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.

Herbert mccabe

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.

life in the time of covid-19

Friends,* greetings from the very quiet shores of the Sea of Galilee. I hope that you are all safe and healthy, and pray that despite this strange, often disorienting new reality we all find ourselves in, you may know the joy and the peace of our risen Lord in this Easter season.

We have been in lockdown here in Israel since mid-March, with additional stricter curfews around Pesach, Memorial Day, and Independence Day (in the Jewish villages) and Ramadan (in the Arab villages). On Independence Day, Tiberias should have been full of tourists having barbecues on its beaches and enjoying water sports on the lake; instead the promenade was empty, and the town was absolutely silent.  

Tiberias promenade on Independence Day

However, the restrictions are now slowly starting to ease. Many shops are beginning to open again, some of the younger students are back in school, and we’re able to travel farther distances from our homes for essential journeys and exercise. At the time of writing, Israel has only had 16,000 cases of Covid-19 and 238 deaths, and in the last 24 hours, fewer than 50 new cases were reported. As the virus began its spread in Israel, the government acted earlier than many other countries, closing its borders to foreign nationals, restricting businesses, and imposing limits on movement within the country. 

This has, of course, impacted the work of our partners, my work, and the work of our institutions, and I wanted to write to you with an update of the situation as it is here on the ground. 

Partners

Our partners have continued their work, though they, like many of us, have had to change the way they work, and all of them have experienced dramatic cuts in funding as funding bodies have either frozen or cancelled their financial giving. Yet this is a time when their work is especially needed. Here, as everywhere, the virus has exposed the inequalities and injustices already present in society, with those who were already vulnerable being most severely affected. Here is a brief overview of how some of our partners have responded to the crisis (please click on the names of our partners to go to their websites for more information).

House of Grace

Much of the work of House of Grace has continued despite the pandemic, some becoming more busy because of the increase in unemployment (over 25%, though that is decreasing as businesses begin to open) and poverty. They have had four ex-offenders complete the residential rehabilitation programme and an additional three join. Their youth programme has not been able to meet, but the team still has regular contact with the young people through Zoom and WhatsApp. They have seen a sharp increase in families requiring food parcels, and have coordinated their efforts with other NGOs in Haifa as well as the municipality and Home Front Command to ensure families are getting the support they need. 

Physicians for Human Rights and B’tselem 

Last month via Zoom Physicians for Human Rights and B’tselem arranged a briefing for the international community on the situation in Gaza and the risks posed by Covid-19. Thus far, by imposing strict quarantine restrictions on all who are entering the territory (including international humanitarian workers and medical staff), Gaza has managed to avoid a wide outbreak of the virus. The only cases found have been in those in the quarantine facilities and they have been quickly isolated. The spread of Covid-19 would be catastrophic for the population there, most of whom live in densely populated areas, with limited access to clean water, and a health care system already on the brink of collapse. 

B’tselem held a webinar (in place of a field visit because of the virus restrictions) this week on the rise in settler violence in the West Bank over the past two months. They have also included a page on the website for special reports during the Covid-19 crisis. Both organisations are concerned that while the world’s attention is on Covid-19, human rights violations will increase and so they continue to hold Israel to account, raise awareness in the international community, and are urging Israel to assist Gaza and the West Bank in preventing the spread of the virus.

WAC-MAAN (Workers Advice Centre)

As Israel and the West Bank imposed a lockdown on their residents, many of the Palestinians from the West Bank who work in Israel or in Israeli settlements found themselves unable to travel to their places of work to collect their paycheques. So WAC-MAAN faced the logistical challenge of arranging with employers, workers, police and border control for a few workers to collect the cheques on behalf of other workers in their city. 

Authorities in the West Bank worried that crowded checkpoints and busy public transportation would hasten the spread of Covid-19, so Israel offered 70,000 permits to Palestinian workers allowing them to stay in Israel in accommodation provided by their employers. However some of the companies instead housed their workers in shared rooms or even factory floors, putting them at greater risk of infection. Workers who have vulnerable family members therefore felt the risk was too high, and chose not to go to work. WAC-MAAN is now petitioning the High Court in Israel for compensation for workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic. More information about the petition can be found on WAC-MAAN’s website.  

Wi’am

Bethlehem was the first city in the West Bank to go into lockdown at the start of the pandemic, and because it is so reliant upon tourism, this has had a significant impact on the livelihoods of many of its residents. Wi’am has been busy providing food packages and distributing hygiene kits to some of the most vulnerable residents, especially those who are unable to leave home because of high risk of infection. They have also worked with local churches to create maintenance, admin, and gardening jobs for those who are now unemployed and struggling to feed their families. They continue their work in mediation and conflict transformation, especially crucial at this time as the lockdown and rise in unemployment have increased tension in families and communities. 

