This is a full diary of my trip to Haifa, Capernaum, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Silwan, Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah in October 2018, as part of a tour group from the UK organised by FODIP, the Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine. Much of what is written here is personal testimony of what happened, and also testimony from the people we met who told us their own stories.
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Tuesday October 9th 2018
To TEL AVIV (“Mound of Spring”) and HAIFA (meaning of name unknown)
It was dark outside as I waited for my taxi at 4.40 am. The first leaves were falling and it seemed a long wait – not a good start. The driver was very apologetic: “we have some new software” she said “and there are some teething problems.” “I’ve been looking at the reviews of Fleet Cars while I’ve been waiting,” I replied. “They all seem to be one star or five stars, with nothing in between.” “I’ve worked for several taxi firms,” she said, “and this is one of the best. Now tell me, do you have your passport and air ticket, and which way would you like me to go to Heathrow?”
We decided on the North Circular Road down to Chiswick, and the M4 from there. South of Ealing we were held up by a dustcart collecting the rubbish. Much of the North Circular is still residential, and 5.30 am is obviously a good time for the collection.
In the spacious Heathrow Terminal 5, I was due to meet the group at 6 am. Promptly at that time, I received a text to tell me where to check in. Altogether, we were to be fourteen in our group, eight Muslims, three Christians and three Jews, including our scholar in residence, Ophir Yarden, a Jerusalem resident with a strong background in interfaith dialogue.
This was my first trip on a Boeing 777: it was impressively spacious, and every seat was full. It seems that at this time of year, most visitors are Christian Pilgrims: at the tourist sites and in the hotels, their presence was very obvious. As someone rather cynically remarked to me: “They visit up to twenty sites in one day. They run where Jesus walked.”
Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, has been rebuilt and expanded since I was last in Israel and is now also impressively spacious. We had to wait a long time while one member of our group was cross questioned: he consistently has problems getting into and out of Israel, and he does not know why.
In the tour minibus the sun was setting as we drove north towards Haifa and arrived at the Colony Hotel in the City Centre, just below the Bahai Temple Gardens. The Hotel was originally a house belonging to the Appinger family from Germany, and rebuilt in the 1920s as an elegant hotel with 50 bedrooms. From our room there was a view of the Bahai Temple Dome.
The hotel had arranged for us to eat across the road at the Shtroudl Restaurant. The food was served outdoors at wooden tables under a scattering of little lights. As we had eaten little since the stodgy British Airways breakfasts it was wonderful to find masses of fresh salads already on the table so we could tuck in without having to wait. It soon became apparent that Haifa’s reputation for co-existence is a real one. One waiter wore a cross, and women with hijabs chatted away in Arabic at the next table. The menu was in Hebrew and Arabic and we heard both languages spoken in this cosmopolitan city.
Then we went back to the hotel for our introductory session. We seemed to jell as a group right from the moment of meeting. I was the oldest, and then there were Jane and Matthew, who live in Bicester. Jane, our Christian leader and one of the founders of FODIP, is a former teacher and director of CCJ, and Matthew a retired engineer who has written a book on how to be a churchwarden. They brought with them from Bicester their friend Caroline, who struck up an instant friendship with Dudija, a Bosnian Muslim. The rest of the group were all from Manchester. There was my colleague, Rabbi Warren Elf, and two civil servants Ahmed and Pasha (one of the founders of Fodip). Pasha was with his wife Sadia, who is Fodip’s administrator. Then there was Souad, a teacher from Algeria, and her two daughters, Mariam a just qualified doctor, and Amina a law student. Finally there was Usman, a friendly young person who was fun to be with and who wants to be a group facilitator and leader.
This turned out to be a very rich day in spite of most of it taking place on a plane and a tour bus.
Wednesday October 10th
TO CAPERNAUM (“village of Nahum”) AND NAZARETH (“branch” or “watch tower”)
After a full Israeli and breakfast, we headed across the hills to Capernaum (كفر ناحوم), on Lake Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. Here are the archaeological remains of an ancient synagogue and an even older Church, with a modern one floating on stilts over the top of it because they wanted to be on the very spot where Jesus established his ministry in Galilee. It was a delight to sit in the sun and look out across the water, though we were astonished by the huge number of tour buses bringing Christian pilgrims. From there a short drive took us to the Church of the Multiplication, Tabgha, which commemorates the “feeding of the five thousand”. There is an ancient loaves and fishes mosaic. Once again there were crowds of Christian visitors.
From there up the hills and into Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab town. I have not spent time in an in Israeli Arab town before, but I did visit Morocco just three months ago, and this felt very similar. Municipal elections are coming up at the end of the month in Israel, and we saw lots of candidates’ posters in Nazareth. We visited the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, viewed the very fine mosaics, and discovered the underground spring. As we came out, a prominent sign directed us to a falafel stall, where we enjoyed the first of what was to become a whole series of fine vegan lunches.
After a walk through the town and the market, we reached the White Mosque, where we were effusively welcomed by the Imam, who was anxious to explain the good relation the mosque has with its Christian neighbours. We were served Arabic coffee. When the Muslim prayer time arrived, one of the group asked if it was really necessary to go into the separate women’s section. “Not at all”, the Imam replied. He proceeded to invite the women into the main mosque and took the men into a section at the side for the afternoon prayer.
Just after leaving Nazareth, we were held up a road accident. A lorry had overturned on a bend, and Mariam got out with her first aid kit to see if she could help the driver, who was sitting by the roadside. There were in fact already other medics there. As she got back into the tour bus, Ophir said “That’s very unusual to see a woman in a hijab attending an Israeli soldier.” But he went on to tell us that it would not be at all unusual in hospital, where Hebrew and Arabic speakers are found both among patients and among staff. We heard later that 50% of doctors in Israel are now Arabs.
We made our way back to Haifa and visited the imposing Sisters of Nazareth School, a Christian School which has been in Haifa for 150 years. There we met the head teacher, Haifa Najjar, and the Arab Director of Beit Hagefen, the Arab-Jewish Cultural Centre in Haifa. We went into the Chapel and saw a framed picture of Jesus with a caption in Arabic “oh Jesus, I put my trust in you.” We heard a little of the fascinating history of the school and then we went through into the staff room for a more personal talk. Haifa told us of the lack of a clear identity felt by her and her students. She gave an example of when they travelled to represent the school at an international competition in Germany. When they were told about the Israeli flag and anthem, she said that was not what they wanted. They were offered the Palestinian flag and anthem, but she said that was not right either. “I am not a citizen of Palestine; this is my land; I was born here.” She explained that Israeli Arabic speaking Christians do not have any real national identity. Even though the Palestinian author and poet Mahmoud Darwish was born in Haifa, her school is no longer allowed to have classes on Arabic literature, but there are other ways they have found to support Arabic culture, such as teaching Arabic scientific terms. The school also supports Palestinian Land Day every year on 30th March.
