A Cry for Home — Why now?

Everyone needs a home — where families are safe and secure, where their basic needs are met, where they can come and go freely, and where they can imagine a future of justice and peace. But that is not the reality for Palestinians — or even for some Israelis.

This month MCC in Canada launches a special campaign on Palestine and Israel called “A Cry for Home.”

A Cry for Home logoIt is a multi-year initiative inviting MCC supporters to learn about, engage with and advocate for a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis. It is a call to respond to the cry of Palestinians and Israelis for a safe, secure, just and peaceful home.

Why this campaign at this time? After all, hasn’t MCC been addressing issues related to Palestine and Israel for years? There are several reasons we are embarking on this initiative now:

  • Because of the cry of our partners. We are responding because of the urgent plea of our partners — especially Palestinian Christian partners — for solidarity and for advocacy. MCC partners have for years been urging a bolder stance in calling for an end to occupation, oppression and injustice. Indeed, in the past six months, Palestinian Christian organizations have urged “costly solidarity” on the part of the global Christian church, insisting, “This is no time for shallow diplomacy Christians.”
  • Because of the increasingly desperate situation of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. The theft of land and the building of illegal settlements for Israeli Jews in the occupied West Bank continues apace, despite insistence from the international community that such activity stop. The demolition of Palestinian homes, schools and orchards goes on with impunity. The situation in Gaza is catastrophic, with the UN declaring that it will be unlivable by 2020 and perhaps even sooner. In the meantime, Palestinians and others who resist are increasingly bullied, silenced, imprisoned.
  • Because we care also about Israeli Jews. While the Palestinians suffer most in the current reality, we know that Israeli Jews are also harmed by the words, walls, and weapons that divide them from Palestinians. Like Palestinians, they long for homes and a homeland that is safe and secure. Like Palestinians, they suffer violence. Yet many of them live with a deep sense of fear and foreboding. We acknowledge that for many people, the fear is rooted in Christian persecution of Jews over the centuries. Yet, like many Israeli peacemakers, we believe that a peaceful future for both Israeli Jews and Palestinians will result from an end to the occupation, from the practice of justice, and from respect for international law.housesand_farm_0
  • Because of MCC’s long history. MCC has been active in Palestine and Israel since 1949, when the creation of the State of Israel made hundreds of thousands of Palestinians refugees in their own home. Our history and continuous presence, as well as partnership with Palestinians (since 1949) and with Israelis (since 1967), has given us insights into the ongoing conflict, as well as a special burden to help in supporting a resolution to the conflict. Throughout that history, partners have urged MCC not only to meet immediate needs with relief assistance and community development support, but to engage in advocacy to address the root causes of the current reality.
  • Because the topic is challenging. Over many decades, MCC’s work in Palestine and Israel — particularly, our advocacy for a just peace — has generated a diversity of opinions from our supporters and constituents. While many of MCC’s supporters resonate with our work and approach, some of them disagree with us when we critique the policies of the State of Israel and its actions toward Palestinians. With this campaign, we want to engage with these diverse perspectives — exploring questions together, dialoguing constructively, and building understanding.
  • Last, but definitely not least, because of our faith. Our Christian faith — and our commitment to Jesus — compels us to stand with the oppressed, lovingly speak truth to power, and actively seek a just peace in the land where Jesus walked. Jesus himself denounced injustice and proclaimed good news of liberation to those living under a yoke of oppression; we can do no less. More than that, our faith gives us hope that transformation and reconciliation are truly possible. We are inspired by the vision of the Holy Land as a place where all people — Israelis and Palestinians; Jews, Christians and Muslims — live with peace, justice and security, a land where “everyone sits under their own vine and fig tree and no one makes them afraid” (Micah 4:4).

Please join us in responding to the cry of Palestinians and Israelis for home.
Visit our campaign page for information on how to learn, engage, advocate, pray and give. And please sign up for regular campaign updates.

 By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the MCC Ottawa Office

An Assembly Line of Injustice: The Israeli Military Court System – Military Court Watch

This piece was originally published by MCC Palestine, August 2017

We arrived at Ofer Prison in the morning of late June. Ofer Prison is accompanied by a nearby interrogation center and military courts; together they function as an assembly line to put young Palestinians living in the West Bank behind bars as quickly as possible. With the help of an organization named Military Court Watch (info below), we were admitted inside to see the proceedings of the military court system in the West Bank.

