Haifa -Israel at its best?

I decided to take a day away and visit Hiafa. I’ve been there quite a few times before and have always liked it. It’s setting by the Mediterranean, under the heights of Mount Carmel, the splendid natural harbour. But also its people – of the cities of Israel I have visited (and that is most of them), Haifa is more diverse, more open, at the same time secular and intensely religious.

Four relgions, at least, make up its population. Jews, Drews, Muslims, Christians and to add further diversity the World Bahai Centre is located there. Yet in the shopping malls there are many fewer people dressed in “religious” clothing than in Jesualem. Churches, Mosques, Synagogues and temples stand alongside each other – and where as Mosques and churches are attacked in much of Israel – I have never heard of it in Haifa.

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The gardens of the World Bahai Centre.

I spent some time just walking the streets, it was hot but they all felt very safe. I caught a couple of busses to get to Stella Marris and see again the view I have enjoyed before.

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The view over Haifa from Stella Marris.

The World centre of the Carmalites is also there at Stella Marris and the church is a wonderful one>

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I walked down the cliff to Elijah’s cave – sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians and was rather surprised to find it set out now as a synagogue, I visited it some years ago perhaps six or seven – and I don’t remember it set out in this way, men one side women the other.

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It’s a great city – a good day – Israel at its best!

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Israel – A Jewish State?

For quite some time the Israeli Government has been discussing introducing a bill which would make Israel formally a Jewish State. While it has some way to go as yet, it has been in the news today here in Israel/Palestine as it has been voted for in the Kennesset by a narrow majority. There are a number of implications of the bill, Arabic would no longer be the second language of Israel, Jewish Holidays would become Israeli Holidays (at present those not wanting to celebrate the holiday for whatever reasons, are usually able to work, this would no longer be the case). More widely and less well defined – though probably more worrying is that all those who are not religious Jews would in various ways be disadvantaged, this would apply to the two million “Israeli Arabs” – as Palestinians citizens of the State of Israel are often called – as well as secular, often more left wing Israelis. Perhaps even more concerning is that the West Bank Settlements are refered to as “developments” and the act assumes an annexing of the West Bank – or at least some part of it (I am not clear on precisely how this would work, but it is clearly not envisaging a “Two State Solution).

From time to time I like to remind myself of the Israeli Declaration of Indipendence. It is increasingly difficult to see how the present Government of Israel can possibly say that it adheres to the principals of the Declaration. “It (The State of Israel) will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based upon freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

It is so sad that Israel – that could have been a means for the enrichment of the whole Middle East has now for at least twenty years headed in a direction that leaves its Israeli Arabs as second class citizens, inspires other religions of the area to see Judaism as a threat to them, and destabilises the whole region of the Middle East. Of course Israel isn’t solely to blame, in part they have reacted to others, who then have reacted to them. We are in an increasingly vicious circle.

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Archbishop Elias Shacour with myself and a group from Queens Theological College.

Elias Shacour, pictured above is an Israeli Arab, has lived in Israel ever since the creation of the State and has dedicated his life to harmony between Jews and Arabs. His book “Blood Brothers” is a great read. I was with him recently and he described sadly, how much he is now a second class citizen of the country he calls home. This bill, and the pressure from the Israeli right to go further and further in this direction  he sees as a very sad indication of where the future at present seems to lie.

At its heart the problem lies thousands of miles away in the White House. The pressures have been here for years, but previous inhabitants of the White House have all placed a restraining hand upon the Israeli Governments that have wanted to make Israel an exclusively Jewish State, where other citizens are marginalised. President Trump has given a green light to the worst excesses taking place here, the killing of unarmed protesters, the speeding up of the expansion of settlements, the marginalising of Palestinians in Israel and the dehumanising of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

In articles, in this blog and in personal discussions I have argued before that religious states have no place in the twenty first century. For many years it has been clear that Muslim states discriminate against those who are not Muslim. Often they discriminate against people who from a different part of Islam. One of the major issues I found on my visit to Syria last autumn – was the question of the future of the Christian minority in Syria. Only the Assad regime shows any willingness to defend the Christians there. One of the major losers in Iraq after the fall of Salam Hussain was the Christian Community. I am equally opposed to a Jewish State as to an Islamic one. Having returned from Syria where I saw Christian icons defaced by ISIS I went a week later to Bet Jamal, near Bet Shemesh. There I saw stain glass windows in St Stephen’s Church, defaced in just the way ISIS had done to icons in Syria, but there is was extremist ultra Orthodox Jews who had caused the damage.

