Derek Estill, Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly, tells of his experiences in Israel/Palestine
In September, 22 United Reformed Church members, including myself, went on a ten-day educational visit to Israel/Palestine, to see and hear for ourselves about life there – particularly for Palestinians. While we visited holy sites, our visit was principally focused on Palestinians – hearing about their lives, and the challenges they face day to day.
Our trip started in Bethlehem, where we visited the Church of the Nativity, met a local Palestinian family that run an olive wood-carving business, and heard their account of tolerating deliberate provocations in light of threats from Israeli authorities. While in Bethlehem, we also met with the Revd Dr Munther Isaac, who serves as Pastor of the Lutheran Christmas Church. Dr Isaac talked about the life of Palestinians, making it clear they feel like strangers in their own historic land. He gave many examples of the physical, emotional and religious difficulties they face.
Christians now make up only between 1 and 1.9% of the population, and the circumstances drive people to leave the country to seek a better life. There are few opportunities for Palestinian young people growing up in communities surrounded by a wall that means those inside the wall do not have freedom to move about without first getting a permit from the Israeli authorities. Such permits have to be applied for well in advance. Palestinians are not allowed to use Tel Aviv’s airport and must travel to Jordon to be able to fly to another country. Being surrounded by the wall, and suffering restrictions and lack of facilities – we were told – makes it feel like living in a prison.
Settlements, refugees and olive trees
We visited Ramallah – another Palestinian area – which was surrounded by a separation barrier/’the wall’. We saw a Palestinian refugee community and heard first-hand about the hardship, frustrations, anger and feelings of hopelessness that Palestinian refugees face, caused by living as a refugee in one’s own country, without resources or representation. We also visited a YMCA organisation and heard about its joint advocacy initiative, the Olive Tree Project, which seeks to protect and maintain control of Palestinian olive tree farmland. The initiative aims to make sure that Palestinian-owned olive groves remain in Palestinian ownership, despite aggressive actions by Israeli settlers, who continually try to take it over to build illegal settlements.
The word settlement for me conjured up a mental picture of a small group of temporary houses. In fact, the settlements are now well-established towns, with every conceivable facility available, including ample water. They are desirable places to live because of the favourable support and services provided by Israel – support and services that are not available in Palestinian towns. The contrast between the Israeli settlements and the Palestinian towns is immense. Settlements are in the West Bank – and are therefore illegal according to the International Court of Justice – but are encouraged by the Israeli authorities.
Farmers, worship and more
On another occasion, we visited a project run by Parc (Palestine Agricultural Relief Committee) – an agricultural development programme helping Palestinian farmers establish their own fertiliser using animal dung. On this visit, we were welcomed and well fed by Palestinian villagers, who were so pleased to see us and to tell us their stories. We were also able to meet a minister of the Church of Scotland serving in Jerusalem, and hear about the Church of Scotland’s work in the Holy land.
We attended a service at St George’s Cathedral, led by the Archbishop of Jerusalem. Next, we visited a Bedouin village in the desert to the east of Jerusalem, hearing about the lives of people there, and the difficulties faced by the Bedouin community.
Another of our visits took us to Bethany, a Palestinian area, to visit a Russian Christian Orthodox Church school for girls. There, we heard from Mother Maria, the school’s principal, about the wonderful work the school does, despite the very difficult circumstances.
Hebron and Yad Vashem
On our visit to Hebron, a Palestinian city, we met and heard from Issa Amro, a peace activist who, because of his work standing up for local Palestinians, had been jailed many times during the last year. Issa told us that in his opinion, the Israelis have a strategy of closure – closing down Palestinian communities – that makes it increasingly difficult for the local Palestinian population to live normal lives. Shops and streets were being and had been closed, and original street names had been changed to Jewish ones, Issa said. Restrictions had been put in place that limited movement for Palestinians. All this underlined Issa’s overall assessment that Israelis have a policy of closure.
On another day, we visited Yad Vashem – the Jewish Holocaust Memorial and Museum. This place reminded us of the persecution suffered by Jews in the Second World War, which, of course, was truly horrendous and very thought provoking.
Galilee, Nazareth, Cana
The next part of our visit took us via Jericho to the area around Galilee. Based at Tiberius, we visited Capernaum and Nazareth. We heard from the Revd Nael Abu Rahmoun, an Anglican priest who serves at Christ Church, Nazareth, who told us about the situation that Christian Palestinians find themselves in.
We then visited a cooperative project for Jewish and Muslim women in Cana. This project demonstrated how good work and friendship can be built between Muslim and Jewish communities. The co-op produces olive oil and basket work as well as soap – all of which are sold internationally as well as within Israel.
As we were coming to the end of our trip, we visited sites around Galilee, such as the architectural discoveries at Tabgha, the Mount of the Beatitudes, and places that Jesus and his disciples would have spent much of their time. We also enjoyed a sail on Lake Galilee.
Throughout our time in Israel, we were presented with a series of Bible studies led by Lawrence Moore, who sought to connect our modern locations with the biblical reality – Jesus and his disciples were living in a time of empire, the Roman empire, and that dominated everything. Jesus’ response was to challenge empire structures and to establish new ways of being that brought people to realise what God wants for us – to live valuing everyone equally, and justice and reconciliation for all. Jesus challenged the status quo, and we should do so today.
Why this matters
This blog post is a very brief overview, to give you a flavour of what was an inspirational, informative and eye-opening trip. The ten-day experience showed us something of the reality of how Palestinian communities are living, in very restricted and unjust circumstances. Those of us from all parts of the URC have learned a great deal and have accepted a commitment to relay this experience to others in our Church, through local synods, churches and other places over the coming months. It is hoped that through our talks and visits, more people will hear about what we experienced in the Holy Land, and begin to think, pray and decide how such an experience can be used.
The overriding message from those we met was that we should tell others back home about what we saw and heard. The people we met really valued our support and understanding of their situation. All of the URC participants in this trip have been significantly affected by the experience, and now want to find ways of using that experience in a positive way.
On my return from Israel, I attended the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, as part of a Church delegation organised by the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT). The delegation team met prior to the conference, for briefings about the MPs we hoped to meet, and to clarify what we wanted to talk to them about – issues that are important to us as Church leaders from the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union, the Salvation Army and the URC.
We attended a prayer breakfast before going to the conference to hear speakers talk about Christian persecution as well as other types of persecution. The speakers we heard included Lord Palmer, Mervyn Thomas (of Christian Solidarity Worldwide) and Rehman Chishti, Social Envoy for Freedom of Religion and Belief. All these speakers explored various aspects of persecution in society today, and how Christianity is being given a hard time generally by the media and others.
At the end of the prayer breakfast I led us all in prayer before joining the conference. There, we were able to meet Alistair Burt, who talked about the very difficult and challenging times that MPs are facing, in parliament and more generally. He agreed with our encouragement for parliamentarians to find a way of conducting business in less aggressive and more respectful ways. We believe MPs’ example is having a negative effect on communities at the moment. Mr Burt had visited Israel and very much approved of our educational visit.
Other MPs we met included Martin Vickers, who felt that once Brexit had been decided, things would return to normal; Desmond Swayne, who agreed that there is a need for more social housing and social care; and Steve Baker, Chair of the European Research Group, who expressed scepticism about global warming, in spite of an increasing body of expert opinion that supports the causes of our global climate crisis.
I have also attended a Mission Council advisory group meeting, in preparation for the URC’s Mission Council meeting in November. I think you can say it has been quite a busy few weeks!
Derek Estill, October 2019