Our Muslim speaker was more concerned about being treated as a second class citizen. “Yesterday in the Metro,” he complained, “I heard someone talking about the municipal elections here, and saying not to vote for someone who likes Arabs. She could see me sitting there but that didn’t stop her. It is always been like this but what is new is that people are quite open about it. But Haifa remains better than any other city in Israel.” The current situation is that one third of Israeli citizens apply for a second passport for another country – so many have doubts about the future of Israel. “Go home and explain there are Arabs living here; we just want to be treated equally.” We heard about Sahyoun Street in Haifa, and the story of the Sahyoun family, driven from their home in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. All the family’s lands and buildings are intact, but there is not right to return or to repossess them. (Sahyoun is the Arabic word for “Zion.”)
Thursday October 11th
JERUSALEM (“city of peace”)
7.30 am saw us checked out of the Colony Hotel Haifa and on our bus for the ride to Jerusalem. On our way, in the narrowest part of Israel, we caught our first glimpse of the famed and controversial separation barrier.
The plan was, as a group of Christians, Jews and Muslims together, to visit the holy sites of all three faiths in the Old City in one day. We walked down from Jaffa Gate through the Christian quarter and found the Mosque of Omar. We heard the very positive story of how the Caliph Omar (577 – 644) travelled to Jerusalem to accept its surrender in the year 637. He visited the Church of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and was invited to pray inside the church, but declined, saying that if he prayed there other Muslims would want to as well (which would endanger the Church’s status as a Christian site.) Instead he prayed outside, on the steps east of the church. The first Mosque of Omar was later built at that site.
A few steps brought us to the square outside the famous Church thronged with Christian pilgrims, some chanting and walking in procession and carrying massive wooden crosses. The Church inside (with no entry restrictions or crowd control) was just a babble of noise and pushing. We made our way as best we could up the stairs to see the top of the rock which marks one of the possible sites where Jesus was crucified, and then down again and around the Church with its mass of art and mosaics from wildly different Christian cultures. Sadly, the site is just a cacophony of confusion and disorder. There are so many people there and so many structures inside that it is hardly possible to get any view of the length of the whole Church.
After a stop for falafel nearby, it was time to visit Al-Aqsa/ the Temple Mount. Now, religious differences became apparent as Muslims had to enter by one gate, Jews and Christians by another. Entrance for non-Muslims was only from 1.30 to 2.30 pm, so we arrived shortly after one to take our place in the queue. Strangely the entrance is up a ramp with wooden sides rising up almost on top of the women’s section of the Western Wall, and rather spoiling the site. Security was tight but acceptable. It was a relief to find ourselves emerging through the gate onto the platform where the Temple once stood, and Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock now stand. Compared with the Christian and Jewish sites, this was a very tranquil place, but I felt only too aware that this was because there were relatively few Muslim tourists and also because Muslim residents from the Palestinian Territories could not travel there without a special permit. It was good to see ordinary families sitting on the steps and eating picnic lunches, enjoying the day out in the pleasant October weather which was neither too hot nor too cold.
Just before we left at 2.30 pm, we saw a strange sight. A group of half a dozen Haredi Jews were walking backwards down the steps away from the Dome of the Rock, surrounded by Israeli police and military. They were allowed there briefly on the understanding that they would not pray. Israel has not forgotten that the worst fighting of the Second Intifada was triggered by the visit of then Opposition Leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the site on 28th September 2000.
After a stop for coffee, we were keen to visit the Western Wall. Unfortunately we had trouble at the security barrier from guards who could not understand why Muslims and Jews would want to enter the site together. We got comments like “You don’t look like the sort of people who normally come in here.” The policeman in charge was called, and the problem was easily sorted. The women wearing hijab had no problem going right up to the wall in the women’s section, and several people came up to us to say how pleased they were to see our group there. We saw lots of examples of discrimination in Israel, but the difficulty faced by women wearing the hijab in Western Europe does not exist there. Certainly Muslims face all kinds of difficulties, but women covering their hair is not one of them. It is part of the culture.
And so we checked into our hotel, the Crowne Plaza, formerly the Hilton Hotel, a tower block situated on a hill between Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station and the Israel Museum, not far from the Knesset. Most of us had rooms on the twelfth floor. Staying in such a large hotel with hundreds of other people was not so easy, but the eat as much as you like buffet meals were some compensation.
That evening we had a talk from Rabbi Levi Waiman Kelman, the new Director of Rabbis for Human Rights. He started by explaining that the values that he shared and that we shared in our lives were not shared by the majority of the population. He told us the history of the organisation, founded by Rabbi David Forman as the only cross-denomination Jewish organisation in Israel, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Levi outlined some of their programmes. Rabbis for Human Rights runs a 10 session programme on Judaism and Human Rights for the post high school gap year which precedes military service. The course concentrates on Israel’s declaration of Independence and its Jewish sources. However this and other programmes have had to be cut because of a large funding crisis. At present they only have one field worker in the West Bank, in October running their olive picking programme to help Palestinian farmers get in their crops, Levi went on to speak about the RHR rights and benefit claim centre in Hadera, and of the Bedouin who face the demolition of their village On visit to Khan al-Ahmar. The village was due to be razed as an unapproved site on October 1st , but it has been repeatedly postponed. RHR has been working with the Bedouin there for over 20 years, and helped them build a school there out of used tyres (with the help of EU funds). Unfortunately, the school makes the whole place appear more permanent, and this has aroused Israeli hostility.
RHR has also been fighting the new Nation State Law, but finds itself under attack from the left as well as the right. The left object to RHR co-operating with and helping to train the army, thus in their view perpetuating the occupation.
For further reading, Levi recommended to us Rooted Cosmopolitans, Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century by James Loeffer. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born in the same year as the Sate of Israel, and RHR teaches a Jewish commentary on the Universal Declaration. It is not generally known how Jews were at the forefront of International Human Rights and involved with the declaration.
Levi told us that the “essence of human rights is empathy” and went on with a statement I found controversial: “Our problem is that we in Israel have too much power – but it is better than being powerless.” I found this difficult. I can see that from a perspective of practical Zionism the exercise of power has been found to be necessary, but the pacifist in me insists that ethically it is better to die than to kill. Levi went on with an even more controversial remark when he stated that Palestinians “have the support of the whole Arab world.” But he later backtracked on this. Disappointed by this ending, by the confusion in the Church and other small events, I told the group that this had not been a good day for me. The devil is always in the detail and the details were not being considered carefully enough.
