The delicate and complex issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the American Friends Service Committee role in the Middle East were brought home to me when at a recent family wedding my brother-in-law told me he thought the Service Committee had been too pro-Palestinian. A member of AFSC’s International Executive Committee echoed this perception just this week. "All these reports make it sound like Israel is the sole aggressor and that we have taken sides with the Palestinians," she said.
I believe this view points out a real dilemma for AFSC. It is a dilemma the organization has faced many times in its history. Are we reconcilers or are we a prophetic voice shedding light on the underlying causes of conflict? And if we choose to be that prophetic voice what role does advocacy play? Does advocacy inhibit our historic role as reconcilers?
Since 1948 AFSC and other Quaker organizations have been working with Israelis, Palestinians, and others in the region to support peacemaking on all sides. From providing logistical support to the Palestinian refugee camps in the 1940s and ’50s, to quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy at the United Nations, to a long history of service projects in the region, we have been actively involved with and deeply concerned about the conditions that have evolved over the past 50 years.
On November 18, 2000, I was asked to join a delegation of Christian church leaders going to the Middle East. My first glimpse into how interesting the trip would be was when my seatmate on the flight, a retired grandfather on his way to Israel to see his grandchildren, was approached by a Hassidic man to come to the back of the plane to form a minyan (minimum of 10 men praying together). "No thank you," he said. "Why not," said the man? "I pray privately," said my seatmate. "This is for our soldiers at the front," said the man. "No, but thank you for asking," said my seatmate. We had an interesting flight discussing how the conflict has affected the common people.
This trip was organized by Churches for Middle East Peace, and we were invited by our counterparts and the Middle East Council of Churches to witness what was really happening, offer comfort and support, and then to tell that true story to the people back home in the United States.
There were 26 in the delegation, eight of whom were bishops, representing the Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches as well as the United Church of Christ (Disciples of Christ). Also represented were Church World Service and Witness of the National Council of Churches, Mennonite Central Committee, and American Friends Service Committee.
The first half of our trip was geared toward meeting with and touring Palestinian areas, and the second half was meeting with representatives of Israeli organizations and the government of Israel.
It became clear very quickly what some of the issues were as we drove to Bethlehem on the first day. Since September 28, 2000, when the "Al Aqsa Intifada" began after a visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque area by Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon and thousands of troops, all Palestinian towns have been cordoned off. Palestinians can’t go into Israel proper without special permits. This means a severe disruption to commerce, social life, and civil society activities and an end result of 370,000 Palestinians losing their jobs, as well as disruption to the Israeli economy. We even had to change buses because the bus that brought us to the checkpoint did not have license plates cleared for travel in Bethlehem.
After we left the checkpoint we stopped to meet John and Vera Baboun, who owned a car repair shop on the road to Bethlehem. It was near the Tomb of Rachel, where outbreaks of violence had occurred. The Israeli Army outpost nearby bulldozed the shop and their home at midnight the week before our visit. They claimed there was sniper fire coming from the trees surrounding the shop. The Babouns, a Roman Catholic family, were deeply shaken, emotionally wounded, and very angry.
After meeting with the mayors of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour and the president of the city council of Beit Jala, we toured the demolished home of Dr. Nakhli Qaisieh’s family in Beit Jala. They live on the edge of town, about one mile across the valley from the Israeli Gila Settlement. Walking through their home, Donnella Clemens of Mennonite Central Committee remarked that it reminded her of a line in a poem about the Middle East, "crunch, crunch, crunch . . . walking on broken glass and pieces of plaster." In the kitchen of the home, Ted Schneider, the Lutheran bishop of Washington, D.C., picked up a mortar shell labeled "made in USA." It shocked us into silence. We later met a family in Gaza who has tended the same olive groves for seven generations. Because they lived too close to a bypass road, the Israeli army bulldozed their home and orchards in the middle of the night with no warning and for no reason other than "security." We prayed with each family we met.
Over the next several days we met with many Palestinian leaders, including Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and many Christian church officials. We also met with Muhamed Hussein, preacher of Al Aqsa Mosque. The information was the same from everyone. The accords reached in Madrid, Oslo, and Camp David are not working. Those agreements, to work on the framework of talks while deferring the decisions on the Palestinian demands, have allowed Israel, over these years, to build up an unchecked, powerful presence in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
The Palestinian position is clear and has been from the beginning: creation of a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 territorial borders, shared control of the holy city of Jerusalem, recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, and compensation for the property that was confiscated from them. A plea was also heard from everyone, "Tell the truth about what you have seen": home demolitions; destruction of forests and of farms; destruction of centuries-old olive groves; continual building of Israeli settlements, which ring the Palestinian towns in the West Bank and Gaza; building "bypass" roads that isolate and strangle Palestinian towns and on which Palestinians are not allowed to travel; the disproportionate use of military force by Israel, financed by the U.S. government.
