Early Friday morning, my friend and I left when it was still dark to drive towards Be’er Sheva to continue our walk on the Israel National Trail. As we reach segments of the Trail further south, we’re beginning to lose good hours to driving, so we’re now walking two days at a time, roughly 30km a day, then staying overnight at a midway point between stages.
Friday was beautiful. It was warm in the sun but the gentle breeze didn’t yet carry the heat of summer. Our walk took us on a dusty dirt track through rolling hills with wheat fields extending as far as the eye could see on one side and vineyards on the other. It was easy walking, perfect for prayer, meditation, wandering thoughts and meandering conversation.
Later in the evening, we sipped shandies as Shabbat came in in Be’er Sheva, feeling the accomplishment of a good walk.
The next morning, we had a more leisurely start, easing our sore legs into a gentle pace.
We soon entered Dvira forest, and near the car park we met a father with his two young girls. The youngest smiled shyly at us as we waved and said hello. I heard a deep rumble in the distance, and the first thought that came to mind was that it sounded like shelling. But it was mid-morning. We were fairly far from Gaza. No one reacted. I concluded it was likely construction or traffic noise.
The rumbling continued, becoming more distant, until we entered Lahav Nature Reserve and a deep stillness surrounded us. We watched in awe as as dozens of startled white storks took flight and circled the sun.
The trail led us steeply up a hill, and in the distance, I could see a grey wall snaking through the landscape. The separation barrier. From where we stood, we could see how it weaved in and out of the small communities — a Jewish neighbourhood on this side, an Arab village on that, agricultural lands and forests here, barren hillsides there. Within an hour, we passed Sansana, a settlement of metal container houses built on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, but on the Israeli side of the separation barrier.
The barrier itself, constructed in response to the second intifada, is not illegal. But the International Court of Justice has stated that it is in violation of international law where it does not follow the Green Line and is built inside of the West Bank. In this instance, the injustice is a scar on the land.
It was only when we were on the way back to our homes on Saturday that we heard on the news that there had been near continual rocket exchanges between Gaza and Israel since the morning. The rumbling we heard wasn’t construction or traffic after all.
In the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking of those two little girls in the carpark, wondering if they live in one of the communities bordering Gaza. I’ve thought of other Israeli children in the south, frightened of the sirens, running to their bomb shelters, huddling close to their parents.
I’ve thought of the children in Gaza, the ones who don’t have a siren to warn them or a bomb shelter to run to, the ones we meet on our visits to the Near East Council of Churches’ psychosocial clinics.
And my heart aches. How long will this continue? How long do the innocent have to witness senseless death and destruction? We raise awareness of the incredible work our partners are doing. We visit them carrying words of solidarity and donations generously given by individuals and churches to support their work. But in the face of such entrenched violence it seems merely a sticking plaster we are placing over a gaping oozing wound. When will the day come that psychosocial projects are no longer needed? When children will no longer have to cower at the sound of sirens and explosions? When young lives will no longer be marred by trauma? What can we be doing, here, now, to shape such a future?
Gaza is not a humanitarian crisis, as it is often portrayed. It is a political crisis with severe humanitarian consequences. It is one in which both governments are complicit and in which the innocent on both sides suffer. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, known terrorist organisations, have clearly stated that their aim is to destroy Israel. As the violence escalates, they threaten to send rockets further north towards Tel Aviv and Haifa. Israel fears that should it lift restrictions on imports and exports, it would be tantamount to giving Hamas free access to increase its arsenal. But the restrictions on movement of goods and people imposed by Israel heighten poverty and despair and anger. In a region as densely populated as Gaza, civilian casualties are inevitable during Israeli airstrikes.
Media reports are often emotive and polarising, demonising the other, fuelling the flames of hatred, focusing only on the horrors experienced on one side of the border, ignoring the cries of those on the other side. (The conversations I have with both Jewish and Palestinian ‘ordinary people’ are thankfully far more nuanced and compassionate.) Neither side trusts the other to lay down their weapons first. And so the cycle continues. Teenagers are sent to the border on both sides of the fence, to fight to free their people, to fight to protect their people. Mothers and fathers pace the rooms of their homes, longing for the safe return of their children.
For now, another ceasefire has been agreed through Egyptian negotiations. In the end, nothing has changed. Nothing has been gained. So how long will it last?
As I’ve walked the Israel National Trail, I’ve seen so much beauty in this land. It has so much to offer: an abundance of wildlife, a rich and varied terrain, a diversity of cultures, layers of history, and a landscape overflowing with holiness. And yet everywhere I walk, the hills and the stones speak of conflict and power and dominance. Hasn’t there been enough blood shed on this soil?
How long until there is peace?