Wednesday, May 23, 2012

First Thoughts from Home

 So I've been back in Blightly for a week now, and my head is still spinning with everything I took in. Lots of people have asked me about it, and I've struggled to know what to say. My standard response has been that it was amazing, mind-blowing and very emotional. But that isn't really doing it justice, and isn't sharing the stories we heard. Luckily, I already have a few talks planned, hopefully I'll work out what to say by then...

But one of the main things I've realised came from a discussion I had on Facebook with an old school friend while I was out there. I commented that our hotel was out of water, and he responded saying that he hoped I wouldn't be 'one of those people who blames Israel for everything.' He then spoke a lot about the history, how Palestinian's had done things wrong, etc etc, all the usual arguments.

I responded with some of the stories that we had heard; of limited water, forty year legal disputes over land ownership, and how a boy saw the Wall go up in Bethlehem in three days, and hasn't seen the other end of his road since. Suddenly (in my mind), the issues surrounding Palestine were no longer the geopolitical issues, or debating different historical perspectives that they had been for me before, as I studied International Politics in a lecture theatre in mid-Wales. It is now a series of personal issues. I've met people who spent months in prison for taking part in peaceful demonstrations, people who want to move out of Palestine for a better life, people who refuse to move because it is their home. I've met people who (it appears to me) have been misled by their governments, who live in fear, and who believe that their pasts give them a right to force people out of their homes.

The issues have become about justice, peace and freedom, rather than statistics, resolutions and borders.
When I do my talks, and when I'm asked about it, I will tell the personal stories, talk about the groups we met, and hopefully allow people to make up their own minds.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Day Eight: Heading Home and some reflections

This morning we packed up and left Tiberius, heading for the seaside at Caesarea. We spent a short time sunbathing and paddling before I broke out the frisbee and we had a chuck about. I've spotted some potential talent for 'Methodiscs'. I did manage to cut my foot at shred the knee of my trousers due to a dedicate dive for the disc, landing on some pebbles. But I got the disc, which is the important thing. We ate our picnic lunch under the arch of the aqueduct built by Herod the Great, before boarding the bus for the final time and setting off down to the airport in Tel Aviv.

We had our first goodbyes there, as we said farewell to our driver and to Kate, who is staying on in Palestine for another week. Then we ended the interesting system that is Ben Gorion airport. Rather than the standard check-in, security, passport control seen in most airports, Israel added another step. Before check-in you have to queue up to have your hold luggage x-rayed. There seemed to be no logic to the process, as we were sent to three different queues. There was also some in depth questioning for some. Meg got asked how many pairs of shoes were in her bag. Apparently it's six! The rest of the system was fairly standard, and when we made it to the departure lounge we were a little hungry, so we shared some pizzas for Pizza Hut! Unfortunately, my colleague discount card isn't valid outside the UK.

And now I'm writing this at 40000ft somewhere between Prague and Nurnberg. I'm not looking forward to landing, and saying goodbye to Nive, Sam, Tim, Meg, Anna, Alison, Sharon and Becky. Over the last eight days, the 10 of us have really bonded, sharing plenty of laughs, a number of tears, some inspiring moments and plenty of in jokes. And I think we will all land at Heathrow different people to those who left.

So that's it, my Holy Land experience. I will probably blog a bit more over the next few weeks as the things I've seen and heard properly sink in. But I'd like to finish this with a prayer I wrote while sitting it the wind on the Mount of Beatitudes. (A little aside, I was listening to Great is He who's the King of Kings while I wrote this.)

Loving God,
We stand now on holy ground,
And as we do, we pray for those who are mourning.
Mourning for loved ones, for lost houses, land an livelihoods.
We mourn with them and ask that you give them comfort and hope.
We pray for those who hunger, for food and water,
But also for peace, justice and love.
We too hunger for all these things.
We pray for the peacemakers, working for peace around the world.
Help us to also build peace,
At home, in the church and in the world.
Almighty Father,
Bless us now, and let us be your hands
As we build your kingdom in this broken world.

