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I can still very clearly remember when, in my early twenties, I had a job in a factory making stainless steel and Aluminium cookware. We started work at 6:30am each day and finished at about 3:30pm. The shed that we worked in was freezing cold in winter and boiling hot in summer. The work was boring, repetitive, dirty and very labor intensive.

At that time I was sharing a two bedroom flat with two other friends and for some reason, that I don’t remember, I had to sleep on the floor every night. I had to get up at 4:00am in the morning to catch two buses across town to get to work on time. It wasn’t fun!

So while I was monitoring the infamous checkpoint at Qalandya, I couldn’t help but think back to those days. That morning we got to the checkpoint at 4:30am and my team mate Peggy, stood on the exit side of the checkpoint to count people as they came out, and I went to the entry side to monitor things as people lined up to enter the checkpoint. Even at 4:30am, the checkpoint was crowded with people trying to get to work in Jerusalem.

The Qalandya checkpoint basically separates the Palestinian town of Ramallah (and hence the whole of the northern West Bank) from Jerusalem. The checkpoint itself consists of a large shed where people line up in what can only be called cattle shutes, which lead to turnstiles at the end of each shute. The opening and closing of these turnstiles are controlled by Israeli soldiers who sit in a main control room. On the other side of these turnstiles are five booths, each with its own turnstile controlled by soldiers in each booth.Once you get past this set of turnstile,s you must show your ID papers to the soldiers on duty, place your belongings on the conveyor belt to be X-rayed and walk through the metal detector. If the soldiers at the window of the booth are satisfied with your ID card and permit and everything else, you may pass through the checkpoint and go into Jerusalem. On a goodish day this can take 20 to 30 minutes.

Qalandya

      Qalandya checkpoint.

On the day that I was monitoring the checkpoint, all 5 booths were open but for some reason the lines were moving slowly. By about 5:10am the lines from all three shutes were so long that they extended way outside the shed into the car park behind the checkpoint. As time passed by, the people in line became agitated with the soldiers and some made gestures to me wanting me to do what I could to get things moving faster. I made a few phone calls to the Humanitarian Hotline and Machsom Watch but nothing seemed to be changing so far as the time to process people was taking.

Many of these Palestinians are day workers in Jerusalem and are desperate to get to their places of work since many of the companies they work for simply take the first lot of workers that arrive on time and forget about the rest. So being first off the ranks is very important for many people even at this early hour. The employers in Jerusalem seem to have no interest in improving conditions at the checkpoint in order to speed things up and get people to work on time. Buses on the exit side of the checkpoint taking the workers to their places of work in Jerusalem don’t wait for stragglers.

By about 6:10am some people, in absolute desperation, started trying to push in at the front of the line near the end of the cattle shutes. This created a “panic” of people in the line and suddenly about 100 workers stampeded the opening of the three shutes! It was chaos as all order broke down. Many people gave up and just sat down inside the shed and waited. Some knelt down and started praying, but for at least 50 or 60 people, they continued to try and push and shove their way into the openings of the cattle shutes in order to go through the checkpoint.

Some Palestinian people next to me blamed the soldiers for causing this chaos, saying that the soldiers were, in their opinion, deliberately holding the lines up so as to incite the workers. Whether the soldiers were in fact doing just that, is debatable, but anyone can see that such a system, in the context of the occupation. will be doomed to failure and cause a huge amount of tension and malice between the two groups.

The situation continued like this for over an hour and I have to admit that I felt quite scared at times. I could not imagine having to face the prospect of this every morning in order to get to work. A number of Palestinian men told me that they had to miss work a number of times because this sort of chaos had ensued at the checkpoint. It only increases their sense of desperation to get to work the next day.

One struggles to find a rational reason for why this checkpoint is the way it is. Israelis will often tell you it is necessary because of the suicide bombers of years gone by. I struggle with that explanation as there are a number of worker checkpoints from the West Bank to Israel that can cope with far more than twice the amount of people getting through the gates of Qalandya.  I have monitored some of those gates myself. So far as security goes, everyone knows that many hundreds of Palestinians get across into Israel from the West Bank “illegally”, every day.

No, to me it seems that it looks like the Israeli government just doesn’t want Palestinians in Jerusalem. This checkpoint is just part of a system that gives a clear message to Arabs in the West Bank. That message is…”Stay Out of Jerusalem!”

