I arrived at the Capitol Hotel in East Jerusalem at 14h00 on Monday, 3 September 2012. A few members of the Jerusalem Team 44 took some of us on a ‘walking tour’ to the Jerusalem Office, where we had a brief introduction and we received our very own EAPPI Vests, which identify us as Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs). We shared in a welcome session on Tuesday morning, 4 September, during which we participated in a meaningful ritual as we introduced one another to the rest of the group. Each Placement’s priorities were introduced to us by means of a PowerPoint Presentation and Team 45 was given a thorough overview of our work in the various Placements. We have teams throughout the West Bank: in Hebron, South Hebron Hills, Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, Tulkarem, Yanoun and Jayyous. The West Bank is the Occupied Palestinian Territory over which Israel exercises control. The West Bank is controlled by the Israeli Military and Palestinian people are judged under military law, whereas Israeli Citizens are judged under civil law.
After lunch, we all went to the various Placement Homes for our three-day training period. During these three days we were introduced to as many of the local contacts as possible and we were accompanied to the Checkpoints and School Runs so that we would know which bus to catch and where to stand and what to do. In a handover meeting Team 44 also went through our priorities with us and answered the many questions that arose. Ours was a very good ‘handover’ period.
Although this is in fact my third visit to the City of Jerusalem, it feels as though I am discovering it for the first time. The city is vibrant, the people are a mixture of locals, trying to make a living, and tourists from every part of the globe. Where we stay, in East Jerusalem, we regularly hear the call to prayer from the mosques all around us. Jerusalem is divided into East and West – the Western side is in Israel and the Eastern side forms part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Both Palestinians and Israelis view Jerusalem as their Capitol. The photo of ‘The City’ was taken from our veranda and the photo of ‘The Desert’ was taken from a Bedouin village (Khan al Ahmar) that is situated on the edge of greater Jerusalem, which we visit regularly.
It was not easy to get used to the fast pace in extremely hot weather conditions. On several days the thermometer outside our Placement House indicated that it was 39 degrees at noon! Going through the Handover Report went fairly smoothly and by the end of the week, we felt a little less apprehensive about the tasks that lay before us.
On Sunday, 9 September, all the Teams of Group 45 went back to Jerusalem, where we met at the Capitol Hotel for five days of Orientation. There we were introduced to various organisations and key people, who shared information with us and told us about the work that they do.
A key strategy, of the Israeli Government, is to create a Jewish majority in every neighbourhood. One of the ways in which they are doing this is by building Settlements throughout the West Bank. According to the International Law that governs the occupation of any territory by a foreign country, these Settlements are illegal. The residents of these Settlements are knows as ‘Settlers’ and they are given incentives to live in these ‘illegal’ Settlements, which are usually built on the hills surrounding Palestinian villages, towns or suburbs of cities. We went on a tour through one of the Jewish Settlements with Angela Godfrey-Goldstein (an Israeli Peace Activist) and then on to the Khan al Ahmar Bedouin Village. Bedouin communities are unique. The clan of the Khan al Ahmar village originally lived in the Negev Desert but after 1948, when the State of Israel was formed their nomadic existence there became severely threatened. Bedouins live in tents, they usually keep camels, goats, sheep and other small live stock. However, in 1952, their villages were invaded, many of their people were killed and the survivors fled and eventually came to settle (illegally according to the Israeli Government) on the edge of greater Jerusalem. Note the contrasts in the photos! (The photos are posted separately as I don’t seem able to paste them into the text!)
Two of the key Israeli organisations that addressed us during Orientation are “Breaking the Silence” (an organisation of Israeli soldiers, who give their testimonies about what happens during their army service – originally they told the stories of the situation in Hebron but their newest book has just been published and in it more stories are told about situations in other parts of the West Bank too) and “Machsom Watch” (Israeli women who help Palestinian people with permit difficulties). Both of these organisations oppose the Occupation of Palestinian Territory.
We were introduced to one of the key Palestinian Christian leaders, Yusef Daher who spoke to us about the Kairos Palestine Document. He strongly encouraged us to promote divestment of Israeli products in our own countries. Yes, this would hurt Palestinian people but without it, nothing might change.
We were taken on a tour through Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum), which was disturbing to say the least. The similarities between how Jewish people were treated by the Nazi Regime during World War II and how Jewish people are now treating Palestinian people, is too scary for words. Building “The Wall” is probably one of the most controversial decisions the Israeli Government has ever made. There is an imaginary ‘Green Line’ which shows the boundaries between Israel and the West Bank on a map. The Wall (or at places barbed-wire fencing) has been constructed all along this Green Line. However, it does not adhere to the boundary lines but snakes in and out of Palestinian Territory, chopping up villages and separating people from their farmlands and their neighbours. I think The Wall is hideous and through it, Israel inflicts emotional pain on Palestinian people on a daily basis.
