we try to stay

I’ve now been to Gaza four times, three times this year alone. But no matter how often I’m there, nothing quite prepares me for the experience. 

I get up early as the sun is rising, turn on lights which always work when I want them to, take a shower with plentiful hot clean water, make myself a strong coffee, and drive down the coast along the smoothly paved motorways of Israel to the Erez border crossing. 

Permit papers in hand, we navigate Israeli passport control and walk the fifteen minutes through no-man’s land to the Palestinian Authority entrance. There our passports and PA permissions are checked and our driver from the Near East Council of Churches meets us, taking us a couple hundred metres to the Hamas passport control. Again our passports and papers are recorded, and we make our way along the wide pot-holed road to Gaza City, passing carts filled with produce and goods, drawn by horses and donkeys. For the next 48 hours or so, I sit in meetings where lights flicker on and off as electricity fails and generators kick in, drink only bottled water (using it also to brush my teeth), and use hand-sanitiser even after washing my hands.

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Such a short distance, yet I always feel as though I’ve entered another world. 

This time there were just four of us from the Church of Scotland and Methodist Church (UK), which meant that our schedule felt more spacious, and we were able to ask more questions and gather more information from our partner organisations. It’s too much to try to include all we saw and learned and experienced in just one post, so over the next few days, I hope to write about different aspects of our visits. 

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One project we visited was the Women’s Programme Centre in the Nuseirat Refugee Camp, one of UNRWA’s gender initiative programmes. It provides vocational training to women, including sewing, embroidery and hairdressing. On site is a nursery for the children of the women who work there, and a kindergarten for the community. Though the centre aims to be self-sufficient in its funding, it still relies heavily on outside support, and recent UNRWA cuts have meant that eight people no longer receive a salary ($400/month). Because unemployment in Gaza is so high (around 60-65% for young people and women) and job opportunities so rare, they have chosen to continue working for the centre on a voluntary basis. ‘What else would they do,’ Samah, the Programme Coordinator, asked. ‘Sit at home and look at Facebook? They’d rather do something good for the community.’ 

Many of the women’s husbands are also unemployed, and in a conservative Muslim society, it’s not uncommon to have five, six or seven children. 80% of families rely on food aid. 

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Some of the women in the sewing department showed us how they recycled textiles, cutting out beautifully embroidered dresses and repurposing them as detailed collars and sleeves for new abayas. The kindergarten was colourfully decorated, and fabric learning tools lined the walls, upcycled on site from old clothing and linens. The kindergarten used to have 50 students, but now only has 21. Families struggle to pay the fees of 200NIS ($50)/4 months, so the centre subsidises many of the children who attend. 

As we walked around the large building, we saw several closed doors. ‘Those programmes have had to stop because we didn’t have the funding,’ Samah explained. 

In 2006 UNRWA established a legal aid clinic at the centre as part of a job creation programme. However, three lawyers there have been working without pay since February because of the funding cuts. They remain committed to the centre and the women they assist, and by continuing their work, they maintain their professional qualifications and links within the legal community. 

While we were speaking with them, a young woman with a baby came in seeking legal assistance. Her family is based in the West Bank, and following trouble with her husband and his family, she is now living with her uncle. Her husband is not paying maintenance for the child, and the centre is trying to solve the problem by mediation rather than taking him to court, partly because court fees of 50NIS ($15) are prohibitive for both the centre and the young woman. Her’s is sadly not an isolated case. 

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Gender based violence and domestic abuse are prevalent throughout Gaza (as can be seen in the shocking infographic above from the UN Population Fund), and each centre we visited — from family health centres, psychosocial programmes, vocational training centres, and hospitals — is trying to raise awareness and address both the violence itself and the underlying issues of unemployment and poverty which often lead to an increase in abuse. (For example, in the waiting room of one of the Near East Council of Churches’ family health clinics, a woman was giving a lecture about GBV to the mothers who had brought their children for medical assessments. NECC’s vocational training centres also work with the young men to reduce instances of violence within the home, and posters about domestic violence hang in each of its centres.) 

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Each time we go to Gaza, I wonder how things will ever improve. The Strip is controlled by three authorities: Israel controls the borders and restricts freedom of movement of both people and trade; the Palestinian Authority is responsible for many of the governmental bodies; and finally, Hamas controls security and ‘manages’ the Gazan strip. The result is that the people of Gaza are trapped in the middle of the political power plays and fighting between each of these. On this visit, we also saw firsthand the impact the withdrawal of US funding from UNRWA and USAid in Gaza is having on the work of our friends and partners.

