hat’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 had 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.”