In June this year, I arrived back in the UK, having spent just over three months in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). Working as a Human Rights Monitor and Advocate for the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, I was based in East Jerusalem.
East Jerusalem is part of the Palestinian
Territories which have been occupied, illegally in the eyes of the international community, by Israel since 1967. My job, along with around thirty others from over a dozen countries, was monitoring and reporting on human rights violations, including the arrest and torture of Palestinian children in East Jerusalem, monitoring military checkpoints ensuring that children got to school and workers to their jobs, supporting families with demolition and eviction orders on their homes, assisting farmers as they tried to access their land but were prevented by Israeli forces or illegal settlers, supporting Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, providing a protective presence for Palestinian communities at risk of violence from Israeli soldiers, police and settlers, and working to support communities as they tried to access water, healthcare, education and employment. All of this is done using the framework of International and Human Rights Law, and UN resolutions, listening to and providing a voice for, ordinary Palestinian and Israeli people, living in the most extraordinary of circumstances, who are predominantly ignored by the mainstream media, for whom the extreme minorities on ‘both sides’ are far more interesting.
As a World Council of Churches programme EAPPI also works to support Palestinian Christians, long overlooked in this conflict which the world’s press decided long ago is one between Judaism and Islam, as opposed to a battle for land and resources. One such Palestinian Christian is a man called Rami. He asked me not to use his surname in any work I did, for fear of reprisals. Rami symbolises almost every aspect of the occupation and the devastating affect it can have on people’s lives, as well as the incredible hope and strength of people living in the region, who somehow manage to carry on going in these circumstances.
His story is quite incredible. It’s not a short one either, but please stick with it. Rami and his wife’s family lived in a house in the outskirts of East Jerusalem. When Israel constructed the Separation Barrier, which illegally separates the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the giant concrete structure was built literally right outside their house. His wife, who had Jerusalem residency, and her elderly parents were told they had to move inside the wall, and Rami, who had West Bank ID, was not allowed to move with them. His parents in law were over 80, had no money to rent a property inside Jerusalem and couldn’t sell their house because family members with West Bank ID would then have been homeless. They were both receiving healthcare from hospitals in East Jerusalem, but because they didn’t move, Israeli authorities wouldn’t allow them to continue to access this healthcare; both died shortly after the wall cut them off from this treatment. Denying the occupied Palestinian population access to healthcare is illegal under international law, and the International Court of Justice advised that the separation barrier, which splits families in half and prevents access to employment, education, healthcare, and religious website, is also illegal.
Rami’s family also have a farm near Bethlehem. The farm has slowly become encircled by illegal Israeli settlements, where the Israeli government has transferred parts of its population into the Palestinian territories. Rami’s father was subjected to physical and verbal abuse by settlers and Israeli Army soldiers, trying to force him to sell or give up the land, so they could connect the surrounding settlements. In one instance this involved a soldier using his machine gun to knock out each of Rami’s fathers’ front teeth. After years of abuse, Rami’s dad turned to alcohol, and died of alcoholism at the age of only 52, never meeting his grandchildren. In honour of his father’s memory, Rami continues to work the family land. ‘My father loved to farm. He used to work, and build a place for animals, and then the soldiers would come, and destroy it. Settlers came and told him to leave the land or they’d destroy his equipment. They would all come with guns, and threats, they stole food, and kit. They still do. But my Dad told me many things about the farm, he made a beautiful farm, and I like it too.’
Last year Rami arrived at his farm to see Israeli settlers cutting down hundreds of his trees. ‘For me, as a farmer, when you raise a tree, and see it give fruit, it becomes like a child, it is close to you, as you watch it grow and flourish. So I tried to stop them cutting down my trees. When I did one of them put a gun to my head and told me to leave or he would kill me.’ Rami went to the Israeli police and complained, taking the papers that proved he owned the land, but nothing happened. He talks of how his faith helps him through these moments. ‘I try to behave like Matthew tells us to, to love everyone. When you are in a mess, a difficult situation, it is hard to apply it, but I try my best.’ A week after Rami’s trees were cut down, he saw a settler’s jeep stuck in deep mud on Rami’s land. ‘The Bible’s teachings meant that the part of me inside that was glad to see him in trouble was quietened, and God helped me to take my tractor and rope and go to help him get out of the mud. When he saw me coming he ran off screaming even though I shouted in Hebrew that I had come to help. So, I attached my rope to the jeep and tractor and pulled it out of the mud alone. Despite all that’s happened, I don’t treat the Israelis like enemies, God told us to treat everyone the same, and we are all people.’