Day Seven: Gallivanting in Galilee

Today was a much slower day than the past few. Our plan was to visit some of the Holy sites around the Sea of Galilee. We started with the Church of the feeding of the Multitude, where is is believed Jesus fed the 5000 men (and an unknown number of women and children) using the five loaves and two fish. I wasn't overly impressed with the church to be honest, even though it has 'the rock' that the food was blessed upon (I'm a little skeptical). Then we moved on to where Jesus appeared to the disciples when they were fishing after the Resurrection. It is a beautiful beach, and we spent some time in the water, skimming stones (which I'm sure Jesus would have done as he was waiting for the disciples). I was surprised that no one had thought of putting BBQs there. There was an amazing sense of calm there, which was counterpointed later in the day when we read about Jesus calming the storm.
Next stop was Capernium, where the is a stunningly beautiful Greek Orthodox church, the Monastery of the Twelve Apostles, which remembers the calling of the disciples. The pictures that covered the walls were incredible! We then went to what Nive referred to as a 'ninja picnic spot' loving over the Sea of Galilee, where we eat plenty, including a whole watermelon between the 10 of us. I'm sad to say a lot was thrown away.

Our final holy spot was the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Once again the scenery was stunning! We sat among a group of rocks and reflected of Luke 5. We had a time of silence, prayer and contemplation. The wind was pretty strong, but I felt totally at peace, and as I thought back to some of the things we have experienced I welled up. I also visited the Church on the Mount, which was totally underwhelming. Compared to being outside, surrounded by the wonders of creation, the church seemed totally devoid of any feeling. (This is my view, others in the group really liked it.)

We drove back to Tiberius and set out down to the water's edge to go swimming. Except we walked quite a way, finding that the beach was either for hotels' private use or just closed off... So we had an ice cream and then I went for a little lie down.

At dinner we had another random experience, as a massive group of young people arrived, apparently American Jews on a 'birthright trip' where they learn about their Jewish heritage. But what really caught us out was that one of their number was openly carrying a late pistol on her right hip. We all felt a little nervous to be around her. But we knew that it was there to make that group feel safe. Strange how it can have two polar opposite effects.

After dinner, we sat in the hotel lobby and Nive read through all the things we had down since we met up on Tuesday night. It was incredible to hear how we fitted some much into such a short time! And emotions were high, again I felt a tear or two. Nive read us a reflection on 'remarkable thing' which was beautiful. However there was someone playing some really dramatic music on the piano, which caused us all to crack up.

After a fairly heavy time of reflection, we headed down to a local bar for a few drinks, some wonderful conversation and an unwind. We got into the hotel at gone midnight, and I fell asleep almost straight away (hence not blogging).

It was strange to think that it was our last full day together, something I don't think any of us wanted to dwell on really.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Day Six: Wonder in the Wilderness.

After a good nights sleep for me at the Tent of Nations (though I think I was in a minority of one), we headed back to the Holy Land Trust's office in Bethlehem to pick up our cases and a few olive wood gifts, before traveling to Jerusalem to meet some students from the Rosberg International School, part of the Hebrew University. I had a very interesting chat with two girls, one from Tel Aviv and one originally from Leeds but who now lives out here, about how they feel about live in Israel, and the future for the region. Like Ardi yesterday, they seem to live in fear of Palestinians, and unsure how a peace could ever be reached. After a brief tour around the university, we got lunch before visiting a street where Israeli settlers are trying to take over house by house. We spoke to a man who has been involved in a legal battle since the 1970s over the ownership of his land. At the moment there is a case of a Palestinian family living in the front of a house, while a Jewish family lives in the back. It seems totally absurd to me.

Then we started our trip north, heading up the beautiful Jordan valley. We stopped at Wadi Qern, which is believed to be where Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness. The view was breathtaking! I must say the solitude and landscape was very appealing. I want to take a few days of supplies, a tarp and a bible and head out there on my own. Maybe I will one day.

Then we stopped off at Jericho, and took a picture of 'the tree' that Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus, though I must say it didn't look 2000 years old. After a short onward journey, we arrived at Tiberius, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. After dropping our bags off, we headed for dinner. Topics at the dinner table included a brief explanation of the finer points of Methodist Bureaucracy (which Kate asked for, I must say), the 1993 Human Sexuality Report, and vital things that need to go on shopping lists. We returned to the hotel lobby for further chats and games. We heard some good news, apparently the Israeli Government has accepted the demands of the Hunger Strikers (who's solidarity tent we visited in Ramallah), allowing family visits, stopping the use of solitary confinement and other issues. Hopefully this will bring an end to the 77 day hunger strike of two prisoners, and the other, shorter protests of some 2500 more.