As we emerged to go up to our rooms, I noticed that the hotel lounges were being used by an Orthodox Jewish dating agency. Young men with broad brimmed black hats sat at tables or in armchairs chatting one to one with long skirted Jewish girls. They were not allowed to be alone in a room with a prospective marriage partner, and so were meeting in the public space. Most of the participants looked pretty nervous, but one young woman clearly knew where she wanted the interview to lead. She had slid forward in her armchair, adopting a provocative pose. And the young man did not shield his eyes or look away.
Friday October 12th 2018
SILWAN (name perhaps from the “waters of Siloam”, see John 9:7, where it says the word means “sent”, alluding to the story there)
The day began with an unpleasant incident. Two police stopped our tour bus just after we left and accused our driver of throwing a cigarette butt out of the window. He had been smoking before we left but definitely not on the bus. It looked to me as if the police had spotted we had an Arab driver and were trying to harass him unnecessarily.
We drove to Silwan, descending the valley below the city walls and then up the other side until we were immediately below Al Aqsa. At the archaeological site there dedicated to King David’s City we met our tour guide Talya who is from a non-governmental organisation which explores the links between archaeology and politics. The site we were visiting exemplified the use of archaeology as a political weapon. She showed us round the excavations on the side of a steep hill – I had seen them featured last year in the BAR Journal under the title “Did I find King David’s Palace?” by Éclat Maser. The evidence for the remains being the original palace is largely negative—along the lines of “What else could such a large structure from that date be?” A “bulla” (ancient seal) found on the site had names on it mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah, who lived several hundred years after King David. But certainly lots of funders, and settlers now moving into the area have been convinced this was King David’s original city. There is a donor board at the entrance, where one of the plaques reads: “In honor of Jerusalem, the Eternal Capital of the Jewish People – Hilda and Yitz Applebaum.” The essential problem is that the site is in the middle of the Palestinian village of Silwan, whose houses surround the “palace” and descend steeply down to the valley floor and up the other side. What would local residents, if they were to enter, make of that plaque? We were taken down to the lower level to look at a large ancient retaining wall. Why was it built? It was only later, looking at photos, that the engineer in our group, Matthew Clements realised that on the ground at the top of the retaining wall was a pit, perhaps an ancient cistern. It seemed likely that the cliff had fallen down when the cistern was built so close to the edge and the retaining wall was built to hold it back up again, stone by stone, to preserve the buildings at the top.
From here we walked down a peaceful paved path past the pleasant houses of the Jewish settlers who had recently taken up residence. None of them were around to talk to, but we had arranged a meeting with Joad, who runs the local community centre. We walked around but could not find him. Souad, the Arabic speaking member of our group, asked a woman standing outside a house if she knew Joad, and she directed us to his house. After some delay, he came out, apologising. His phone was out of battery so he had not heard us call. He took us into the little centre where, over Arabic coffee, he told us of the town’s problems.
His talk was along the lines of an article I found online about the place: “The actions taken by such archaeologists and the powerful organizations to which they belong have been heavily criticized for using a selective view of history in order to marginalize local Palestinian communities. In addition, the methods and practices utilized by these groups aim to create a limited heritage that caters to wealthy financial backers overseas and excludes these local residents who are systematically being brushed aside in favour of the establishment of ever-grander tourist attractions. Those Palestinians who remain face severe overcrowding and slum-like conditions due to the dubious and extra-legal actions of the heritage organizations in obtaining land.” (https:/www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/08/14/isra-a14.html). Joad put it even more graphically: “We thought the occupation was bad before but it was heaven compared to when the settlers arrived.” It emerged that the new residents were being funded to live there by the same donors and the same organisation who are excavating and labelling the site. Joad told us of one house for which they offered $9 million. His family had a large house nearby which they had owned for generations. They were not going to sell up and would continue to use their contacts and their funds to support the local Palestinian community.
As we left and walked up the hill, it was a surprise to discover that all this was going on only ten minutes walk from the Western Wall.
That evening we visited Kol Haneshama Reform Synagogue. This was just five minutes walk away from the area of Baka where Claire and I lived for three months in 1985. At that time there were two new Jewish communities in the area, mainly English speaking, Kol Haneshama (Reform), who had their own small building, and Yedidya (modern Orthodox) who met in the basement of the now defunct Ulpan Etzion. It was a pleasure to see that both these communities have new buildings, have grown and thrived, and that they get on well with each other. The service was ably led by Rabbi Maya Leibovich, who in 1993 became the first native-born female Rabbi in Israel. Outside afterwards I was able briefly to say hello to my colleagues Rabbi Michael Marmur and his father Rabbi Dow Marmur – too brief really as our lift was waiting.
For this evening we split into small groups going to separate families. I was with Matthew and Mariam—one Jew, on Christian, one Muslim. Our left was from Michael and Eleanor who took us to Ariel and Cindy Nosrat’s flat way over to the West side of Jerusalem, up and down hills all the way. The eight of us sat down to dinner, and the conversation soon flowed: it was as if we had known each other all our lives. Michael, who described himself as a “former mentor” of Ophir Yarden, said “we are not typical: we are liberal lefties and Kol Haneshama is a left wing congregation.” They listened with great interest to our experiences and sympathised. Once again, we heard the Israeli health system described as a beacon of hope, where all cultures mingled and helped each other. But beyond that, there was little optimism. The two state solution is still on the table, but hope of it happening gradually slips away. The one disappointment of the evening was that Ariel and Cindy’s teenage daughter sat quietly and did not express her views. Perhaps we overwhelmed her with our fluent English conversation. The “Anglos” that Claire and I were friendly with in our summer in Jerusalem 30 years ago are now coming up for retirement, and their children are native Israelis doing their compulsory army service. Sadly the important views of this generation were missing from our trip as a whole .
