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Colin Morton: A Christmas Visit to Palestine and Israel


Carol and I went visited Palestine and Israel from 13th December, 2001, to 5th January, 2002. Although this was a private visit we had purposes other than seeing friends. As Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and the WCC are in process of establishing an ecumenical agenda on the Palestinian issue, I was looking to see what the possibilities were and how they matched with the insights and hopes of the local community. I am also a member of the small group set up by the Church of Scotland to report on The Theology of Land and Covenant, and I was doing some ground-work on the programme for the visit in March which the group is planning. Carol, who markets Palestinian crafts produced by cooperative groups, refugee camps and charities, was visiting many of these groups to see developments and make purchases. Many of these things we did together and we also participated in some of the training and activities of the International Solidarity Movement between 17th December and 1st January.

We were based at St Andrew's Scottish Centre in West Jerusalem, where the minister, Clarence Musgrave, and the staff of the Centre were immensely helpful to us. We made a number of visits to Ramallah, Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Bait Jala; we stayed overnight in Gaza and two nights in the Galilee. I was privileged to have significant interviews with Bishop Riah Abu Al Assal, Bishop Munib Younan, Naim Ateek, Mitri Raheb, Sandra Olewine, Costa Dabbagh, Jean Zaru, Abdel Rahman Abu Arafeh and Haider Abdul Shafi. Perhaps equally important was the wide range of other people we met from different communities and all walks of life.

Our visit coincided with a "period of comparative calm". During this time (I cannot vouch for the exact coincidence of dates), one Israeli was killed and twenty-six Palestinians. These numbers themselves raise all sorts of questions about which side is reacting to which actions of the other side, about whose perceptions dominate among Western governments and media, and about what is counted as violence. We had to meet with one young man in Ramallah who wished to strengthen ties with the Iona Community. His house had been taken over by Israeli soldiers during their incursion into the town. The previous day a "withdrawal" had been announced and reported. The family returned to their home, but five hours later the soldiers were back, so he had to move out again. "Relaxations" and "easings" of closures or restrictions never seemed to be of noticeable effect on the ground. New restrictions just happened unannounced. One friend from Beit Sahour had been in the USA. When he returned via Amsterdam to Ben Gurion airport, he was refused entry and told to return to Amsterdam, take a flight to Amman and come home by way of the Jordan bridge crossing. This has become a new rule; those from the occupied territories, even if they get a permit, may not come or go by Ben Gurion airport. The one general rule that does not change is that life becomes worse. The reality is that this is a brutal and cruel occupation.

Among Israelis there was much talk and writing about the economic crisis brought on by the collapse of tourism, the crisis in the high-tech sector on which the country's previous boom had depended, high government spending and the general world recession. Budget cuts were announced amid protests from the Histradut and various disadvantaged groups, including a coalition of Bedouin and Israelis from the Negev. The Labour Party seemed to be disintegrating and the election of the hard-line Ben Eliezer, a Mizrahi, raised the possibility of further realignments. The general feeling seems to be that after 11 September and the beginning of the war against terrorism Israel is able to take what action it likes against the Palestinians. There are some deeper analyses and questionings and the Peace Movement is recovering some confidence and direction, but along with a general desire for revenge there is a depressing majority view that just sees the Palestinians as a plague which it is hoped will by any means or other be abated to leave Israelis free to forget them and get on with their real lives. There is general support for Sharon, but it is mixed with gloom and concern as to whether the country is going anywhere and whether Israel can survive.

In the West Bank and more especially in Gaza the condition of people's lives is grim, and this is true of practically everyone, all classes and sectors. Economic activity seems to be almost non-existent in Gaza, where the great majority survive on relief from UNRWA or Hamas, with the NECC giving help to 8,000 families, but everywhere people are living on anything left of their savings, and even the possession of a Jerusalem ID, which used to guarantee a job and some freedom of movement, now means little. Jobs in Jerusalem are very scarce and Jerusalemites are not meant to enter the West Bank and are fearful of going into West Jerusalem or Israel proper, so that they feel prisoners as much as the rest.