Tomorrow is al-Nakba ('the Catastrophe') in which Palestinians remember the founding of the Israeli state. Tensions may be running high tomorrow, but we are well inside Israel now, so will be safe. But please pray that the protests in the Occupied Territories remain peaceful, and that a long term just peace will fall upon this land.

God bless.

Day 5: Settlers and the Tent of Nations

This morning we packed our kit and left Bethlehem. We went to visit Ardi, an American Jewish settler living in Efrata, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Many would say the settlement is illegal, but he stated that the West Bank is 'disputed territory' and therefore it is legal. I am still going to refer to them as illegal.

I got very annoyed with Ardi, mainly because it felt like arguing with a UKIP member. He always justified the Occupation as protecting the lives of Israelis, but seemed to avoid any questioning of his beliefs. He kept asking if we valued the right of free travel of Palestinians over the right to life of Israelis, something of a false dicotomy in my mind. He sidestepped a number of difficult questions, especially those that called on him looking at how just actions are. I am not sure whether is was lying in some of the things he said, or whether he doesn't know he is mistaken. He seemed to dispute easily provable facts. He also seemed to be living in fear. Most of his justifications were that Palestinians simply want to kill Jews. This is a massive generalisation. I'll be praying for him, because no one should live in fear. Though it was a hard few hours, it was vital, seeing arguments from the other side of the Wall.

Leaving the Settlement, we headed to Hebron, where we had lunch (falafel again) and then went into the city. Hebron is a divided city. There are approximately 500 Israeli settlers living in a city of 40000 Palestinians. We walked through the market, seeing shops welded shut, and houses abandoned. This is because they were too close to the Settlers houses. The streets had wire netting over them, to protect Palestinians from things thrown from the Settlers above. In one place, we could see six watchtowers, manned by the IDF to 'protect' the settlers. It was so depressing to see the hardships Palestinians face. I saw a water tank (used to store water due to the irregular water supply) which was riddled with bullet holes.

We then headed to Patriarchs' Tomb, the resting place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah. Even this was divided, following a massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers by a Jewish radical.

We then moved down the road to a shop where we brought some presents. While we were sat drinking tea (free hospitality!) three Apache helicopter gunships flew overhead. This made the most nervous I have been out here. We walked along another street of abandoned shops, the door of each had a Star of David graffiti'd on, but then covered over (not very well, many were still distinguishable). It had a haunting echo of pictures I had seen of Jewish shops following Kristallnacht, when shops were painted with swastikas.

We boarded the bus heading towards the Tent of Nations. We said goodbye to Iyad (our guide, the same one as Thursday). But before he went, he left us with some profound words. 'why should some children have more rights than my children?' and he said that his message to any pro-Israelis was ' just give us 2% of your heart'.

Tent of Nations is an organisation who have been in a legal battle for 21 years to prevent the confiscation of their 100 acres of land. They are surrounded by four settlements, one of which has a huge watchtower which had a massive Star of David on it, which is illuminated at night. They are such a inspiring cause, staying hopeful and peaceful. They also have a wonderful sense of humour, planting double the number of trees that were destroyed my the IDF, and building underground as they have been told they 'cannot build upon this land.' They work with young people to spread the message of peace. They have a few buildings above ground, but have a number of caves, which are amazing. I really want to live in one! We had food while in the meeting cave, and have spent the evening playing a card game version of Monopoly. Now we are in camp beds in a large tent without a door. There are still helicopters about.

It has been another head spinning day, but it has been wonderful to just chill out and relax tonight. I have so much to think about,

God bless.

Ps, sorry this is a day late, tents and caves seem lacking in Wifi.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Day Four: My head is spinning

Today will be a short post, I'm tired, we have an early start and I'm not sure what or how I'm really feeling...

Tho day started with an introduction to Non-Violence training from the Holy Land Trust, the group coordinating our visit this side. It was so inspiring to hear how people who are facing such injustice can remain non-violent.

We then headed out to Al-Walaja, a Palestinian village with a special meaning for Nive, our trip leader, which will be explained later. Malwan, our guide, showed us around the area, taking us to a house which is soon to be in the wrong side of the Wall. To solve this, the Israeli government is spending $1.5m to enclose the house with an electric face and build a tunnel under the Wall, gated and then only the residents of the house will be allowed through. No guests, no family. It seems crazy that a small plot of land is worth $1.5m of 'security'.