International Law states that Palestinians under occupation in Gaza and the West Bank are protected persons. at Qalandya, it doesn’t look like it!

CRAIG NIELSEN

DISCLAIMER

I am participating in a program as an Ecumenical Accompanier serving in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained here are personal to me and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Council of Churches Australia or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the EAPPI Communications Officer (eappi.communications@gmail.com) for permission. Thank you.

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During our mid-term orientation for the program in Palestine/Israel, I had the privilege of visiting, what I believe is, the most inspiring and exciting place I have encountered in my stay here until now.

Wahat al Salam Neve Shalom is a village in Israel, about 40 kilometres west of Jerusalem, consisting of about 100 families, of both Palestinian and Jewish Israelis who have chosen to live together as an example of how Jews and Arabs can live with one another in peace and mutual respect without compromising their own identity, be it religious or secular. “Wahat al Salam” is Arabic for Oasis of Peace, the Hebrew equivalent being “Neve Shalom”, hence the name of the village.

The following information about the community is taken from their literature, and some is from what I was told during my visit there about 2 weeks ago.

The village is situated an equal distance between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and was founded in the 1970’s on land originally leased from the adjacent Latrun Monastery. It is hoped that eventually the village will contain about 140 homes. The village is democratically governed and owned by its members and the community is not affiliated with any political party or movement.

The vision of the community is expressed through various activities and programs that it runs.

Bilingual, Binational Schooling

  1. Equal participation by Jews and Palestinians in the administration and teaching.
  2. Providing a natural ongoing framework that enables the day-to-day meeting between children of the two peoples.
  3. Use of both Hebrew and Arabic in teaching all of the children.
  4. Nurturing each child’s identity by imparting knowledge of his/her culture and tradition while inculcating respectful familiarity with the culture and identity of the other people.

The School for Peace

  1. Encounter workshops on the conflict for Jewish and Palestinian youth in Israel.
  2. Encounter workshops, in-service training and seminars for adult groups, including teachers, journalists, lawyers, social workers and university students.
  3. Encounter workshops between citizens of Israel and Palestine together with Palestinian NGO’s.
  4. Facilitator training courses.
  5. Yearly graduates’ courses in cooperation with 4 Israeli Universities.
  6. Courses for empowerment of Jewish and Arab women.
  7. Training courses (in its working methods) for persons from abroad.
  8. Encounters for raising awareness towards intergroup conflicts within Arab and Jewish society.

Our guide in the village told us a lot about the encounter group sessions in the School for Peace which last for 3 days and all participants stay in the village for this period. The workshops begin with an all group session, with a facilitator, where all participants are encouraged to vent their feelings to the each other about the conflict. These sessions get extremely heated with a lot of screaming and yelling as you could imagine! This sessions pretty much fills the first day and at the end of the session the participants are given their rooms for the night. The facilitator chooses whom bunks with whom so that people are sleeping in the same room with an “adversary”, so to speak! This causes some consternation, but people accept the situation they are presented with. The next day’s session involves a role reversal whereby people must advocate for the exact opposite position that they took the day before. We were told that not all people come out believing the same thing, but everybody comes out a changed person! Of all the workshops that they have conducted of this nature, no one has every left a workshop before its completion. Some 45,000 young people have completed a similar workshop.

Doumia-Sakinah (The Pluralistic Spiritual Centre)

  1. Programs focus on open inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue and the advancement of peace.

Youth Club – Nadi al-Shabibah Moadon Noar

  1. The objectives of the youth club are to foster and sustain interpersonal connections.
  2. To encourage voluntary community involvement.
  3. To increase awareness on issues of Palestinian-Jewish relations and social justice.

Humanitarian Aid.

  1. Operates a program to provide humanitarian relief (usually but not exclusively medical) for Palestinian villagers affected by the ongoing conflict.

Volunteer Program.

The village has a framework that makes it possible to live and work in the village for a few months in exchange for living expenses. For details about conditions and how to apply, see the following email or website  volunteering@nswas.org or www.nswas.org/rubrique7.html

Hospitality

The village has a hotel with in season swimming pool that is open for guests and participants in the programs.

Visit Programs

For one day visiting groups there is introductory presentations and videos.

