News that Hamas is open to a Palestinian Unity Authority.

I have just read the news that Hamas has stated that it is now willing to form a Unity Authority (some might say “Government”), with Fatah. It might be the best news for Palestine for many years – though as with all matters relating to the situation in Israel/Palestine – it is easy to grasp at straws with hopes for something that might not materialise. We have a saying in England “The Devil is in the detail” – in matters Palestinian it might be better to say that not only the devil, but all his minions are there as well!

My visits to Gaza make me want to cry out in support of any possibility of hope. I have heard the cries of those living in Gaza that all they see is the prospect of another Gaza War. Often some sign of hope becomes the spark that leads to an even deeper spiral of hopessness and despair as parties in the area seek to ensure that any possible advantage for whom they see as their enemies, is swiftly turned to the benefit of themselves.

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The blockade of Gaza means that fuel is expensive and in short supply. Donkey carts are used for transport.

The divided leadership of the Palestinian people for the last ten years has been one of the most destructive features of the situation here. Sadly this potential reconciliation might well come too late for the “two state solution,” and what might replace that plan is still very hard to see, but I want to say something hopeful tonight as a result of this olive branch from Hamas. It seems that the Egyptian Government has been instrument in bringing this about and  deserves credit for that.

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A view over Gaza city towards the Mediterranean Sea. Look carefully at the tall building with ariels on it and you will see that the upper five floors remain a shell, a legacy of the last Gaza war.

Now is a time for prayer, for hope and for encouragement that those who might grasp this moment – will indeed do so and perhaps a brighter future might be there for all in Gaza – and indeed throughout the West Bank as well!

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The Domari People of Jerusalem.

Every time you begin to feel that you are getting some understanding of Jerusalem – you discover just how little you know – and how much more there is to know! I don’t claim great knowledge but I thought that I was reasonably aware of the various groups that make up the population of Jerusalem. Then I heard of a woman called Amoun Sleem and the Domari People – the Gypsies of Jerusalem.

Kristen (my United Methodist colleague) and I visited the Domari Centre in Shua’fat, East Jerusalem, and were welcomed with wonderful hospitality – being given a traditional Palestinian dish, maqluba – upside down chicken and rice! Amoun is the leader of the centre and a powerful personality at the heart of her community.

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Amoun Sleem, the leader of the Domari Centre Jerusalem.

It is suggested that the Domari people came to the Middle East about a thousand years ago from India. They settled mostly in and around the city of Jerusalem, though they continued a semi nomadic lifestyle for hundreds of years, around the Middle East with Jerusalem as their centre. Today there are about 1,300 Doms living in Jerusalem or the West Bank. Amoun’s family settled in Jerusalem over a hundred years ago, she lives near the Lion Gate in the Old City.

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A mug from the souvenir shop at the Domari Centre.

The Domari language is spoken mostly by the older generation and Amoun has concern that, as the younger people want to speak Arabic and English, there is a danger that the traditional language of the Domari people might be lost. The centre aims to be a place where members of the Domari community can come, find support and education. They focus especially upon educational work with children and women. At the same time it is also in many ways the public face of the Domari community, a place where people – like Kristen and I, who want to know more about Doms can come and learn – and receive the hospitality they are justifiably proud of.

Amoun speaks about how she and her people are constantly the victims of decriminalisation. Sometimes they feel as if they are the people everyone looks down upon – Israelis and Palestinians alike. At the same time Doms often blend in with Palestinian ways – finding a natural home in church communities as the Domari people are Christian by culture.

Amoun’s life story is told in a publication “A Gypsy Dreaming in Jerusalem,” which is well worth reading. She says in that book “I always try to keep smiling, not because everything is great and perfect in my life, but to give a sign to everyone around me that I appreciate what I have around me in my hands. I keep saything that better days are coming – in God’s will.”

A huge dream – wrecked by war.

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Ruins of the Naharayim Hydro-Electric Powerstation.

If, when driving north on Route 90, a few miles north of Beit She’an, you look right, you might just see the remains of a remarkable project. In the heat and the parched environment of the Jordan Valley there remains the ruins of a huge Hydro Electric Power Plant that goes back almost a hundred years.

The visionary behind this project was a Russian Zionist Jew by the name of Pinhas Ratenberg. He was an engineer and was involved in a number of projects in the then Palestine of the 1910’s. His greatest project was to utilise the waters of the Jordan and Yamouk Rivers creating a vast lake, an eight meter drop for the water to drive three turbines (originally he had proposed four), generating some 18,620 kW of electrical power. The plant is known as the Naharayim Power Plant, – Naharayim being Hebrew for “Two Rivers.”

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While Pinhas was a Zionist Jew, his dream was by no means exclusive to Jews or to any future Jewish State. He envisaged the electricity generated supplying much of the area to the North and East of the Jordan, as well as the Western areas already being colonised by Jewish immigrants. 3000 men worked to build the plant and the majority of those were Arab.

