Ecumenical accompaniers share observations with EU

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EAs escort schoolchildren to Cordoba school on Shuhada street in Hebron

“Walking children to school was anything but humdrum…” Photo: M. Knoblauch/WCC-EAPPI

As an “ecumenical accompanier,” Prokop’s role description might include: “walks children to school,” and “shares what he sees.”

In many communities, these tasks are daily – even mundane – parts of life. But for Prokop, who has served with the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (WCC-EAPPI), walking children to school was anything but humdrum.

In fact, Prokop came to think of the walk to school as “a repetitive roulette.” Serving in Hebron and Bethlehem, he walked children of all ages to school. “One day everything went fine, another day they were searched by soldiers, their teachers were stopped, settlers harassed them or school was simply closed by the military,” Prokop said. “I saw children frightened to go to school and afraid of what would happen that day while they were in school.”

Violence, tear gas and riots near the schools are an everyday occurrence, he said. “Not one of us would sympathize with the policy of occupation if this were our children going to these schools,” he said.

Prokop and other ecumenical accompaniers – or EAs – shared their first-hand observations with representatives in the European Union during an advocacy week in Brussels held 22-25 January. Nine EAs from Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the UK met with members of the European Parliament and other government officials to report what they have seen “on the ground” and present recommendations.

The EAs relayed how the lack of peace in Palestine and Israel reduced children’s access to education.

One EA, Lottie, said she saw children from the settlements being escorted in and out of their homes by security guards. “It broke my heart to see these two communities living side by side, but with a total lack of harmony,” she said.

One of the goals of WCC-EAPPI is to ensure safe access to schools under occupation, explained Rev. Dr Owe Boersma, WCC-EAPPI international program coordinator. “In occupied Palestine, the obstacles to receiving an education are numerous. Large numbers of Palestinian children living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem experience serious harassment and hurdles on their way to and from school, as well as in school yards and classrooms.”

Since April 2012, EAPPI – in cooperation with UNICEF – has monitored access to education for children in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, said Boersma. “In 2018, Ecumenical Accompaniers are providing a protective presence to some 4,400 students and 300 teachers by monitoring nine schools, as well as six checkpoints that children pass through on a daily basis,” he said. “The presence of EAs deters soldiers and settlers from harassing children on their way to and from school.”

Children walking to school have reported they feel afraid of settlers and scared of soldiers who are pointing guns at them, stamping their feet, or driving very fast.

The EAs spoke to EU officials about how they worked to create conditions for a just peace.

“As I spoke of the experience in Brussels I felt grateful and humbled to be able to share the stories and to play my part in ensuring that this conflict will not be ignored or forgotten while EAPPI stands as a protective presence for those who continue to ask for it,” said EA Lesley, who added that the EAs support the work of both Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers.

Another EA, Lise, said she hopes that EU leaders understand that they should play a bigger role in the peace process.

“At least, I hope that more people understood the degree of suffering and in general how bad the situation actually is in Israel and Palestine,” she said.

Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace

WCC-EAPPI

Time for fresh water and prayer – ‘Ilhamdilla’

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By EA Lesley, Southern West Bank.

Each day, while watering his flock after grazing, Abu Ahmed repeats his thanks to God as he pulls a bucket out of the well. Giving thanks for another day of grazing for his sheep and goats. Giving thanks that today there was no incident with the settlers who overlook the grazing pasture. Giving thanks for the presence of Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs), who have answered his request for protective presence.

Abu Ahmed is the first person we accompany as we take over as rookie EAs in the South Hebron Hills (in the south of the occupied West Bank). On our first night he called to ask us to be present as he grazed his sheep on the common pasture in the valley. The other shepherds have stopped grazing there for fear of harassment. Abu Ahmed does not proclaim fear. He just wants to shepherd his flock on the land that he and his forefathers have shepherded for generations. He understands the value of having “internationals” as witnesses to the circumstances in which he now lives.

