Palestine Update 353
“I walked a land not my own, a land whose heartache embedded to the soles of my feet, entering, pulsating in my veins…and so began my reawakening.”
In 2015, I heard a presentation on the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel. I sat and listened how Ecumenical Accompaniers witness and report on human rights violations that they encounter in the West Bank, Palestine, as they join Palestinian and Israelis who work in non-violent ways for peace.
‘I can do that,’ I thought, as the embers of a fire began to ignite within me. So in early 2017 I found myself on a plane, heading to a new adventure.
Being an Ecumenical Accompanier was by far the best thing I have done in my life. I have never felt so fulfilled and alive, despite being thrown out of my comfort zone almost every day! And I have never been made to feel so welcomed and embraced by complete strangers. From the first day I stepped foot in the old city of Jerusalem the words “Welcome”, “How are you?” echoed loud and clear wherever I went.
I had the privilege of having an experience that not many people get to do. Of seeing a reality hidden from view, that most pilgrims who travel to the Holy Land are not exposed to. I went behind the Separation Barrier, through the checkpoints and into the homes of local Palestinians. What I heard, saw and learnt left a deep imprint on my soul which is as real today as it was three years ago.
In Easter, 2017, I was fortunate to be in the Holy Land during this special time of year. Rather than joining the hoards of people heading to Jerusalem I decided to have some r&r in another significant Biblical area, Tiberius, on the Sea of Galilee.
On Good Friday, I sat at the water’s edge as the gentle waves lapped my feet and wrote in my journal. Here is part of what I wrote:
“As I sit at the water’s edge, a Christian, a foreigner,
at this most Holy time of the year, I feel a tear roll down my cheek.
I question ‘why these tears’, ‘why now’?
Could it be the significance of being at a place where Jesus spent most of his ministry?
Could it be commemorating the day his hands and feet were nailed to the cross?
Could it be the culture shock of mixing with people living in freedom after spending 2 ½ months in the West Bank with people who live constantly with the weight of oppression around their necks?
Could it be the feeling of being an outsider when I am so used to being welcomed as one of the family?”
To have an understanding of why being an Ecumenical Accompanier impacted me so greatly; let me give you a glimpse into what I witnessed.
If you’ve ever sat listening to someone’s pain you know how helpless you can feel. I remember one such day in particular. We visited a family in a small Palestinian village and listened as the father recalled how two nights earlier around 15 Israeli soldiers and dogs came pounding at their door at 1am.
Three generations lived in that house and were all ushered into the living room to sit and wait as soldiers ransacked the house. His 14-year-old son was removed by soldiers and taken into a bedroom where his family could hear him being interrogated. The soldiers then removed the boy from the house, telling his father they were taking him for questioning over throwing a stone and would return him in two hours.
I still recall the anguish etched on the father’s face. When we visited, his son had not been returned and despite his efforts he was unable to find out where or for how long his child would be held. His desperation was compounded by the fact his boy had a medical condition and wasn’t permitted to take his medication with him. His son was taken from the house handcuffed and clothed in just light summer pyjamas. “This should be one of the happiest times for us as our eldest son is getting married in two months but how can we celebrate when another son has been taken”? What can you say to that?
On another occasion, I participated in a tour of Hebron by Breaking the Silence, an ex-Israeli military organization. It was so eerie walking around the abandoned streets, it was akin to walking in a ghost town – homes and shops lay desolate, doors bolted shut. On some streets Palestinians are allowed to walk but cannot drive on and there are some streets they are not permitted to enter at all. If Palestinians live on these streets they have to enter and exit their homes via the roof or the back door. As the tour group meandered through the streets there was one comment an ex-soldier made that put a shiver down my spine. He told us the term the Israeli military use to clear an area of Palestinians is ‘sterilization’. I couldn’t believe my ears!
Most mornings I stood at the entrances of agricultural gates in the area where I lived, sipping on strong coffee from the vendor situated there. My team watched, intervened with soldiers when necessary and reported any human rights incidents. Mostly farmers lined up with their tractors and donkeys waiting to go through the gate to access their own land that has been cut off from them by the Separation Barrier Israel has built illegally on Palestinian land. Even with valid permits, entry was arbitrary and dependant on what soldier was stationed at the gate and their mood on the day. Reasons people were denied entry were…”your clothes are too clean”, “you have a coffee stain on your permit”, “and you’re carrying two packets of cigarettes”. Complete absurdity that would make you laugh if it wasn’t so serious!
Over the course of the three months I was in Palestine, I met with many people from different walks of life and everyone attested, regardless of whether they were Muslim or Christian, to the harsh reality of day to day life; of how their fundamental human rights have been stripped away, with devastating consequences. This has been their reality for 53 years. We always asked people if they had hope and they invariably said yes and shrugged -”What else can we do?”
It’s now Easter, 2020. In a sense I never really left Palestine, I bought it home in my heart to help live and breathe its existence on Aussie soil. It saddens me that many Christians here don’t know what is actually going on in the Holy Land. They go on tours that take in the Biblical sites, looking at ancient stones, but fail to meet and talk with the ‘living’ stones – Palestinian Christians.
Palestinian Christians are pleading with global Christians not to ignore them and their plight. The Christian Palestinian narrative is often overlooked in conversations about the Holy Land. The church’s presence in Jerusalem is constantly under threat and, sadly, Palestinian Christians are leaving the Holy Land in such large numbers that those remaining fear the Christian presence in the land of its birth will one day cease.
*Nell Potter is executive officer with the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Network in Australia. She is also Co-Chair of the newly created Asia-Pacific Global Kairos Solidarity Group.