When we told Samah and the other women at Nuseirat Women’s Programme Centre how much admiration we had for them and their work in such difficult circumstances, she simply replied, ‘We have no choice. We try to stay. This is how things are. We try to stay.’

As we said our goodbyes, we assured them of our love, our prayers, our solidarity. We promised to share about the remarkable work they do, to tell of their determination and compassion, and to do everything we can to help them as they try to stay.

 

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For more information on gender based violence and the effects of poverty on domestic abuse in Gaza, UN OCHA and UNFPA has produced some excellent reports:

https://www.ochaopt.org/content/addressing-gender-based-violence-gaza-strip

https://palestine.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/resource-pdf/Tackling%20violence%20against%20women%20and%20girls%20in%20Gaza.pdf

we are not optimists

We are not optimists; we do not present a lovely vision of the world which everyone is expected to fall in love with. We simply have, wherever we are, some small local task to do, on the side of justice, for the poor.

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Dear friends, it has been too long since I last wrote, and for that, I apologise. February and March have been such busy months, with pilgrim groups and delegations from Scotland, visits to partner organisations, all manner of meetings, and rather a lot of time spent in the car traveling along Road 6 from Tiberias to Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Jerusalem and back. And alongside it all, there’s the weekly cycle of Sunday worship and a steady stream of guests staying in the upper apartment in the manse.

I was in Paris recently to attend the meeting of the Presbytery of International Charges, and took a couple of days after to wander the streets, do some shopping, and explore all the many cafes and restaurants where one can sit with a cup of coffee or glass of wine and watch the world go by. 

Jazz at Duc des Lombards, Paris

Having lived in Tiberias for nearly three and a half years, I’ve learned that I really need time away from Israel every three or four months, even if it’s just for a short break. It was only when I arrived in Paris that I became aware of how absolutely exhausted I was. It’s not just the busyness of work; life in Israel — and to some extent work in the church here — requires a generous measure of assertiveness and a very thick skin, neither of which come naturally to me. 

But I’ve realised that what takes the greatest toll is often feeling like I live a ‘double life’ doing the work I do.

The moon rising over the Sea of Galilee

On the one hand, life here is as it would be anywhere else. Emails have to be answered. Sermons need writing. Laundry needs doing. Groceries need to be bought. And there is much that I absolutely love about living here in the north of Israel. I love the weather and long lazy days off on the beaches. I love the buzz of evenings in Haifa and Tel Aviv-Jaffa. I love immersing myself in an ever-changing landscape, historically rich and naturally diverse, on the Israel National Trail. I love having a glass of wine in a friend’s garden, watching the sun set over the Mediterranean, listening to the call to prayer rising up from the mosques on the nearby hillside. I love the people I meet from all backgrounds and walks of life, and I love hearing their stories.

But… 

Palestinian workers queue at Checkpoint 300 between Bethlehem & Jerusalem

There is another reality here that is quite different. I sit on the beach near Caesarea and think of children in Gaza whose beaches are polluted. I drink a g&t in Jaffa with an awareness that just down the road in an Arab neighbourhood, another shooting took place the night before. I walk the Israel National Trail through ruins of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948, and remember standing amongst the recently demolished homes of a Bedouin village. I watch the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee and think of Palestinian workers queuing at checkpoints on their way to work. I laugh and chat with young people straight out of the army, and think of the fear I’ve seen in a child’s eyes in the West Bank as a soldier walked past.

It’s not unlike pastoral ministry and those emotionally jarring days when in the morning you sit with a couple preparing for marriage and in the afternoon with a family preparing to bury a loved one. But here, it’s like that every day. Back and forth I visit both grief and celebration, righteous anger and complicit silence, hope and hopelessness, passion for justice and acceptance of the status quo. Every partner visit. Every meeting with an overseas delegation. Every talk with a pilgrim group. Conversations may be theoretical political analysis, but always at the forefront of my mind, I see the faces of people I know and care about. What do I think about the rockets in Tel Aviv? I think of the Tabeetha students. Or the bombing in Gaza? I remember the girls in the psychosocial clinics.

Tabeetha primary school assembly

And this is a place where those of us in this work have to choose our words carefully. Emotions run high, especially as tensions rise. The wrong phrase could shut down a conversation or inflame it. What I say or write could put others at risk, especially if they are people or organisations in Israel critical of the current government’s policies. Self-censorship becomes second nature.

