite torn emotionally. She found herself concerned for her own mental codition, for her community, her children, her friends,  the Israeli soldiers she knows, and her contacts in Gaza.

“Who is going to come back and out of the army? Even if they come back, what will happen to their minds and souls? War just poisons your mind and heart — they pollute your soul.”

“We heard terrible stories from Gaza.  The walls here were shaking from the rockets.  The Israeli army crushed Gaza for 24 hours a day,” she said.

“It’s the largest prison in the world.”

“I lay in bed and I thought more for the people of Gaza than for the people of here.  The music of war (bombing) was non-stop for three weeks — the music that comes from Gaza.”

Eventually, in January, she “couldn’t contain all the sides.”  She couldn’t bear it.  She had to stand up, and speak out. 

So, she wrote an eloquent and passionate open letter to Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as  a letter to the editor in a major newspaper.  She believes it was her civil obligation.

In part, she said on April 30, 2010, “Not in my name and not for me you went to war. The current bloodbath in Gaza is not in my name and not for my security. Destroyed homes, bombed schools, thousands of new refugees – are not in my name and not for my security. In Gaza there is no time for burial ceremonies now, the dead are put in refrigerators in twos, because there is no room. Here their bodies lay, policemen, children,

“I got myself neither security nor quiet from this war. After such an essential calm, that helped all of us heal emotionally and mentally and experience some sanity again [Nomika is referring here to the first 5 months of cease-fire, which were observed by both sides – Assaf] – our leaders have brought us back to the same wounded, anxiety-ridden place. To the same humiliating, terrified sprinting to shelter.”

“Don’t mistake me. Hamas is an evil, terrible terror organization. Not just for us. First and foremost to its own citizens. But beyond that wretched leadership there are human beings. With hard labor, ordinary people on both sides build small bridges of human gestures. This is what the Kol Aher, a group of people from Sderot and elsewhere on the Gaza border of which I am a member, has been doing. We have tried to lay down a human route to the hearts of our neighbors. While we have won a five-month calm, they continued to suffer under the siege.”

“I was ready to pay the price of isolation, but I was not ready to pay the price of fear,” she said.

To her surprise, words of support and encouragement flooded in from Israel and around the world.  She realized she was not a lonely voice. 

Zion proudly displays a humanitarioan award — the Niarchos Prize For Survivorship — which she shares with the survivors of Rwanda and Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, who wrote, I Shall Not Hate.

(Abuelaish lost his three daughters and a neice, and two of his other children were bably injured in the war on Gaza which raged from  Dec. 28, 2008 to January 18, 2009. Thirteen Israelis and 1,400 Palestinains were killed in the war.)

Today she recognizes her own actions as a “courageous thing”  — given her family history.  She is third generation descended from Holocaust survivors.

She asks what is the lesson from her own family’s “dark history.”

“Now we victimize others.  (But) My lesson is, never, never, victimize other people.  This is my lesson from my history as a Jewish person.”

After our conversation in her home, and a brief tour of the kibbutz — complete with safe shelters in the childrens park, we went to an open expansive field — a kind of no man’s land — between us and Gaza.  

Knowing the plight of the people of Gaza, that it is like a large P.O.W. camp, and that everyone in and around Gaza longs for peace — it’s hard not to gaze across at Gaza with a certain sadness and longing. 

That yearning is a yearning for peace with justice, and the rebuilding of relationships. 

It is a yearning for the madness to end!

My spiritual guts tell me that The Holy One might also like to cry out, “Not in my name, not in my name!”

Instead, The Holy One sends prophets — female and male!

Hallelujah!

I am greateful to have sat at the feet of this prophet! 

x

“”From A Military Firing Zone To A Vineyard” sounds like it should be a good news story.  But sadly, it’s not!

The issue is that rather large portions of the Jordan Valley are designated military firing zones.  As you drive through the valley, you see these cement pillars along the roads warning people that the land has military purposes.  

It is land that was previously in the hands and in the control of local Palestinians, who had been on the land for generations.  And it doesn’t matter that they can produce land titles from the time of the Ottoman Empire.  In a military occupation such deeds mean squat!  And they get treated like squatters!

Then, suddenly, those pieces of land — particularly if they are near an Israeli settlement — can over night become property for settlers to develop.  

It’s a common pattern: Take the land for so-called military purposes.  Use it for military purposes, or just hold it under the oversight of the army.  Dismiss all protests and legal challenges.  If necessary flex the muscle of the army to enforce the designation. And then — seemingly out of the blue — turn it over to settlers!

Today, July 27, we were called to see a 170 dunums (42 acres or 17 hectares) parcel of land that had suddenly shifted from a military firing zone to a new vineyard.   It was an amazing transformation!

Our team had actually driven by the site on the 19th — on our once-a-week tour through the Jordan Valley — and noticed that the field had been plowed.  But to our surprise on the 27th, it was fenced, irrigated, and the center section planted with young grape vines.

 The boxes that must have been used to transport the tender vines were piled up in the corner of the field.  

 

After a quick look at the property, to avoid detection by the nearby military, we met with Abu Sakkar, a community leader in the local Palestinian village of Al Hadidiya.  (Al Hadidiya, sits right next to the Ro’i Israeli settlement, but Al Hadidiya was there first.)

We met Abu Sakkar in his tent, surrounded by some of his family. He explained that the land belongs to three brothers in the nearby city of Tubas.   While the brothers inherited the land from their father, and grew wheat and barley, they lost the use of the land in 1977 (10 years after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank) .

Until the last week, or so, it was designated a military firing zone, even though no military activity ever took place on the land, said Sakkar.

