Christian activist: Who checks the checkpoints?
When I was asked to write this column, a word in the title stood out to me – the word “activist” immediately had me humming that great old Billy Bragg song, “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards”. There’s a fantastic line in it which goes, “You can be active with the activists/ Or sleep in with the sleepers.” For too long in my life I’d been having a bit of a lie-in. I’d been opposed to the Iraq War, opposed to Britain propping up the vile Saudi regime, in fact opposed to a lot of British/US policy in the Middle East. But, to be honest, I hadn’t done a great deal about any of these things.
So when I got back from a brief trip to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories three years ago, I was determined for this not to be yet another Middle Eastern issue on which I had the “right” opinions, only to flick over to the next page of my Guardian, feeling smug. I’d been challenged by the reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. I’d seen the separation barrier which divides communities and even families. I’d been told about the reality of life at a military checkpoint for the thousands who have to cross through them each day. I’d seen the settlements in which 650,000 Israelis now live (illegally, according to international law) in the West Bank. I’d also seen and heard about the days when Israelis used to get on a bus unsure of whether it was going to blow up or not.
The clinching moment for me to do something was a conversation with the irrepressible Archbishop of the Greek Melkite Catholic Archeparchy of Akko. The Most Revd Elias Chacour (whose book Blood Brothers is the one to choose if you only read one book about Israel/Palestine) told me that favouring one side wasn’t an option. But he also said Christians in the West needed to get off their backsides and seek the justice they claimed to care about.
A few years later, I find myself writing this article from occupied East Jerusalem. I’m here with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). A project of the World Council of Churches, it was set up to do just what the Archbishop had requested – to enable Christians (and others) from around the world to come here and do something. I’m here for three months along with 35 others including four from the UK and Ireland.
So what does a typical day look like? Well, there’s no such thing. There are eight EAPPI teams based around the West Bank. Each of them has different duties, depending on their situation. Rural teams tend to spend time providing protective presence to farmers trying to access their land, which is often under threat from illegal Israeli settlers. In more urban areas, duties will usually include monitoring checkpoints, helping children get to school without being attacked and observing demonstrations.
My team is based in al-Ram, between Jerusalem and Ramallah. So, three times a week we go to the Qalandiya checkpoint, through which thousands of Palestinians travel each day for work and medical appointments. We try to ensure their smooth passage, but it is often difficult. They are treated not unlike cattle at times. The phrase we hear most often when monitoring the checkpoint from 4.30am-7.30am is: “No good.”
We also attend house demolitions. These are properties in Palestinian territory which Israel deems illegal, so demolishes them. During the coldest winter in the Middle East for 20 years, these have continued. We recently attended a demolition near the village of Deir Ammar, west of Ramallah. All 14 homes in the Bedouin village had been destroyed. A father showed me his child’s schoolbooks in the wreckage. It was heartbreaking. We compile reports on these incidents and send them to the UN and other agencies.
A real joy has been our mission to stand in solidarity with two groups. The first group is peace activists – both Palestinian and Israeli. We have met so many wonderful people nominally from the different “sides” but actually working towards the goal of justice and peace. The second group we support is the Palestinian Christian community. Shrinking because of the occupation, there are nevertheless many churches left here. We have spent time with local Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholics, Quakers, Orthodox and others besides. It is humbling to see their persistence and faith here in the land where Jesus walked.
It’s been equal parts inspiring and depressing to be here. But, as is so often the case, Billy Bragg was right. There really are only two options. I’m so glad I woke up and got active on this issue. Now I need to be careful not to go back to snoozing when I get back home.
Andy Walton volunteers with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, a partner organisation of Christian Aid
This article was published in the February 2014 issue of Reform
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