Category Archives: Israel/Palestine

Conflict Resolution in the Midst of Violence

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This time last year, leading up to Christmas, I was in the Holy Land. It was a bit of a weird experience, to say the least, as I spent half my time with Orthodox Jewish friends in Jerusalem and half my time with Palestinian Christians and Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza.

Here’s a video from the footage I filmed in Bethlehem, about conflict resolution and the work of an amazing organization called Wi’am. Enjoy!

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Glimpses of Gaza

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It’s early afternoon in Gaza City on December 3, 2015.

Accompanied by two Muslim employees of a Christian NGO in the Strip, I’m sitting in the back of a white van as it cruises through the narrow streets, a bullet hole in the windshield a stark reminder of the last war, desperately trying to get my cell phone to connect to an Israeli service provider so that I can set this blog to “private” and not risk outing myself.

It’s been an interesting day and I only crossed the border this morning.

My parents don’t know I’m here. No one in my family knows I’m here. I’ve given a colleague back in Canada my parents’ phone number “just in case anything happens.”

Israel gave me permission to enter Gaza the day before. The Palestinian Authority had approved my request the day after I made it, weeks previously.

I’m here on behalf of The United Church of Canada, gathering audio-visual material about a partner organization, the Near East Council of Churches (NECC)-Gaza, particularly their health clinic and apprenticeship work.

To be honest, I was nervous coming here because of all the bad press Gaza gets. But I reminded myself that there was no active conflict at the moment – no rockets going out or bombs coming in – so I was likely as safe in Gaza as I was in Jerusalem at the moment, where tensions were high after a spate of stabbings. Jewish Israelis were on high alert after numerous stabbings – many fatal – by Palestinians. Palestinians were hyper vigilant because the Israeli army had given soldiers permission to shoot to kill if they felt threatened, and no one knew what that meant. Did it mean reaching into your pocket for your ID and the soldier thinks you have a knife? There were also rumours of knives being placed at the scene after unarmed Palestinians had been shot.

So with all of that going on in the background, maybe Gaza wouldn’t be so bad.

I arrived at the Erez crossing bright and early that morning, hoping for smooth passage through. It was relatively simple – the main Israeli border officer who looked over my permission was one of the nicest I’d dealt with so far, though I did have a minor hiccup when the previous Israeli officer switched my first and last names.

Then, I went through a maze of largely unmanned passageways and tunnels in crossing the border. No one waved me through – I would just stand in front of sealed doors, waiting for someone on the other side of the security camera to push a green button so I could pass through the long metallic-like corridors.

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Leaving Gaza – an example of the long, unmanned passages along the border

On the other side, I had to cross the security checkpoints of Fatah and Hamas (I can’t remember in which order), and was met by an employee of NECC-Gaza. From there, I visited the head office, two apprenticeship programs (one for fashion design and one for aluminum engineering), and a health clinic in Shijaia that focused on women’s and children’s health.

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With several students in the fashion design apprenticeship program

I met so many amazing people, some with stories of triumph and some with tales of horrendous pain.

One of the young women in the fashion apprenticeship program, Reem Alharzeen, had a message for those outside of Gaza: “The world thinks we’re are all suffering, but we are businesswomen too. We can be very successful.”

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(It was here that I gave one of the women my business card, which links to this blog where I openly talk about being gay, and realized when we’d gotten back into the car that that might not have been such a good idea in an area that isn’t exactly gay-friendly. I’d been careful to “play it straight” in many countries and areas where I was travelling, but momentarily forgot the risk in the friendliness and welcoming I was receiving.)

At the clinic in Shijaia – a clinic that had been bombed by Israeli airstrikes a few years previously and had lost all of their files so is now using an electronic system – I met this couple. They were sitting in the prenatal waiting room for a checkup, having recently found out they were expecting twins. “Mubarak,” I told them, in my limited Arabic – meaning “Congratulations.”

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This woman, Nisreen Alkhateeb, who works at the clinic as a cleaner, broke down during our on-camera interview as she told me about her son who had taken refuge in a UNWRA school during the summer 2014 war. The school her son sheltered in, along with a couple others, was bombed by the Israeli air force during the war. Her son and two nephews were killed; her aunt was injured. She said she hopes peace will spread all over Gaza – “I want to see all of Palestine at peace. We cannot tolerate any more wars.”

