"As is" reference - not a United Nations document
"Israel has a right to defend itself. But it appears that, in the name of security, injustices are being done to the Palestinians that amount to collective punishment," said Jacqueline Scott, a member of the Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns (AIPJC). The delegation also included members of the Executive Council's Social Responsibility in Investments (SRI) committee and Phoebe Griswold, wife of Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold.
Accompanied by Christian Peacemakers Team members, the delegation toured Hebron, a city of 120,000 Palestinians where the Tomb of the Patriarchs is located. About 400 Israeli settlers live in apartments confiscated from Palestinians close to the Tomb, a site venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims. "The settlers throw garbage from their upper floor windows onto the Palestinian shopkeepers below, and the Palestinians have to put netting up over the walkway to prevent being hit by the debris," said Mary Miller, a member of the commission. "The Israelis control all Palestinian movements in and out of the city, and inside the city as well, effectively making it a jail whenever they want to turn the key," she added. "It's a tinderbox."
'Time is running out'
The group also visited Ma'ale Adumim, a major settlement in the West Bank. The Israeli government has recently announced plans to expand the settlement with an additional 3,500 homes, which will effectively close off the last corridor between the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and between the Southern and Northern West Bank, the group was told. President Bush has criticized the planned expansion.
East Jerusalem is internationally recognized as part of the Occupied Territories, even though Israel unilaterally annexed it to West Jerusalem. An estimated 400,000 Israelis live in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The settlements are divided into blocs that extend their geographical areas far beyond the actual housing areas, the delegation was informed. The group also visited another large settlement bloc, Gush Etzion.
In a visit to Bethlehem, the group passed through a part of Israel's separation barrier, built inside the pre-1967 border (the "Green Line"), a nine-meter-high wall around the city, and noted that Rachel's Tomb, another venerated holy site, has been placed on the Jerusalem side of the barrier, cutting off access from Bethlehem where it is located. The Israeli government maintains the barrier is built to provide security to Israel.
"What the commission members found the most shocking of all was that the Wall or Separation Barrier or Fence, as it is variously called, is perceived by all parties as being almost entirely underwritten by the American taxpayer," said Michele Spike, another member of the commission. "The Wall invades Palestinian fields, dividing grazing lands -- including the valley of the shepherds at Bethlehem -- and, at times, encircling Palestinian cities."
The delegation observed that some parts of the separation barrier cut off Palestinians from one another and often makes a two-minute walk into a journey of a mile or more. Family members or friends often find it difficult to see each other, which has hugely negative effects on Palestinian society, the group learned.
Checkpoints causing chaos
Numerous Israeli checkpoints slowed the delegation's movements in Palestinian areas. Congestion at one in Ramallah forced the group to take a 90-minute detour on a drive to Jerusalem that normally takes 20 minutes. "We were told that the checkpoints may be the most vexing frustration of all to the Palestinians, because everybody is affected by them virtually every day," commented Kim Byham, member of the Episcopal Church's Executive Council and liaison to SRI.
Bypass roads constructed for use by settlers transferring back and forth between the West Bank and Israel were another source of contention. "Whatever good intentions may have been behind them, these super highways, funded by U.S. tax dollars, effectively divide the Palestinian communities of the West Bank," said Spike. "Palestinian families who live on one side of the road are prevented from crossing the road, even on foot, to farm land or to visit relatives who happen to live on the opposite side of the road."
The delegation also heard about effects of the occupation on Israelis from a number of Jewish peace groups, including B'Tselem and New Profile. They argued that the financial and human costs of the Occupation are harmful to Israelis as well as to Palestinians. In addition to the infrastructure costs of checkpoints and the separation barrier, the human toll on soldiers, security-force members, and their families was becoming increasingly harmful to Israeli society, the groups said. They called for justice and security for both sides.
On its first full day, the group visited Gaza where they saw the work of the Ahli Arab Hospital, an institution of the Diocese of Jerusalem.
Phoebe Griswold lamented the conditions that make it difficult for the hospital to function effectively. "Despite the obstacles, the ministry of the hospital to a community so bereft of basic health services was awesome to see," she said. "The director of the hospital, Suheila Tarazi, and her staff are incredible laborers in the vineyard under impossible circumstances."
Griswold and the Rev. Charles Cloughen Jr., members of the board of the American Friends of the Diocese of Jerusalem, presented monetary gifts from the organization.
An estimated 1.3 million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, about half in refugee camps, making the strip one of most densely populated areas in the world. Israel plans to remove its 8,000 settlers from Gaza this summer, a development that could propel the peace process but still has drawbacks, according to local voices. "Palestinians told us the withdrawal from Gaza still leaves Israel in charge of land, sea and air rights, as well as controlling basic needs like drinking water. They feel they'll still be living in a prison," said the Rev. Kathleen Cullinane of Indianapolis, member of the SRI committee.
On the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, the group was moved by a visit to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum that serves as a memorial to the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, and noted Christian complicity in one of history's most devastating atrocities. The next day the group was reminded by a rabbi that Israelis today live under the constant fear of suicide bombers as he spoke of his daily worry each time his son boarded a public bus. "Violence against innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli, is immoral and a huge impediment to peace," said Miller, former executive of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship. "If the cycle of violence can be broken, a just peace is possible."
The peace commission members are working on a report to the Episcopal Church's 2006 General Convention, which will meet in Columbus, Ohio. The SRI committee is to report to Executive Council in October on whether the Episcopal Church is profiting from its investments in corporations that support the infrastructure of the occupation and violence against innocent Israelis and Palestinians. "We found it's a complicated issue and we have considerable work ahead to gather the information we need," said Cullinane.
The delegation spent Orthodox Easter Day in St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Ramallah and heard from members of the congregation about the conflict. The group also met with several Palestinian non-governmental organizations, as well as with a number of Israeli groups, including B'Tselem, Bereaved Parents Circle, the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions and the American Jewish Committee. The Palestinian Authority also received the delegation. A request made repeatedly to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a meeting was denied.
Members of the delegation included:
AIPJC – Mary Miller, Jacqueline Scott, Michele Spike
SRI – Kim Byham (Executive Council), the Reverend Kathleen Cullinane
Peace and Justice Ministries (PJM) Staff –Brian Grieves, Harry Van Buren
For further information contact:
AIPJC, Mary Miller – 410.783.1847, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
SRI, Kim Byham – 914.390.8006, email: Kim.Byham@NYPA.gov
PJM – Brian Grieves, 800.334.7626, ext 5207, email: email@example.com
-- Brian Grieves is director of Peace and Justice Ministries for the Episcopal Church.