Saturday October 13th 2018
There was no official programme on this day, and I had arranged to visit old friends. As there is no public transport in Jerusalem on shabbat and these friends were observant Jews, this was going to mean a lot of walking. I left the hotel at 8.15 am and walked towards the old city along the Jaffa Road. Once a major traffic route, the road has now been taken over by Jerusalem’s light rail (tram) system. In the quietness, I was able to join others walking down the middle of the tramlines, past the deserted Mahane Yehuda market, and then veering right down to the new shopping area of Mamilla Mall. This leads directly through and up some steps to Jaffa Gate, but unfortunately the Gate area has been spoiled by a new dual carriageway passing close by at a lower level. Once in the Jewish quarter, I began looking for the Istanbuli Synagogue, an old building which has been used as a synagogue since 1764, and which contains an eighteenth century ark and reading desk. This is the home of the Spanish and Portuguese community of Jerusalem, one of only thirty such synagogues worldwide. I asked for directions and was sent along the Cardo to the parking lot, and then to look for the signs to the “Four Sephardic Synagogues.” That was quite easy to find, but when I went inside it was clearly the wrong place. Where I wanted must be around the other side of the building. It took five minutes walking through narrow alleys until I heard a sound I recognised, the chanting of “Yishtabach” to a tune used at Bevis Marks Synagogue, London. The sound led me through a gate and down some steps into the impressive domed building. This service followed mainly the London tunes and traditions. I discovered I had chosen the right Shabbat as they currently meet there only once a month, as numbers have been falling. There were around forty present on this occasion. My host was Simon, an old friend from the UK who has lived in Jerusalem for many years. At Kiddush he came up to me and someone I was talking to, and said “You two are related!” And that’s how I met Ralph Amelan, like me a descendant of Raphael Meldola of London, our common ancestor six generations ago.
It was a further hour’s walk after the service back to Simon’s flat in Talpiot. We left the Old City through the Zion Gate, walked down into the valley (though not as far down as we had been the day before, at Silwan) and back up the other side to join the old Hebron Road. Much of the road runs along the green line, Israel’s border before 1967, and you can see older housing on the right and newer housing across the green line on the left. But where Simon lives, although down a road to the left, is a different area which was just inside that green line. His home in Talpiot is adjacent to the house of the famous Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, which has been turned into a museum lecture and conference hall.
Simon introduced me to his wife, and his son and daughter. It emerged that tomorrow Sunday would be the first day of the university term in Israel, and both of them would have to make long and no doubt crowded journeys across the country to get to classes for the 10 am start. The son has completed his military service and is training to be a soil and water scientist, an area in which Israel specialises. The daughter studies art and archaeology, and I was able to discuss with her our visit to Silwan the day before. She was aware of the issues but added that in her course there was virtually no Islamic art or archaeology and it was a missing element. Her mother responded that she had learned a lot about it when she had studied, and it probably just varied from year to year, depending on who was teaching. She is a keen promoter of Sephardi culture in Jerusalem.
From Simon’s it was a short walk to the other side of Hebron Road, where I called in on Rabbi Yehiel and Deborah Greniman. Their lunch guests had just left and we chatted for 45 minutes or so. Yehiel worked for many years for Rabbis for Human Rights and is still heavily involved in supporting the Jahalin Bedouin of Khan al-Ahmar. There was a general pattern among the English speaking Jews of South Jerusalem—their lives are fine, but hopes of a political solution have faded.
After I left I walked back down to Kol Haneshama Synagogue where we had been the night before and then north along the old railway line, which has been turned into a footpath by filling in the sleeper gaps between the tracks, so that the rails are still there. I knew that in 1985 we had lived near there, but where exactly was it? I soon spotted the small Yemeni synagogue on the corner when we used to go on Friday evenings, and adjacent to it the flats where we had lived in the farthest block. The address was 49 Rehov Harakevet (Railway Street) though our block was three away from the road that ran along the railway. There was an old sukkah outside from the recent festival, but the block itself looked totally unchanged, a typical Jerusalem block from the 1950s.
From there my walk took me up and down hills and through parks towards the Knesset Building. To my surprise, I spotted an ancient Church in the distance, and as I drew nearer, discovered it was the 11th century Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Holy Cross, built on a site apparently chosen by the Emperor Constantine. I had to bend down to get in through the low gate. For once, I had the building to myself – I was the only visitor at that time, looking at the beautiful dome, mosaics and wall paintings in the soft afternoon sunlight. Old pictures illustrated the strange tree with three branches, one of cedar, one of pine, one of cypress, from which according to Orthodox tradition the Cross of Jesus was made.
That evening our speaker was an Israeli settler Ammiel Honchik. He told us that his parents had arrived from the USA, social workers who had two children. (It is astonishing how many of the settlers are from the USA). He was one of six children, and the family had moved to the settlement of Efrat (south of Bethlehem) when he was two. He assured us that the land had been purchased legally and the settlers had good relations with the local Palestinians, who had helped to build the Efrat hospital. That was a narrative I had heard before, as I had studied daily for six weeks in the settlement of Elazar, just outside Efrat, in 1985. Everything changed in 1995 when prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist who objected to the Oslo accords and Rabin’s involvement with the peace process. Ammiel’s father had a change of heart, and though still living in the settlement, supported the left wing party Meretz in the elections. This led to an identity crisis for Ammiel, who soon dropped his parents’ religious life style and decided not to join the army at age 18 (though he did join the Israeli Air Force instead). It was not permitted to talk politics in the forces. Later, he married Amira, the girl from next door who had also rejected her parents’ religious life style. Over the years, Ammiel had developed individual friendships with local Palestinians, and indeed one of them had advised him that even though he had dropped religion “you should wear a kippah in the house out of respect for your father.” It was after a discussion with Palestinian friends that he and Amira decided to live not in the territories, nor in Israel, but “on the green line itself” just outside Jerusalem, where he shopped in Abu Maroof’s local Palestinian store, and enjoyed, as he put it “good food and non-violence.” Abu Maroof apparently charges Israelis a higher rate than Palestinians and Ammiel is happy to go along with this. “Remember,” he told us, “the only thing normal in Jerusalem are the street cats.”
Sunday October 14th 2018
We all attended Sunday worship at the World Heritage Site of St Thomas’ Syriac Catholic Church, where the service is conducted in Arabic with a little Syriac/Aramaic, the language of Jesus’ own time. The Church is in a narrow alleyway just to the east of the Green Line, a short walk from the Damascus Gate. The Patriarchal Exarch explained before the service that the first patriarchates were Rome, Alexandria Antioch Jerusalem and Constantinople. Nowadays, the Church is part of the Antioch Patriarchate, though the Patriarch lives in Beirut. Clearly reluctant to voice an open political criticism, he did explain to us that the congregation is in decline because many Christians have left the area. “Political instability does not help people to stay.” He is clearly committed to interreligious dialogue. When he was asked who can up for communion in his Church, he responded that it was open to “Christians who believe as we do.” The three Church of England members in our group took that as an indication that they should not take part. The service itself was fascinating, with its Aramaic and Arabic chanting, processions and incense. Fortunately there was a Catholic group visiting from the USA who had brought their priest with them, which meant that a few prayers and the sermon were in English.