Time for fresh water and prayer – ‘Ilhamdilla’. © EAPPI/Lesley

He greets us as we approach his home, just before sunrise. His trust and welcome are part of his culture. A stranger will be welcomed and given hospitality for three nights before being asked why they have come. But we are not strangers. EAPPI is well known to Abu Ahmed and previous EAs have walked this land with him. As the sun rises we sit and share taboon bread, hot from the oven, made by his daughter Hadeel. We wash it down with black tea infused with sage and sugar.

Now it is time for work. We follow Abu Ahmed and his flock as they walk down the pasture towards the valley. Walking silently behind I watch the master shepherd with wonder and delight. He interacts with his flock in an elegant and organic way. I am reminded of Jesus’s words in the Gospel of John: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me”.

At pasture under a settlement outpost. © EAPPI/Lesley

Abu Ahmed is also watchful. But not for the predators that kept his father alert. He looks continuously to the ridge of the valley, conscious of the possibility of anger or demand.

This morning that possibility became a reality. A settler – one of 380,000 Israelis living in the occupied West Bank, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention – called down the valley to Abu Ahmed. Within five minutes an armed Israeli soldier had arrived. Abu Ahmed continued to graze his flock. An Israeli military vehicle arrived and five more armed soldiers emerged. Three made their way towards Abu Ahmed and ordered him to leave the pasture. Under protest, Abu Ahmed moved his flock back down the valley and began to water his animals from the cistern. The soldiers ran forward again and insisted that he stop watering the animals and leave straight away.

An EA standing in protective presence as soldiers order a shepherd from land. © EAPPI/Lesley

As I walked back up the valley behind Abu Ahmed I wondered how he was feeling. What is it like to be ordered off the land that you have worked on all of your life? I wondered how the young armed men in uniforms were feeling about giving orders to a clearly unarmed elderly civilian. I wondered about the possibility of creating hope in this Holy Land.

The dusty way home. © EAPPI/Lesley

As an EA my role is not to make sense of it all. I am here to be an impartial presence. I am here to give witness and report incidents of injustice. I am here to listen and notice and look for hope.

One word which says it all

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EAs visiting Khan Al Ahmar

Ecumenical Accompaniers visiting local communities in Palestine and Israel, April 2017- © L.Ranarison/WCC-EAPPI

After spending several weeks with local communities, our Ecumenical Accompaniers go back home with many memories and feelings. We have asked four of them to choose one word to describe their experience.

Chris from England

Photo of Chris, WCC Ecumenical Accompanier in Palestine and Israel“Haunting”
So many experiences, images and encounters that stay with me and keep coming back to me. Such as children playing, shepards and sheep on the move, and all the people I’ve met. The joy they show and the deep sadness behind it, which is the reason why we are here.

Geoff from Ireland

Photo of Geoff, WCC Ecumenical Accompanier in Palestine and Israel“Challenging”
Both on a personal and professional level.
On a personal level, it has been challenging since it made me reflect on why I was here and what I wanted to achieve.
On a professional level, it has been challenging to be in a conflict situation, dealing with security forces and trying to calm down tense situations, where mediating at agricultural gates is one example. All in all, being an EA has been a very meaningful experience.

Gilvan from Brazil

Photo of Gilvan, WCC Ecumenical Accompanier in Palestine and Israel”Self-knowledge”
Dealing with the daily struggles of the Palestinian community helped me to better reconnect my inner self with my daily life in general. I feel I know more about myself now. Before the experience, I did not realise exactly what I could do there, but I felt quite comfortable in being present, in giving and receiving. It’s a kind of a plenitude sensation.

Natasha from the United States of America (USA)

”Emotionally rewarding”
Being an Ecumenical Accompanier allowed me to understand a really complex situation. I have learnt a lot about myself in this difficult environment. This work was part of a healing process, and these emotions were very beneficial.

 

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