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Almost everyone I met was incredibly welcoming and curious about why I was there, as I’m sure I was an unusual sight – this tall, blonde, white woman out and about in the streets of Gaza. One NECC-Gaza staff member took me, his wife, and their twin toddler sons to the beach as the sun set and to see parts of the city after dark. It was beautiful – I took loads of photos, and some local teenage girls wanted some selfies too of course.

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A photo with my camera, post-selfie

However, one woman did stop us in a parkette area, asking who I was. The questions took an uncomfortable turn, and I got the feeling my Gazan friends were not translating everything she was saying. But the gist was, “Are you Muslim? Why are you not Muslim? I think you should become a Muslim.” I wisely decided that the best course of action was simply to say “Inshallah” (If God wills it) with a smile and move along.

From what I could see, Christians and Muslims get along quite well in Gaza. In my opinion, it’s likely from a common experience of oppression and war in what some describe as the world’s largest jail.

The description is apt – considering Erez is the only way to leave overcrowded Gaza and very few Palestinians are allowed to cross.

On the Friday morning I was there, we visited Gaza’s oldest – and possibly only – church, serving Gaza’s 1300 Christian people, mostly Greek Orthodox. It’s a 1600 year old Byzantine church – there were once two churches on the same site but one of the churches was gifted to the Muslim community for their worship, with the Christian community worshiping in the other. The church and the mosque share a wall, as can be seen in the photo below.

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But of course, there were some glimpses of anti-Semitism, like the store named Hitler in downtown Gaza City or this sign on the Gazan side of the Erez crossing. I can’t read the Arabic, but I think the gist of the message is fairly clear.

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After spending nearly two days and one night in Gaza, I headed back to the Erez crossing before it shut down for the Jewish Sabbath. Arriving before noon, I met the same Israeli border officer who had let me in the day before. She asked me some more questions, and when I said I was heading to Tel Aviv and had never been before, she said, “Well, I don’t want to keep you from experiencing all that Tel Aviv has to offer. Off you go!”

And so I headed back into Israel, on my way to interview some Israeli gay men for a story on surrogacy before I went to a queer Palestinian party in Jaffa put on by Al-Qaws that evening.

Thus completing one of the most surreal two-day experiences of my life.

But I did make one mistake – letting the Israeli border control officer stamp my passport, which would prove to be a HUGE headache when I was leaving Israel for Turkey the following week. (…to be continued)

More photos available on Flickr

 

Jacob’s Vision and Its Meaning for Palestine

The following is a reflection I wrote for an ecumenical organization based on the lectionary readings for this past weekend. The prayers are from The Revised Common Lectionary. For a variety of reasons, the organization decided not to publish it. I asked if I could post it to my personal blog, and was given permission. So here it is, my views on the situation in Gaza as of July 11:

O God of Jacob,
you speak in the light of day
and in the dark of night
when our sleeping is filled with dreams of heaven and earth.
May Jacob’s vision
remind us to be open and watchful,
ready to discover your presence in our midst. Amen.

The lectionary readings this week are quite challenging. There’s a lot about enemies, heirs of God, of people being thrown “into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” As a non-theologian, with a background in international relations and human rights, these passages are difficult for me to process. But they did make me think of the current situation in Israel and Palestine.

A few weeks ago, three Israeli teenagers were found murdered in the West Bank and a Palestinian teenager was burned alive in East Jerusalem in suspected retaliation. As I write this, hundreds of rockets are being fired from Gaza into Israel.  Israel has launched its largest offensive on Gaza targets since November 2012 and is lining up troops for a possible ground invasion. The death toll mounts. Defence for Children International Palestine, a United Church partner, documented 14 children killed by Israeli air strikes on July 8 and 9 alone. Who knows what the situation will look like a week from now, when this reflection is published?

“And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, ‘I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring’…So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.” (Genesis 28:12-19a)

United Church Ecumenical Accompanier Sherry Ann Chapman and Renate Wolfson, from Women in Black

United Church Ecumenical Accompanier Sherry Ann Chapman and Renate Wolfson, from Women in Black. For Sherry Ann’s post about Renate, see her blog post

For some, the place where Jacob had his dream – the place he’s named Bethel – is Beitin, a Palestinian town in the West Bank. Nearby, the illegal Israeli settlement of Beit El bears the same name as the one Jacob proffers.

