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In Robert Fisk's fine book 'Pity the Nation', he describes encounters with Palestinian refugees, and Israeli settlers. The former fled their homes in response to the arrival of the Israeli army, the latter, survivors of the Holocaust, moved into the land they had been dreaming of all their lives.
Where one group departed, mourning the orange groves they were leaving behind, the other arrived up the same river, singing songs of hope as they reached the homeland of their dreams. These stories have stayed with me for years, reminding me that the Israel/Palestinian conflict is about land, who has the right to live in it, who has the right to call it home.
I have been thinking of them a lot recently during the horror at the latest outbreak of hostilities. In the last few weeks Israel has bombed Gaza to rubble, killing over 2,000 Palestinian people, a quarter of them children. Whilst Hamas has fired rockets that barely penetrated the protective 'Iron Dome', but still managed to kill 69 Israeli people, including five civilians and a child. Nearly 70 years after the arbitrary division of British Palestine, the war is still about the right to a homeland, and the right for both populations to live safe from fear of violence.
I support the right of Israel to exist, and I understand the emotional resonance it holds. For too long Jewish people were abused and oppressed in the West, leading to the horrors of the Holocaust. Who cannot appreciate their need for a land of safety, a place to call their own? But the tragedy is that this haven has been created at the expense of the Palestinian people. Since 1947 Israel has steadily encroached on Palestinian lands illegally settling and displacing the Palestinian population into smaller and smaller areas. At the same time, the Israel government continues to harass, discriminate and blockade Palestinian people which gives rise in turn to violent responses from Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas. The Israel government responds with increased violence and so the conflict continues. And it will not stop until the land is shared fairly and Palestinian people are given equal rights to Israeli citizens.
The bombing of Gaza was on my mind as I set out on my long run, the Sunday before last. Reflecting on the devastating tweets from independent journalist Kerry-Anne Mendoza (@scriptonite), I thought my first place to start was to pray. I was conscious, as I ran, how lucky I am to live in a country that is so peaceful, and to be running alongside the beautiful Long Mynd with only sheep for company. As I ran, I prayed a simple mantra for both peoples "Love, Peace, Joy, Hope" but particularly that people in Gaza could be free of the inhumane blockade that is crushing their lives.
Thankfully, by Wednesday, a ceasefire had been announced, so when I set off on my early morning run, the sun beaming down on the green bracken and purple heather of the Cardingmill valley, my prayer was more hopeful. That this time the ceasefire will hold, that the blockade of Gaza will ease, and that there will be some softening in the hearts of Israel's leaders. Unfortunately, the latter looks a long way off, whilst the world was looking at Gaza, Israel has announced yet more illegal settlements in the West Bank
Nonetheless, there are signs of hope. The bombing of a UN school in Gaza, brought strong criticism from the US government, usually a staunch ally of Israel. Over 300 Holocaust survivors and their descendants took out an an advertisement in support of the Palestinian people. In addition he Jewish Board of Deputies and the Muslim Council of Britain have issued a joint statement calling for a culture of peace. And in Israel, a Jewish lecturer, Nurit Peled-Elhanan, is doing important work showing how propaganda begins in school books. All signs that the behaviour of Israel is not sustainable in the long term.
Ekklesia believes a peaceful and just solution to Israel-Palestine is possible. We work towards that aim in several ways. Our news service seeks to provide accurate up to date information about issues affecting the region , news that might not make it into the mainstream press. We publish relevant research and reflections such as this from Ekklesia associate Dr Harry Hagopian. And we support the work of organisations such as The Christian Peacemaker Teams that support grass roots Palestinian groups practising nonviolent resistance .
We also believe in dialogue, which was why I found myself engaging with a pro-Israel demonstration last Thursday. It wasn't a particularly successful encounter. I became too heated and had to leave once, before returning again to try and explain why they were wrong to claim Hamas hid behind civilian populations. Though I tried hard to be calm and rational, I found my anger at what's happened in Gaza spilling into my conversation. The group in turn were passionate, angry and upset with the way I and others view Israel. I am sure that for many of them, criticism is painful because it challenges their sense of who they are as people and as a nation, and I didn't find a way to get past that. I walked away feeling a failure, but am still determined to try again next time I see such a group. Because as the work of Fr Alec Reid shows, peace can only come about when people talk to each other.
My legs have just about held it together for my other runs this week. Thanks to rest, massage, ibuprofen, swimming, and hiking in Shropshire, my speed run round my local park did seem to have brought some improvements. Yesterday's long run was less successful, I felt sick and tired all the way round, but nonetheless I plodded along and kept on my feet. And I reminded myself as I staggered back, that I'm only training for a half marathon. And that my home run is relatively easy. For Palestinians running in their home territory is fraught with difficulty, in a landscape littered with check points restricting their travels. The Palestine Marathon has been set up to reflect this reality. (My friend, the Rev Bob Mayo ran it last year and said it was an amazing race). The race takes participants through refugee camps and alongside the apartheid wall. It celebrates the joy of running, whilst raising awareness of the lack of freedom of movement Palestinian people experience everyday. Running as resistance – a fine idea. The race reminds us movement is a human right, but above all – as the photo of the writing on the wall says – "Love Wins."
If you are interested in supporting my half marathon efforts, you can donate via pay pal (state 'run' with your donation) or send a cheque to the office at 235 Shaftesbury Ave London WC2H 8EP. Please make cheques payable to Ekklesia making it clear the donation is in support of the half marathon.
You can also follow my progress on twitter by following me at @run_ekklesia
© Virginia Moffatt is chief operating officer of Ekklesia. Her blogs can be found here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/blogs/virginiamoffatTweet