For some years now we have had a calendar (a Christmas gift from a friend who gets one from us too!) – the One World calendar produced jointly by Traidcraft, CAFOD, SCIAF and Christian Aid – with lovely photographs from all over the world, and an accompanying commentary about development issues. This month’s photograph shows a family having a picnic by the seaside – something that many of us have experienced from time to time.
But this picnic, although it is entitled ‘Deceptive serenity’, is rather different – not just because the car looks rather rickety and the chairs are not the standard picnic or camping ones, but because of where the picnic takes place. This is the beach at Gaza in the occupied Palestinian territories. It is only 3 kilometres from the heart of Gaza city and it is very popular for swimming despite one big disadvantage. No: not sharks, but sewage. Since 2008 owing to the blockade imposed on Gaza by the Israeli government, affecting electricity supplies, the big sewage plant has been able to operate only on a very limited basis, and thus much sewage has to be pumped into the sea.
I visited Gaza in 1990 as part of a small Church of Scotland group, including the Moderator at the time, Professor Robert Davidson. We were hugely impressed by the courage, resilience and cheerfulness of the people we met, but even then the living conditions were abysmal. Worst of all was Jabalia, the largest of Gaza’s eight refugee camps. In all around 750000 Palestinians were driven from their homes when the state of Israel was created in 1948. Gaza is a relatively small area with a population of around 2 million of whom about 600,000 are refugees. In Jabalia many of the homes are flimsy and makeshift, crowded close together with poor sanitation; open sewers run through the streets: the visit moved me deeply. Owing to the blockade the economic and social structure of Gaza has been severely fractured: there are frequent power cuts and serious shortages of food and medical supplies.
This is the World Week of Prayer for Palestine and Israel (13-21 September) and on Saturday an important conference is being held, through Zoom, by the organisation Sabeel-Kairos, a small Christian UK network of individuals and organisations committed to standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people by supporting the cause of peace and justice in the Holy Land and in particular the work of Kairos Palestine and Sabeel Jerusalem. Sabeel is an ecumenical liberation theology based in Jerusalem which has an international network of support and issues a much appreciated weekly ‘Wave of Prayer’ focussing on concern for justice for Palestinians. And, facing the prospect of further oppression through the annexation of land on the West Bank for settlement development, Kairos Palestine have recently called for support from Christians world-wide through issuing an urgent ‘Cry for Hope’ in which they say We invite our fellow Christians, their local congregations, churches and international ecumenical organizations, to receive and respond to our common witness, to formally reject the oppression of the Palestinian people and any use of the Bible to justify this injustice and to affirm the right of the Palestinians tononviolent resistance.
This is something for us all to be involved in and concerned about – not just the over-enthusiastic and ultra-committed! We do well to remember the validity of the Biblical insight that each of us is diminished by the suffering of others: we are all bound together in the bundle of life, as the well-used prayer puts it. The Church of Scotland has a longstanding history of commitment to the cause of Palestinian justice and, along with other churches, encourages prayers to be offered for Palestine on the 24th of every month. And, just for the avoidance of doubt, in the context of recent political controversies, it is not anti-semitic to be sceptical about Christian Zionism and critical of the policies of the Israeli government on, for example, the blockade of Gaza, the rights of Palestinians in Israel, and further annexation and encroachment on the West Bank.