Since returning from Paris, I’ve met with some of the partner organisations that we are trying to reestablish links with — Sadaka-Reut and New Profile — and by chance, both of those meetings have been all women. (I’ll write posts about each, hopefully in the next week or so.) As well as the work they are involved in, and the ever evolving political situation here, we also talked about the way the work affects us. It was refreshing to hear them reflect so honestly on their experiences of living and working in a land where the space for critical discourse is continually shrinking, in contexts that are patriarchal and shaped by toxic masculinity, in jobs (vocations really) that require as much emotional intelligence as intellectual agility.

Those are conversations I am not able to have very often here, and it was liberating to be able to speak openly with such wise, passionate, and empathetic women. To hear my thoughts and feelings and experiences echoed in what they were saying. And to hear them affirm that the work we are all involved in is hard and comes with a cost … but that it is good, just, right work. We are each faithfully doing that small local task that we are called to do on the side of justice.

And we do not do it alone. I think that is what is most important. This land may not always feel so holy, but in these past weeks, I’ve been reminded again that I am surrounded by holy people doing holy work.

the weight of history

Apologies for the recent silence on here. All my words at the moment are going other places: sermons, reports, articles, a Burns Night reply… I am doing a lot of writing at the moment, but I’m also trying to fit it in between a million other things. Life is busy. Good. But busy. I find I start the week with an empty diary, and then I get to Saturday and realise I’ve been out all week and I’ve given hardly any thought to Sunday’s service.

Diary management is still an issue, and I suspect it will always be thus.

But my disorganisation is boring chat, right?

One of the challenges I’ve faced since I arrived is simply getting my head around everything I’m involved in. I’ve met most of our partners and will start a rough rota of visiting them. But the church is a whole different story. Like any other ministry position, there is a building to worry about, finances to work through, contracts with groups using the church during the week, cleaning and maintenance and insurance and all those tasks.

When I arrived, my office looked a bit like this:

That’s not entirely fair, because at the point I took these pictures, I had already begun organising and had pulled out some things which had been hidden away behind cupboard doors. But it’s not far off. A summer dust storm meant everything was covered with a thick layer of grit, which added an additional challenge and often left me sneezing so hard I was almost sick.

These are pretty good images if I want to sum up how the whole job feels some days: a big ol’ hot mess.

I’m not naturally very organised. But I am naturally very nosey. And I always want a sense of the bigger picture so I might know where I fit in, where I can help, what I should avoid, when I might rather hide…. So from day one, I started digging through everything. And the piles of rubbish kept growing. Old CD players which didn’t work. Dozens of empty boxes. Stubs of candles. Broken Christmas decorations. A huge plywood model of the Scots Hotel.

One member of the congregation came in a couple of Sundays ago, saw the mess, and said with a mixture of admiration and horror, ‘No one has ever bothered to go through all of that’. Yeah. No kidding.

Today I went down to the church with a member of the hotel security team and two amazing cleaners. For three hours, we cleaned and sorted and threw away and organised.

Under the dirt and grime, I discovered these delights:

But there were also real treasures: Two nature books from 1899 which contained hand-painted plates of moths and butterflies. An old bible from the late 1800s which belonged to the Torrence family. An old triglot Bible in Greek, Syriac and Latin. A Greek lexicon from Lairg from 1873.

There must be wonderful stories behind these books which have just been sitting gathering dust. They can’t stay where they are and be subjected to the humidity, the heat, the dirt, the insects. Some will go in the visitors’ centre. Others … I’m not sure.

Again, it’s an apt analogy for what life is like in this country. Everywhere I turn, I uncover unimaginable depths of history, stories longing to be told, events nearly lost in time. I pause again and again and think to myself: I love my job. The good, the bad, the ugly. There is plenty of it all. But despite and because of that, I love my job.

So now, some of my questions about my work have been answered. I know what I have keys to and what I don’t have keys to. Some of the more precious items are in cupboards that now has a lock. The nave has been properly cleaned and hopefully the groups using the building will keep it that way. But with answered questions come also difficult conversations. And more mystery. And a sense of history which reaches far beyond me.

I want to honour that. But I also don’t want to be burdened by it. It’s a fine line I feel like I’m walking just now. And always.

remembering with hope

On Saturday 23 November, I drove from Tiberias towards the Lebanese border, winding my way up and down through the forest-covered hills of the northern Galilee. I was headed to Iqrit, for a tour of the village and a showing of films by Larissa Sansour. 