When we went through the Eretz check-point into Gaza, that vast arena with its construction was eerily deserted; no movement of people or goods, soldiers bored stiff, and a couple of cars in the acres of car park. The only reason that anyone (apart from settlers) is allowed to go into or out of Gaza is if your immediate relative has died or is on the point of death - serious illness is not good enough, you have to have a doctor's certificate guaranteeing that he or she will die forthwith. There are very, very few foreigners still in Gaza, they have practically all been withdrawn apart from those married to Gazans. The Gaza strip differs from the West Bank in that there are fewer points of contact with the Israeli army, but those there are are more bloody. In Gaza city we saw extensive damage from shelling and bombing, heard and sensed the trauma of people and especially children, and the fear at the sound of planes or helicopters. Nevertheless, as we, a British and an American, walked in the streets of Gaza, looked for food and did some shopping, we always met with courtesy and friendliness.

In the West Bank the innumerable check-points and the length of time and unpredictability of any journey have been well described. We travelled the Jordan Valley road to Tiberias. It had seven check-points on it and Palestinians were not permitted to use it, as is the case with so many roads. A woman from Surif village came the thirty miles or so to Bethlehem to meet Carol and hand over a large load of embroidery. She took a taxi to the road-end of the road to the village, walked through the check-point, took another taxi to Aroub and walked through the check-point. There are no taxis there and so she walked the five kilometres to the Etzion check-point, through which she got another taxi to El Khadr check-point, walked through it and finally get a taxi into Bethlehem. She still had to wait for Carol who took an hour and a half to get the car through the check-point between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and then she was faced with the prospect of the return journey. Everywhere people are very tired with little energy left after just getting by from one day to the next.

They are tired and feeling abandoned. It was strange to walk right through the Old City and East Jerusalem, from St Andrew's to Sheikh Jarrah, and see no foreigners at all except a group of four outside the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. It was strange to see apparently a purely Palestinian crowd in Manger Square on Christmas Eve, to hear from the Khanos of the Guiding Star Tourist Agency that they had not one single pilgrim this Christmas. Before Christmas no overseas mail had been delivered in Bethlehem or Ramallah for over three weeks; so no presents, letters or cards had been received, nor the much needed cheques which Carol had sent in payment for crafts. In general the view of Palestinians was that they were faced with the gloomy choice of continued conflict and violence or of giving in and accepting Israeli subjugation. Despite the weariness we did not find signs of giving up resistance to the occupation. Their one depressing hope lies in the belief that in the long run they can absorb much suffering and the Israelis comparatively little. Certainly there seems to be very little expectation indeed of effective help from abroad. The Colin Powell speech and any other assurances that Palestinians must have at least a viable state, going along with calls to end the violence, make very little impression. They have heard it all before. Above all when Sharon rules, it only means to them endless negotiation while settlements keep expanding and land is lost, some international tears are shed and nothing changes. That is the clear message of this intifada - "no return to the negotiating table while settlements expand". The Mitchell principles may lay down that all settlement building ceases, but Sharon can always demand absolute calm and ensure it never happens; and how often in the past has a halt to settlements been accepted by Israel and then ignored, while Palestinians are blamed. There is an absolute break-down of trust on both sides.
Haider Abdul Shafi was openly critical of Arafat; he had failed in nation-building, in establishing proper and open institutions, and in uniting his people. In his opinion, no work from the outside can take the place of Palestinian effort. Arafat's failure was that he never organised and directed this intifada, when he could have unified the people and directed the action. Attacks within Israel proper only unites the Israelis, whereas if action was purely in the occupied territories and directed against the settlements Israel would have become more and more divided. In the event Arafat had paid no attention to the Islamicists and let different factions go their way.

