Peacemakers at the grass roots in Israel and Palestine

Peacemakers at the grass roots in Israel and Palestine

The Palestinian-Israeli-Arab conflict is one of the most complex and unresolved disputes of the modern age. So, what could you and your Congregation possibly do to get involved with such
a complicated international issue, so far away? A delegation from the Synod of NSW and the ACT visited this ongoing war zone earlier this year, to hear from people who live within the Israel/Palestine conflict. Hoping to learn about the peace process beyond politics, the tour gathered stories, experiences and organisations, which Congregations can engage with and support.

In a first for the Uniting Church in Australia, a study tour of Palestine and Israel included leaders within the UCA, as well as the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (JBD) and the Inner West Chavara (a local Sydney Jewish group). The tour consisted of 22 people, 12 Jews and 10 Christians who all are part of the ongoing NSW and ACT Synod interfaith dialogue with the Jewish community in NSW.

The aim was to allow Jews and Christians to come together and spend equal time in both Israel and Palestine — offering various points of view, from inside the conflict. The hope was that the group might discern a pro-Palestine, pro-Israel, pro-peace perspective.

The study tour was the result of two years of dialogue between the Relations with Other Faiths (ROF) committee and the Jewish community about the issue of identity, peace, justice, anti-semitism, Islamophobia and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The group met with 55 high profile and grassroots speakers including Dr Rami Hamdallah, the Prime Minister of Palestine, and David Keyes, Spokesperson for the Prime Minister of Israel. But far from such political heights, the tour spotlit the role that grassroots programs can play in the peace process for Palestine and Israel. Going beyond media bias or political slogans, the tour heard stories from everyday people.

Former Moderator Jim Mein, who is also a member of the ROF Committee, was part of the tour and highlights one way that Uniting Church Congregations can be a voice for the voiceless in the Palestine/Israel conflict. “Supporting grassroots projects is one way to create a real chance for peace, in the absence of a political solution to the continued occupation of Palestine,” said Mr. Mein.

“It’s a practical way Uniting Church Congregations here in Australia could well embrace.”

Other UCA tour participants included Moderator Rev. Myung Hwa Park, Congress Chairperson Diane Torrens, the former General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in Australia, Rev. Tara Curlewis, and members of the ROF committe, including Jolyon Bromley, Allan West and Stewart Mills. Other lay people were also part of the tour.

The most memorable meeting for Stewart Mills was with grassroots initiative, Parents Circle Families Forum (PCFF). Mills and the touring group from Australia met PCFF members Rami Elhanan, a Jewish Israeli man, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian man.

Rami’s 14-year-old daughter and her friends were killed in a Palestinian suicide bombing. Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter was shot by an Israeli soldier outside her school. Incredibly, tragic losses such as these continue to bring parents from opposite sides of the conflict together to fight for peace.

Hearing stories such as those shared by Rami and Bassam left an indelible mark on the visiting group. “Both men, instead of choosing revenge to deal with this horror, decided to come together as a way to deal with their losses,” recalls Mills, who also is a member of Balmain Uniting Church. “They don’t want anyone else to experience the pain they have experienced. When you hear their stories, it is remarkable, as is the love they have for each other.”

The majority of participants on the study tour describe it as profound, moving and one of the most intense experiences of their lives. Jim Mein agrees and adds that one of the biggest issues “is that the dehumanisation of each ‘other’ by both Palestinians and Israelis is a major obstacle to peace. Because of the status quo of occupation and separation, Palestinians mostly see Israelis as violent and aggressive soldiers or settlers; and Jewish-Israelis mostly see Palestinians as potential terrorists.”

“We were told that approximately 70 per cent of each side of the population wants peace. I think the growth of the NGOs in some key areas can contribute to peace. I think peace is going to come from the people.”

A step to “rehumanising” the other is for Israelis and Palestinians to meet each other and work together as neighbours, not enemies.

“It was inspiring to witness cooperative work by Palestinians and Israelis seeking to change the status quo. Both face misperceptions of each other — and this seems an essential means to build peace,” says Mein.

In the absence of a political solution, Mein reveals that “we were heartened to see people working on the ground, Palestinians and Israelis alike, building peace.”

Lisa Sampson

The study tour was made possible by ‘Breaking Bread Journeys’ a joint Israeli-Palestinian tour project that builds bridges by “breaking bread”. Co-founders Christina Samara, a Palestinian, and Elisa Moed, an Israeli, along with their expert guides, truly created a unique experience.

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