Rami’s struggles don’t stop outside the separation barrier that divides him East Jerusalem, where his wife and children have lived since they were forced to move. In order to be able to see his family, he has taken a job at a Christian tourist site in Jerusalem, which means he gets a work permit and can go through a huge militarised checkpoint every day, queuing from 4am in the morning to pass through at around 6am. He then goes to work, to see his family, but every single day he has to travel back before nightfall. He is not allowed to stay over in Jerusalem. These permits are issued by the Israeli authorities and those without them cannot visit East Jerusalem; to work, to worship, to visit family, to get healthcare, or to learn. They constitute more restrictions of these basic rights and, along with the checkpoints which severely restrict freedom of movement, are also illegal under international law.
As Rami does not have automatic access to his family in Jerusalem, he has missed the births of both his children. In one instance the Israeli authorities issued him with a permit for the day after his wife’s due date; the child was born on the day it was due to, and Rami sadly missed the birth. Since their births, Rami has spent over $30,000 on legal fees and registration fees trying to get his children registered in Jerusalem; despite the fact that they were born there, their mother is a Jerusalem resident, and they have lived there all of their short lives, the Jerusalem Municipality are still delaying their official registration, causing problems of healthcare and education access. No reasons are given for these costs or delays; they are just part of life for Rami and many others like him.
I asked Rami if his children knew what was happening, if they understood their life where Dad can’t ever stay with them. He told me that his eldest son, who is just five, witnessed a soldier point a gun into their car and rest it on his mother’s stomach when she was eight months pregnant, before laughing and saying that he was practicing in case they were terrorists, as they stopped at a checkpoint. Now whenever he sees soldiers he wants to ask them why they want to kill his mum and dad. ‘One day,’ Rami said, ‘he drew a picture of me and gave it to me saying “Daddy, Daddy, here’s your permit, I made it, now you can stay with us tonight.”’
Rami is articulate, polite, thoughtful, and smiled and joked with us at times whilst we spoke with him. This was something that I marvelled at throughout my time in the Middle East- how people manage to keep laughing and smiling when they have your human rights taken from you every single day. ‘When you hit someone hard,’ Rami explained, ‘it stops hurting after a while. Because of this I can still tell my story and laugh. Despite all the maybes. Maybe I will see my children today, maybe not. Maybe the checkpoint will be open today, maybe not. Maybe I will be kicked off my land forever today [As many other Palestinian farmers have been], maybe not.’
Rami also said his faith helps him along the way. ‘The problem here is not between ordinary people, it is between a few extremists on both sides. One day God will make everything new, we must all have patience.’
Such belief, hope and ability to put faith into action was inspirational to hear, despite the sadness of Rami’s situation. The same inspiration was given to me by many other of these ‘ordinary people’, for example, the work of Israeli peace activists, who describe themselves as isolated and marginalised within Israeli society. It was a privilege to take part in and support their work; I accompanied brave Israeli women in their weekly demonstrations against their government’s occupation in their Women in Black protest, whilst verbal abuse was hurled at them from passersby. Some of these women also organise trips to the seaside for Palestinian children because despite living, in some places just 20 miles from the Mediterranean, the separation barrier and the checkpoints they would have to go through, which Israel began erecting in 2002, and which the International Criminal Court advised was illegal some years later, means that children living in the Palestinian Territories, can see the sea, but have never been allowed to go to it.
It was an absolutely fascinating and on many occasions heart breaking and depressing experience to meet both Israelis and Palestinians struggling to bring an end to a conflict which has already cost so many lives, and continues to do so, but there were signs of hope too; people, like Rami, who in the most darkest of days somehow remember how to smile, demonstrations co-organised and attended by both Palestinians and Israelis, and the growing engaging of the international community in what is really happening in the region.
With this in mind, I will be continuing my EAPPI work through advocacy, telling the stories of the people I met, and suggesting ways people here can assist them. This assistance could be twinning your church and parish, or school or local club with one in East Jerusalem, it could be hosting an EAPPI speaking event, it could be donating to the EAPPI, it could be boycotting goods from the Israeli settlements that force farmers such as Rami from their land, it could be writing to your MP to draw his attention to this story and that of many others, or it could even be all of the above. If you would be interested in doing any of these things, or something else, or simply to find out more reading more of these stories, or hearing more, please contact me - Madeleine McGivern (contact details below). I would be delighted to meet with any interested groups.
EAPPI is an organisation which sends volunteers known as Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) to provide protective presence to vulnerable Palestinian communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace. The aims of the programme are a just and peaceful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through an end to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, respect for international law and implementation of UN resolutions. The programme is coordinated by the World Council of Churches, and funded by numerous bodies - including government agencies; EAPPI’s work is in no way proselytising.
The UK sending organisation for EAPPI is the Quakers, out of their Quaker Peace and Social Witness team. They can be contacted on 020 766 31000 / http://www.quaker.org.uk/quaker-peace-social-witness-qpsw-information-and-resources