EAPPI around the world: Australia

EAPPI is a world-wide network.  Our EAPPI national coordination offices in 26 countries work hard to recruit EAPPI human rights monitors and coordinate their advocacy when they return home.  Today, we begin a series in which we get to hear from these dedicated supporters of EAPPI all over the world.

Rod, of EAPPI Australia, shares his personal story of involvement with EAPPI.

The Sunset over Gaza. September 2013. Photo: Rod Benson.

The Sunset over Gaza. September 2013. Photo: Rod Benson.

Tell me how you first got involved with EAPPI

My first visit to Israel-Palestine was in December 2007 with a delegation of Australian Heads of Churches, sponsored by the Jerusalem Heads of Churches.  As well as many meetings in Jerusalem, we visited Bethlehem, Hebron, Jenin and Ramallah, and were briefed by various human rights groups including EAPPI accompaniers who led us on a tour of Hebron and the al-Arroub refugee camp.

On my return to Australia, there was significant opposition to our public statements from the local Jewish community, and it became clear that I should respond in a measured and peaceful way, not only with words but in actions.  At the same time, an investigation group commissioned by the National Council of Churches in Australia was developing a proposal to create a national EAPPI presence in Australia.  This was approved in March 2008 and I was invited to join the new committee.

Six years later I am still here, better informed, better equipped, and more passionate than ever to seek justice for Palestinian citizens of Israel and an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

What has surprised you most about working with EAPPI?

EAPPI representatives from many of the 26 countries visit bedouin villages in the Northern Jordan Valley. September 2013. Photo: Rod Benson.

EAPPI representatives from many of the 26 countries visit bedouin villages in the Northern Jordan Valley. September 2013. Photo: Rod Benson.

First, it is so inspiring to witness volunteers from remarkably different national, religious and ethnic backgrounds joining together to provide accompaniment for powerless and voiceless people who struggle every day against sometimes overwhelming hardship and injustice.

Second, I like the clear focus of EAPPI’s mission to provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace.  We don’t provide financial aid, or material support, or engage in education and training.  We just do accompaniment, and no other agency does this.

Third, an enormous amount of work is done by the ecumenical accompaniers, and by the dedicated staff based at the Jerusalem office, with quite limited human and financial resources.  I am very grateful to those who stretch budgets and work diligently and sacrificially to ensure that the field programs continue to operate, problems are resolved, numbers are crunched, and justice is served.

What’s your personal philosophy on what should be done to end the Israeli occupation and achieve peace in Israel and Palestine?

Peace will come when there is no more need for the Separation Wall, the segregated roads, the existential fear of violence and reprisal, and other symbolic and actual barriers to freedom and harmony between people.  The situation today is complex and in my opinion has deteriorated since my first visit in 2007.

We must always insist on non-violent means to end the occupation and achieve peace.  Diplomacy, advocacy, economic measures of pressure, education, aid and development, art and sport, accompaniment, modeling alternative communities – all have their place in the pursuit of peace.

The future lies with the children, and it is they who must renew hope in the hearts and minds of disillusioned parents and grandparents, and dare to imagine that another world is possible.

What do you find the most challenging about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?

It seems clear that both Israelis and Palestinians perversely rely on the ongoing conflict in order to assert and give shape to their personal and political identity.  Neither side shows any credible sign of willingness to commit to peaceful coexistence, despite the enormous power imbalance that exists in the region and the terrible human cost of occupation and subjugation.

What do you wish other people knew about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?

I was raised in a religious community profoundly committed to Christian Zionism.  I wish my Christian friends could see the fallacy of such an approach to theology and geopolitical history, and instead become champions of justice and peace, expressing their faith through service with groups like EAPPI.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about joining EAPPI?

If you are passionate about justice and adventure, I cannot think of a more rewarding investment of your time and savings than as an ecumenical accompanier.  The experience will change you, inspire you, and equip you to be and do what you never imagined possible.  The people of Israel and Palestine need you.  Go!

Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister in Sydney who works as Ethicist and Public Theologian at Morling College, and Public Affairs Director for the NSW Council of Churches.

The Tent of Nations – a nonviolent conviction to resist injustice and build hope for peace

Confiscation of Palestinian land by Israeli authorities is a common occurrence throughout the occupied Palestinian territories. In Bethlehem there is a man who, despite constant threat of confiscation of his own land, still believes in peace, hope – and resistance.

by Esther, Bethlehem team

Daher Nassar points to one of the surrounding Israeli settlements. Photo EAPPI/E. Goebel.

Daher Nassar points to one of the surrounding Israeli settlements. Photo EAPPI/E. Goebel.

