Solidarity. It’s not a fashionable word these days, but in the Labour movement, it’s one of our most cherished values. However much the big corporations want us to believe otherwise and however much they spend on elaborate advertising campaigns at Christmas, there are unbreakable ties that bind us together. We’re not individual units of consumption, in splendid isolation. We’re interdependent, and nowhere is this more evident than in the church, at its best.
Over 12 years ago the heads of 13 denominations in Jerusalem got together. It was the height of the Second Intifada. Bombs were going off in Israel, and Israel was responding with draconian measures in the occupied Palestinian Territories. The leaders of those churches don’t always work closely together, but they knew something had to be done. The world had to see what was happening.
Out of their initiative, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel was born. They asked not for money, or for gestures from far away. Instead they asked for solidarity. They wanted volunteers from the UK and around the world to come and see what life was really like, and then to do something about it.
Since then, more than 1,200 people have answered their call and stood in solidarity with Palestinians and Israelis who are searching for peace. Right now there are 35 of us in eight different places around the West Bank. Our duties are varied, but the mission is the same – to accompany, observe and promote the work of the many fantastic organisations and people who work for peace based on non-violence and human rights.
Since 1967, the West Bank has been occupied by the Israeli military. Israeli settlements, illegal under international law, have flourished in the West Bank. Checkpoints have been introduced, reducing the freedom of movement of Palestinians within the West Bank and denying many of them access to family and jobs. The Separation Barrier grows longer each year and continues to annexe Palestinian Land. And so it goes on. There are also violent threats against Israelis. These include rockets from Gaza and stone-throwing by Palestinian youths. We also regard these actions as unjustifiable.
We ask ourselves on a daily basis how we can best embody that solidarity that the church leaders appealed for. Here are just a two examples of our work.
At the Qalandiya checkpoint, thousands of Palestinians file through every morning. Many of them are trying to get to work. Others are attempting to get to school. Still others need access for medical appointments. This is not as simple as it sounds. On some days the checkpoint takes a mere 20 minutes to pass. On other days it can take well over an hour. People passing through have to queue in long lines, then they are siphoned into rows inside cages. This dehumanising process is finally completed when the airport-style security and permit checks have been passed.
Our role is to stand on either side of the checkpoint and monitor the behaviour of soldiers, police and the many other security personnel (often private) who staff the checkpoint. We attempt to intervene on behalf of those who are infirm or need to use the humanitarian gate. We also record the number of people going through and how long it takes.
Another of our activities is to observe demonstrations. Every Friday in An Nabi Samwil, villagers are joined by Israeli peace activists to demonstrate against plans to take their land. The planning department of the Israeli military authority claims that turning village land into a national park will be good for everyone. The villagers are Muslims and worship in the Mosque of the Tomb of the Prophet Samuel, which also contains a Synagogue. They get along well with the Jewish people who come to worship there. But the villagers don’t want to give up their land.
So each Friday we attend and monitor the behaviour of the police in how they deal with this entirely peaceful demonstration.
I’m often asked how we feel after we have seen the repression of the occupation, especially in light of the lack of progress towards any kind of peace agreement. While it’s tempting to fall into a self-serving depression about what we see and what we hear, that would be futile. Instead, the spirit of solidarity commends us to keep getting our hands dirty and to stand alongside our brothers and sisters, Christian, Jew and Muslim and to strive constantly for peace.
In this season of Christmas, it is especially vital that we remember solidarity. God became flesh at Christmas. Jesus lived with us, dwelt among us and stood in solidarity with the marginalised, the oppressed and the forgotten. I can’t think of a better time to be in the Holy Land than Christmas when we celebrate the Incarnation – the ultimate act of solidarity.
Andy Walton, a member of Christians on the Left, writes this article from Bethlehem where he is working with EAPPI.