Steadfastness (Samood) – in prayer.

It had been a hot day but an evening breeze made the weather a little easier alongside the Wall by Checkpoint 300. I had arrived to join in the prayers held there every Friday at 6pm. I have written about these prayers before – I don’t get there each week, but I try to get there when I can. A small group, mostly of nuns arrived for the time of prayer, walking by the wall, saying the Rosary – and making our own prayers as we did so.

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Praying by the wall with EAPPI in support.

Alongside the sheer physical presence of the separation barrier a few people walking and praying seems a feeble thing, but the faithfulness of the prayers – week after week – summer and winter, hot weather and cold makes this piece of non violent protest a powerful manifestation of the determination to bring peace with justice to this land.

The cameras around the checkpoint turn to watch us, the soldiers don’t really know what to make of it. Sometimes they come and ask us what we are doing. Occasionally a humvee arrives. We have been told – “You can’t be here,” though we have always been able to stay after conversation.

The prayers are always concluded by singing and prayer at the icon of Mary, pregnant and weeping, that has been painted on the wall. A few moments of quiet and a blessing.

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Not all of the acts of non-violent resistence are dramatic, not all are done by extrovert, confident protesters. This is an act of faithfulness, or determination, of samood, the arabic word for steadfastness, that has an active – committed aspect to it. One day peace will come.

Four Homes of Mercy.

I think that I have blogged before on this partner project of the Methodist Liaison Office. It’s located in Bethany, the home in Jesus’ time of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarous – whom Jesus raised from the dead. Four Homes is a place where people with severe mental or physical challenegs do indeed find a home. For many with Physical or Mental Hanicaps – in Palestinian society life is very poor. There is a real sense in which the staff of “Four Homes of Mercy” see their role as giving new life to those who come and make the project their home.

Resources are desperately short. They rely upon receiving core funding from the Palestinian Authority but they haven’t received anything from them for three years. They hope against hope to receive funds any day – but in the mean time they have to rely upon charitable support – primarily from International Supporters. If anyone reading this blog knows of any way of raising funds for them – please do so. Staff often go months without pay and staffing levels are despairatly low. Often residents have to spend much longer in their cots, or tied to wheel chairs simply because there are not enough staff to look after them safely.

But there has been real progress in the standards of care over the time that I have known the project. I was really impressed with the new sensory room. The director explained to me that they use it as the first place where they can begin to communicate with new residents, who arrive seemingly totally unable to communicate in any way. The flashing lights, the music, the constantly changing colours stimulate responses from people whose previous places of residence have simply left them vedgitating.

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In the sensory room.

One of the encouraging things about the home is the relationship between the Director and the residents – and indeed the staff. Despite the huge problems in running a project such as this in a country under occupation, there is clearly an affection for the director and what he is trying to do.

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One of the residents in occupational therapy with my colleague Angleena.

Since I leave Palestine at the end of August I am beginning the round of “lasts. ” I was concious that this would very likely be my last visit to “Four Homes of Mercy,” and I have to say it feels good. Some time ago I wrote a rather critical report on the project and had a couple of difficult but positive conversations with the director about how he saw the future. This visit did make me feel that the project was heading in the right direction, though there are still huge problems for it. I wish it well for the future.

A week of Prayer for Gaza and the Holy Land.

Readers of my blog might like to know that the World Methodist Council, at the request of the Jerusalem Methodist Liaison Office has called for a week of prayer for Gaza and the Holy Land, from 1st to 7th July 2018.

Resources for the week can be found at the link:

http://methodist-liaison.org/worship-resources/wmc-week-of-prayer As you see, it can be found under Worship Resources, then WMC Week of Prayer

Hope that you find it useful.

John Howard

Gaza – the perfect Tourist Destination!