When the plant was opened on 6th June 1933 the lever which activated the turbines was pulled by Emir Abdullah, the then ruler of Transjordan – who was the Father of King Hussain of Jordan.

Naharayim Hydro Electric Power Station generated power until 1948 when the fighting which led to the  establishment of the River Jordan as the border between Israel and Jordan left the plant in ruins and the site as being on a hostile border between two warring countries.

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The Power Plant today alongside the River Jordan as it is today – a fraction of the river it used to be.

Pinhas’ vision was not simply one for the benefit of the Jews in the area, he saw the opportunity to better the lives of all those in Palestine and Transjordan, as the area was then known, by the supply of electricity. Some today have a vision of how Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordainians might work together for the betterment of all. EcoPeace (a project working to restore the Jordan River and the Dead Sea) has this vision. Their hope is that if the benefits of working together on water provision can be seen then perhaps wider co-operation can lead to a peace settlement based upon mutual advantage. Perhaps in today’s climate that is a little too optimistic, I hope that I am wrong.

Railways of the Middle East!

In the Baqaa Valley, Lebanon, driving north towards Baalbek alongside the road there stand a number of rusty old railway trucks, on a railway line that now goes nowhere. Once it was a part of the line linking Damascus to Tripoli. It is now some of the last remains of a line disused many years ago.

I have travelled through the Jordan valley on many occasions before I noticed to the left of the road north of Bet She’an, what looks like a small cutting followed by an embankment. It is the remains of an old railway.

In Jerusalem the old railway station is now used as a rather expensive but very pleasant group of restaurants. It’s known as the “First Station” and on notices around the building the story of the railways around Jerusalem is told. Once you could get on a train in Jerusalem and travel to Cairo, Beruit, Damascus and as far north as Tripoli.

I had been told that if I had some time when I was driving north in the Jordan Valley it is well worth turning off to see “Old Gesher.” Being earlier than intended on my journey to Tiberias, I drove down to the border fence between Israel and Jordan and there standing on a ruined bridge were a set of railway trucks.

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There is a small museum with some interesting audio visuals. Standing in the yard is one of the old engines.

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The museum uses, as an office, an old guards van. When I told them I was from England they said that the guards van was built in Birmingham!

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On examination of the makers plaque, I discovered that it was actually Smethwick where it had been built (I was a minister in Smethwick for 8 years in the ’90’s).

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The railway bridge over the River Jordan was once a part of a line that ran from Haifa to Damascus with connections at both ends to other great Middle Eastern Cities. The line was known as the Valley Line and was built towards the end of the Ottoman rule over the area. The museum even had a timetable for the service!

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Old Gesher is the location where bridges have been built over the River Jordan for more than two thousand years. The oldest is a Roman Bridge, but there was also the Ottoman railway bridge and a road bridge constructed by the British. All are now disused and inaccessible as the river forms the border between Israel and Jordan.

A short distance away as tthe crow flies, though today you have to travel some 15 kilometres to get there, remains the almost intact local railway station.

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There are no railway lines there now, but otherwaise you could imagine the almost inaudible sound of a station announcer! This station now stands on a raised area of land known as Peace Island. The Island is formed by the River Jordan on two sides, its tributary the River Yamouk which today forms the border between Jordan and Syria, and an artificial canal created in the 1920’s for a Hydro Electic Scheme.

Railways rely upon stable political environments. It is easier to disrupt a railway network than almost any other form of transport, and so in many parts of the world where political instability has developed railway lines quickly fall into disuse. In the Congo there was once an extensive railway network. Today almost all of it has been lost to the Jungle.

The same can be said of the extensive railways that once covered the Middle East. There are still some railway services in Israel and Egypt, but they don’t cross borders. Where once communications were established, today the fractured politics of the region leave people divided and travel only possible by air, and that a great cost. Dreams of peace, so hopeful in the early years of the twentieth century now seem a very distant prospect, perhaps one day in the future railways will connect Jerusalem and Damascus, Tripoli and Cairo, Beruit and Haifa once again. Insh’Allah as they say here.

The travels of the Icon of Mary.

Jerusalem has so many faiths and so many denominations of faith there always seems to be something new to expereince. I was in Jerusalem and heard the church bells ringing at an unusual time. I was told that the Icon of Mary and Jesus was being brought back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (I have to say that I didn’t know that it had moved from there – but that shows my ignorance)! On the Orthodox feast of Mary on 15th August each year the Icon, usually kept in a chapel of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is processed to Mary’s tomb. (A strong tradition places Mary’s tomb at the base of the Mount of Olives, where a church has been located since about the fourth century, making it the oldest church in Jerusalem).  On the fifth of September it is returned to its “home” at the church of the Holy Sepulchre, by another procession. I was privilaged to be present and see the Patriach and many clergy and lay folk bringing it back. The following is a slide show of what took place.