WhoProfits 

For those who are unfamiliar with the work of WhoProfits, they are an independent research centre ‘dedicated to exposing the role of the private sector in the Israeli occupation economy’. They have created a separate page on their site dedicated to the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the Palestinian society, highlighting the companies complicit in perpetuating inequalities and injustices: Viral Occupation. They recently held a webinar via Zoom discussing The Political  Economy of Covid-19 in Palestine, and the recording is available on their Facebook page. The hour long discussion provides a comprehensive overview of the Palestinian healthcare system and the economic dependency of the Palestinian territories on Israel.  

Sindyanna

Sindyanna has been particularly hard hit by the economic crisis that has resulted from the pandemic. Customers have frozen payments, and some have cancelled orders for which Sindyanna had already purchased olive oil. They furloughed the workers at the Visitors Centre when local and international tourism stopped. However, the olive groves are flourishing, including the Scots Grove, indicating there will be a good harvest in the autumn, and their factory workers are kept busy as new orders have come in from the USA, Austria and Italy. But they will need to develop a more sustainable business model to compensate for the significant losses. In the meantime, their products are still available on Amazon.com.

Sadaka-Reut

Several of Sadaka-Reut’s bi-national groups had to take a break when they could no longer meet in person, and therefore they took the hard decision to furlough a number of their staff to ensure they will have the financial reserves available to continue their work in future. 

They found that holding gatherings by Zoom wasn’t an option for many families who were trying to share one or two computers between students now having to learn online, and parents who were trying to work from home. However, the Tel Aviv University bi-national student group did ask to continue; that group had become particularly close and had worked together to change university practices to ensure communication about preventing the spread of Covid-19 was also issued to its students in Arabic, not only Hebrew. 

The Arabic Forum has also continued its book club via Zoom and is meeting even more frequently than it had before. It connects Arabic-speaking asylum seekers with the local Palestinian community in Jaffa, using books from a variety of cultures as a way to learn about one another’s backgrounds, and Director Rawan said that discussing poetry especially has provided an anchor to the group in this time.

Sadaka-Reut has also been working on a history booklet to complement its social-political tours of Jaffa, and it is now complete. To launch the booklet, they will be hosting two virtual tours of Jaffa on Monday 11 May and Wednesday 13 May. This is open to anyone who might like to join; to register, contact Rawan

St Andrew’s Jerusalem and Tiberias

Our last service in our churches was on Sunday 8 March. Since then, we have started a WhatApp group for the congregation of St Andrew’s Jerusalem and Tiberias, posted pre-recorded video sermons on the St Andrew’s Jerusalem Facebook page, and begun a Zoom coffee morning each Sunday at 10am, where we have an opportunity to check in with one another and end with a time of prayer. Though the easing of restrictions means that we could begin worship again (outside, in limited numbers), our ecumenical associates with St Andrew’s Jerusalem are still in lockdown in the Bethlehem area until June, and Rev John McCulloch is in Scotland with his family, so we will continue our virtual gatherings. One of the positive consequences of this time has been the opportunity for members who worship in the different churches to get to know one another better. We’ve been a united congregation officially for over two years, but have had few opportunities for that to be reflected in our worship, so it’s been wonderful to see the congregation grow together through prayer and fellowship over the past weeks.

Scots Hotel

The Scots Hotel closed on 14 March, furloughing most of its staff and managers. Israel’s borders are still closed to foreign nationals and it will be some time before international tourism recovers, but as restrictions are lifted, we are anticipating a rise in local tourism, enabling us to open again towards the end of June. 

Yakfie

The hospitality ministry in Yakfie, the manse, also stopped in mid-March as the country began to close. There was a rush of Ecumenical Accompaniers who came to stay on their way to the airport after the EAPPI offices urged them to return to their home countries before flights stopped. I told some Jewish and Christian clergy friends in the north that the guest apartment is available should they know of anyone in their congregations or local community for whom staying at home could be unsafe, and who might need interim accommodation while making other arrangements through official channels.

Conclusion 

As we move out of lockdown here in Israel, it’s difficult to know precisely what the coming months will look like. Whatever happens, we are all likely to feel the physical, emotional, social, political, and economic effects of this pandemic for some time yet.

And as I reflect on the many questions I have … about the shape of our congregational life … our role as a church in a world changed by this pandemic … our response to the systemic injustices in our local and global economy … our relationship with the natural world … our presence in this land as we journey with our partners … when I struggle to know the way forward amongst so much uncertainty, I remember Jesus’ words from John’s gospel: I am the Way. Jesus’ Way is the way of compassion, of mercy, of justice. It is the way of feeding, healing, welcoming, forgiving. It is the way of truth and of life. And it is the Way we are called to walk in, at all times, in all places. 

Friends, thank you for your faithful prayers and continued support of our ministry here. I pray you will continue to stay safe and healthy where you are, and may God bless you and guide you through these days as we all seek to walk in the way of Christ. 

Blessings,

Kate 

* This is adapted from the partner plan letter recently sent to the presbyteries and churches who have committed to supporting me through prayer during my time as a Mission Partner with the Church of Scotland.