Reflections on Three Months in Israel and Palestine

John Aves
John with Aysar in a classroom in IBDAA
Wednesday, 28 January, 2004

All of us here at the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel as well as staff at the World Council of Churches were deeply saddened to learn of the sudden death of our friend and colleague, Canon John Aves, this past Sunday, January 25th. John was nearing the end of his three-month term here in the Holy Land, having spent most of the time working in the Deheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. He was preparing to spend the last two weeks of his term at the Mar Saba Monastery outside Bethlehem. John was a man of faith, who was filled with hope in mankind, as is evident in the letter he wrote below just before his untimely death at the age of 52.

Within a few days of my arrival in Israel and Palestine this past November, I saw Israeli teenagers, the same age as my sons, in jeans and sweaters walking the streets with rifles slung across their backs. They were off-duty conscript soldiers. All school leavers, except ultra-Orthodox Jews, must do three years of military service. Males are also required to do reserve duty until the age of 45 (Arab citizens of Israel are usually exempted from military service).

Chillingly, returning to Bethlehem one night at 6 p.m. I saw the same young soldiers drinking coffee at the checkpoint and across the road in the cold night air. They were detaining 40 young Palestinian men, their faces against a wall, hands held up. They would be kept there all night, their crime illegally entering Jerusalem that day seeking work and returning home that night to Bethlehem. The site of Christ's birth now has an unemployment rate of 70% due to the roadblocks and the dearth of tourists. Stopping people from going to Jerusalem from Bethlehem is like stopping people from the towns of Wymondham or Aylsham visiting or working in Norwich.

I came here with little background knowledge, a vague awareness of a British presence once through the Mandate, horrific stories of Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust to find a new home, stories of the Kibbutz movement of young Jews coming to build a socialist utopia, memories of the 1967 and 1973 wars when brave Israel seemed to defeat the might of the Arab world, and lately the unremitting stories of Palestinian terrorism and suicide bombers.

Three months after having spent some time with the Israeli peace movement and now living here in the IBDAA centre at the Dheisheh Refugee Camp on the edge of Bethlehem, my initial knowledge has been corrected. The new state of Israel in 1948 was founded, at least in part, on the deliberate expulsion of many of the indigenous population. Some of these people and their offspring remain in camps like this, in many cases only a 40-minute drive away from their original land, after more than 50 years. Whilst Israel proudly proclaims the law of return and automatic citizenship to all Jews throughout the world and is frantically encouraging more Jewish immigration from Russia, it denies this right to the Palestinians it has expelled, ignoring repeated United Nations resolutions.

In 1948, with one third of the population, Israel took control of 78% of mandate Palestine. Since the 1967 war, backed with all the military hardware of the United States, it has retained control of the remainder and, against all international law, it has colonised this area with settlements of 383,000 people. In negotiating a peace, Israel has sought to retain much of the land where settlers have been placed, giving the Palestinians a kind of a state in separated cantons. This "state" would be economically unviable, guarded, encircled by walls and checkpoints and divided by major fenced Israeli roads. All of this seems to be in the process of construction. Under any other circumstances we would be using the language of rampant old-fashioned colonialism and ethnic cleansing to describe what's happening to the Palestinian population, hence the sometimes violent resistance movement you see on your television screens. However, our perception of what is going on has been dulled by our reluctance to criticise because of Western guilt about the Holocaust and, more recently, by simplistic literal readings of the Old Testament applied to the present situation by Christian Zionists. The latter believe that God gave the land only to the Jewish people and, worse still, justify the expulsion and transference of the existing population. This expulsion includes the Christian Arab population and yes, our brother and sister Anglicans.

Do I come back with much hope? The answer is yes. Why? Because (and I would need longer to explain), I see the story of Christ here not only in the Holy places and Bible but also in countless stories of courage and dignity. As we prepare to follow the way of the cross and resurrection in Lent and Easter we learn again that death dealing cannot ever have the last word. For besides recognising that colonising powers always end in defeat, I see tremendous God-given hope in the centre where I help. This centre is run by some of the many Palestinians who, whilst acknowledging that a few of their neighbours choose the way of suicide bombing, are also placing their hopes in educating their children, in dance groups, in self-confidence and language skills and computer technology to carry on the long-term political struggle with dignity and grace.