– As partners of the Kairos Britain initiative, we wanted to highlight this years’ World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel (18th – 24th September 2016) by encouraging our members in the Christian faith communities to share their experiences with you. Tom and Gill reflect on their experience of the holy city of Jerusalem during a recent study tour amidst escalating violence…
I had visited Jerusalem with ICAHD before, in 2012. The situation had been tense, with occasional missiles from the blockaded people in Gaza, and terrible retaliation from Israeli troops. This time random attacks on Jews had produced an atmosphere of fear. As a result our group was probably the smallest that had been escorted on one of ICAHD’s study tours. But I wanted to revisit the people who had made us so welcome. Surely we could go for a few days when this was a life-long reality to them.
My partner and I decided to spend a few days in Jerusalem before the official tour began, and stayed by the Damascus Gate. The Old City was full of detachments of troops and police who brandished their weapons from behind barriers, and occasionally stopped young men to search them. Groups of young Jewish men in long black coats hurried defiantly through the Arab and Christian quarters of the Old City, barging their way though. Some, on electric bikes, a new development, carved a path at speed, as though they were trying to avoid attack, seemingly unaware of how provocative their behaviour appeared. The local population were being terrorised, and everyone seemed afraid to linger by the shops and stalls. Even groups of Christian pilgrims, following the way of the Cross on Friday, were shoved aside by men in ultra-orthodox dress.
The bold Israeli flags put up in the non-Jewish quarters had increased considerably in number. A more worrying feature was that it was evident that some new Jewish incomers had been throwing things down from upper windows on to the people beneath. Steel girders, metal grills and tarpaulins had been erected to protect the passers-by on the street, as I had previously seen in Hebron. Of course it would appear that no attempt was made to stop them from abusing the people below. But then, in Hebron we’d heard of Jewish settlers from the USA firing their guns at Palestinians without fear of any response from the law.
Was this the Holy City which had drawn pilgrims for millennia? Was this outcrop of rock, virtually devoid of natural resources to support community, such a prize that it had been fought over almost from the dawn of history? And it had all the appearance of a battleground.
We were suddenly presented with a completely different view of Jerusalem. Joyful singing first made us aware of a large group of pilgrims from Nigeria. As they came into view we saw that both men and women were dressed in the same brightly coloured fabric. They took over the street, swaying in time to their music, praising God, changing the entire mood, and mingling happily with everyone they passed. They were on their way from the Mount of Olives and the Church of All Nations and were now heading along the Via Dolorosa towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. With everyone around we felt more relaxed, more at peace, and yes, we wanted to sing with them.
We returned to our hotel by the Damascus Gate. A group of security men were abusing a young Palestinian as they searched him. The contents of his rucksack were scattered. He’d had to take off his shoes and they were kicked away. Shopkeepers on the other side of the street looked on helplessly. We passed the street where passers by were protected from missiles by metal grills, and the gateway with the Israeli banners. That night we heard of an attack on soldiers at the Damascus Gate.
We had heard that Jeff Halper, our guide, was more worried than he had ever been about going into the Old City. But there was no evidence that tourists were being targeted or even caught up in any violence. We were ready to support him, and discover at first-hand what was happening across the city.
– Written by Tom & Gill Ambrose.
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