A vital role in Palestine

Michael Kenny a member of the Brens Congregation decided that he was not quite ready to retire yet and so volunteered to be a human rights monitor in Palestine. This is what he experienced before Covid meant that they were all withdrawn. You may have heard of the recent upsurge in violence recently

It’s 2:40 am on a cold winter Sunday when the alarm clock rings. I drowsily get dressed and, with my Ecumenical Accompanier (EA) colleague, Maria, go down from our flat to where our local Palestinian driver is waiting outside our building on the outskirts of Tulkarm in the north of the West Bank (in official UN nomenclature, part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT)). It’s about an hour’s drive south to the big checkpoint at Qalqiliya North, in the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank, which we are scheduled to monitor this morning.

Although it’s early and still dark when we arrive, the area on the Palestinian side of the checkpoint is thronging with thousands of Palestinian workers, most having travelled for hours to get here, waiting for the checkpoint to open at 4 am when, if the Israel-issued permits which they are required to have are in order, they will be processed through to work in Israel. The physical structure of the checkpoint and its surroundings comprise barbed wire fences and metal caged tunnels to be gone through; beside these an informal village has sprung up with a multitude of simple stalls selling hot and cold drinks, falafel and other snacks; people chat and, recognising us by our EAPPI vests, welcome us with free cups of coffee.

At 4 am the checkpoint opens, the lines of men, plus a few women, shuffle forward. By my rough calculation about 5,000 go through every hour. We stand and watch; as human rights monitors, our role is limited. If, which can happen, a Palestinian is not allowed through, we can speak to them, try to find out why and, if they wish, give them details of an agency which might be able to help. If there is an unscheduled prolonged closure of the checkpoint, we have telephone numbers we can phone. But part of the contribution we can make, which from the responses of those waiting in their lines is appreciated, is to show solidarity and human support to people who deserve much better, and to let them see that the wider world (or at least some of it) is not entirely ignoring them.

After two hours, the main flow has gone through and it’s time for us to return home and hopefully snatch a couple of hours’ sleep before breakfast and making a brief report of our activity and what we have witnessed so far today. EAPPI reports are distributed among other agencies active in the region and provide up to date, accurate and impartial information about what is really happening on the ground.

I am in Palestine as a volunteer with EAPPI, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. It began with a notice in a St. Columba’s service sheet: “Are you passionate about peace and human rights? Have you got three months to spend rather differently? The World Council of Churches are recruiting…for people to come forward to spend three months in Israel/Palestine on the West Bank and East Jerusalem experiencing life under occupation and committing yourself to advocating for change and promoting a just peace in Palestine and Israel when you return home. Wearing distinctive vests, you will accompany locals and report human rights abuses, help protect communities and keep international agencies up to date with the situation on the ground”.

After a selection and training process, carried out in Britain for the UK and Irish EAs by Quakers in Britain, followed by more training in Jerusalem for the entire team, we have each been allocated to a placement in the West Bank.

Tulkarm is a bustling Palestinian city of more than 100,000 inhabitants. Unlike Jerusalem or Bethlehem, it is not particularly touristic, but in the centre are some fine buildings dating from Ottoman times. It is home to Palestine Technical University Kadoorie, which was founded in 1930 during the British Mandate in Palestine as an agricultural college with a legacy from Sir Ellis Kadoorie, a Jewish philanthropist from Baghdad. The city is close to the separation wall and has two refugee camps whose inhabitants and their descendants were expelled from, or fled, what is now Israel in 1948-9.

As today is a Sunday, later in the morning we go to church. Although Tulkarm has a (Greek Orthodox) church building, it has only a tiny Christian community and no regular services, so we go to Nablus, about 45 minutes away.