Afterwards we had more time free in the old city, and I walked with the Muslim group down through the Damascus gate and along the lowest alley towards Al-Aqsa. They have been attending prayers there at 4.30 am every morning. It is clearly such an important place for Muslims. This morning our friend the Imam of the White Mosque in Nazareth was leading prayers there. As others stopped to shop I found myself with Ahmed and we chatted on a street corner for around 45 minutes. I put to him my idea that Jews and Muslims in the UK must get together to fight Islamophobia and anti-Semitism together, as well as supporting each other on other issues such as OFSTED, kosher and halal meat, and circumcision. As Ahmed lives in Harrow there will hopefully be opportunities for us to meet and discuss this back home. It seemed strange to be doing so on a street corner in the old city. In Jerusalem it seemed there was much less scope for co-operation than back home.
And so to Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust memorial museum and garden. Just before arriving we pulled in at the entrance to Mount Herzl, where a suspicious package was being attended to by a robot. I had not realised before the close geographical connection between Mount Herzl, dedicated to Israel’s independence and Yad Vashem on the slopes below. The connection between the Holocaust and Israel’s founding was further reinforced by inscriptions I noticed inside and particularly by the quotation from Ezekiel over the exit arch: ‘I will put My breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil’. (37:14). There is an annual chronological connection too in Yom HaShoah coming just before Yom Haatzmaut. Then we have the March of the Living, where Israeli flags are paraded at Auschwitz and the message is proclaimed that Israel is the defence against the Holocaust happening again.
All this could not but remind me of the lecture given by my cousin, Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, at Oxford Three Faiths week back in April. As a Holocaust survivor himself, he was highly critical of the whole “Holocaust industry” and in Israel’s part of it. He saw none of the fuss and parades as being in the interest of actual survivors and their families. In his view, the money would be better spent on supporting survivors and in fighting Germany for compensation for slave labour, which to this day they refuse to admit actually happened.
Our own visit to Yad Vashem was very much enhanced as went round by Ophir’s commentary. Zionism, he explained to us, is two legged—one leg being the abiding Jewish connection to the land. Psalm 137 “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept” is the start of Zionism. The other leg is the modern political phenomenon, the reconceptualisation of Jewish identity as National. The French has invented the modern nation state, and also the thought that Jews should do something about it. Zionism became a secular kind of messianism.
During the 1950s the squashing of collective and individual memory meant that people did not talk about the Holocaust in Israel, even though at that time one third of the Jewish population were survivors. They kept quiet for fear of being identified with those who passively went “like sheep to the slaughter.” All this changed with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, after which people talked much more about the horrors of the past. Early in 1967,before the six day war, there was a very gloomy atmosphere in Israel. Mass graves were dug in public parks as many thought another Holocaust was about to be inflicted on them. The Israeli youth, the young soldiers, wrote self-doubting letters home from the front. Perhaps it was these experiences which made the Israeli public more sympathetic to the survivors. The continuing story of passivity was further reinforced after the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, when research revealed that none of the fit Israeli athletes had tried to fight back.. This led to much less judgmental thinking about the Holocaust.
Later that afternoon, at the Jerusalem Plaza Hotel, we met Gili and Aisha from the Parents Circle Bereaved Families Forum. Both of them had very powerful stories to tell. The Parents Circle (as it was at first called) was started in 1995 by Yitzhak Frankenthal and a number of Israeli parents who had lost children. In 1997/8 it was opened to Palestinians as well, and the first ones came from Gaza. Today there are 600 members equally divided between Israelis and Palestinians, with a separate women’s group and a youth group. It has held over two thousand dialogue meetings and there is a parallel narrative project for group meetings and outings, eg to Yad Vashem and to a destroyed Arab village. Both Gili and Aisha had lost brothers (in Aisha’s case, two brothers) and this had a very powerful echo for me, having lost my sister not so long ago. With a younger sibling it is someone you have known all your life.
Gili told how he had lost his brother in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. After this war a “missing in action” unit was established. Gili’s brother was one of the missing and the most famous one—his tank was the only one to disappear without trace in Sinai. It has never been found. Gili was 12 years old when his brother vanished and it radicalised him. He became the youngest member of the far right Kach party and ended up hating Arabs and the Arabic language. His family decided to take him to Toronto for his grade 8 year, and it was while they were there that in June 1975 they heard of a “body exchange” with Egypt, and his brother’s body being sent back. They hurried back to Israel for the funeral. They never discovered the story and the news died down. As Gili put it, “Did they really bury his body or did they bury his story?” Gili went on to establish a new right wing youth movement. But then he made a new friendship which changed his life. His flats had an Arab gardener called Ali, and the two of them would smoke together then start talking. Eventually Gili ended his political activities and started studying the details of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Aisha arrived late from Nablus and in some distress. Another woman called Aisha, also from Nablus, had been attacked and killed two days before, hit on the head by a rock thrown at her car. Her husband had been driving them past an Israeli settlement at the time and could hear Hebrew being spoken. Our Aisha had been nervous the whole journey that she might be attacked as well. But, she said, the settlers too live in fear. That’s the reality of the cycle of violence. There were lots of roadblocks and her 40 minute journey had taken her three hours.
Aisha is the mother of six children, two boys and four girls, and the head teacher of an elementary school. She joined the parents’ circle in 2005 after her brother died. He had been shot while out throwing stones at Israelis. Sadly, shortly afterwards, her other brother fell from a great height in his state of grief and died as well. When Aisha went to her first meeting at Beit Jalla, she discovered to her surprise that Jews could cry too. “After 38 years my mind was opened. Howe can we help our mothers not to lose their children?” She was cynical about politics and politicians from all sides, saying “We suffer while the politicians eat good food.” Though not involved in politics, she insisted that “we are all against the occupation.” For ten years the Forum has organised a mutual memorial ceremony, but even this has not been without criticism. “We have been accused of doing a ceremony for the terrorists.” Asked about hate texts in books used in Palestinian schools, she responded that all books used by the Palestinian Authority were paid for and vetted by the EU, and pointed out that in Israeli books you could find many stereotypes.
That evening our guest speaker was Dr Sarah Bernstein. We had met her on Friday evening as the Chair of Kol Haneshama, and some of our group had had dinner with her. Now she was coming to talk to us as Director of the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue, one of FODIP’s partners in organising our tour. The Center was founded in 2004 by Daniel Rossing as the Jerusalem Center for Jewish Christian Relations, That department is still going and educates Israeli Jews about Christianity, trying to overcome the surprising degree of fear many Israeli Jews have about Christians. Another early project was twinning Jewish and Christian schools in Israel, and this built up to 24 schools. Most Christians in Israel attend Christian schools (as we had seen at Haifa), and life in general is very segregated. Another project involves training teachers to create safe spaces in classrooms for discussion of conflict. There are twenty six high schools involved in this programme, and teachers have to look at their own racism first.