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The day was though somewhat bathed in controversy. Carrying the Icon, as he does every year, was the Patriach of the Greek Orthodox Church. He is in the middle of a huge row about the sale of a church property to a Jewish organisation. Such sales are always controvertial and the Patriach says that he was tricked into the sale, though that has been said before.

Usually the procession would have been made up of many lay men and women from the Orthodox Church, but few were willing to do so as a result of the controversy over the sale under the authority of the Patriach. As a result many religious took part in the procession but few lay people did. Instead the lay people came to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre ahead of the procession refusing to march with the Patriach. Apparently hundreds of members of the church have called for the Patriach to be brought to court over the incident and many others calling for his resignation. Some are suggesting that he might have to leave Jerusalem. Interesting times!!

While we were gathering to watch the procession an incident took place that was upsetting and quite unfortunate. Five of us from Protestant churches were invited by an Orthodox Church member to observe the procession from a balcony of the Orthodox chapel where the icon was to be returned to. Two women clergy, were wearing clerical collars. An Orthodox Nun seeing the group – and it seems in particular the female clergy, got very animated and waved a broom handle at us – shooing us down off the veranda! While others there were saying – on no you are very welcome – the Nun was quite unrelenting and we had to withdraw. Even the Orthodox lady who had invited us up there was angrily prevented from being on the veranda. We never knew exactly what the problem was, was there some history there? Was the nun offended at the female clergy? Was it the whole group of us as we were Protestant rather than Orthodox? We will never know but we did feel some real hurt and some hostility, albeit from just the one person.

New Graffiti on the Wall!

There is one growth industry in Bethlehem – and that is associated with the “Wall” or as it should be called “the Separation barrier” (since most of it is not a wall). Last Autumn the “Walled Off Hotel” was opened and that has been a considerable spur to interest in the Wall. As yet there seems no reduction in the interest that the Walled Off Hotel has generated. There was, previous to that, the “Banksy Shop,” – there are now three! A small enterprise has been opened providing the paints so that you can “Paint the wall yourself” (with a guarantee that this is not legal)! The numbers of people coming to wander along the wall has greatly increased and the Wall must be fast becoming one of the most photographed sites in the Holy Land!

Ever since I first saw the Wall there has been new art on it, but now one particular individual seems to be “inspiring” much of the new art – a certain President of the United States – Donald Trump.

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It does seem a pity that some of the very artistic images drawn on the wall often get over painted by crude graffiti, though I am told that thinking that shows how old I am…. yes so I’m old but I still prefer cartoon art to simply crude words (though the word justice added to the above painting is perhaps justified)! I guess though that the nature of graffiti is that it is there today but may not be tomorrow.

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In Palestinian circles there has been some controversy about this “Industry of the Wall.” The Separation barrier has a huge negative impact on Palestinians and some feel that it is not therefore an appropriate thing to be laughed at. I have a lot of sympathy with that. The economy of Bethlehem (and many other parts of the West Bank), is being strangled by the Barrier. Free movement of Palestinians (and to a lesser extent Israelis – since it is illegal for Israelis to go into Area A ,the area governed by the Palestinian Authority) is greatly restricted by the barrier and the brunt of this is felt by Palestinians. At the same time one of the most effective means to portray complex issues and to demythologise them is to use humour and the best of the graffiti (such as Banksy’s) does that very well. I do wonder when the occupation ends, and I do beleive it will at some time – whether one of the largest mistakes history will judge Israel to have made will be the building of the Wall – as it presents such a clear and unacceptable image for world media and is seen as a symbol of apartheid.

PHEW!!!

As we approach the end of August many here in the West Bank, and I suspect across Israel as a whole are looking forward to some cooler days. For me its been my first full summer here (though I did take a break away) and I have certainly found it hot! Elias, one of my colleagues here was saying a couple of days back that he can’t remember a summer quite so hot – usually its hot for a few days and then cools off for a little – this year it seems to just have been hot and hotter.

I haven’t seen any statistics about the temperatures over the summer – I am not sure where I would go to look for them – but it certainly has been hot. The temperature gauge in the car has reached forty degrees both in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and while down in the Jordan Valley I have noted 45 degrees (being below sea level it is always hotter there).

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Temperatures in the 40’s at the Dead Sea.

Cars with air conditioning are really essential. The Office has air conditioning and that is a real help. My flat doesn’t though and so I try to manage with fans, sometimes three on at the same time!

New cars without air conditioning cannot be sold in Israel. I understand that some years ago the authorities came to the conclusion that tempers run hot enough on Israeli roads, and so the more that the drivers can be cooled by their air conditioning – the better!

I find night times the worst, waking up in the middle of the night running with sweat. I have just begun to feel that perhaps there might be some sign of temperatures cooling off at night a little, last night I even had to pull the sheet over me to keep warm!!!. ….. Oh for the cold of winter (when I’ll wish for the heat of summer)!

For the moment …. where can I buy an ice cream!