Upon entering the courts, we first sat with families who were there to see their children’s court appearances. We heard from Mohammed[1] and his wife who told us about how their son had been arrested by the military while he was playing soccer on the school playground in late April. Their village lies close to a bypass road to an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Settlements such as this one are considered illegal under international law (more information here). Their son, named Ibrahim, was accused of throwing stones by this road. Ibrahim has already had 7 court appearances; he is in the 10th grade and he missed his school exams while he was in prison. The parents told us that 6 people from their village had been arrested around the same time as their son, some under the age of 18. “They come to provoke us, to stir up our village,” claims Ibrahim’s father. Now Ibrahim will always have a “security mark,” explains his father, which will make it difficult for the young man to get work permits into Israel and Jerusalem, but will also complicate his travel anywhere in the world.

Ofer Prison, an Israeli military prison in West Bank

A guard tower for Ofer Prison, an Israeli military prison in the West Bank.

We then met with Samar, the mother of a young man named Ahmad, who claimed her son had been in prison for over 7 months. Ahmad had been working at a radio station when the soldiers broke in and arrested him and his friends at 2 in the morning, breaking all of the equipment in the process. Samar explained that the soldiers first went to the family’s home in the middle of the night – she woke up with armed and masked soldiers by her bedside demanding to know where her son was. Samar thinks Ahmad and his friends were arrested for their journalism; the military court calls it something different and charged Ahmad for “incitement.” For such a charge, each family would be fined 6,000 NIS (1,700 USD / 2,200 CAD) and each of the defendants could face 5 years of prison time if convicted according to Samar.

Military Court Watch, which monitors the Israeli military court system, stressed that whether the evidence is flimsy or solid, most cases end in a conviction. Recent official data indicates a conviction rate for children (12-17 years) of 95%, higher for adults. This is designed to put Palestinians behind bars.

In no more than an hour, we shuffled between the various caravans acting as court rooms and heard over a dozen cases. They are, by definition, kangaroo courts. In the first courtroom we entered, two defendants sat side by side, having their unrelated cases heard by the judge virtually at the same time. One of the lawyers asked the military guard what he thought about the case and the judge fell asleep in the middle of giving the verdict. Both of the young men were taken away, shackled by the feet, and replaced by new defendants. The judge remained asleep.

In one of the courtrooms we found Samar again who was watching the court appearance of her son, Ahmad. Three other young men sat beside him as defendants. Ahmad’s court appearance took five minutes with the judge announcing a new court date next month. Ahmad, shackled, was taken out of the court and back to prison. New defendants came to replace him. An assembly line of injustice.

Military Court Watch (MCW) was established in 2013 and is guided by two basic principles. First, all children detained by the Israeli military authorities are entitled to all the rights and protections guaranteed under international law. Secondly, that there can be no legal justification for treating Palestinian and Israeli children differently under Israel’s military and civilian legal systems. In pursuit of these principles, MCW monitors, litigates, advocates and educates in the region and beyond.

You can find out more about Military Court Watch and its work at its website, http://www.militarycourtwatch.org/index.php 

Here are videos of Gerard Horton of Military Court Watch describing how the Israeli military court system works: 

https://youtu.be/cWe0NgZtcKg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIGU9kwHUz4

Reclaiming walls and fences: finding art and resistance in Palestine and Israel

By Elizabeth Kessler, Donor Life Cycle Coordinator, MCC Canada

This past May I travelled with an MCC learning tour to Palestine and Israel to learn about the ongoing conflict and about MCC’s work with Palestinians and Israelis who are working for peace. I travelled with several other MCC staff members and supporters of our work.

Each day we visited a different place, learning about a different aspect of the context. We learned about the realities of occupation, illegal settlements, uprooted people, destroyed homes, checkpoints, and divide-and-conquer tactics that are used by the Israeli government to assert control. We met Palestinians and Israelis, researchers, activists, businesspeople, tour guides, religious leaders, farmers and even a journalist and a politician–all with different stories and insights to share with us.

But what really stood out to me everywhere were the visual reminders of Palestinian resistance that had been posted or painted on walls.

