Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Pope's visit to Aida refugee camp

As I watched The Ten O'Clock News last night a story came on about the Pope's visit to the West Bank. I paid particular attention to the section regarding his visit to Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, as it was a place I'd visited myself just a few weeks earlier.

We were able to meet a Palestinian family living in Aida and hear some of their story. The father told us about life in the camp and we heard a harrowing account of a young boy being shot dead from a watch tower and of the violence during the second Intifada.

He also told us about the giant key, which has been made and now sits above the main gate into the camp. For Palestinian refugees, the key represents the right to return to their homes, which they fled during the 1948 war. He showed us the stage, which was being erected for the Pope's visit and the route he would take.

When I saw the news story, I thought of this family with whom I'd become friends and so I decided to email him to ask what he made of the Pope's visit. I've copied his response below, but left out his name for security.

Hi Joff, It's good to hear from you again.

Yes the Pope's visit was so exiting for all of us here in Aida. The ceremony went well and we presented him with two gifts specially made for his Holiness. The first was embroidered shawl. On it was embroidered symbols from Palestine, religious and non-religious. The second was engraved stone which we brought from Typrese Galili Sea.

We presented a Dabka show (a Folkloric dance) from our kids. Also our kids scouts marched in front of the Pope before entering the school on the beats of the drums. President Abbas and PM Fayyad was here too for the reception.

I think what the Pope said in his speech was great and his remarks on the homeless Palestinians and their sufferings are well received here, even if it was a little but ambiguous as it didn't mention the right of return but still we got what we wanted to hear. Also his remarks were made while sitting in front the wall, which was good. He said it brought the stalemate of the situation as it is now because of this wall. But his remarks afterwards in the President's Palace was the symbol and the highlight of our achievements in His Holines visit. He said he was disgusted with the presence of the wall and was deeply moved by the suffering of the Palestinian families. This is great for us.

He also donated 70,000 Euro's for building new classrooms for our schools in the camp, and we thanked him for that. We gave him two letters. One from our people in the camp, thanking him for choosing our camp for his visit and the other asking him to intervene to stop the misery of the deportees of the Church Of Nativity siege. We asked him to intervene to the Israeli government to allow those deportees to come back home. I have attached the camps letter for you to read. I will send you more photos of His Holiness visit next time.

The Israelis were very furious at the Pope for visiting us and sitting in front the Wall where tens of media were broadcasting live images of the Wall.
I gave a few interviews with media and some of the journalists said that there was not enough clapping of hands during the Pope's speech. I explained that the translation was so weak and volume so low and also because people were overwhelmed by the presence of The Pope and President Abbas and PM Fayyad, so they weren't sure what to do especially with presence of so many security forces. We were told so many things that we were not allowed do by the security forces and secret service during the visit so we were unsure and overwhelmed. We greeted the pope with the clapping but some media said it wasn't good enough.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

To Support New Profile

Read about what you can do to support New Profile at

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Targetting of Israeli Peace Orgs

On Sunday I facilitated a simulation with a friend for my Quaker meeting about the situation in Palestine and Israel. In a group of 16 young people and adults we explored what it would be like to be Palestinian or Israeli and the challenges and fear which both groups face. During the discussion after the simulation many people had questions about my trip out there, organisations I had visited and people who I’d met. Many were glad to hear of the Israeli peace organisations who I’d met and we spent some time discussing how challenging their work must be due to the huge opposition they face from their friends, family, community and even government.

This morning I have been horrified to come into work and find out that New Profile has once again experienced harassment from the Israeli government for their work. New Profile is a group of feminist women and men that dare to suggest that Israel need not be a militarized society. They are being wrongfully accused of inciting young people--like the shministim--not to enlist in the army. The charge is not true. While New Profile does not tell youngsters not to enlist, they certainly support those who do not: pacifists, those who oppose the occupation, and others. New Profile informs them of their rights and gives them legal support when necessary. But Israel is a country that does not acknowledge the basic human right to conscientious objection.