We got no indication that anyone was threatening Arafat's leadership, but there was widespread dissatisfaction with it, as with some of those around him. It was significant that when Sharon refused to allow him to go to Bethlehem at Christmas there was far more outrage outside than inside Palestine, where the feeling was that it was no bad thing if the VIPs lost some of their privileges and ease of travel, and suffered more of what the people were suffering. When we along with the rest of the International Solidarity Movement met with him in Ramallah, he looked fitter than expected, but his words were unconvincing.

We took part in some of the training and actions of the International Solidarity Movement. Those taking part numbered about sixty, practically all from the UK and the USA, but during the period there was also a French group of a similar size and a larger Italian group. While we were with them we marched through Ramallah and had a "die-in" in front of the armoured vehicles near Arafat's headquarters. The message, "The occupation kills; end the occupation", was given by loud-speaker and placards; the soldiers fired over our heads, but there was no further confrontation and the demonstration dispersed. The group attempted to enter Gaza and Hebron, but was prevented on both occasions; at Gaza, after reasons were given for preventing us which were palpably false, many of the group went to walk through, but were manhandled fairly roughly onto the bus and removed. At Hebron, the group were stopped at the Etzion check-point, all beyond was declared a closed military zone though others were allowed through; there was a prolonged stand-off, some peaceful argument with soldiers while settlers were standing by, but then the group withdrew. A few later reached Hebron by taxi. Finally there was the peace march from Bethlehem to Jerusalem on 31 December, organised by the Latin Patriarchate with many church leaders and good numbers participating. There were two confrontations with many soldiers and much armour present, one near Rachel's Tomb and one at Tantur check-point. Prolonged negotiations at the first led to the march being allowed as far as Tantur, where a prayer service was held, but no attempt to force entry to Jerusalem was made. While we were not with them the group was more successful in opening a way through checkpoints north of Ramallah.

The WCC is considering how there can be a useful programme of accompaniment in which people from outside can be with Palestinians. The sort of solidarity actions which we experienced were certainly appreciated by Palestinians, although many would say that they would make no difference, and also I am sure that many of the group went home more effective in advocacy than before. Peaceful protests attract little publicity, so that any specific aim to get publicity raises serious dilemmas. It is possible that sometimes the presence of internationals gives some protection to Palestinians, and the experience of the long-term, well-trained Christian Peace-makers' Team in Hebron gives some evidence for this, but there is no certainty about it. Some of the most vulnerable people live in isolated villages, and there language becomes a requirement. It is not at all easy to ensure that internationals are present at the time and place where they are most needed and being a witness at the wrong place for a long time can get very frustrating. Any programme demands a large local input in training and management, and as local people are really tired it could be questioned whether the investment of energy needed is possible or would produce a worthwhile return.

Nevertheless some programme of accompaniment is surely imperative. It is necessary that people outside, and especially Christians, show that they have a rightful concern for peace with justice in the Holy Land and that this concern goes beyond words, which can seem hollow, to include the sharing of some risks. It is needed that there are more people in the West who have a living knowledge of what is really happening. I believe that the WCC may well recommend a programme which combines volunteering with witnessing, so that volunteers can come out to work on useful projects, while being ready to act as witnesses as occasion arises and circumstances demand. I understand that a new Jerusalem Liaison Office is likely to come into being again, combining an international and local ecumenical presence in a sensitive way. This would be immensely important for any effective programme of accompaniment as well as for other reasons.

Our own experience has included a number of conversations with soldiers, which were often interesting and refreshing, something different from the conversations I was used to with those accustomed to dealing with such as me during my nine years in Jerusalem. This is no doubt trivial, but it chimed with what Naim Ateek was saying and others both in the religious and political fields, that Palestinians must address Israelis more rather than the outside world. This is not so much with a view to reaching any easy consensus, more to challenge the distorted Israeli picture both of Palestinians and of the criticism of Israeli policies in Europe. All criticism of Israel tends to get rationalised and discounted in the Israeli press and consciousness, as ill-informed, as anti-semitic or as hypocritical pandering to some evil constituency. Can ways be found for there to be better engagement with Israelis?

