If a non-event can be a highlight, then perhaps this was it. We drove to the perimeter of Gaza and gazed across the wall at what lay beyond. We couldn’t get in: we hadn’t really expected to, we didn’t have permission.
Since just after Christmas we had been part of World Vision’s global advocacy response to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza following Israel’s assault there. We had been lobbying governments to put pressure on the Israelis to allow access for relief workers and for goods vital for helping people rebuild their fragile existence.
World Vision is supporting around 78,000 individuals in Gaza, both in the north and the south of the enclave, with food parcels, blankets and hygiene kits as well as providing psychosocial activities for some 1,200 children. Plans are underway for recovery-orientated projects, but the Israeli government has seemed to be deaf to appeals to allow further necessary goods in. We continue to lobby: we had to go and see.
And we had to reflect that this is part of a pattern which governs the lives of millions of Palestinians, who by a process of attrition find themselves increasingly marginalised and their lives made ever more impossible. Access is the issue, or rather denial of it: fundamentally it is about access to basic human rights, but the question of access to physical space is a visible sign of that.
We met Jamal who drives a taxi. He is from East Jerusalem. His grandfather lives a short distance away in the Occupied Palestinian Territory of the West Bank. For them to meet is now impossible, partly because it is impossible to get the necessary permission, but all the more so as Israeli settlements encroach on Palestinian territory and remove the connections between people and places which are needed to make a viable community, society and economy.
Families are fragmented by this further attrition by demographic stealth. Remarkable really that people remain so resilient and that, according to the UN, 90% of Palestinian children remain stubbornly optimistic about the future.
And then there is the wall, which is an extension of the same pattern of attrition. We visited part of it near the beautiful Al Mahrour mountain near the iconic town of Bethlehem. Here, Palestinian Christians – who are an increasingly vulnerable and threatened minority – have seen property confiscated and now find themselves cut off by the wall from their land, which penetrates deep into Palestinian territory, its route challenging its stated purpose of simply keeping out terrorists.
In the face of this: what can you say? That is World Vision’s question to its supporters and to the international community in general.
Actually, there are real opportunities. Highlighting the plight – even simply the existence – of vulnerable minorities like the Christians of Al Mahrour could be a wake up call to many. Public opinion, including that of the churches, has a strong influence on USA and international policy towards Israel and it is arguably ill-informed about the nature of the conflict in the poignantly-named ’holy land.’
It is still possible to acknowledge the historical grievance of the Jewish people, and support their right to exist and prosper within Israel, but at the same time to recognise that this very sense of grievance has fostered an instinct to define, separate, defend and exclude which is now oppressing millions of Palestinians in turn, and helps to fuel the very acts of violence against which they are trying to defend themselves.
It need not be so, and there are those on both sides of the conflict who are reaching out with a more inclusive vision. We visited Jewish rabbis working for the human rights of Palestinians: some of these rabbis have sat in front of bulldozers to prevent the confiscation of land. We met Palestinians from all walks of life, who endure with incredible patience, and reach out to their Jewish counterparts.
We talked with a group of Israeli students in the town of Sderot, just over the border from the Gaza Strip, where rockets launched by Palestinian militants land on a regular basis. They are part of a programme supported by World Vision, which involves them meeting with their Palestinian counterparts, building bridges.
If the problem is one of access, then part of the solution must be bridges: bridges between people on either side of an entrenched conflict; but bridges cannot be built on the shifting sands of a well-intentioned hope that people will simply bury their differences. They need the sure foundation of justice; and justice itself requires an acknowledgement of the fundamental denial of rights and the realities of the dynamics of power: despite a strongly-felt sense of victim-hood by both sides, unless the plight of the Palestinian community is addressed, bridges will only be built on flaky foundations.
The children, families and communities with which World Vision works believe that – despite everything – there is a future worth working for. It is captured in the essential resilience of ordinary people, and above all in the optimism and hope of the children. It is in their name, and standing alongside them, that the international community must support the work of digging out foundations of justice and building bridges of reconciliation.
Michael French is the Director of Advocacy for World Vision UK. He visited the Palestinian Territory and Israel in March 2009