I woke up early this morning. I don’t know if it’s because it’s an unfamiliar place or because I went to bed unusually early (for me) last night. I spent some time in the sitting area reading and uploading photos from last night.
Closer to six am, the Muslim guests at the hostel came out and began to gather before the sound of the morning call to prayer began. I took the reminder to say an Our Father, but I couldn’t decide if it was rude or intrusive to basically hang around while they were praying, particularly since the group in this room was all women, the men having gone outside. So I went back to my room. Laying in the dark, I listened to the call. I couldn’t understand a word of it, but there was something so beautiful about it I could not quite describe. I have struggled over the last year with my own faith, feeling less of the clarity
Later I returned to the sitting area to read again and a gentleman who was also staying at the hostel struck up a conversation about what I was reading (Solus Jesus by Emily Swann and Ken Wilson) and that led into a fascinating conversation about what the Quran says about Jesus which from his telling included far more detail than I previously understood. The conversation then turned to the United States and how it treats Muslims. He shared with me experiences of harassment and suspicion he’d had both in the United States as well as in Arabic countries, feeling like he was not accepted anywhere. He was from Manchester, England, so I found his perspective particularly interesting since he had such a wider experience in both the west and the Middle East.
Breakfast was served at the hostel and it was amazing. There were stacks of fresh flat bread served up with different sauces I didn’t recognize, as well as some fresh vegetables and jam. The rest of the team wasn’t up yet, so I when I sat down, I was joined by an Arabic man who was there from France. He said he was here visiting his sister and her family. They sat at the table next to us, and carried on what seemed like a wide ranging conversation that seemed to shift between Arabic and French. Again, I found myself fascinated following conversation I couldn’t understand, watching the facial reactions and gestures and tones. One woman stopped to ask if I spoke French, and I had to admit I didn’t but was still watching. (I realized I probably seemed a little creepy, but I couldn’t think of what else to do!)
The rest of the team woke up and we started with morning reflection and reviewed the plan for the day. Today is essentially our training and orientation, setting a foundation for the rest of our time here. We’ll be taking a tour of Jerusalem with a group called Grassroots Jerusalem, and then meeting with a representative from Military Court Watch.
The Grassroots Jerusalem tour is not your standard sight seeing tour. Instead, they describe themselves as a political tour. We went through the city of Jerusalem while the guide explained the history and context of the Palestinian oppression in the region. We visited the Palestinian neighborhoods that were stolen from them in the initial push, then traveled to see where segregation was affecting their current neighborhoods, saw several Israeli settlements and the security that was being established there, and finally we visited the Mount of Olives to look out over an area where Bedouins are being pushed out to make room for further expansion and Israeli settlements
The history of how the Palestinians have been oppressed has been a particularly jarring lesson for me. During some of the initial push to establish Israel many of them were forced out of their homes while others were killed in mass. Called by the Palestinians the “Naqba” which roughly translates to the calamity or the catastrophe, Entire villages were wiped out. I found the book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe particularly helpful here. He is an Israeli historian who argues that this push to remove the Palestinians was ethnic cleansing by the Israeli forces. On the tour, we were told how many of the Palestinian families that were pushed out locked their doors and have held onto their keys as a reminder of the hope that they will one day return home. When we drove through their former neighborhoods, I noticed several of the houses were covered in Israeli flags. I cannot imagine the hurt and anger that would come from having your family home stolen, somewhere that you, your parents, and your grandparents had lived, that you would have expected to pass on to your children. Instead, not only was it stolen, but it’s now covered with “Patriotic” symbols of those who stole it from you.
On our tour, we saw several times the Wall of Exclusion that was built by the government in 2000. Ostensibly, the wall is meant as a security measure, but it didn’t actually separate the communities, and Israeli settlements continue to push past the wall with little risk to themselves. What the wall has accomplished is to shut down traffic and trade through some of the Palestinian neighborhoods and restrict jobs. At one point, we traveled on the Jericho Road, mentioned in the Gospels and one of the oldest trade routes that had been still in use in the modern age. Unfortunately, that road is now blocked at one point by this wall.
We stopped at a convenience store by the wall and encountered one of the most emotional moments so far for me. The owner was originally from the Palestinian village of En Garem which was ethnically cleansed during the Naqba. As our guide was telling us about some of the villages, he reached up and took down a map from the wall of his shop. It was the map of his family’s village. I couldn’t help but be struck by this notion of a man coming into work every day and looking at the map and remembering his home. He told us that the key to the mosque had been saved by his family, but the mosque itself had been shut down by the government.
I can’t help but think of my own hometown, Marion. Imagine if it had been attacked in the middle of the night, our families killed or forced to escape. There’s a church there my parents and grandparents attended that sits empty now. I imagine us thinking about that church and a night that we’d been chased or shot.
After the tour, we returned to the hostel and had lunch. Our afternoon session was a presentation by a British lawyer from the group Military Court Watch. They work to monitor the military courts in the occupied Palestinian regions. Historically, these regions were captured by the Israeli government in the war of 1967. Per international law, they established martial law and military courts in the region. He explained that while this initial step was legal, per the same International Law that Israel had referenced in the establishment of these courts, this is supposed to be a temporary solution and comes with several restrictions, the biggest of which is that you cannot move to settle the area or take it as part of your own country. This was established by the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure nations would not have the motivation to go to war to expand their territory. Instead, the Israeli government has begun building Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian Territory. This has led to the arrest of thousands Palestinian children in an effort to protect those settlements. Military Court Watch was organized to monitor how those children are treated in the legal system. He described that they’ve found the military courts have been violating the rights of Palestinian children by refusing them legal counsel or the right to silence. The children are generally arrested in the middle of the night, with military police breaking into their homes to get them out of bed. They’re then bound by zip ties and generally blind folded and kept in the vehicle for a few hours before interrogation, where they won’t be given a right to a lawyer or speak with their parents.He stated that the systematic treatment of the Palestinian children they study constitutes an ongoing war crime.
It’s important to note here that this has been recognized by the international community. More than two dozen UN binding resolutions have been passed acknowledging that the treatment of the occupied Palestine region by the Israeli government is a war crime and should cease. Unfortunately, no action has been taken to offer sanctions or any concrete consequences for this continued violation of international law. The lawyer from Military Court Watch then pointed out that this has led added problems because the Russian invasion of Crimea or the Chinese attempts to expand into the South China Sea are in violation of the same law as Israel is violating, but because Israel has not been held accountable, it becomes difficult to hold Russia and China accountable, putting the US at increasing risk.
After the session was over, we returned to the hostel then got dinner. In our debrief we shared our reactions from the day, and I think all of us were feeling a little overwhelmed. I told them how I’d been feeling more and more frustrated with a situation that seems so completely broken. Despite the fact that I know I’ll go home in two weeks and I have no real risk to me because of this, I still feel deeply angry just thinking about this. I cannot imagine how a Palestinian living in this situation every day would feel. The fact that so many are taking that anger and working towards a constructive end, either with a group like Grassroots Jerusalem or through non violent resistance like the BDS movement gives me some hope.
Tomorrow we’ll finish up in Jerusalem and head out for Hebron. We’ve been told that Hebron is “the occupation on steroids” and represents one of the more tension filled hot points we will visit, so I’m both nervous and curious about what we’ll find there.
To learn more about Grassroots Jerusalem, visit their website here https://www.grassrootsalquds.net
To learn more about Military Court Watch, visit their website here www.militarycourtwatch.org