I hope we can all hold them, and their work, in our thoughts and prayers.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Taking a Stand: Talking to the Shministim

On Friday 13th March I travelled down to London to see one of the most inspiring peace activists that I have come across while working for Fellowship of Reconciliation. Tamar Katz is a 19 year old Israeli who is part of the Shministim, a group of Israeli high school students who are refusing to join the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) due to their occupation of Palestine. Conscientious objectors are few in Israel, especially those who publicly oppose the Israeli Occupation of Palestine, and this group is especially important as they have spend time promoting their views and gaining worldwide support for their actions.

Organised by London School of Economics’ Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the event and was one of many talks Tamar had given during a two week visit to the United Kingdom. Her story started in 2006 when she was 16 when the Israeli army first got in touch with her about the required military service Israelis do upon leaving high school. This was also the time of the Lebanon-Israel war where big demonstrations were held in Israel against the war, which Tamar took part in. After participating in these demonstrations Tamar decided she should know more about the IDF before joining up.

Tamar took part in a community service year to give her more time to make a decision, and was placed to work in a community. Its leader helped Tamar think through some of the challenges she was facing and put her in touch with New Profile, a movement for the civil-isation of Israeli society, which helped her write to the military to say she was a pacifist.

Tamar decided to find out more about what was happening in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and decided to part in a tour of Hebron organised by Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers committed to speaking out about their experiences and to exposing human rights abuses by the Israeli military. Tamar describes this as a turning point for her as the inequality gap she saw between her home in Tel Aviv and Hebron contrasted starkly, despite their close geographical proximity. She was shocked by the hostility and violence Israeli soldiers demonstrated, not just towards her for ‘betraying’ her country, but towards the Palestinians who were just trying to live their lives.

Tamar felt she couldn’t keep quiet about what she had experienced. She felt that it wasn’t enough to say she was a pacifist, but also wanted to also reveal what is going on in Palestine. So when she was called for her pacifist exam by the IDF she wrote about why she objected. In the exam you are not meant to make any criticism of the politics of Israel, but Tamar decided this was an important stand to make. She also during this time joined with some friends and organisations and called for a meeting to unite in their conscientious objection, and this founded the Shministim.

On her recruitment day (when she was asked to report to the IDF offices for military service) 50-60 people demonstrated outside of the camp on her and her friends behalf. Each time she has refused to serve Tamar has been imprisoned, and she has now served three sentences amounting to 51 days. She has recently secured an exemption based upon mental health problems so that she is no longer eligible for military service or imprisonment for conscientiously objecting. Tamar believed that otherwise she would have spent the next 2/3 years going in and out of prison and also recognises her actions will probably affect her future career and employment options.

Her work now focuses on trying to share information with teenagers who will be joining the IDF in the next few years and talking to Palestinians. She is concerned with trying to close the gap in between the Israeli and Palestinian societies and trying to communicate with as many people as possible – from all sides.

Tamar’s story is inspiring, as are the other stories of the Shministim. Tamar admitted how hard it was when her family didn’t support her actions or political views when she started, but how she gained strength from the support the Shministim were able to give each other. Tamar says her family have also realised that this is not just a phase and that they must support her. There are many like Tamar out there: young Israelis who want to conscientiously object, or IDF soldiers who refuse to serve outside of Israel’s 1967 boarders. However, when I met Tamar, I found it hard to see why the young Israeli who spoke in halting English poses such a threat to Israel that they imprisoned her and her friends for their beliefs.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Boycott Israeli Goods?

Over the last few months, many of us have been actively taking action to register our opposition to the Israeli government siege of Gaza. There has been a move to boycott Israeli companies - military and non-military - and companies which accept Israeli products, especially those grown in settlements. Corporate Watch have published the first of a couple of articles examining this for people who want to know more, which can be read here.