The Center also runs a new “healing hatred” programme with Palestinians, combating “competitive victimhood.” This work is done in partnership with Hebrew Union College and the Bethlehem Holy Land Trust. Twenty facilitators have been trained, ten Israeli and ten Palestinian. This year they will work separately and next year together. All their schools programmes have Ministry of Education approval, so they are working with the Israeli government.
Sarah said that for some years she had told visiting groups to try hard not to export the conflict there, but now it was well and truly exported. “The fact that the rest of the world is joining in does not help us.”
Ordinary interfaith work – such as learning about Chanukah and Christmas – had run out of steam in Israel. It just makes Israelis feel good about themselves. Palestinians had grown fed up with talking to Israelis and do not want to do it any more. Israelis are fed up with talking to Palestinians and do not want to do it any more. All this is because of a sense that there have been years of dialogue but they have not led anywhere. And so the status quo continues. However, there are more completely mixed spaces than there were. (Simon Montagu told me on Saturday he now hears a lot more Arabic in the streets of West Jerusalem than he used to.) Sarah was also promoting a “prayer tourism” project, trying to persuade the many Christian tourists to at least spend one evening of their tour talking about this issues.
She concluded with some very wise words: “If you are friend of only one side, you’re nobody’s friend.”
Monday October 15th 2018
BETHLEHEM (“house of bread”)
Another early start took us 6 miles down the road to Bethlehem, where we went through the check point into the Palestinian controlled city. There we met our official Palestinian guides from Peace by Piece Tours, Osama (a Muslim) and Rana (a Christian). Soon Osama immersed us in the complexities of Areas A B and C of the Palestinian territories. Roughly speaking, area A, which is Palestinian self governing, but with entry and exit points controlled by Israel, is around 20% of the West Bank which was conquered by Israel in 1967: area B consist of another 20%, mainly Palestinian villages with joint control: area C is the other 60%, and is controlled by Israel. This includes the Israeli settlements and the countryside and open areas. In this large area Israeli residents are subject to Israeli law and Palestinian residents to Israeli military rule (the “occupation”). Because there are separate car registration number plate systems, there are restrictions also on who can drive down which roads.
All these zones were set up by the Oslo 2 accord in 1995, with Israeli and Palestinian agreement, and were intended to be temporary, pending the final status agreement. But that never happened, and there are no current peace negotiations. So the current system of multiple checkpoints appears permanent. A further complication is that Israeli citizens are not allowed to enter Palestinian Zone A without a special permit, and Palestinian Authority citizens are not allowed to enter Israel without a special permit. This creates particular problems in this area, because East Jerusalem (including all its Arab villages) has been annexed by Israel. So residents of Bethlehem and Ramallah, just 13 miles apart via Jerusalem, cannot drive between the towns without a long 90 minute detour round the mountainous side roads. An additional bone of contention is the Israeli settlements. There were around 100 thousand settlers back in 1995, and around 600 thousand now, and the number increases all the time. Palestinian negotiators had wrongly assumed that there would be no new settlements in Area C. As a recent article puts it, “What doomed the Oslo Accords is also what made them possible in the first place: constructive ambiguity.”
We drove through Bethlehem and then onto the main road south, leaving Area A for Area C. In a mere twenty minutes, we were in the town of Hebron. This is even more complicated, because there is a historic site in the town sacred to both Jews and Muslims. So Hebron is partitioned into two zones: H1, consisting of 80% of the city, the Palestinian area, and H2, the other 20%, the Israeli area. However, there are also Palestinians in H2 living under Israeli control.
I first visited Hebron in 1976, when we were shown around by early Israeli settlers. We were taken to the first settlement there, called Kiryat Arba, which at that time consisted of four tower blocks looming over the ancient town: and we were then taken down under armed guard into the old town, which even back then had an atmosphere of menace and tension. It was quite clear, even 42 years ago, that the settlers’ ambitions were to move into the old town. Not only did it have the ancient burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, but there were also very strong memories of 1929, when 67 Jews were massacred there, and the remaining Jewish residents were evacuated by the British rulers. The settlers argued that this gave a very particular reason for re-establishing a Jewish presence there.
At Purim in 1994, the Israeli American physician, Baruch Goldstein, gunned down worshippers in the Ibrahimi mosque, killing 29 and wounding another 125. One might have thought that this would have put an end to the settler’s ambitions to establish a permanent presence in the heart of the old town, but this is not the case. Today, some 700 Jewish settlers live close by the ancient sacred site. Every year at Purim, fancy dress parades and parties are held in the streets, and the local settlers are joined by Jews from all over the world, especially from the USA. The town is effectively closed to the local Palestinians for the day to allow the Jewish celebration. The massacre of 1994 is of course not mentioned.
After leaving our tour bus, we walked down into the old market, which has been beautifully restored and painted. However, most of the stalls were shuttered and closed, and there were few shoppers. Those that were open were desperate to get our attention. Osama showed us various mounds of rubbish which he said had been left or thrown into the area by settlers living in the houses overlooking the market. Shortly afterwards, a small plastic cup containing coffee dregs landed at my feet, apparently thrown from a window above. At the point where the passage widened, we looked up and could see on a platform above a fine new synagogue, beautifully faced in stone, with the Biblical quotation in Hebrew “Kiryat Arba it is Hebron” (Genesis 23:2, describing the place where Sara died).
One of the market traders gave us his own account of what was happening, part of which I videoed. “They built a new building, a huge building, so many floors, and they live in them right now. It’s not enough what they have done over there: all the floors above which you can see facing you on top of our stalls, they moved in there by force, because Palestinians did sell it to them, and they added another floor which is not their property. And this is the way they treat us: they throw all kinds of garbage and trash; we have put this net and this net as a kind of protection. Sometimes, it goes further, more than that, by pouring liquids, dirty water, bleach, urine, dirty water. Sometimes they piss in a plastic bottle: here is one of the bottles, facing you up here. And all that happens in front of the soldiers’ eyes. The military army watching tower up there, a sniper, to protect them and look after them. Switch there to the other side and you can see another tower. We do complain: we shout, we scream to stop them. Give us a chance to live in peace or to live a decent life. They ignore us.” Looking up we could see the rubbish caught in the nets above.