The day was organised by Zochrot as part of their 48mm Film Festival. The festival is held each year around 29 November, marking the anniversary of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, and it features films dealing with the Nakba and the return of Palestinian refugees. As they explain on their website: ‘Shedding new light on historical and contemporary events, the films encourage us to think about the place we live in as well as imagine its future differently.’

Iqrit was one of the many Palestinian villages first evacuated and then destroyed during the Nakba (the Palestinian catastrophe). It was once a thriving Christian community built on a hillside, surrounded by flourishing agricultural land. All that remains now are the Greek Catholic church and cemetery. Church services, weddings, baptisms and funerals are still held there, but because it has been declared state land, no one can return to live. 

Naame Ashkar, an Iqrit resident, talks about the history of the village

During the tour, held bilingually in Hebrew and English, we heard about how the Israeli army arrived in the north in late October 1948 as part of Operation Hiram, the systematic destruction of Palestinian villages in the northern Galilee in order to secure the area bordering Lebanon and create an ‘Arab-free zone’. 

The residents were evacuated on 11 November, but were told their eviction would only be temporary and they’d soon be allowed to return. Some went to Lebanon, most others to Rameh, a village 20km south. However, on Christmas Eve 1951, the army destroyed the village.

In 1970, permission was finally granted to the former residents to continue to use their cemetery, and just three years ago, the church was given electricity. Over the years, there have been numerous pleas to the government to allow the community to return, especially as no other residences have been built there and the land lies unused. Some of these campaigns have been met with widespread popular support, but the government has ruled against it arguing it would set a precedent for other Palestinians wishing to return to their villages (many of which are, like Iqrit, also located in uninhabited areas throughout Israel). 

Now a small number of the community stay there on a rota basis, sleeping on makeshift beds in the church and nearby shelters. They are always happy to welcome visitors and share the story of Iqrit.

Zochrot, the NGO organising the tour, was founded in 2002 and consists mostly of Jewish Israelis who are committed to acknowledging and addressing the Nakba as a key to resolving the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their work is not only about naming the injustices of the past but also envisioning a decolonised future in which Palestinians and Israelis are fully integrated. They believe that granting Palestinians right of return has the potential to heal the rift between the two communities.

Through tours (offered for free to Israelis), teaching resources, conferences and seminars, and their film festival, Zochrot explores the practicalities of return. They help guide conversations about what needs to happen politically, socially and economically in order for the two communities to live side by side in peace. When I met with Rachel, the Director, and Liat, the Resource Development Coordinator, in October, they said one of their aims is to bring back hope to Israelis, to show that a peaceful shared society is possible.

They recognise that their aim requires an act of political imagination, and so they try to create a safe space for people to talk about their fears, ask questions, and express doubt. Removing the feeling of existential threat is a process that will take time. But they firmly believe the process needs to begin with remembering — not erasing — the Nakba, because the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a direct result of what happened when the state of Israel was formed. The name Zochrot is the feminine plural of ‘to remember’. Using the feminine form of the verb allows for an inclusive memory which is a tool for aspiring to a just and peaceful future, in contrast to the militaristic remembering of the public observances of Memorial and Independence Days.

After the tour at Iqrit, we gathered in the church to watch Sansour’s ‘Sci-fi Trilogy’, three short films imagining different futures for Palestinians. (You can see one part of it, the 9-minute ‘The Nation Estate’ online on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/47817604.)

In the final film in the trilogy, ‘In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain’, a resistance group seeks to influence history and support future claims to their vanishing lands by making underground deposits of elaborate porcelain, attributed to an entirely fictional civilisation. Through it Sansour explores the intersection of archeology, myth, history, identity, and belonging. (Trailer here: https://vimeo.com/148158228)

Sansour uses vast dystopian landscapes, desolate land covered by a darkening red-orange sky, to depict this disturbed and distorted future. Her portrayal of a future in which history is built on a false archeology was a sharp reminder of the difficult work Zochrot are doing to remember and rehumanise and make reparations for the deeply painful parts of this nation’s history. And yet, because of their hope and determination, their vision of the future is one which can still be tinted with rose. 

After the film, we emerged from the church to a red-orange sky as the sun set behind the darkening hills. I wondered for a moment if we had exited into Sansour’s dystopia. But as I watched, splashes of rose began to appear as well. Perhaps, because of people like those at Zochrot, a different future is indeed possible.

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If you would like to subscribe to Zochrot’s newsletter or find out how you can be involved in their work, you can do so via their website. Zochrot also offers tours for international groups, so if you are coming on a pilgrimage or as a small group, please consider going on one of their tours.