Anniversaries: Remembering for good or for ill?

Irish Methodist World Development & Relief believes that, in order to eradicate poverty, we need to identify and tackle the causes of poverty. And whilst doing this, we need to acknowledge the context of the problems. The context of one WDR partner, East Jerusalem YMCA, is conflict. A member of the WDR Committee, Rev. Dr. John Parkin, recently spent an extended time in Palestine/Israel. Here are some of his observations and thoughts.

 

Former Methodist President and mission partner in the Gambia, Stanley Whittington, once said to me, ‘Forget 1690. Forget 1916.’ He was protesting about the sort of remembering which feeds division and intolerance and which sees history only from ‘Our side’. We are all too familiar in Ireland with the fraught question of ‘legacy issues’, including how to remember events that have happened in the past but still have a resonance in the present day. Last year (2016) for instance was the 100th anniversary of the Easter rising in Dublin and of the Battle of the Somme. These events are bound up in the founding of the Republic of Ireland and the division of the Island. In 2016 a great deal of effort was put into marking these anniversaries in an inclusive and healing way and avoiding triumphalism and on the whole this was achieved.

 

This year (2017) there will be significant anniversaries in Palestine and Israel. The 100th anniversary of the ‘Balfour Declaration’ and the 50th anniversary of the occupation of West Bank and Gaza by Israel will evoke different reactions. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is still raw and unresolved. The anniversaries are likely to evoke triumphalism on the one side and anger and resentment on the other.

 

50 years of Occupation

June of this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the ‘Six Day War’. In 1967 Egypt and Syria were threatening to expunge the 20yr old state of modern Israel from the map. Israel launched a pre-emptive military campaign and over six days routed the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Israel occupied parts of Egypt and Syria as well as the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This decisive victory was interpreted as miraculous by some Israelis and it encouraged religious fundamentalists to believe that this was the dawn of a messianic age. For the occupied Palestinians, however, it was the beginning of a nightmare consisting of harsh military administration, the building of Israeli ‘settlements’ on Palestinian owned land, the theft of Palestinian land, the imprisonment of thousands of men and boys, and the control of Palestinian natural resources such a water. All of this is in defiance of international law enshrined in the Fourth Geneva convention and in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions that call on Israel to withdraw from illegally occupied land.

 

100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration

In 1917 when Britain was struggling to defeat the Ottoman Empire and take control of large parts of the Middle East, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour wrote a letter to Baron Rothschild and asked him to forward this to the international Zionist Federation. The letter stated that, ‘His majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…...’ There was an important condition attached to this intension, namely, ‘….it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine….’ The letter set the tone of British colonial policy in ‘Mandate Palestine’ with the British authorities favouring the rights of Jewish immigrants over the indigenous population. The Balfour Declaration was described by Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary in 1948 when Israel was founded, as the biggest blunder in late British imperial history. It set the scene for ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, a conflict that continues to this day.

 

The women in black

Every Friday afternoon on a large round-about in west Jerusalem Israeli women dressed in black clothes stand in silent protest holding hand-shaped posters saying ‘Stop the occupation’. They believe that the treatment of Palestinian people in the occupied territories is unjust. They also believe that the occupation is bad for Israelis, who by brutalising Palestinians are also brutalising Israeli society. Israel is one of the most militarised societies in the world. Young people are called upon to implement the policy of repression towards the Palestinians populations in the occupied territory. This is bad for everyone not least the young Israeli soldiers themselves. The women in black need courage and determination to make their silent protest. Sometimes they are spat upon, verbally abused and are the object of obscene gestures by hostile fellow citizens.

International Ecumenical Accompaniers at the Women in Black demonstration in Jerusalem – 3rd June 2016.

International Ecumenical Accompaniers at the Women in Black demonstration in Jerusalem – 3rd June 2016.

 

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel

In 2002 church leaders in Jerusalem appealed for an international presence in areas of tension and conflict in the Holy Land. In response the World Council of Churches set up the EAPPI programme. Teams of Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) from around the world live for three month periods in places of tension in the occupied West Bank. From April to July of 2016 I had the privilege of being part of this witness for justice and peace. Our role was to live alongside vulnerable communities, witness human rights abuses, write reports, tell our eyewitness stories and support Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations in their peaceful struggle for justice. As part of that mission on the 3rd June 2016 Ecumenical Accompaniers from Sweden, Finland, Ecuador, Germany, Britain, Ireland, Norway, Austria and Finland stood alongside the Women in Black. There was a noisy counter demonstration of young Zionist youth who rode through the women on bicycles whistling and shouting and then took up a position opposite the round-a-bout waving Israeli flags.

The counter demonstration to the Women in Black.  

The counter demonstration to the Women in Black.  

 

Remembering today

The ultimate aim of the EAPPI programme is to lobby for an end to the occupation of Palestine and to give space for Israelis and Palestinians to work out a future that respects the rights of both people. Israeli academic, Geoff Halper in his book, ‘War against the people’, points out that the founder of modern Israel, David Ben Gurion, believed that the Arabs had to be totally crushed by force in order to bring security for Israel. The path of repression, land theft and settlement building still continues today, but it does not bring peace. Our experience in Ireland says this sort of solution to two peoples sharing the same space is not possible or desirable. Building bridges of understanding and working for justice is the better way.

 

We can remember the people of the region by reading blogs by EAs at www.eyewitnessblogs.com and we can visit the official UK/Ireland EAPPI website at www.quaker.org.uk/eappi.  Some choose to remember by avoiding purchasing fruit and vegetables grown on stolen land in Occupied Palestine.  Some avoid purchasing goods and services coming from the illegal Settlements. You may consider going to Palestine and Israel as an Ecumenical Accompanier. You will find the details on the Quaker website above. If you visit the Holy Land you should also stay in Bethlehem as well as Jerusalem and use Palestinian tour guides as well as Israeli ones.

 

Written by John Parkin