Palestinian Political Prisoners hunger strike poster

One of the first places we visited was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which sits on top of a cave believed to be the place where Jesus was born. While visiting the church was ostensibly more of a tourist stop, it quickly became clear that tourist stops are not immune to politics. Even before we entered the church, we got caught up in reading these banners that had been posted nearby.

The banners were drawing attention to 1500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails on hunger strike at the time of our visit. The prisoners were demanding an end to the practice of detaining Palestinians without a trial and also calling for other basic rights like the right of a prisoner to have occasional family visits.

It turned out to be only the first of several demonstrations of support for the hunger strike that we would see during our tour.  At the time, the strike had been going on for a month. While the courtyard around the church was mostly calm, the presence of the signs was powerful, as if the people who put them up wanted to remind the tourists that amid the holy sites there are current, serious justice issues here not to be ignored.

key

This key is painted on the door of Lajee Centre, an MCC partner in Aida refugee Camp in Bethlehem. Aida camp is home to refugees from a number of different villages that were destroyed by Israel in 1948.

The camp has art painted all over its walls. The key is an important symbol for the refugees, many of whom fled their homes in 1948 believing that they would be able to return shortly. Most of them did not pack much, but locked their doors and took their keys. Almost 70 years later, the refugees have not been able to return, but the keys to their homes have been passed down through the generations.

Palestinians continue to advocate for the right of return. The people we met are realistic that they will likely not be able to return to their villages, but they do believe they have the right to at least be compensated for the loss of their homes and valuable agricultural land. It struck me that the symbolism of the key – which is painted and sculpted in a several places around the camp – is important for helping the children in the camp understand their history.

wall graffiti

I’ve always been fascinated by political graffiti and street art, and I have taken photos of it in many of the places that I’ve travelled. What was unique about Palestine was how much of it there was. It makes sense: graffiti is a small way for Palestinians to assert power over their own fate and their land— a non-violent way of reclaiming the space as their own. It proves that they are not defeated.

This image is from a section of the wall that we visited in Qalandyia, a Palestinian village in the West Bank near Jerusalem. The section of the wall cuts off a road that used to be a main artery. There is graffiti all over the wall, in English and Arabic and a few other languages, much of it calling for a just peace. On the right, the faded words say “This wall will fall”.

“No more fear!” was one of the most powerful messages I saw on the trip. Fear is a major underlying cause of much suffering in the world but particularly in Palestine and Israel. Fear drives Israel’s obsession with security and it justifies everything from tight control of Palestinian movements, to the building of the wall, to violations of the Geneva Conventions. To build peace in Palestine and Israel, we have to deal with fear.

more graffiti

This is a scene a few blocks up the street from the wall in Qalandiya (also written as Kalandia). We were told that the street used to be a busy main artery, but the separation wall has stopped traffic and the local economy. The place is virtually abandoned and extremely quiet considering how close it is to a main highway and Jerusalem.

The Palestinian flag in graffiti, like the one in this photo, were everywhere in the West Bank. Several of the Palestinians (and some Israelis) we met with throughout the tour spoke about the importance of pushing against the narrative that the Palestinians aren’t really there or have no history here–a narrative that is used to justify illegal Israeli settlements. The flag is a reminder that there is a people here with their own culture and history.

balcony

A sign on a balcony in Hebron reads “Caution, this was taken by Israel.” Jewish Israeli settlers have increasingly been taking over parts of this Palestinian city. Military rule has cut off Palestinian access to the market and, like in Qalandiya, had a severe effect on the local economy. Many of the buildings are abandoned.

mural

A mural in Nazareth commemorates the anniversary of the Nakba. “Nakba” means “catastrophe” in Arabic, and it refers to the time when more than 780,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes to make way for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Nazareth is a city in Israel that is primarily inhabited by Palestinians, many of whom are Christian. While these Palestinians have Israeli citizenship (as opposed to Palestinians in the occupied areas who do not), they are denied access to agricultural land and to municipal services provided to Jewish Israelis. They are also cut off from their fellow Palestinians – including family members – who reside in the West Bank and Gaza.

