I spent last summer as a volunteer on the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. Participants in this World Council of Churches initiative spend three months living in the region to try to learn more how the conflict affects ordinary people.
On a day-to-day basis we were monitor-ing violations of human rights and international law, providing protection by our presence, and supporting both Israelis and Palestinians in their non-violent acts of resistance to the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
It was my first trip to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the first time I had ever been involved in this kind of accompaniment work; there was a lot to learn about the complexities of the conflict and the role that such an international force could or should take in that conflict.
I found the situation in Israel/Palestine so volatile that it was difficult to know what to do at times. Even in the same place with the same people, every day brought new and different challenges. It made it almost impossible to have any kind of strategy.
One of my jobs was to accompany Palestinian farmers in their daily struggle to cross through one of the gates in the separation wall to their land on the other side. On some days, the atmosphere when the Israeli defence forces came to unlock the gate was cordial even relaxed, everyone knew the drill and went about their roles, collecting and checking ID's, with black humour and banter. On other days it was far more tense, with the soldiers regarding this, the unlocking of a gate, as a highly dangerous military operation and the farmers in a subdued, nervous huddle.
A reassuring presence
What of my role in all of this? At the beginning I felt the need to justify my presence there by intervening, trying to talk to soldiers about the injustice of the situation, or persuading them to keep the gate open for a few more minutes because I knew that more farmers still hadn't crossed. But my Hebrew and Arabic consisted of about ten words between them, and the farmers had far more understanding of the situation and the skills to negotiate if that was what was needed.
So, slowly but surely over the days and weeks I was less and less active, sitting or standing in the background, I hope as a reassurance to both parties. That reassurance, I think, helping to keep the situation calm, helping to allow people to treat each other as human beings despite the abnormal circumstances, preventing the tension from boiling over into violence.
This was a strange sensation for some-one brought up in Britain where the working atmosphere is based on achievement and productivity. There were no goals or deadlines, just watching the farmers go to and return safely from work was a success.
My change of attitude applied to the larger demonstrations against the occupation as well. I saw many successful and nonviolent actions, but also saw those that descended into stone throwing, tear gas and rubber bullets.
People have the right, and probably the need, to express their outrage at the many injustices of the situation in the Occupied Territories and Israel, but it maintains the adversarial nature of the situation and keeps any resolution at a distance. No-one will regard the Israeli military with great affection after being tear gassed, and similarly the army will not overcome their fear of Palestinians after having stones thrown at them. Non-violent inaction?!Non-violent inaction will never be a great catch phrase, but it struck me as a good description of what I was doing and an effective strategy. For me the turning point was one afternoon: after a couple of hours of fruitless negotiation at a check-point I sat down in the shade and watched with increasing amazement as the tension disappeared between the soldiers and the Palestinian young men waiting there. Then as sunset approached and the soldier's evening meal arrived, they came and shared their food and drink with those same men they had kept waiting for hours, before checking their ID's and allowing them through to their village.
I don't believe that anyone likes the situation they find themselves in, in Israel/Palestine, but for me the difficulty is how to get past the misconceptions and stereotypes, to allow people to understand each other and relate to the tragedies of each other's lives. If international peacemakers can help to bring about this atmosphere of trust and reconciliation then it might just alleviate some of the suffering,at least on a very local level, while the politicians attempt the far more difficult task of reconciling the two administrations.