Persistent work for peace: Bringing down walls

by Rebekah Sears

A few weeks ago, my colleague Leona published a blog post detailing her memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, plus a reflection of its legacy today, 30 years later. One of the main messages I took from her reflection was that as significant as the fall of the wall was for global geopolitics and the possibilities for positive change, such change requires continued and persistent work for peace to be sustainable. And this work is just as essential today, if not more so, than in 1989.

A preserved section of the Berlin Wall, at Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin (MCC photo/Bekah Sears)

Walls can be physical or symbolic, including barriers that make it challenging to find the humanity in each other. One physical wall that has impacted both of us has been the Separation Barrier or Separation Wall in Palestine and Israel. In the last two years, each of us has traveled to Palestine and Israel to visit MCC’s partners in the region. And each of us has seen the results of the Separation Wall, as we met people like Nebal and Kahlil, who are daily restricted, discriminated against, and separated from loved ones and essential resources, because of the wall.

This is the story of Nebal and Khalil Safi, who fell in love but then had to live apart for the first five years of their marriage due to the wall (MCC Video/A Cry for Home: The Wall

Through our Cry for Home Campaign, MCC Canada has published both stories and factsheets outlining the impacts of the Occupation particularly on Palestinians, but also Israelis, including the specific impacts of the wall.

The wall is an ominous visual representation of the Israeli Occupation of Palestine – particularly of the West Bank and Gaza – including systemic separation, the expanding settlements, and the daily systemic violations of international human rights law. The decades-long conflict between Palestine and Israel has created significant security risks and concerns for both Palestinians and Israelis. The State of Israel responded in 2002, by beginning construction of the wall, which now stretches about 700 kilometres.

Most often security walls around the world are built under real or perceived threats, but arguably instead of making people feel safer, they often elevate oppression of those inside, and cement tensions, separation and dehumanization of the other.

The separation wall as seen in Bethlehem, the West Bank. (MCC Photo/Emily Loewen)

Along with a heavily guarded stretch of sea, the wall almost completely encloses Gaza and, together with the economic blockade, the people of Gaza are virtually locked in, suffering from soaring unemployment, regular drone and other attacks, and the dwindling of essential life-giving resources. MCC staff in the region have recently published several blog posts, highlighting the human face of the crisis in Gaza, along with detailing non-violent responses for change.

In the West Bank, the wall constantly crosses the internationally recognized Green Line, often in order to accommodate illegal Israeli settlements, separating Palestinian farmers from access to their land, and easy access to neighbouring communities. Almost 100 permanent checkpoints control access through the wall, with a very complex and often arbitrary permit system, which affects work and often divides families. The wall, as well as daily pop-up checkpoints makes getting from one community to another either difficult or impossible.

The Safi family is pictured at their apartment in Kufr Aqab, East Jerusalem, from left, Osama (11), Nebal, Khalil, Sarah (17) and Tarek (21). Baby Guevara, 10 months, is held by Khalil; the family is often separated by politics and the wall. (MCC photo/Meghan Mast

Moreover, the wall does not allow people to encounter each other as people but reinforces the idea that those on the other side are the enemy.

In 2004, early into the wall’s construction, the UN International Court of Justice proclaimed that the wall is illegal under International law, as it is in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention (relating to the protection of civilians in the time of war) and against multiple international human rights treaties. Yet Israel persisted in construction, and continues to this day, as settlement blocks expand even further into the West Bank.

In the midst of a challenging context, Palestinians working for peace refuse to despair. In a recent publication, Is Peace Possible? Christian Palestinians Speak, Palestinian churches proclaim: “It is time for the Churches and spiritual leaders to point to another way, to insist that all, Israelis and Palestinians, are brothers and sisters in humanity. The Churches insist that we can love one another and live together in mutual respect and equality, equal in rights and duties, in this same land. This is not simply a dream but the powerful basis of a vision that inspired our ancestors, the prophets.”

Is Peace Possible? Christian Palestinians Speak, from the Justice and Peace Commission, (c) 2019

As Palestinians and Israelis demonstrate, the work for sustainable peace, in any context, requires long-term commitment, and progress is most often slow, if it is visible at all. Around the world we’ve seen the impacts of local grassroots peacebuilders, often working in contexts of active conflict.  Peace is a long-haul calling, and a life-long vocation, and it needs us all to challenge all the barriers that keep us from seeing each other as fully human.

Can we in Canada support peacebuilding in Palestine and Israel? The official and long-held position of the Canadian government opposes the occupation, the wall and illegal settlements, explicitly rooted in the Fourth Geneva Convention and international law. However, from 2005 until November 2019, Canada consistently voted against – albeit abstaining in a handful of cases – United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions pertaining to Palestinian rights. On November 19, 2019, Canada voted in favour of UNGA 74/69, recognizing the rights of self-determination for Palestinians and the end of the occupation.

This sudden shift came as a big surprise, and an encouragement to advocates for a just peace in the region. Many analysts believe that this move was linked to Canada’s current bid for a UN Security Council seat, but regardless of the motivation, this vote is a step in the right direction and an opportunity to engage our political leaders and push for more positive action.

Let’s take this opportunity to thank the Canadian government for their Yes vote, while calling for more substantive action. Write a thank you letter here to encourage the Canadian government to continue to play a role in encouraging peace in Palestine and Israel.

Rebekah Sears is the Policy Analyst for MCC’s Ottawa Office

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