With it’s yellow sand and expansive beeches Gaza is the ideal tourist resort for relaxation and refreshment. But not many know that it also has some of the most wonderful achiological sites in the Holy Land. Mosaics recently discovered have wonderful dramatic colours comparable with anything you will ever see anywhere in ancient mosaics. Take an exciting boat ride out to sea (the more exciting the further out you go!!)

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The hotel accommodation is found close to the beeches and the summer sun is guaranteed.

Perhaps I ought to suggest that you hold off booking your accommmodation just yet. There are just one or two problems at present – the international airport has been closed and destroyed some ten years ago, permits to get to Gaza are hard to come by, electricity is only on for a few hours a day, raw sewage pours out onto the yellow sands, the fishing boats are frequently fired upon by the Israeli boats maintaining the blockade and the hospital services are pitifully short of medicines and equipment and almost all of the hotels are closed and boarded up! Oh yes and there is the likelyhood of another Gaza war any time soon. Otherwise it’s the perfect destination!

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A small howitza in the middle of Rafa City!

There is some seriousness in what I say though. Gaza should be a thriving community. The beeches are gorgeous, there are amazing archiological sites, the farm land is amongst the most fertile in the Holy Land, the people highly educated. Gaza City, despite the presence of so many refugee camps, could be an economic centre sustaining the standards of living across the whole area. In reality today, you see hungry children scouring the rubbish skips in search of food. I have just come back from a three day visit to Gaza and feel traumatised by what I saw and heard. Over the weeks of the “March of Return,” something like 17,000 people have been injured needing medical care, some 4,000 hit by live fire.. About 122 have died. As we travelled about we saw people being helped around, one had fresh bandages on his upper arm – the lower part was missing. There was a man on crutches with his leg missing, and the people around him indicated his recent loss of limb. As we moved around we saw a disturbing number of these recent casualties.

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One of the amazing 4th century mosaics.
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Part of the archaeological site of the first Christian Monastery.

The people of Gaza are wonderful hospitable people. I was welcomed into the home of a family. The man of the household mended washing machines, though with so little electricity demand was reducing. They spoke about how difficult life is for them, and could see no hope of improvement in the near future. The daughter of the household, has just received her degree in pharmacy, but has very little prospect of ever finding a job in Gaza. The best prospect for employment for the young is in the military wing of Hamas, youth unemployment is running at around 85%.

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A view over Gaza City and out to sea.

We spoke with the enthusiastic archaeologist in charge of the excavation of the remains of the monastery and he was saying how concerned he is that with Hamas sites near, Israeli air raid will damage the wonderful remains of the past.

Gaza is a place your heart goes out to, such potential, such trajedy.

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Gaza. The memory of Rachel Corrie

We were in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, and so we thought we might just see the memorial to Rachel Corrie.

Rachel Corrie was a U.S. author and activist killed in 2003 at the Rafah border by an Israeli armoured bulldozer while trying to prevent the “levelling” of an area on the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, in the years before the blockade of Gaza.

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We were being hosted by some workers in a clinic at Rafah. They took us first to a community centre named after her.

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Entrance to the Rachel Corrie Community Centre – Rafah.

We then went to the site where her death took place. It’s right on the border with Egypt and today it is staffed by Hamas soldiers. They were not keen on us photographing them and so I had to be careful what shots I took! It remains a depressing location. Bomb damage is visible from some of the recent Israeli air strikes.

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The area “levelled” by the bulldozer was just beyond the gate in the photo below. The word “levelled” used in this context refers to the destruction of homes in the refugee camp in order to create clear line of sight at this location. The gate is of course guarded by Hamas, which is why the photo is a poor one!

Deaths of internationals here are rare. It is a sad fact that nine Palestinians died on the same day the Rachel died, but they are seldom remembered. Today it still seems – Palestinian lives count for less than international ones. I beleive God weeps over each of the deaths of his children no matter whether they are Israeli, Palestinian or International.

There are a few memorials to Rachel in the West Bank, quite a prominent one in Hebron. She is remembered by many Palestinians and is one of the few internationals recognised by Palestinians as a martyr.

The Rachel Corrie Foundation now works for peace and justice for Gaza and Palestine as a whole.

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