The root of this violence is in the ongoing illegal Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; organization such as Jewish Voice for Peace and the World Council of Churches affirm this. One way towards peace is to promote nonviolent resistance aimed at ending the illegal Occupation, the systematic injustice that affects all Palestinians regardless of whether or not they have taken part in violent resistance. This collective punishment of Palestinians – starkly evidenced in the aftermath of the kidnapping of those three Israeli teenagers when over 400 Palestinians were arrested, 200 of whom still remain imprisoned without charges as I write this – is illegal under international law. It is also not part of Jacob’s dream, a dream where angels are able to move freely up and down the ladder between Heaven and Earth.

The Palestinian people do not have this type of freedom of movement. In June 2012, there were 542 checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank compared to 376 in August 2005. Palestinians have to apply for permits that are not always granted in order to leave the West Bank and enter Israel; in Gaza, it’s practically impossible to leave, even for medical reasons.

Is this really Jacob’s vision? Jacob is a revered figure – a patriarch – in all three of the major monotheistic religions. Surely his vision is better realized by the peaceful, equal, and self-determining coexistence of all peoples in and around the city of Jerusalem, deemed holy by all three traditions.

It’s difficult in times like these to know what action you can take personally.  One way is through the United Church’s Unsettling Goods campaign, which uses nonviolent economic action against three products made in the settlements to promote peace through an end to the Occupation. May the dream of Jacob come true in this world… sooner rather than later.

To fulfill the ancient promise of salvation, O God,
you made a covenant with our ancestors
and pledged them descendants more numerous than the stars.
Grant that all people may share in the blessings of your covenant,
accomplished through the death and resurrection of your Son
and sealed by the gift of your Spirit. Amen.

EAPPI around the world: Canada

The EAPPI programme is a wonderful thing – an observer programme in the OPT run by the World Council of Churches and supported by The United Church of Canada. Check it out!

EAPPI is a world-wide network.  Our EAPPI national coordination offices in 26 countries work hard to recruit EAPPI human rights monitors and coordinate their advocacy when they return home.  Today, we continue our series in which we get to hear from these dedicated supporters of EAPPI all over the world.

Today, the Presbyterian Church of Canada, one of our coalition of churches in Canada, shares why they participate in EAPPI.

A group of EAs from Canada join Palm Sunday celebrations in Jerusalem. Photo EAPPI. A group of EAs from Canada join Palm Sunday celebrations in Jerusalem. Photo EAPPI.

How did you get involved with EAPPI?

The Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) sent its first Ecumenical Accompanier (EA) to volunteer with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) in 2007, in response to the call from Heads of Churches in Jerusalem to stand in solidarity with the churches and people in Palestine.  To date, 6 volunteers from the PCC have served as EAs.

What’s…

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I Wonder: Am I at a Human Rights Conference?

I warn you: this is the blog post in which I vent. The blog post that is controversial, is quite critical, and I admit is biased. It’s how feel about all that has happened, and what my emotions are.

First, yesterday, we had a conversation about the blogs we wrote before coming here and the Facebook discussions we had about them. The facilitator asked me if he could use a conversation I had with another young leader, since it garnered the greatest number of comments. It started out as a blog post about the voices of homosexuals in Uganda being silenced. It elicited a very positive response re this human rights issue, with both me and another young leader “coming out” to the group. In fact, I said I was a bit worried about attending this conference because I’d been to a similar “young leaders” conference where I experience some homophobia, and now I felt silly about that because the response was so positive.

Then someone else jumped in. Someone who said LGBTQ people are spreading disease throughout society. And quoted those infamous Bible passages. Ignorant, yes. And I was surprised and saddened that I had to deal with this at a human rights conference based in Canada! Once I arrived here, I learned that said individual is not in fact Christian, but is Muslim. Which angers me to no end, that someone is using my holy book, when he is not of the same religion, to say that I am a sinner of one of the gravest of all sins!! And the Qur’an doesn’t even say anything about homosexuality!!