The highlight of my trip was attending meeting for worship at Ramallah Friends Meeting. Jean Zaru, clerk of the meeting, graciously hosted the meeting in her home. It was wonderful to worship with Friends in this significant place at this critical time. Members of the meeting confirmed that the information we were receiving was correct, and the views we were hearing did in fact match their own views. Delegation members who attended their own denomination’s services reported back the same conversations.
We then began to meet with people from the other side of the conflict. The delegation, filled with a deep concern for the injustice we saw, met with Israeli government officials and representatives of Rabbis for Human Rights, one of whom was director of the Inter-religious Coordinating Council in Israel. Just as the first part of our trip was a profound experience, so was the second, in a different way.
Our discussions with the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem and the deputy minister for religious affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were unproductive and troubling. Their view was that Israel was under siege and in a state of war. Thus, they believed it was essential to demolish homes, build more settlements and bypass roads, separate the two peoples, restrict movement, and respond with military might. The delegation left those meetings feeling frustrated.
The meeting with the delegation from Rabbis for Human Rights was deeply moving and informative. They were from the liberal side of the political spectrum of Israeli politics, and as such they were feeling very isolated within their communities. Two of them had immigrated to Israel from the U.S. during the Vietnam years and now found themselves on the "wrong side of the war of independence." One asked, "Is this the country we dreamed of?" "It is tragic, painful, and corrupting, and the more we deny it the more corrupt we become," said another.
When our discussions went to a deeper level about why the two peoples fear each other so much, they confessed that practically every moment is taken with a fear that a child, loved one, or even oneself is about to be blown up either on a bus or shopping for groceries. In fact, the media fans this flame of fear by broadcasting an index of possible terrorist attack every morning on the news just like a weather report. "Threat of terrorist attack is very high today. Keep your children home."
The rabbis believe that Israeli security and Palestinian liberation are two sides of the same coin. They believe that the Palestinian macro-wound of 1948 must be healed and that patterns of dehumanization be broken. "We must make space for another identity, one of peaceful coexistence . . . . We have to pull each other up and have a healthy settlement for all who will live in this land."
Once all the conversations were over, the members of the delegation sat together to compose a statement. Everyone united behind it. A press conference was held, the statement read, and questions asked. A follow-up plan was developed that declared, "We must not lose our moment for witness." Each member of the delegation committed to actions that would raise awareness, activate our own denominations, bring the issues to higher church bodies (where appropriate), approach the federal government, inform through the media, and continue to work together. Each denomination committed to holding a prayer vigil until peace comes to the Middle East. Started by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the vigil is an opportunity for congregations to incorporate the welfare of the people of the Middle East into the heart of their church life: in their worship, in their learning, and in their advocacy. The prayer vigil is an outpouring of concern for Palestinians and Israelis—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—whose lives are overtaken by broken relationships and the conflict that flows from these divisions.
As for American Friends Service Committee, we have called together a Middle East Emergency Crisis Response Team, and we are meeting with our counterparts from Britain Yearly Meeting. We are creating a program to address concerns in the region based on our work in the territory and our work in some U.S. cities.
Our work in the Middle East includes the following programs:
- The Quaker International Affairs Representative based in Jordan, who closely follows the evolving Middle East situation. The QIAR is in regular contact with leaders in government, nongovernmental organizations, peace movements, and academics across the lines of conflict. The QIAR also works on issues of regional concern, for example organizing a regional conference in Jordan on the international convention banning child soldiers.
- The Palestine Youth Program, which has branches in Gaza and Ramallah. The AFSC team works with youth serving institutions in Palestine to develop programs with an emphasis on projects related to cultural preservation and heritage, accessibility for physically challenged youth, and youth leadership training.
- The AFSC Israel Program, which provides grants to Israeli grassroots organizations working for Arab-Jewish coexistence in Israel. Support has been given to organizations bringing Arab and Jewish youth together to jointly plan and implement programs. Support has been given to community organizations in the mixed neighborhoods of Acre and Haifa.
We believe our history, as one of the few U.S. organizations working on Middle East issues in cities around the country, will enrich our planning. We ask you to hold us in the Light, learn the facts about the issues, educate your friends and colleagues, challenge misrepresentations, respond when called upon, and be ready to absorb lots of people’s anger. Peace, Shalom, Salaam.