A basic issue which surely must be brought out into the open and clarification demanded of Zionism is this. Is continued expansion and settlement integral to Zionism, or was it a phase which must now be acknowledged as over and past? There is an easy equation between the Zionist settling of the land and the American settling of their land, which is very acceptable to Americans or hard for critics among them to deal with. Palestinian fundamental and long-term acceptance of Israel must at the very least be paralleled by Israel's unequivocal renunciation of further expansion and settlement

Alternatives to Violence
In the present destructive and deteriorating cycle of violence it is hard to make a convincing case to either side for the renunciation of violence. I am quite clear that violence has become acceptable to Palestinians, even though it brings more hardship to them, because no other way offers them any hope. It could be argued that a steadfast non-violent resistance to occupation would have made it morally untenable, but that virtually was what happened in the first intifada and it ended in the disillusion of Oslo. "How many conquerors and empires have taken Jerusalem, have come and have gone?" There is a basic mind-set which can see the coming of Israel in terms of the crusades. "It won't last. Life will get too tough for them and they will go." That lessened for a time, but it is certainly back now. And, of course, Israelis' fear make them think that way too; indeed that fear made the opening for peace which there was in the nineties an abortive one and their fear self-validating. As long as the USA, with the backing of the UK, in effect honours Sharon and sanctifies the violence of occupation, while condemning Arafat and all Palestinian resistance, anti-American , anti-Western and anti-Christian feeling will become more deep-rooted, the instruments of international justice and economy more and more seen not as serving any equal justice, but only the interests of American domination, the crusade mind-set will grow, the war against terror will lose its validity, and the threat to world peace will grow rather than diminish.

The anti-crusade mind-set is one quickly dismissed by Western thinking as being lunatic and not worth talking about. If there is to be any moving toward acceptable compromise it must be taken more seriously.

Overcoming violence must mean in the first place a determined effort to ensure that civilised standards and international law apply to all equally (all targeting of civilians and all actions careless of civilian casualties should be condemned). In practice it must mean that a peace conference is called with a clear remit to apply existing UN resolutions with equal pressure on both sides, and, if as seems likely, the USA is unwilling to do this, the international community must be willing to make clear that the American peace-making role has failed and it can no longer receive support. It is only on a form of even-handedness on these lines that convincing appeals to stop violence can be made and realistic efforts made to encourage mutual understanding. Otherwise I doubt if they will be of much value.

I believe that we should support the WCC call to make 2002 the year to end the occupation. I would like to see a parallel call to make Jerusalem a city where the three religions have equal rights, because it would be desirable that any future inter-faith dialogue be on that basis. The emphasis on advocacy directed towards the European Community is also right and important. Perhaps our churches can help in pressing the British government to cease its negative influence in the EC - a negative influence which is very apparent to the Palestinians.

It was very good to be there. Although the situation was grimly depressing (and has deteriorated since), nevertheless I came away feeling more positive than I had before going. I am not sure why, but chiefly because there was still shared with us faith and endurance and hope. I am very grateful for receiving these gifts; and I believe that Israeli views can change. Bur now, as what is happening there goes on and on and lessens in news value, I am more convinced than ever that we will fail if we just look on from a distance. We are all somehow involved there. I hope the programme for prayer vigils and other means to keep the people there in our hearts goes well. That goes hand in hand with whatever people can do, boycott or any other sticking their necks out. We should not go quietly into this dark night.

Colin Morton, January 2002
The Rev Colin Morton is a Presbyterian from Edinburgh. He is Focal Person of the CCOM Middle East Forum. From 1988 to 1997 he was Minister of the Church of Scotland congregation in Jerusalem. Published in Churches Together in Britain and Ireland

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