Then we were taken to a house which had been rebuilt, following the family's previous house being demolished. Nive helped with the rebuild, as had Malwan. He told us the story the family, and how the works people did there was worth more than a prayer in a mosque.

Malwan left us (as he wasn't permitted through the checkpoint) and we made our way to meet Amra in Ramallah. She works with the PMRC (Palestinian Medical Relief Society). She gave us a presentation on how she sees the situation here, giving us so much more to think about. She spoke of the disunity of Palestine, the issues with the Palestinian Authority, and spoke to us about the Boycott Divest and Sanctions movement.

She then took us into Ramallah, to see Yasser Arafat's tomb, then to a tent which had been set up in solidarity with 2500 Palestinian prisoners who are on hunger strike, demanding a respecting of basic rights such as family visits and against the use of solitary confinement. Two of the hunger strikers have had nothing to eat for 74 days so far! Being in this tent, surrounded by activists highlighted that this isn't a holiday. It is an experience no normal holiday would ever allow. It also made me realise how safe I felt. While being in Palestine, I have felt safer walking through the streets than I often do at home, which doesn't fit with the image often portrayed of a violent land. I have also seen a Pizza Hut about to open and recruiting. I think I might ask for a transfer!

We had a time to unload, reflex and , in some cases, cry this evening, which was very much needed. We then headed to a local bar and had a bottle or two of the local beer, Taybe Gold, and got that normal bar snack, carrot and cucumber! It was a lovely evening of true bonding.

Now it's bed time, we have an early morning visiting an Israeli Settlement, with an Israeli Jew guide, which will be very interesting. We'll then head to Hebron before sleeping at the Tent of Nations. I am very unlikely to have wifi tomorrow, so I apologise now for the lack of blog tomorrow.

Hopefully I will sleep, my head is spinning (with everything we have experienced, not the beers).

God bless!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Day Three - Jerusalem

Today was been such a great day. It began with the religious side of things, moved through the political and ended in the personal

We took the bus through the checkpoint into Jerusalem (having to show our passports), where we met Simon, our guide for the day as Iyad is not permitted to travel through the checkpoint. He took us up to the Mount of Olives, and went to the Church of the Ascension, where it is believed by some that Jesus ascended to Heaven, inside the church is what is believed to be the footstep of Jesus. We then moved to the Pater Noster, where they have the Lord's Prayer on the walls in 165 languages. We found Welsh, Scotish Gaelic, Cornish and English among others. From there we headed to the Church of Domino Flavit, on the site Jesus wept over the city. From here you get the famous view of the old City of Jerusalem, with the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock mosque shining. We read the passage from Luke where he reports the words Jesus said in that spot. We also saw what is called 'The valley of the cheese makers', and three of us simultaneously said 'Blessed are the cheesemakers'! Turns out that Monty Python was more geologically correct that I thought.

We then moved into the Garden of Gethsemane. It was quite moving being on the site where Jesus asked for the cup to be taken from him. There are olive trees there which botanists believe are over 3000 years old! Also Megan caught the eye of a local man, and got a kiss.

We continued down the hill and into the city, through a security point and to the Wailing Wall. Then we arrived at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, which is believed to be the site of Calvary, the anointing and tomb of Jesus. This was very moving, being at the site where our Lord was crucified and died for me. I went outside, listened to 'Once again' by Matt Redman and prayed. I think that song will have a different meaning for me from now on.

The grabbed a lunch of falafel before exiting the old city. There Simon left us, and we were joined by Imber, of ICAHD (the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions). ICAHD are Israeli citizens fighting the demolitions of Palestinian houses by the Israeli state. She gave us a tour some settlements, which made me so angry. The discrimination, and systematic anti-Palestinian policies seem to be so blatant, how is it allowed?. Israeli Settlements get fountains and swimming pools, while Palestinian neighbourhoods get get water maybe a few times a week, and have to collect rainwater. This is just one example of many. It was amazing, an inspiring, to hear from an Israeli citizen who is working for the rights of the Palestinians.