Wahat al Salam Neve Shalom has friendship associations in a number of countries but not yet in Australia. I am planning to set up an “Australian Friends of Wahat al Salam Neve Shalom Association” when I get home. If anyone would like to be part of this work to support this wonderful organization which shows to the world an example of how peace is possible in this region, then please contact me via this blog and we can arrange a meeting back in Australia.

CRAIG NIELSEN

DISCLAIMER

I am participating in a program as an Ecumenical Accompanier serving in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained here are personal to me and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Council of Churches Australia or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the EAPPI Communications Officer (eappi.communications@gmail.com) for permission. Thank you.

One of our teams regular tasks has been to monitor the checkpoint that leads into the village of Azzun Atma. This little village is in the rather peculiar position of being totally entrapped by the separation barrier. The only way into the village is via a military checkpoint that is guarded 24 hours a day by soldiers in full battle uniform. The village has two schools; each containing about 300 students. Many of the students live outside the village and hence have to pass through the military checkpoint. International Law states that these protected persons are not allowed to be searched or stopped on their way to school. When we have been present to monitor the checkpoint we have never seen a student stopped and searched, yet the principal of one of the schools told us that this has occurred a number of times when we have not been present at the checkpoint.

As a teacher, I know how easily young students can be intimidated by older students and adults at school, let alone fully armed soldiers! Yet these young children seem undeterred by such naked displays of power. All of our teams have noticed the very high importance placed on education in Palestinian society and Azzun Atma is no exception.

The ridiculous nature of the separation barrier is also highlighted in the example of Azzun Atma. People living or working in Azzun Atma that pass into the village from outside, are searched for weapons 24/7. But why? The people going across the checkpoint are moving from West Bank territory to West Bank territory. Who are the Israeli military trying to protect? Is it the settlement that lies just to the western side of the village? The 5m high concrete wall is meant to do that right? That’s what the Israeli government claims is the purpose of the barrier; to protect Israelis from Palestinians. Apparently the barrier isn’t sufficient to fulfill its purpose in Azzun Atma. There apparently needs to be a further checkpoint to accomplish this. Also, the settlement buildings are extremely close to the larger mixed school and often waste sewage water from the settlement flows into the school yard!

A few weeks ago we decided to visit one the schools in Azzun Atma to do an activity with a class of grade 4 students. We got the kids to simply draw some pictures of their life in Azzun Atma for us. They really got into it with one little girl saying that this was the happiest day in her life! Some of the students drew pictures of the checkpoint with the gun toting soldiers but most drew “happy” pictures of their family, school and the houses they live in. This “normal” type of drawing spoke to us of the resilience of these children who are well aware of the difficulties that the occupation poses to them and their families. It was an incredibly uplifting experience for our team and we plan to do the same activity with a Bedouin school in the Seam Zone near Qalqilya.

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One of the schools is Azzun Atma. Note the separation barrier with the settlement houses in the background.

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Our team in the classroom in Azzun Atma.

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A student from Azzun Atma school feeling pretty happy about her drawing!

Teachers in these schools who live outside of Azzun Atma face constant difficulties in getting to work on time due to being held up by the soldiers at the checkpoint and have more than once been trapped in Azzun Atma overnight when the military have closed the checkpoint for periods of up to 24 hours. For this reason the schools in Azzun Atma have a higher turnover of teachers than usual.

We have been told that the checkpoint will be taken away soon to allow constant access to all who need to go into this little village. But for many the damage has been done in the sense that it has already messed with their lives far more than they have wanted. As you can imagine, this hardly endears these children to the Israeli Military. The Principal of one of the schools told us that they have a lot of issues with violent behavior amongst the young boys of the school. It hardly surprised us.

Many people back in Australia believe that Palestinian children are somehow taught to hate Israelis right from the get go. They claim that Palestinian school text books teach racist attitudes towards Jewish people and the State of Israel. But this simply is not the case. Since 1993, all Palestinian school text books are screened by the Palestinian Authority who in turn are screened by the Israeli Government. No screening of how Israeli text books portray Palestinians occurs in Israeli schools.

You don’t have to teach Palestinian children to hate the occupation any more than you need to teach people to hate being beaten up and humiliated. It just comes naturally.

CRAIG NIELSEN

DISCLAIMER

I am participating in a program as an Ecumenical Accompanier serving in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained here are personal to me and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Council of Churches Australia or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the EAPPI Communications Officer (eappi.communications@gmail.com) for permission. Thank you.

