Reflections from Palestine – Charlotte Marshall
It was a privilege and pleasure to spend 9 days in Palestine at the beginning of December, celebrating the 10th anniversary since the launch of the Kairos document ‘A Moment of Truth’ and the first ‘international Gathering’ organised by Sabeel Jerusalem.
In a way, this was a ‘return’ for me to the Holy Land. It has been 3 years since I last visited, which is not in itself a long time, but prior to that I had travelled to Palestine every year for over a decade. I felt the usual twinge of apprehension as I walked down the long slope into immigration control at Ben Gurion, reminding myself to speak about visiting the Holy Christian sites and meeting with fellow Christians, but my fears were unfounded and I sailed through quite easily with just a few questions.
Now, on to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem, where I would be based for the next 9 days. As we approached West Jerusalem to drop others in the shared taxi, I felt another twinge of something – probably best described as discomfort. West Jerusalem, with its high-rise shopping malls, clean streets, impressive apartments, and general feeling of wealth and privilege. Compare this to the poverty, crowding, and generally more run-down streets in towns and cities in the West Bank and it’s not hard to see why people refer to apartheid here.
As I left Jerusalem in a local bus to Bethlehem the sun was rising over the old city. Damascus gate shone in the light, and already East Jerusalemites were making their way to the markets, and I was reminded that life, despite all its challenges here, continues each day. Checkpoint 300 then loomed in front of me – again, nothing new to report here other than the covering of some graffiti (one might justifiably call this ‘white-washing’ as the Israelis had painted it white!) and an easy transition through several barriers and turnstiles before I was standing on the other side of the wall, with several (hundred) local taxi drivers vying for my business. Of course, getting out of Bethlehem is a different story, especially if you are Palestinian, and I remembered several hours spent on one visit talking to those queuing at this very checkpoint at 4am to get through in time to work in Jerusalem. And they considered themselves the fortunate ones, as they had permits to work.
So, on to the conference after a brief welcome from my host family, whom I have known for 15 years. Although they are not connected directly to my work, they warrant mention here, not least because they are the perfect example of beautiful Palestinian hospitality. They would not dream of letting me stay in a hotel, and instead welcome me into their home each time, feeding me, providing me with a local phone, ordering taxis for me, and generally making me feel like Palestine really is a second home. As Palestinian Christians they really are a wonderful example of God’s love manifest, and truly welcome the stranger into their home.
It is difficult to see how I might summarise the next 9 days, and all of the rich, diverse, human, political, social, and religious topics covered in both conferences. The Kairos Palestine 10th Anniversary was both a celebration and a lament. So much achieved by Kairos Palestine, and all of the global Kairos movements around the world standing in solidarity with them. One of the most poignant moments for me was to see the current Kairos team handing over the Kairos movement to the younger generation – symbolised by passing on a lit candle. At the same time, we lamented the lack of response by many of the global churches to the Kairos call for justice, and the on-going deterioration of the situation in Palestine. This year in particular has seen several catastrophic developments – the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the cutting of funding from the USA to UNRWA, and most recently the decision of the USA to declare that international law does not apply to settlements. Whilst many of these decisions begin in America, we see our own states standing by in silent complicity – something that is equally as damming for the Palestinians aspirations of statehood and self-determination.
Kairos for Global Justice began a few years ago, and was the advent of a coordinated effort to gather the various global Kairos networks together, to plan joint actions, campaigns, and theological reflections, and consider how we might both support and resource one another. Since its inception we have gathered each year to create an action plan. Last year we joined in solidarity with Kairos Palestine as they issued a petition on Nakba Day, calling for an end to the occupation and the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people. In the making are excellent resources such as a study guide on BDS, and a statement on Christian Zionism. But what inspired me the most from our discussions this year at the conference was the idea of calling the global Church into ‘Status Confessionis’ regarding the situation in Palestine. Most well-known through the work of Bonhoeffer and his call to the German Church during Nazi rule, it literally means to call the Church to a ‘state of confessing’, where there is a dire situation in which the church must stand up for the integrity of the gospel and the authority of the God it confesses. In the coming months we will work with our global partners to call our Church today into this Status Confessionis, where their silence, or uncritical support for Israel has caused unbearable suffering for Palestinians over the last 70 years.
Following the Kairos Conference was Sabeel’s first international Gathering – a new format designed to work in partnership with many organisations in Palestine, to bring participants the most up-to-date analysis. Mixed in with hearing from these organisations were trips to Churches, projects and organisations in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I reflect here on two highlights of the week. First was the opening day, focussed on the political situation, where we heard from several excellent speakers, not least Sam Bahour, a Ramallah-based policy analyst with the Al-Shabaka network. He spoke about the ‘invisible occupation’ – something that resonated deeply with me. We ‘see’ the occupation in all its starkness – the wall, the checkpoints, the settlements, the military presence – but what we don’t see are the everyday, infuriating, exasperating, discriminatory factors that Bahour notes in an article called ‘Israel’s mockery of security – 101 definitions of occupation’. To give an example, under the Oslo Accords, Palestinians were allowed to create ‘separate and independent’ communication networks. However, it has taken 12 years of campaigning to get Israel to release the 3G frequency over Palestine, which it finally did last year. Bahour’s view is that Palestinians have actually been incredibly patient – for 71 years they have been waiting for the international community to implement its own laws here – which we have failed to do. Now is the time to get political, get focussed, and get economical.
The second highlight for me was a visit to the Tent of Nations, which I’m sure that several of you reading this will also have had the privilege of visiting. The Nasser’s family story and struggle to stay on their land is one I’m familiar with, but to hear directly from Daoud and understand the 28 year long legal battle they have endured is, for me, one of the greatest living examples of Palestinian summud there is. There is such hope and inspiration in this story. The example to us all that non-violent, determined resistance can actually succeed, even in situations where justice is not applied, and where the rule of law is only applicable to one side. To see the solidarity from international communities and individuals, where over 250 volunteers a year come to stand alongside this family and help them stay on their land, or a Jewish organisation across the other side of the world sponsors 250 olive trees that were cut down by the soldiers. This is why we do the work we do, why we persist, despite the circumstances rarely changing.
I left for home with mixed emotions. Saddened, frustrated and angered by the lack of change, unless for the worse, and the continued oppression of the Palestinian people – many of them our brothers and sisters in Christ. And yet renewed, inspired, impressed, and ready for the struggle we have ahead to bring our own Churches to a place of understanding, solidarity and action for justice. I still have hope that one day Amos 5:24 will be realised in this land,
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Many blessings for the Christmas season, and joy and goodwill to you and those you hold dear,