We were told that secular Jewish Israelis often come to Nazareth on holidays, and some had repeatedly complained to the municipal government about this mural, which was painted illegally. The mural had been painted over four times, and re-painted four times.

flowers painted on wall

A wall in a refugee camp in Jerusalem that we visited on the last day of the tour. The refugee camp is messy. There is litter everywhere, and we found tear gas canisters and rubber bullets by the curbside – a sign that the military had made their presence known. But it was busy with people going about their business, and we met friendly people and curious boys on the street.  I think the artist who painted these images must have wanted to beautify the neighborhood and these stencils seem like a solid and lasting way to do that under the circumstances.

Being part of this tour renewed my belief in the importance of MCC’s peacebuilding work and my commitment to pushing the Canadian government to end its complicity in the occupation. MCC has a number of resources about Palestine and Israel which you can access here. You can also support our local partners working for peace and justice by making a donation.

Hope & Sumud – 50 Years of Israeli Military Occupation

By Seth Malone, Peace Program Coordinator, MCC Palestine and Israel

Today—June 5, 2017—marks the 50th year of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Under international law, military occupation is always meant to be temporary. This is because the longer an occupation lasts, the more likely it is that respect for human rights and dignity are eroded. This is certainly the case in Palestine and Israel.

Magad Amgad

Magad Amgad from al-Najd Developmental Forum, an MCC partner organization in Gaza, walks through a strawberry field. This MCC-funded agricultural project aims to provide greater food security for the people of Gaza who have been subjected to a 10-year blockade imposed by Israel.

Day in and day out, Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) partners work tirelessly to help their communities grow and flourish. Our partners come up against the worst aspects of the Israeli military occupation but continue to work for justice and peace all the same. From rehabilitating homes destroyed in war, to providing counseling services to women whose husbands have been killed, to organizing against the construction of the separation barrier that devastates every community that it snakes through, our partners are active and hopeful despite all odds.

In Arabic, this “steadfastness” or “perseverance” is called sumud. Sumud, in the face of occupation, has become an indispensable part of Palestinian life and the work of MCC’s partners.

Nowar Educational Centre

Children at the Nowar Educational Center of MCC partner Culture and Free Thought Association are making materials for their community advocacy campaign for traffic safety, January 19, 2017

Despite five decades of brutal military occupation, our partners and the people of Palestine continue to embody sumud. This is because—despite all evidence to the contrary—they believe there is hope. In 2009 the Palestinian Christian churches issued a statement called “A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” Known popularly as the Kairos Palestine document, it describes hope in this way:

“Hope within us means first and foremost our faith in God and secondly our expectation, despite everything, for a better future. Thirdly, it means not chasing after illusions – we realize that release is not close at hand. Hope is the capacity to see God in the midst of trouble, and to be co-workers with the Holy Spirit who is dwelling in us. From this vision derives the strength to be steadfast, remain firm and work to change the reality in which we find ourselves. Hope means not giving in to evil but rather standing up to it and continuing to resist it. We see nothing in the present or future except ruin and destruction. We see the upper hand of the strong, the growing orientation towards racist separation and the imposition of laws that deny our existence and our dignity. We see confusion and division in the Palestinian position. If, despite all this, we do resist this reality today and work hard, perhaps the destruction that looms on the horizon may not come upon us.”

This is not a passive hope. This is a hope which calls all of us to action—to act in solidarity with those who suffer. It calls us to responsibility. In the face of such injustice and violence, we are called to act justly and peaceably in the hope that God can take our humble actions, multiply them and make them bear fruit. We are called to remain steadfast—to embody sumud—by never giving up on our responsibility to God and our neighbour.

Such a hope and such a steadfastness is terrifying for those bent on propping up such a terrible occupation. The resistance, however small it may be, will always be the quiet voice that bears witness to truth, and tells the world that this unjust and evil occupation must end.

Omar Haramy

Omar Haramy leads a group through Sabeel’s Contemporary Way of the Cross, which takes participants to locations representing the various forms of Palestinian suffering. In the background are soldiers preparing to discharge tear gas and rubber bullets at children who were throwing rocks in Shoufat Refugee Camp in Jerusalem. Sabeel, the Palestinian Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, is an MCC partner organization that seeks to deepen the faith of Palestinian Christians in Palestine and Israel and works for justice, peace and reconciliation by using nonviolence.

So let us have the courage to join this resistance. Let us call for justice and peace. Let us call for an end to this occupation.

A note to Canadians:  Please send a message to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, letting her know that 50 years of occupation is enough.

Let the little children come . . .

