Thanks to the generous support of Trinity Association and Trust, I was able to embark on a life-changing trip to the so-called “Holy Land,” organized jointly by the Chaplaincies of Trinity and Queen’s University Belfast. The group of fifteen included six Trinity students and Trinity’s Methodist Chaplin, Rev Julian Hamilton. Our aim was to observe, listen and learn as much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as possible.
In 1948, following the Holocaust, the Judean people were given Israel as a homeland. They were to share this region with the indigenous Arabs, who were removed to a separate country called Palestine. In 1967 the State of Israel won the “Six Day War” and have occupied Palestine ever since.
Facts on the ground today suggest that the State of Israel intends to extend its borders until Palestine ceases to exist. The only thing standing in the way of Israel is the Palestinian people, the vast majority of whom view simply getting out of bed in the morning and peacefully raising a family as the best form of resistance.
More than thirty years of unsuccessful peaceful resistance is taking its toll on the spirits of Palestinians, because they realize they are going backwards. For example, the 1990 convention held at Oslo between the heads of Palestine and Israel resulted in the signing away of Palestine’s water to their occupying oppressor.
Every week the Israeli army, comprising mainly of conscripted teenagers, grabs Palestinian land by force. This captured land becomes a “settlement”. The Israeli government subsidises its citizens who agree to live in the newly built settlements. Each “settler” is protected by up to four Israeli soldiers stationed close by. The United Nations and the European Union have declared Israeli settlements a major violation of International Law, yet they continue to be built. Simply put, indigenous Palestinians are regularly replaced with Israeli settlers through illegal use of force.
Since opposing a heavily armed army with stones or even presenting title deeds to the land earns one a lengthy prison sentence at best, the homeless Palestinians have no choice but to move into refugee camps or nearby towns. Some bring the keys to their old homes with them in the hope they will return.
A minority of settlers, calling themselves “Orthodox Jews for Zionism”, believe the entire Westbank is theirs by birthright: “A land without a people for a people without a land!” I have seen these Zionists terrorise children, farmers and families with my own eyes. They regard scaring Palestinians from their own land as a religious duty.
The rest of the Israeli settlers have no idea they live on stolen land. They commute to work in Israel on protected roads, which no Palestinian may use. Their choice to move into the “Occupied Territories” is purely economic and one, which any reasonable person might make.
There are over half a million Israeli citizens living on Palestinian land today. The entire Westbank is riddled with settlements, which seem to be strategically placed in order to isolate and break up the remaining Palestinian communities.
The Israeli army, as an occupying force, restricts the movement of Palestinians. No Palestinian may enter or pass through any settlement. Consequently, Palestinians need to travel large distances, often in excess of 10km, around settlements in order to visit their friends and family living as little as half a kilometre away.
Then there’s the wall: nine-meters of vertical concrete slicing Palestine into hundreds of sections. While the stated purpose for the wall is security, the path it takes suggests otherwise. The wall passes through Palestinian villages, separating families and communities. It surrounds refugee camps, preventing children from accessing adjoining fields for recreation. Frustratingly for the Palestinians, it has also been declared illegal by the International Court of justice, yet is still being built.
Every members of our group was asked uncomfortable questions like ”why and how is Israel being allowed to consistently violate international law?” Our shamefully embarrassing answer was that people in Ireland and Europe really don’t know what is happening in Palestine. Sometimes we gave the excuse that the media doesn’t cover events in the Near-East in as much detail as they cover the latest celebrity break-up. And their response was “You need to tell them. Don’t be afraid of coming across as biased. Just tell the truth. Tell your friends what is happening here. If enough people do it, international assistance should follow.”
Thankfully a handful of Israeli soldiers have decided to “Break the Silence” and speak about their experiences in Palestine. One account describes soldiers fighting amongst themselves over who got to fire the next rocket into a neighbouring Palestinian town as if it was a computer game.
It was a deeply enlightening experience to live among a people who live in constant fear their home could be demolished at any time. For them each day truly is a gift. As for the Israelis, I was surprised by their attitude. They have forgotten how a spirit longing for freedom can never be defeated.