For this evening's dinner we split into three groups and went to dinner with local families. Alison, Megan and I joined the Sleili family. We had lovely meal of fish, sausage and rice, finished with the most amazing chocolate cake I've ever had, made by Hanan's own hands. Zakki! ('delicious' in Arabic, though I don't know if that's the right spelling...).

The mix of the spiritual, political and personal stories has made today one that I know I'll remember for ever.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Day Two - 'Non-violence is the only weapon'

What a day! Very long, but so many great things.

Breakfast was a tasty mix of salad, pitta and juice. Then we went to see the Holy Land Trust's new centre in the centre of Bethlehem. They are a great group who work in non-violence. The views from the top floor was awe-inspiring (unfortunately I can't get my pictures off my camera onto my iPod.)

Then we moved on to Bethlehem Bible College. This was basically a modern history lesson, very interesting, but too much to write about here. We had lunch at the 'second-best shawarma place in Bethlehem' (according to Iyad, our guide, who didn't want to give away the secret of the best!) Shawarma is a sort of cross between Kebab and fajita, it was amazing!

We then visited Bethlehem University, and chatted to a couple of students, who were very open about they views. They were frustrated by the Occupation, and want freedom and justice. This became a theme of the day, and I'm guessing the week. When asked what we could do, they simply said 'Speak the truth of what you see, we are good people not like people say.' And that is what I'm trying to do, say what I saw. From the roof of the University we could really see how the Wall encroaches right into the middle of the city.

We took the bus down to the Wall. And it is HUGE at around 8m high. We spent a while talking with Iyad who is Palestinian, and were overhead by a passing Israeli tour guide, which led to a very interesting debate between the two sides. We then walked along the Wall, talking pictures of the amazing graffiti, including a couple of Banksy pieces. The Wall winds it's way around buildings like a concrete snake, we saw a house enclosed on three sides by the Wall, as the Palestinian owners have documentation proving that they owned it before 1948, and therefore it can't be seized by the State.

We had dinner with Wi'am, another non-violent group, who as based in the shadow of the wall, after a quick mingle, they handed us spray cans and encouraged us to add something to the graffiti. My contribution is below.

The day ended with a visit to the offices of a theatre company, who tour with plays based on the lives of Palestinians. It was wonderful to see 'normal life' going on in an Occupied land. After a little debrief in the hotel, we all pulled out our tech to blog, tweet, Facebook etc.

Tomorrow we are doing more of the traditional pilgrim-y things.

Today has been such an eye-opener! I'm already planning my talks when I'm back.

Hope all is well, God bless and sleep well.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Day One: Greetings from the Holy Land

So we made it!

After a 5.15am start, we got to Heathrow, onto the plane and to Tel Aviv without much to comment on.

Now we are in Bethlehem, and experiencing amazing hospitality. We were met at the hotel by Malwan, a Palestinian man, who came out with one of the best little mantras I've ever heard. He said 'Smile at life, and life smiles at you. When you get down, then you lose all hope.' What an amazing view on life.

We had an amazing dinner of salad, olives and pitta bread, followed by lamb, fish and rice. This was followed by a brief introduction, by Sammy, to what the Holy Land Trust is all about. They work for non-violence and community building , working towards a workable Two-State solution. Sammy was quick to add that they aren't anti-Israeli, but they are pro-peace. He didn't want us to feel pity for the Palestinians, or anger at the Israeli government, but to just feel a passion for justice.

We then headed to Manger Square, the site of both the Church and the mosque 'on the site' Jesus was born. However these are on different sites... They were shut (it was 8 o'clockish) and hopefully we'll get to see them in the light in the next few days. After a wonderful mint lemonade at a little cafe, we headed back to the hotel via the back streets, the best way to get a feel for a city I think. Everyone says hello, welcomes us, asks us where we are from. It's a little strange, but lovely.

But now bed calls, it's been a long day, and we have a very busy one tomorrow. Night night, and God bless.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My Bags are packed, I'm ready to go

And tomorrow I'll be leaving on a jet plane!

So, I'm about to set off, across to Heathrow. I'm going to try and blog and tweet as much as I can during the week, depending on WiFi. So watch this space, and also keep an eye on #methyip on Twitter.

But before I got I'd like to thank everyone who has supported me. Wales Synod have been great, as have many individuals from my local church.

Have a good week everyone and God bless