Various members of staff in the Jerusalem EAPPI Office addressed Team 45 on key aspects of our work and answered all our questions. Some of the issues that were addressed were ‘security’, ‘advocacy polices’ and ‘communication policies’.
A different team took responsibility for a reflection each morning. This helped us build community and united us in spirit with those around us and with those who are supporting us at home.
On Thursday, 13 September 2012, at St. George’s Anglican Cathedral our ‘Handover’ Ceremony was held. This was a moving ceremony and Team 44 passed on the light to Team 45. Many Church Representatives participated in the ceremony to show support and to stand in solidarity with us and with the work that we do. We were encouraged to contact any of them during our stay and to regularly visit them at their churches.
On Thursday afternoon, we officially moved into our Placement Home for the next three months. We cleaned the house, unpacked our belonging and held our first team meeting as ‘newly inducted’ EAs.
At strategic places in The Wall, checkpoints have been erected to control who goes in and out of Israel. No one, without the appropriate permit, is allowed to go through a checkpoint. At some checkpoints, such as at Qalandiya between Jerusalem and Ramallah, people start queuing from 4 o’clock in the morning to get to work in time. Only those with a Jerusalem ID or a special and valid permit are allowed to go through. No Checkpoint Duties are assigned on Fridays and Saturdays so our first three days were reasonably comfortable and we took time to adjust to a new way of living.
We start very early on Sunday mornings doing duty at the Qalandiya Checkpoint. Our taxi collects us outside our front door at 04h10 and we monitor the checkpoint from 04h30 till 07h30. We count men, women and children and record the numbers who pass through the checkpoint each half an hour. These figures are compiled by staff in our Jerusalem Office and passed on to organisations that do extensive research on the Palestinian Occupied Territory and regularly publish reports.
We set up meetings with key contact people and organised a walking tour in the Old City in order to equip ourselves with more information about the situation we find ourselves in. Our work is enhanced by the many people who are willing to share information with us and to support us in our quest to “Stop the Occupation”.
During the tour of the Old City, Mahmoud Jiddah (our guide) took us to visit two families whose homes have been invaded by Jewish Settlers. Over and above the Israeli Government’s illegal “Settlement Plan” in the West Bank, there is also a strategic plan to invade all Palestinian neighbourhoods and work towards establishing a Jewish majority in every Jerusalem neighbourhood. Palestinian families (clans) have lived in some homes for many generations and most of them do not have title deeds to prove individual ownership of their homes. The Israeli Government often disputes their rightful ownership and ‘sells’ part of their home to a Jewish Settler. Settlers buy into the Zionist philosophy and do not mind living in a Palestinian neighbourhood, as they believe they are helping Israel in achieving its goal of attaining a Jewish majority in every neighborhood. Settlers are also given economic incentives to live in these houses that have been ‘confiscated’ by the Israeli Government. (At times the sale of a Palestinian home is in fact bona fide but stories are told how old people have been deceived and made to sell their property under false pretenses.) The woman in the photo below told us her family’s story and how they now have to live with these Jewish Settlers in part of their house. See the Israeli flag right next to their door in the photo:
Friday mornings are reserved for advocacy work. This is when we do some personal reflection and write about our experiences. We all appreciate the support of our friends, family and colleagues back home.
Some of us again joined the Women in Black at their weekly Friday Demonstration from 13h00 to 14h00. This takes place on the square across the road from the Centre for the Preservation of Conservative Judaism in West Jerusalem. This week they said farewell to one of the members who is moving to Mombasa for three years. They will be living and working in Kenya for this period. The group did a most moving ritual as they joined hands and sang in true Israeli fashion – a lovely send-off for their friend and sister. Cookies and fresh lemonade were shared with all who participated in the day’s demonstration. Women in Black protest against the Occupation of Palestinian Territory and we support this demonstration. The members of Women in Black are mostly retired women but several younger women and some men are becoming involved in this protest. The leader of the Jerusalem group is definitely a senior citizen and she has been organising these weekly protests for the past twenty-eight years.
Luc (my French team-mate) and I decided to walk back to our Placement Home another way – we explored a bit of West Jerusalem on the eve of Shabbat. There was a festive mood in the air and some young people were singing and dancing in the street near some pavement cafés beside the light rail line. Here it was almost impossible to imagine that we were in an ancient city – see my photos.
We met with Zakaria Odeh from “The Civic Coalition for Defending the Palestinians’ Rights in Jerusalem” on Saturday morning. His presentation, though excellent, was also very depressing. There seems to be no solution in sight and our goal – to End the Occupation – seems like a pipe dream. It is very helpful for us to listen – again and again – to the stories of people as they tell how they perceive the situation here and to begin to try to put the puzzle pieces together for ourselves. There certainly are many complex moral dilemmas surrounding the Occupation of the Palestinian Territory.
“The milk occasionally tastes sour and the honey makes a sticky mess but this country is still a land of promise!” (The Jerusalem Post on 16/9/2012)