FoR has also just published an article examining Britain’s role within the history of the conflict, which is available to read and download from here. Any comments or suggestions are welcome and can be emailed to the FoR office via

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Five Daughters: A New Martyn Joseph Song for the People of Gaza

I write this in tears because I cannot face the truth of it. Why do we allow these things to happen? How do David Milliband and Hilary Clinton sleep at night without doing something about this?

I grew up in a large family, the eldest of five children.

When I was 17, my youngest sister was two. If ever I was depressed - as I often was in my late teenage years - she'd cuddle up on my lap and say "Don't worry David". "Don't worry" were some of the first words she learned. She's eight now, but her positive nature still lights up my life.

When I was 21, my second youngest sibling, Grace, was nine. I left for university that year, and when Grace found out about it she spent and evening howling the house down. Each time I'd visit home, when the time came for me to leave, they'd be an outburst of uncontrollable tears. She's 12 now, but she still makes sure she's the first to run and bearhug me whenever I visit.

On 30th December, five Palestinian sisters were killed by an Israeli rocket as they slept in their Gaza home.

Five siblings, still so close that they slept together in the same room. Singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph was so horrified when he heard the news that he wrote about it the next day in his online diary:

"Five Palestinian sisters were killed during an attack from Israel yesterday. Amazingly enough they were lying together asleep when the deadly rocket hit the mosque next door to their flimsy house causing the roof to collapse on them. The eldest was 17, the youngest 4. Their names were Tahir, Ikram, Sarnar, Dina and Jawaher. ‘They grow up day after day and night after night, within a second I have lost them’. Those were the words of their father Anwar Balousha who turned on fellow Palestinians who tried to turn the burial into a political gain saying ‘this is a funeral, not a rally’. He continued saying ‘we are not those who are firing rockets at Israel, we are just people, human beings and not animals’. [...]

"Five sisters managed to close their eyes and drift off despite the injustice they lived and breathed on a small strip of land. Just another night for them but it all ended in a second. This enrages me; I know it enrages many thousands of good people. How does this happen? This violence will solve nothing and will only fuel a fire that will continue to burn and bring more violence and loss of life and a greater distance from justice and peace. [...] The world is too small for us to live this way."
Martyn channelled his anger into writing a song, which he has made available for free download here.

Please download the song and share it with your friends.

Also today I received an email that directed me an article by Ellen Cantarow about the situation in Gaza. Although I have some appreciation of what it's like in Gaza, I could never find words to describe it as hard-hitting as Cantarow's:

"Gaza is an immense concentration camp — 1.5 million people squeezed into 140 square miles hemmed in on all sides by 25-foot-high walls separated by a vast expanse of bulldozed earth.

"Gaza is still controlled by Israel from air and sea, its entries and exits prisonlike mazes electronically controlled and under constant surveillance. Bombing it, assaulting it with tanks and Uzis, is like shooting animals in a pen. The claptrap about “pinpoint” accuracy and “avoiding civilians” is a lie so flagrant, so transparent, that any child — certainly any Gaza child — could grasp it."
If you do nothing else today, please sign this postcard of protest to David Milliband.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Israel's Military

I was shocked when we were in Palestine/Israel by the number of guns we saw - real guns slung across the shoulders of the security forces, Israeli and Palestinian, 'toy' guns carried by young boys, and most alarmingly, the Israeli settler gathering that took place in our hotel, where most of the male, adult civilians had guns, as well as a large contingent of IDF accompanying them.

The military is the largest industry in Israel, and certainly, off-duty IDF soldiers carry their weapons home with them. Israel has provided military and security assistance to many countries, including training the London Metropolitan Special Operations Unit.

However, someone must be propping up Israel's military, and it's not just the US. The UK supplies Apache helicopters to Israel, the helicopters that are being used in the attack on Gaza. The UK also supply components to US-supplied weaponry. Please visit for more information, and let your MP know you want the UK to stop supplying weapons to Israel.