One of my first memories as a child is from the Holy Land. My parents were studying at Tantur (an ecumenical institute for theological studies located right between Bethlehem and Jerusalem) for a few months in 1989. All I really remember as a three-year-old were the abundant sheep and the shepherds on donkeys, whom I would point to and yell, “Look! It’s Jesus!” every time I saw them. I must have seen at least 15 of these Jesus look-alikes!
Since I was three, my concept of the Middle East has of course broadened to more than just the cute, fuzzy animals and the birthplace of Jesus. I’ve been back twice, participating in the Sabeel Young Adult Conference in the summer of 2008, and in the Gaza Freedom March just this past December and January. During the conference two years ago, I learned about the complexities of the occupation of Palestine by visiting refugee camps, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian peace activists and government officials and spending time with youth from Israel and Palestine. I travelled extensively throughout Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. While I was on this trip, my eyes were widened to the realities of the situation in the Middle East and I was completely appalled by the acts of oppression and occupation that I observed. During my time in Hebron visiting the Christian Peacemaker teams, I witnessed a village raid. Four 18-year-old Israeli soldiers came into the old city of Hebron, heavily armed. They closed the market down, threatened the locals and detained two young Palestinian boys standing right beside me. I was enraged. After the soldiers went back to their posts I spoke to one of the store owners. He told me that the soldiers do this sort of thing every day in Hebron just to assert their power, and then he asked me to do him a favour. He spoke little English, but it was clear that he wanted me to tell the world what I have seen. He asked me simply to tell the world his story and I promised him that I would.
There was a shift in my focus when I returned home from the summer. Keeping in mind my promise to the man in Hebron, I did presentations on the conflict to youth groups, churches, universities, Bible studies and wherever anyone would listen. My new focus was to educate people in North America about the situation in Palestine/Israel in order to create awareness and provide a different representation of the conflict. I also started selling fair trade Palestinian olive oil out of my home and started going to protests and rallies, seeking out other activists who were also passionate about peace in Israel/Palestine.
This past Christmas I was given the chance to participate in the Gaza Freedom March, run by an organization called Code Pink. The purpose of the march was to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Israeli bombings, to call worldwide attention to the ongoing humanitarian crisis, and to show the residents of Gaza that the international community has not forgotten them. There were about 1,400 internationals there, hoping to get into Gaza through Egypt with school materials, medicine, water purification systems and other much needed supplies. Unfortunately, the Freedom March did not go as planned. The Egyptian authorities had closed the Rafah border into Gaza, cancelled our permits and buses and made it impossible to carry out anything as planned. Because we couldn’t get into Gaza we protested in Cairo. Obviously I was disappointed I didn’t get into Gaza for a second time, but I believe it was important to be part of an initiative like the Gaza Freedom March. Whether it took place in the Gaza Strip or in the streets of Cairo, it brought thousands of internationals together in one place in solidarity with the people of Gaza.
After the events in Cairo, I headed back to Israel/Palestine to reunite with my friends and meet with Sabeel and other peace organizations. On a bus ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, I saw Tantur again, the magical place of sheep and donkeys I remembered from my childhood. Much had changed since I was three. You don’t see any sheep or their shepherds anymore. Instead, all you can see is a giant concrete wall complete with barbed wire and lookout posts surrounding one side of Tantur, separating Jerusalem from Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank. This is called a security wall by most Israelis, but is a catastrophic separation wall for Palestinians. It separates people from their farms, churches, mosques, hospitals, schools, friends and family. It is only one aspect of the occupation that Palestinian people have to deal with every day along with checkpoints, the permit system, settler violence, and Israeli military control. Like I said, much has changed.
After one of my presentations someone asked me why I advocate for justice for Palestine.
My answer was this: I advocate because voices are silenced. Because people are living under occupation everyday and oppression has become a normal way of life. I advocate because the media does not tell the truth. Because everyone seems to have opinions on the conflict but the controversial nature of the subject leads to misguided opinions and snap judgments. I advocate because I’ve seen Palestinians and Israelis working tirelessly for peace. I advocate because I see hope.
For more on peace efforts in Palestine:
• To learn more about Sabeel, an ecumenical Christian Palestinian organization, visit sabeel.org
• For information on how to buy and support fair trade Palestinian olive oil visit zatoun.org
• The Gaza Freedom March: gazafreedommarch.org
• Christian Peacemaker Teams: cpt.org
• Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies: tantur.org