We walked back through the market and arrived at the security point for the ancient site of the tombs, one half of which is now a mosque, one half a synagogue, with separate entrances on opposite sides. At the checkpoint for the Ibrahimi Mosque, one of our group was treated with quite unnecessary rudeness by the Israeli security guard. “Bag!” “Open!” Security is important, but politeness costs nothing. And why treat like that a Muslim who is going into a mosque?
A flight of steps brought us to the ancient Herodian wall below the present level of the mosque. Inside, the “tombs” were visible through grilles, large mounds covered with cloth. But these are not the original tombs, which are in the cave below the building. The mosque area was crowded with visiting schoolgirls who seemed to be enjoying their day out.
Warren and I then went round to the synagogue side. To do this, we had to descend the outside steps, go back through the security barrier, and turn left, away from the market, which brought us out into a wide main road. Osama waited there at a stall while we then went through the security on the other side and up another flight of steps back into the building. This was full of men praying and studying in different areas. It was noticeable that the Muslim side was full of women and girls, while the Jewish side was mainly men. We then went back outside and did a little shopping in the market, before leaving Hebron we stopped at a glass factory which has been there for many years, and watched how the glass is blown and ceramics decorated. The shop was crowded as we bought our souvenirs at remarkably low prices. Many of the shoppers had come especially to the area to help Palestinian farmers with the olive harvest.
We left in the direction of Bethlehem. Soon we turned off the road towards a bare hilltop, to visit the “Tent of Nations.” We were back in “Zone C” of the Palestinian Territories, broadly, but not completely, under Israeli control. We could see for ourselves that this quiet hilltop was the only one in the area without a modern town on its summit. These new towns were all settlements.
A short walk along a dirt track brought us to a gate and a sign “Tent of Nations.” in a converted cave on the hillside we met Daoud, who told us his story. The hilltop had been purchased by his grandfather in 1916, and he had documents of ownership from the Turkish, British and Israeli eras. Israel disputed his claim to ownership and he had been fighting them in the courts for 27 years. Daoud told us that the local settlers tried for several years to remove him from the land. In 2003 they destroyed 250 olive trees, but new ones were sponsored by Jews from the UK who heard the story, raised the money and came to plant them. But worse was to come. On 19th May 2014 all their 1500 fruit trees were bulldozed by Israeli soldiers – the legal battles relating to that are still going on. A BBC report at the time described how Branches reach out from inside a mound of earth, the bark stripped and mangled, unripe almonds still clinging to the trees.
New trees have been planted yet again.
Settlers have tried physical pressure, cutting trees, and trying to build roads. In 2003 they destroyed 250 olive trees but new trees sponsored by Jews from UK. On 19th May 2014 all their fruit trees were destroyed by bulldozers. Legal battles about that are still going on. New trees have been planted yet again. Then the settlers tried to buy the land but the Daoud’s family will not sell. The fourth strategy to isolate them and block the road. “Religion is being misused by all sides.” There are many demolition orders on the buildings, so a number caves have been converted for visitors’ seminars and residential use. “They deliberately feed the hatred, so the journey of violence will continue. Israelis need to be more informed about what is happening in their names.”
The other isolation is caused by the separation wall which goes deep into Palestinian areas. The hill will be on the Israeli side of the wall, which will make farmers give up. No buildings or services allowed there. Water comes from rainwater tanks, and electricity from solar panels. So what is the answer? Option one would be violence, which leads to more violence. Option two would just to be victims. The last option is to run away, as the best educated do. That too is not acceptable. So non violent resistance is the fourth way. Nobody can force them to hate. Their slogan at the Tent of Nations is: we refuse to be enemies. They have the first solar powered electric farm in Palestine. Rainwater collected in cisterns and seven caves renovated. They run a tree planting campaign, a summer camp every July, and a women’s project to give chances for education and empowerment. Their life is punctuated by the various harvests, and in October they bring in volunteers to help them bring in the olives. Since 2002, with the presence of international volunteers, there have been no more attacks by settlers.
We left the cave and walked up to the main buildings, where we sat outside and enjoyed a delicious lunch of rice and vegetables. I went to use the compost toilets – the first time I have used one – and was pleasantly surprised. There was a very deep pit, perhaps fifteen feet, and no smell at all. You just shove in some leaves after use and close the lid.
In October, before the winter rains begin, the terraced hills around that area are parched and dry. As we left the Tent of Nations, a shepherd with his two dogs led his small herd of goats along a dirt track littered with plastic rubbish. As we walked past, he called out to us “Where you from?” “From Britain,” we replied. “You are welcome” he called back, his face creased into a broad smile. “Welcome to Palestine!”
And so to Bethlehem, city of David and of Jesus. This time we went straight to the main car park and walked up with the Christian pilgrims to Manger Square. There we divided into two groups to visit the Mosque of Omar or the Church of the Nativity. I went to the Church – really three Churches side by side, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Catholic. Some ancient mosaics have been uncovered and are being restored below floor level. The Armenian chanting was similar to the ones we heard at the Syrian Catholic Church yesterday. Our guide Rana told us that this is the Church she attends every Sunday. There was very long queue to view the site of the Nativity in the Crypt but Rana managed to get Caroline in the exit staircase, so they did not have to queue.
Afterwards we travelled to a Christian suburb of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, to hear about the Kairos Palestine Document produced by Palestinian and Israeli Churches in 2009. I knew about it because I had spent eighteen months in a Methodist-Jewish dialogue group in Northwood Middlesex where we had discussed it in some detail. Our speaker told us that the document process was the first time the Churches had come together in Israel and Palestine. There were some difficulties because in Jerusalem has a say in head of church appointments. There is a new Open Letter from the Churches which asks the world community for advocacy to put pressure on Israel. Kairos concluded that occupation is a sin (section 2:5) and theological attempts to justify it (eg by Christian Zionists) are also a sin. The New open letter states that new God is justice, peace, love and beauty and we are all God’s children.
Our speaker went on to tell us that despite years of negotiation with Israel nothing has happened except very small Palestinian areas. Oslo was built on a fake. The situation gets worse all the time and every day there is violence. Love needs to be accompanied by resistance. Creative resistance includes BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). The occupation should now be called an apartheid system. Divestment has brought some successes, and it is good that a few of the leaders are Jews. But the whole issue is based on a violation of international law. Even Golda Meir was against the settlements as violating international law.
120 international volunteers are currently in the area picking olives. Settlers injured one this morning. This is persecution. 60 years of Jewish Christian dialogue have brought no change. But some Jews do support Kairos and there are good ties with the UK. The Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy thinks Israel should be placed under pressure from outside.
Our speaker concluded with the uncompromising words: “They believe they are the only victims and the only people of God. I am not ready to waste my time in such talks.”