But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” – Mark 10:14

I read this familiar scripture text while travelling in Palestine a few weeks ago, specifically, the day we visited a Bethlehem refugee camp and learned about the life of children there. I read the text again a week later; it was posted on the wall of a Christian organization that provides rehabilitation services to children and youth who have been injured, detained or traumatized by political violence.

I have travelled to Palestine four times in the last dozen years.  This visit, more than others, I was touched with the devastating impact of military occupation on children.  Over and over I heard and witnessed how Palestinian children and youth are assaulted physically, emotionally and psychologically as they endure occupation. Israeli children suffer too.

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Boys play soccer next to the separation wall.  Photo Ryan Dueck

Palestine has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. Over the past 50 years, that occupation has become entrenched by a high separation wall, hundreds of checkpoints, severe restrictions on movement, and the growth of Jewish-only settlements in Palestinian territory. An end to the occupation is nowhere in sight, and another generation of Palestinian children is growing up without the hope of freedom.

At the Bethlehem refugee camp, in existence since 1948 when the creation of the state of Israel created 750,000 Palestinian refugees, a father tells us how his 5-year-old daughter expresses the wish her mother give birth to another girl rather than a boy – because a boy is so much more likely to be detained, injured or even killed. When a baby boy arrives, the daughter tells her parents her new brother should sleep in an inside room, away from the window, where he will be protected from the teargas and the bullets that are common occurrences.

As we walk through the refugee camp, our guide points to a wall listing some of the names of the 551 Palestinian children killed during Israel’s war on Gaza in July 2014.  It doesn’t list the 3,346 injured and the 10 percent permanently disabled. Life is very cheap for Gazan children, it seems. During my two-week stay in Palestine and Israel, two more Gaza children are killed by an Israeli missile attack, a brother and sister, 10 and 6 years of age.

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Schoolgirls in East Jerusalem walk along the separation wall. Esther Epp-Tiessen

A group of human rights lawyers tells us about children and youth in military detention. Defense for Children International, an NGO monitoring children’s rights around the world, has documented the arrest of 8,000 children since 2000.  Most of them have been detained for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. They are usually arrested by heavily-armed men during night-time raids, blindfolded and bound, taken to an unknown location without accompaniment and then interrogated at length.  While most youth detained are between 10 and 20, some are as young as eight years of age.

The lawyers tell us that the night raids are so terrifying, many mothers stay awake most of the night so that if soldiers arrive to conduct a raid, the mothers can waken their children quietly rather than have them woken by the door being smashed open by soldiers. (Not surprisingly, many mothers in Palestine suffer high levels of anxiety, headaches and hypertension.)

Children who are released from detention are severely traumatized. They sleep poorly, have recurring nightmares and often wet themselves. They typically withdraw from others, refuse to return to school or play with friends. Children who have been detained are 13 times more likely to drop out of school than others. Without rehabilitative help, young people who have been traumatized are much more likely to engage in violence and destructive behaviour themselves.

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Palestinian boys play with a kite while soldiers observe. Photo Ryan Dueck

As the occupation drags on, the hopes and dreams of young people fade and disappear.  Many youth cannot even imagine living freely in the land that is their home.  Another father, a longtime advocate for a free and independent Palestine, observes his daughter’s despair.  “Give up, Dad,” she says. “The Israelis have won; there will be no free Palestine.”  I wonder if despair is what drives Palestinian youth to attack Israelis on the streets of Jerusalem. Their actions are not defensible but they are understandable.

The occupation not only victimizes Palestinian children; it also harms Jewish Israeli children and youth.  At a new Jewish settlement In East Jerusalem (by international consensus, Palestinian land), I witness children playing behind a massive iron bar fence with separates them from soccer-playing Palestinian kids nearby. The Jewish children are guarded by a dozen or so machine-gun toting soldiers.  In a few years they will be soldiers themselves, as mandatory military service demands that they become part of the machinery that upholds the occupation.  I mourn that Jewish children and youth grow up with the sense that they are surrounded by danger, and that the only response is military might.

It is deeply and profoundly wrong that generations of Palestinian children have grown up essentially imprisoned in their own land.  It is deeply and profoundly wrong that Jewish Israeli children grow up learning that the security of their people requires the oppression of another.  It is unconscionable that much of the world continues to turn a blind eye.

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator of the Ottawa Office.