God of mystery and power, open our eyes to the flame of your love, and open our ears to the thunder of your justice, that we and all whom we meet may receive your gifts of blessing and peace, to the glory of your name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I find it hard to believe I’ve only been here three days. We’ve seen and heard so much, I feel like I’ve been here weeks already. And every time I start to think I’m beginning to understanding the situation, I hear a new story that adds a new perspective and changes everything. We enter the West Bank tomorrow, so the ground beneath me is due to shift yet again, I suspect this time much more profoundly.
Today we travelled south to Jaffa. First we stopped at a kibbutz to meet with Ruth Hiller, one of the founding members of New Profile, an organisation that has expressed concerns about the militarisation of Israel and the effects of national service on Israeli young people. It works to help those who, for various reasons, wish to be exempt from the mandatory military training.
The conscription process starts at age 16, at which point, Ruth said, the youth cease to be the children of their parents and become pawns of the state. If students do not want to serve in the military because of pacifistic ideologies, health reasons, or because they have clear talents in an area which could not be developed in the army, they may be exempted. However, if they refuse military service on the grounds that they oppose occupation, they may be jailed. Currently, there are 140 high school seniors who have signed a letter opposing the occupation and refusing to perform their national service. They are being investigated, and two of them are already in jail; one has been there for 200 days.
New Profile has three key aims: to change conscription laws, to oppose the occupation, and to work for a more egalitarian society. It sees the segregation that takes place at all levels (between Palestinians and Israelis, between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews, between different Jewish communities, between different Christian communities, and on and on and on and on; the divisions are ceaseless here) as perpetuating the constant state of fear in which many people live. In such a state, peace and true security will never be established.
From there we went on to Jaffa to the Church of Scotland’s Tabeetha School. The introduction on its website states:
Today, we have pupils from over thirty nations and a mixture of faiths. The cultural heritage of each pupil is valued. We do not seek to change that diversity but to share it. We believe that it is through learning and working together, that nations can live together in peace.
We met a number of students, and this vision certainly seemed to be being realised. Like the Scots Hotel in Tiberias, the school models its hope for a community which can live together with — and even honour and celebrate — difference.
Much of the Gaza war took place over the summer holidays, but hearing some of the stories told by the children when they returned to school — comparing the number of bangs they heard, their experiences of running to bomb shelters, of finding shrapnel pieces in the street — was almost too much to bear. The Arab children couldn’t comprehend why Gaza was bombing them: ‘Don’t they know we’re Arab too?’ they cried.
The final place we went today was to visit Physicians for Human Rights, an advocacy and humanitarian organisation in Jaffa. We arrived soaked after walking through the pouring rain, and as we stripped off dripping coats and tracked water throughout the building we joked about bringing the Scottish weather with us. ‘If that’s the case,’ one of them said, ‘thank you. We often pray for rain when the situation is tense here. Sometimes it’s the only thing that can cool the tensions and prevent another Intifada’.
PHR view the problems in Israel through the lens of medical rights. They work to educate the medical community about the effects of discrimination on the healthcare of Israeli Arabs (whose life expectancy is lower than that of Israeli Jews). And they run both an open clinic in Jaffa which primarily treats migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who have no access to the public health system and a mobile clinic which operates in the West Bank.
They have 3000 volunteer medical staff, and their hope is that by this work on the ground with those in desperate need, the perception of Palestinians and other vulnerable minorities might change. And that, by being treated by Israeli medical workers, the Palestinian’s assumptions about Israelis might begin to break down as well.
Their main aim, however, is to challenge inequality and change policies. The right to health is more than simply the right to healthcare. It’s the right to freedom of travel (so people can access healthcare). It’s the right to electricity (because how would someone in a Bedouin community without electricity keep essential medicine cool?). It’s the right to live in communities where it is safe to get exercise (one Arab village with poor health was told to encourage its inhabitants to quit smoking and take up jogging; ‘when you put in pavements and streetlights so people have somewhere to jog, we might do that’, the medical advisor was told).
The work of PHR is constantly under threat because of lack of funding. They are presently appealing a revocation of their tax exempt status, and were told it would be simple for their status to be restored: all they need to do is hand over the names and identification numbers of all their beneficiaries, which is impossible because a) it would be a total breach of trust and b) many of their beneficiaries do not have ID numbers.
All three organisations we met with today are love Israel and have no desire to see it dismantled or destroyed. But they are deeply critical of the State and occupation. Both New Profile and PHR presented findings for the Goldstone Report. They long for a peaceful co-existence and freedom from fear, and urged us, once again, to go home and tell their stories.
These again are pockets of hope and justice and promise in the midst of a situation which is confusing and complicated, and the solution to which is far from straightforward. And the more I hear, the more questions I have. What does ‘security’ really mean? What might peace look like? What is the role of the church? How can those of us who have ears to listen and voices to speak use that privilege to benefit those who are silenced by occupation and terror?
We are now in Jerusalem and can feel the heat from the sparks of anger and frustration and fear. Please pray that the thunder of justice may be heard and a downpour of peace may calm the tensions in order that all may flourish in this troubled land.