It is generally claimed that there are between 550,000 and 600,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank of Palestine in 2014. Since the earliest days of the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, the number of settlers in the West Bank has only ever increased, even during peace negotiations or even during the unilateral withdrawal by Israel of Israeli settlements in Gaza in 2005.

These settlers are generally divided into two categories: ideological and economic. The term, economic settler, refers to those settlers that have chosen to live in the West Bank because of the great economic benefits that the State Of Israel confers to such people. This group consists of some 85% of all settlers and one could postulate that the vast majority of them would not be inclined to live in the West Bank had not the state of Israel made the prospect of such a move into “enemy territory” so enticing.

The other 15% of settlers fall into the ideological category and are a vastly different group of people to deal with. Many Israelis find this group of settlers to be offensive and are often embarrassed at the violence and racism that often accompanies the behavior of these highly motivated Zionists.

The experience of my fellow EA’s of ideological settlers has completely vindicated the view of these Israelis as violent, religious, gentile hating fanatics. All of my colleagues have related that they feel a sense of dread and even fear for their safety/lives when these types of settlers arrive on the scene. Ideological settlers are possessed by a fanatic belief in their entitlement to all of the land of Palestine/Israel and they see Palestinians as a disease upon the land that must be cleansed in order to redeem the land and make way for the coming of the Messiah. Their religious zeal is centered on possessing the land rather than obeying the ethical and moral teachings of the Torah that emphasize social justice and mercy to the “alien” in the land.

My experience of ideological settlers has thankfully been limited to the stories told to us by various Palestinian farmers in the West Bank who have the misfortune of living near settlements like Gilad, near the Palestinian village of Far’arta.

One such farmer is Abu Wael, who lives in his house on a hilltop in the village of Far’ata. We visited his house a few weeks ago to hear his story and offer him some moral support. Abu Wael has had many dunams of land confiscated by the settlement of Gilad which contains some of the most extreme ideological settlers in the West Bank. He told of his many encounters with settlers coming onto his land while he has been working; threatening to kill him and his family if they did not leave the land at once. Abu Wael often called the military to come and protect him but found, like many other Palestinians, that the military seemed more intent on “protecting” these settlers rather than the people who were most powerless and vulnerable. He told us how one day his son was in the fields with him when settlers came down and started arguing with Abu Wael and his son. One of the settlers struck Abu Wael’s son, fracturing his skull. Though there were numerous witnesses to this event, no charges were ever brought against the settler and the threats of violence and intimidation continue.

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Abu Wael from the village of Far’arta

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Abu Wael’s son. Brutally beaten by settlers.

This is but one of the many incidents that we have heard from eye witnesses while in the Jayyus area. So far during our stay in the West Bank, there have been 48 recorded instances of violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians that have resulted in personal injury or damage to property according to OCHA’s weekly protection of civilians report. No arrests have been made.

With the State of Israel and the Western media very recently fixated on the actions of some 5,000 Hamas militants who are locked up in Gaza, no attention is paid to the nearly 35,000 ideological settlers who run free in the West Bank. These settler groups include people like Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 people in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, while they were praying, in 1994, in an act that triggered Hamas to engage in suicide attacks on Israeli civilians in order to try and even the score. A cold shiver goes up my spine when I see the increasing power in Israeli politics being wielded by Zionists who are seen as heroes by the ideological settler movement,

It has been overwhelmingly my experience, while here in the West Bank, that Palestinians reject this type of extremism and believe that the majority of Israelis, like them, want peace. They reject the Israeli Government stance that Hamas, with it’s so called rejection of the right of the State of Israel to exist, is a barrier to a two state solution. If a Palestinian state with ’67 borders, no settlements in the West Bank allowed and East Jerusalem as its capital, was offered by Israel, ALL Palestinians would accept it and if Hamas continued to resist such an offer, it would simply be political suicide for them as Palestinians would ignore them by the million.

I still passionately believe that peace and justice is possible in this region. We just need the will to make it happen.

CRAIG NIELSEN

DISCLAIMER

I am participating in a program as an Ecumenical Accompanier serving in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained here are personal to me and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Council of Churches Australia or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the EAPPI Communications Officer (eappi.communications@gmail.com) for permission. Thank you.

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