Then, today I did a presentation on Idle No More. In a very short amount of time, about 10 minutes (this was part of a larger workshop), I tried to give some context as to why Idle No More was founded and grew. I stated the fact of colonization, of genocidal policies that saw the deaths of the majority of the Aboriginal population in Canada. I began by asking if anyone knew who’s land we were currently on. Of course, no one did. I didn’t know until I looked it up myself, that this land is Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. I spoke of the residential schools, of cultural genocide, and tried to give a balanced approach by speaking about how my church, which happens to be the organization I work for, was complicit in these schools. How both the UCC and the Canadian government apologized for these schools, but that an apology is not enough in either case. What happens after the apology, to restore right relations, is what counts.

I tried as best I could to not speak on behalf of Aboriginal people. I showed videos of young people speaking about the movement, including an awesome rap video. I spoke about how I, as a white settler, enjoyed more funding for my education and my health care. I spoke about the amazing Cindy Blackstock and the government’s efforts to spy on her and derail her case against them, rather than actually look at the issues she raised. And I talked about Bill C-45, the women who started Idle No More, and stated INM’s vision as stated on their website.

I’m the only Canadian young leader at this conference. I carry this as a badge of honour and as a serious responsibility. It is not my job to put on a good show for the visiting young leaders, to pretend that Canada is this perfect example of democracy and respect for human rights when that is not the case. So I chose to do a case study on Idle No More, and to explain the situation as best I could, from what Aboriginal people have told me. Not to come up with solutions, not even to critique the movement at all. My part of the presentation was simply context-setting.

So I began my part of the presentation with a caveat. I said that Canada is a great country, that it does, by and large, a good job when it comes to human rights. But it is not perfect. And I hold it to a higher standard because (1) I am Canadian, so who else should do it? and (2) Canada is a democracy. It is not Syria or the DRC. It is a First World democracy and if it purports to be that, it should be that for all citizens.

Afterwards, one of the funders of this conference, a Canadian, who had been sitting in on this workshop told me that my presentation was “offensive as a Canadian.”

Like, whoa.

I was obviously upset when I heard this, as I was expecting some disagreement but not that my presentation was “offensive” to my country or as a Canadian. It smacked of the nationalistic sentiment that one should not criticize one’s country, out of loyalty or patriotism or whatever. I wish I’d said, “Y’know what I find offensive as a Canadian? The average standard of living for Aboriginal people.”

This person did apologize to me afterwards, twice. I understand that this person may get their back up when they hear criticism of Canada, but it still makes me wonder – this is a human rights conference, correct? It’s not a conference about how the rest of the world is violating human rights and Canada is so awesome. It’s a conference about the human rights of all citizens of all countries and, I thought, to acknowledge how minority groups in those countries are the most vulnerable to human rights abuses.

The other young leaders generally supported me. One of them even sent me this article after. I’m glad they were listening; I’m glad they got to hear a snippet of the truth and not only the “official party line.”

Finally, I recently discovered that the Centre for Israel & Jewish Affairs is one of the sponsors of this conference. Basically, they do not like the United Church of Canada, and have told Canadian Jews to have nothing to do with “The” United Church or United churches because of the recent decision to take economic action against Israeli settlement products. And I work for the UCC. So this could be interesting.

It hasn’t come up yet, but I sense there is a fear to bring it up. I’ve spoken to others who work/study at McGill and those attending the conference, and there’s a general feeling that speaking about the conflict in Palestine and Israel would be uncomfortably controversial, based on the opinions of some of the conference’s funders and sponsors. I hope Palestine comes up soon. I won’t be bringing it up, as I feel I need to fly under the radar a bit for my own sanity and emotional health. But if it is raised, I will not back down from what I feel is right – that Israel has a legitimate fear for its safety but that that does not justify collective punishment against the Palestinian people. Maybe throw in the fact that it is Canadian foreign policy that the settlements are illegal. And I hope that when it is raised, there will be calm discussion, rather than personal attacks or accusations of anti-Semitism.

So, this brings me to my final questions: Is this a human rights conference? Or is it a human rights conference for everyone except maybe LGBTQ people, Aboriginal people, and the Palestinians?