Another drive across Bethlehem took us the point where the separation barrier passes through the town in the form of a wall 12 metres high, protecting Jewish visitors to Rachel’s tomb on the other side. Right next to the wall is Banksy’s “Walled Off Hotel”, a monument to his cleverly humorous and satirical art. “Walled Off provides overwhelming views of graffiti-strewn concrete from almost every room. It also stands as a museum, a gallery, and a political protest – all rolled into one.” There are lots of pictures available on line, so no need to repeat them here, but here is one of a Greek statue overcome by tear-gas:
Our last stop was the Hosh Jasmin organic farm and restaurant set on a peaceful hillside outside Bethlehem, where we were able to relax and debrief after a very hard day. As this is in area C, Ophir (who as an Israeli is not allowed to enter Zone A) was able to join us for this.
Tuesday 16th October 2018
RAMALLAH (“high place of God”)
Once again an early start and a short drive, this time to the North of Jerusalem. It is incredible how close the administrative centre of the Palestine Authority is to their desired capital of East Jerusalem. Ramallah is a modern and well developed city, which I heard described as “the five star occupation.” As we neared the entry checkpoint, I was able to take a photo of one of the red signs which prohibits Israelis from entering the town. “This Road leads To Area “A” Under The Palestinian Authority. The Entrance for Israeli Citizens if Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives And Is Against The Israeli Law.” Some Palestinians we met find the restriction incomprehensible. “What do they think is going to happen to them? Is it really about security or is it just that they do not want us to meet?” But in Ramallah perhaps there is an added significance. On October 12th 2000, at the start of the second Intifada, two Israeli army reservists were lynched in Ramallah. They had taken a wrong turn, and were set upon by a mob, enraged in particular by a recent incident in Gaza. A frenzied crowd killed them, mutilated their bodies, and dragged them through the streets. It was an incident which sent shock waves through Israel and the Jewish world. Today, however, there is clearly some co-operation between the Palestinian police and Israeli security forces. Many Palestinians with passes were waiting in line to get through the checkpoint so they could go to work in Israel, and the Palestinian police were marshalling the traffic waiting to leave.
As we were leaving for home later in the day, we entered Ramallah with all our suitcases in the back of the tour bus. One of our group was asked to get out and to identify the bags as we entered the town. There was no such check however, as we left with all our luggage back into Israel. On arrival, we had to wait for some time for our guide Rana, who had to drive round all the back roads in heavy traffic from Bethlehem.
In Ramallah we met Sam Bahour, who told us his story. He is a Christian Palestinian business man, born and educated in the USA, who decided to go home to rebuild his country in the wave of optimism which followed the Oslo accords. At Tel Aviv airport he was given a three month tourist visa, which meant at the end of that time he had to leave and re-enter again. This went on for fifteen years. Over that time had six different passports because of the huge number of stamps. If he overstayed, he ran the risk of not being allowed back in next time he left the country (you can only leave via Israeli controlled borders.) This continued until 2006 when the USA insisted that Abbas held elections. The elections were held and to some surprise the PA won in the West Bank but Hamas in Gaza. This led to the splitting of the two areas: Israelis stopped allowing foreign nationals back in and Sam’s American passport was stamped “last permit.” Eventually he made contact with the right officials and received a phone call to say his Palestinian ID was ready (this was something he had applied for 16 years before). Now he could stay, but because he is a Palestinian he can no longer visit Israeli controlled areas such as East Jerusalem without special permission. His US passport has been stamped (in Hebrew only) to say he is a Palestinian ID holder. As he describes it, “It is not really an ID but an Israeli issued residency card showing in which cage I live. Then you need a security clearance card. Then you need a business man’s card so he can be vetted for a three months permit to visit Jerusalem. This can’t all be for security. And the wall is not really protecting the Israelis. Millions they spent building it and for a few dollars you can buy a long ladder, put one each side and climb over. There are people doing it every night. This is nothing to do with security. I am planning to write a book called ‘101 things which are nothing to do with security’.”
Sam also found a lot of difficulties setting up his telecommunications business. The Oslo Accords, he told us, consist of many thousands of pages regulating every aspect of Palestinian life. He described Oslo as “dead but still operating.” In his field, telecommunications, the Palestinians were to be allowed and indeed encouraged to set up an independent tele-communications system under their control. However Israel controls the bandwidth and refused to allow enough, even though independent experts from Britain had recommended much more. To this day this means that mobile phone masts have to be placed close together, at considerable extra expense to the Palestinians. In spite of that (or perhaps because of it) his telecoms country is the large private sector company in Palestine. He pointed out that the Palestinian economy is said to be expanding, but much of this “expansion” is of no benefit because it simply involves the expense of workarounds and extra travel laid down by Israel. “So who is in charge of the pace of development? They give us crumbs so we survive but do not thrive.”
But Sam could be critical of the Palestinian Authority as well: “They need to be more strategic, less corrupt. They need to do far better than they have been.” Nor does he welcome all the supporter’s of Palestine. “If David Duke calls for an end to the occupation, I still don’t want him in my tent, because he is an anti-semite.”
Sam said he continued to call for a two-state solution but younger Palestinians wanted something different. He described the Israeli tactics as being like the story of a frog put into boiling water. If it’s put straight in while the water is boiling, it will jump out and survive. But if you put the frog in cold water and warm it gradually, the frog will die. That is what has happened to Palestinians. The BDS movement is there, but it is not harming Israel economically; it is just pointing the finger of blame. So some younger people are saying “We have tried negotiating, but that has not worked. We have tried violence, but that has not worked. We have tried non-violent protest but that has not worked. So let’s go to the Israelis and tell the – OK, you win, we give up. We are not asking for a state any more. So what are you going to do now, and by the way, how do we sign up for your health care system?”
Asked for his view on the UK Labour Party, Sam responded “Our strategy in the UK today is to get them to recognise Palestine as a state. All the anti-semitism needs to be put to one side.”
And so, meeting over, we left Ramallah for our last stop, the Israeli-Arab Peace Village of Neve Shalom. There we sat in the café and reflected on a tough but exhausting week. For me, it was a huge learning experience. I hadn’t really heard the views of young Israeli Jews—that was certainly a missing element—but I was conscious that the learning had come in two ways. Firstly through the places we visited and the people we met. And secondly by being part of such a remarkable mixed faith group, journeying through the week together in harmony. However bad we sometimes feel things are in the UK at the moment, at least we can meet in peace without having to declare our faith or suffer because of it. And as I conclude this diary, the words of Sarah Bernstein are still ringing in my ears “If you are friend of only one side, you’re nobody’s friend.”