“It’s a huge area,” he exclaims, “But around here, if they need any part of the land, they just take it.”

He said settlers showed up, added the fencing and irrigation pipes, and then the vines.

“Everyone had a gun,” said Sakkar.

So there was no protest from the locals.

Ironically, a military firing zone warning pillar still stands right next to the vineyard.  It’s comic, if it wasn’t so tragic for folks who lose their family farms to military firing zones.

Sakkar said before 1977, wheat and barley was grown on the land.

“In 1977, that’s when they planned to take more land for the settlement.  Now it’s too late, the political plan is to empty all the land from the Palestinian people.  We are being driven from our land,” said Sakkar.

“Up to now we are charting a peaceful course, but with more and more pressure on us, there will be a lot of trouble here for the Israelis here,” said Sakkar.

“At some point things will explode!” he added.

No doubt.  Everyone has their breaking point.

And no doubt their occupiers might welcome that “explosion” as the long-awaited provocation to come down even harder.

(Actually, I am in awe of how much is just absorbed — sucked-up — by the Palestinians as they go about their daily lives peacefully.) 

So we pray and work for peace and understanding and justice.

In the meantime, I’m going to pay more attention to where my grapes come from when I purchase them. 

Grace and peace,

Jim 

I have been sent by the United Church of Canada to participate in the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).  Should you wish to re-post, or to publicize any of this content, I welcome your direct requests, via the comments section in this blog.  Thank you!

What truly strikes at the heart and soul of Palestinians?  

Other than any injury to their families, it’s messing with their olive trees!

There is a sacred, spiritual connection to olive trees here, whether it be a relatively young tree, or an old gnarled and twisted tree that brings to mind the forest scene from Babes In Toyland.

It is not just that olive trees produce the fruit which, when pressed, provides olive oil — a basic staple of existence here.  It’s deeper:  Olive trees survive and thrive, despite the harsh, often arid conditions.  They are tended, pruned, stewarded — and, hopefully, passed from generation to generation.

In my area, there are trees that are young and some that are literally hundreds of years old.  They are like so many of the Palestinians I have met: Rooted on the land, tenacious, patient, enduring, adapted to the conditions here.

The ancient Psalmist says, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.  I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.”                                                                         — Psalm 52:8.

Almost every family I have met has olive trees somewhere nearby.  It may be a half dozen, or several hundred trees shared with an extended family.  

This deep, deep connection to their beloved trees seems greater than the connection we have in Clarkson-Lorne Park (Mississauga) to our whites oaks (of Jalna)  — as grand and majestic as they are, or even the years of affection I see in my wife’s extended family for the beautifully tended apple orchards of Brantwood Farms (Brantford).

They are far more than symbolic.  Olive trees mean life here! And there’s a palpable spiritual connection between Palestinians and their olive trees.  

Last week, on Friday July 20,  I had the privilege of spending a couple of days with our team of EA’s in Bethlehem.  After spending the morning on checkpoint duty at the sprawling Gilo checkpoint monitoring the movement of people on the first day of Ramadan (mostly devout families going to The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem for prayers), we responded to call from a community contact, letting us know a farmer’s olive trees had been bulldozed in the nearby village of Al Jab’a.

Mohammad Ahmad Abed Elateef, one of the farmers affected, told us that the day before he received a phone call from a neighbour at 5 a.m. to say that two bulldozers, jeeps and military cars were spotted on his land.  He was at work, and sent a couple of his sons to survey the situation.  His sons reported that about 20 settlers and 20 soldiers were already on their land.

While his sons tried to get close, they were prevented by the soldiers.  They were forbidden from taking pictures.

They were scooping the trees from their roots!  They took the trees and they were replanted somewhere else,” said Mohammad.

“They took them to replant them somewhere else!”

“Everybody had guns, except for the workers,” he added.

“After they left, we went to take a look.  They scooped them with the roots and took it with them,” he exclaimed.

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He figures he lost over 70 mature trees, and that his neighbour lost about 200 trees to the bulldozers.

“It’s very painful.  It takes time to get over it,” he says.

But with a certain resignation he declares, “I will plant again.”

He told us that he already had a court case pending in which he protested  a previous cutting of his olive trees.

On site, we walked together down the hillside.   Long ago it had been terraced to create strips of land that hug the hill.  But all we saw was rocky soil with large tread marks.  There were almost no stumps or branches left behind, just bulldozer tracks!

I was speechless, looking at what had been such a thorough job of removal!  What do you say when someone’s olive orchard has been wiped out?

Problem: Al Jab’a is near the Green Line, with Israeli settlements quite close by.

Mohammad surmises that his land may be wanted for a separation wall/security fence around his village.

In the meantime, someone has some new landscaping — an instant olive grove! Most likely in a nearby settlement.

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His neighbour Nasser El-din speaks from the heart, “These trees mean a lot!  Every year you tend your trees — every year, every year.  You get a sentimental relationship.”

Nasser says, “You are not supposed to cut it.!  Who gives you the right to cut it?  These trees are ours!  Who gave them the right to do do this! The so-called civilized countries that support them — gives them the right!”

He wants to point to the larger global political realities of the occupation of Palestine by Israel.

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“If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears,” says Mahmoud Darwish.

There is truth in those words.

And if olive trees knew the hands that uprooted them, their oil would also become tears.

Friends, if you have a chance, go savour a little olive oil.

Grace and peace…

Jim 


I have been sent by the United Church of Canada to participate in the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).  Should you wish to re-post, or to publicize any of this content, I welcome your direct requests, via the comments section in this blog. Thank you!