Age Action’s Ann Moroney writes about her three months in Palestine as a human rights observer and her hopes for a just future in the Holy Land.
It was wonderful to visit places that I had been hearing about from the bible since early childhood and to see cities like Jerusalem and Bethlehem. However, I hadn’t come to this magical but troubled land as a tourist.
I was fortunate to be able to take a break from my work with the Age Action Intercultural Project and to go there as part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).
This World Council of Churches initiative works alongside Israelis and Palestinians in non-violent ways and advocates for an end to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, now in its fiftieth year, and for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It also provides a protective presence for vulnerable Palestinian communities. Every three months about 25 Ecumenical Accompaniers from around the world are sent to Occupied Palestine to experience what life is like for Palestinians.
Life for Palestinians
My placement was in a very rural part of the West Bank called the South Hebron Hills. Most people in this beautiful, but arid, area live a traditional life as shepherds and farmers. Aspects of their way of life seem barely changed since biblical times.
Food is of central importance in Palestinian culture and, as I feasted on delicious bread and other foods cooked in the traditional tabun oven, it was easy to imagine this beautiful land as a potential centre of agri-tourism.
However, the tortuous difficulties faced by farmers and their families in the South Hebron Hills provide a snapshot of the enormous problems faced by all Palestinians in almost every aspect of their lives because of the oppressive policies of the occupation.
These are countless but include military checkpoints which restrict peoples’ movements, including to their own farms; the restraint on Palestinians building any structure without a permit the Israeli authorities generally refuse to grant, forcing people to build without one, making their homes vulnerable to demolition; the Separation Wall which cuts off access to Jerusalem; and the constant threat of violence from Israeli settlers.
The occupation has led to a drastic fall in living standards and deep levels of poverty. Because of its budget deficits, the Palestinian government is unable to meet the most basic needs of their society.
This political, social and legal environment obviously has a detrimental impact on everyone but older people, who have borne witness to it over so many years, are particularly vulnerable.
Signs of hope
In such a corrosive environment the resilience of Palestinian, and many Israeli, people frequently astonished me. Two people, both of whom happen to be older, stand out.
One of them is Hanna Barag, an Israeli woman who set up an organisation of Israeli women, called Machsomwatch, when she was in her late 60s. They monitor and document human rights abuses at Israeli army checkpoints. Twenty years on, Machsomwatch consists of 250 women and Hanna continues to be a leading member.
The other is Suleiman, an elder of the Bedouin community of Umm al Khair in the South Hebron Hills. Suleiman told me that when he was a young man, following the founding of the Israeli state in 1948, the Bedouin were moved from the Negev desert and settled in their present home on land that cost 100 camels.
In 1983 the Israeli settlement of Carmel was established nearby on land that was taken from the Bedouin and settlers have since waged a campaign of harassment against them. However, Suleiman continues to lead his community with wisdom and restraint.
Leaving Palestine, and all of the friends I made there, I took with me some comfort knowing that because of people like Hanna and Suleiman there is still hope for peace with justice in Palestine.