Nablus, the Biblical Shechem/Sychar, will be familiar to members of St. Columba’s as the place where Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for water from Jacob’s Well. The well is still there, now inside a Greek Orthodox church, and water can still be drunk from it. But this is not some kind of religious theme park; Nablus has a large community of local Palestinian Christians and several active churches: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican, all of which we have attended. Today we are going to the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd, in the Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East, where we are warmly welcomed by the minister and congregation; the minister, a local Palestinian from the nearby village of Al-Zababdeh, has become a good friend to successive teams of EAs. It’s the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday before Advent. The service is an Anglican service of Holy Communion, mostly in Arabic but for our benefit the minister delivers parts of the liturgy in English and has chosen familiar hymns: All hail the power of Jesus’ name, How great thou art, What a friend we have in Jesus and The Church’s one foundation. After the service we chat to the congregation over coffee and kanafeh, a kind of cheesecake for which Nablus is famous in Palestine and beyond (perhaps even as far as the Edgware Road); utterly delicious and no doubt quite fattening. One could almost imagine being in a parish church in England, but unlike their fellow Christians in Britain, these Christians in the West Bank face restrictions in accessing their Cathedral (in East Jerusalem).

Sunday is also special because at church and afterwards for lunch we can meet our EAPPI colleagues based in another placement. It’s valuable to share experiences with other EAs, as the placements, and the issues which Palestinians living in each of them have to deal with, vary a lot. Some placements are in remote rural settings: the need is for support to Palestinian farming communities or to shepherds, each facing regular harassment from nearby illegal settlements which do not respect their right to be there and to carry on their traditional livelihoods (such as producing the milk which becomes kanafeh). In some places Palestinian children experience aggression as they walk to school, and (as the photograph shows) EAs provide a protective presence by regularly accompanying them on their walk to school.

On other Sundays in Nablus the EAs have been guided round Balata refugee camp, one of the largest in the West Bank; we have learnt about the work of Project Hope, a charity which among other things provides English language teaching for refugees and organises cultural events in Nablus; and we have taken part in seminars and discussions with students in the Law Faculty at An-Najah University ‘s impressive new campus overlooking Nablus, arranged via a farmer contact of ours in the village of Jayyous, one of whose sons is a law lecturer there.

As well as the big checkpoints, there is limited passage through the separation barrier via “agricultural gates”. These are entries in the separation barrier controlled by soldiers, through which some Palestinian farmers, if they have the requisite Israeli permits (not available to all the farmers who need them to carry on their livelihood) and are there at the brief opening times (eg. 7 to 7:30 am), can access their land on the Israeli side of the barrier which was built through their farms. Monitoring these gates and the passage through them is a regular EA activity.

I have now been back home for some months. My role has changed to one of “advocacy”: describing what I saw of the realities of life in the West Bank for people under occupation and, as the notice said, promoting a just peace. EAPPI is not partisan; not pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli but founded on principled impartiality: very definitely pro-human rights and international humanitarian law. In Israel/Palestine it works with the many Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, such as the Women in Black and Breaking the Silence.

Looking back to my time as an EA, I have a multitude of good memories: on free days a visit to the Church of Scotland in Tiberias and enjoying the hospitality of its minister; the trust and collegiality among all the EA team; the way in which “contacts” among the Palestinian community turned into friends; the humbling experience of how ordinary people, busy coping with the adverse conditions constantly affecting their daily lives, offer an immediate and generous welcome to EAs asking questions they must have heard a hundred times. It’s difficult to assess at any level what difference one has made. However, at the micro level, I think of the worker in the crowd at the Qalqiliya North checkpoint who said “Go and tell people how we have to live” or the farmer hurrying to the agricultural gate early in the morning who would have lost a day’s work if we had not persuaded the soldiers to keep to the officially agreed schedule and not to close it early. So I am very grateful to have chanced upon that notice in a St. Columba service sheet.

More information about EAPPI, including how to arrange a presentation about life in the West Bank and how to apply to become an Ecumenical Accompanier, can be found at www.quaker.org.uk/eappi or www.eappi.org/en.

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