Daher Nassar stands on his land near the city of Bethlehem, surrounded by blooming almond trees, the warm light of the afternoon sun glows as he looks down into the valley. The air smells like spring, there is no noise, no disturbance – everything seems quiet and peaceful.

But the 58 year old Palestinian knows better.  Peace is actually much further away when it comes to Palestine. Just look around his land, Nassar points out elements that block a future peace. He gestures to the south pointing to the Israeli settlement of Allon Shevut.  To the east, he gestures to another settlement, Neve Daniel. Finally, he turns north, where his eyes view big, white houses with red roofs surrounded by a thick wall.  This is Betar Illit.  With 40,000 inhabitants it is one of the biggest Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

These three settlements encircle Nassar’s farm.  “400 Dunums!” , Nassar explains proudly. The official papers declaring his family’s ownership of this property date back to the Ottoman empire. It is a massive piece of land. Moreover, the location of his farm on a 950 meter high hilltop above the village of Nahhalin is strategically important.

It is perhaps for this reason, the Israeli authorities declared Nassar’s land and the surrounding area as state land in 1991. According to Nassar, they never gave him a legitimate reason to do so. Nassar’s land is located in Area C, West Bank land under full Israeli civil and military rule.  The State of Israeli has declared approximately 34% of Area C state land, although doing so stands in contradiction to international law.

Nassar possesses ownership documents for his land from the Jordanian government registered between 1948 and. With these documents, Nassar began fighting for his land in the Israeli High Court in the early 90s.  More than 20 years and $100,000 later Nassar is still fighting.

He strictly refuses to leave his land. Nassar’s decision is not about money, nor about power. The Palestinian is a Christian and member of the Lutheran Church.  As a religious man, his decision is about showing resistance against the injustice of land confiscation, a problem many Palestinians face under the Israeli occupation.

Confiscation of Palestinian land is directly related to the expansion of Israeli settlements. Since 1967, Israeli settlements have spread throughout the West Bank, supported by the Israeli government and protected by the Israeli military.  Although Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory violate Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention, today there are approximately 150 settlements and 100 un-authorized settlement outposts according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

“And the settlements keep on growing!” explains Daher Nassar. “The Israeli authorities told us they would confiscate our land, too, if we don’t cultivate it for three years.”

This is why Nassar spends as much time as possible at his farm, although his family actually lives in Bethlehem.

Nassar has created his own version of peace. One can find it everywhere on his farm, in red, yellow, blue and green and many different languages:

“With heart and hand we save our land,” reads one stone, “We never lose hope!” reads another sign.

Colorful paintings and mosaics decorate Nassar’s land, on which he cultivates almond and olive trees, grapes, apples and figs. Characteristic to Nassar’s farm is a sensible use of water and ecological way of cultivating, but even more important is the community of his farm where Palestinians work together with internationals and other volunteers.

Nassar invites people of all nations to stay on his farm and cultivate together with him. Thus, he named his project the “Tent of Nations”. The garden shower he built himself, a German engineer installed the solar panel, and Nassar built a compost toilet together with an Israeli settler from Neve Daniel.

“One day he just stood on my farm saying that he wanted to help,” Nassar describes and still seems to be surprised, “and so we ended up building the toilet together.”

Still the two men didn’t become friends. Dialogue between Israeli settlers and Palestinians is seen as taboo on both sides. Moreover, Israeli settlers frequently trespass on Nassar’s land, carrying guns and attempt to cut down his olive trees. But the Palestinian still follows his principle of nonviolent resistance. “If they cut one of my trees, I will plant 10 new ones!”, he says.  The Tent of Nations began almost 14 years ago – it takes more than cut down olive trees to put Daher Nassar out of his comfort zone.

But the next morning Nassar begins to gesture wildly and seems upset as he explains the most recent actions of the Israeli military.  The night before, the Israeli military put up a new gate to block the road into Nassar’s farm – this is not something new.  Israeli military frequently put up stone blocks, flying checkpoints, and spontaneous gates to inhibit Palestinian freedom of movement. This morning, Nassar finds himself blocked in massive, new gate, painted in the “Palestinian” colors red and green.

“I am not angry,” Nassar says, “no one can be angry for 10 or 20 years. The Bible says that one is supposed to love everyone.” It’s a tough task though. “If they would stop the settlements growing, peace could grow instead,” Nassar laments. “But what are they doing?” he asks and points to the settlements surrounding his land.

He shrugs his shoulders and waves good-bye as he makes his way to plant some new olive trees.  He has planted 300 in the past 3 days, 100 each day – as a sign of hope.