Wednesday 11th December 2013.
The day of our most recent visit was also the first day of a winter storm that brought chaos to the whole region –howling winds, thunderstorms and torrential rain – with the promise of snowstorms in Jerusalem. (Our journey to the Erez Terminal checkpoint for travel out of Israel into Gaza took longer than we anticipated, and we were very late in arriving.) We were met at the other side by a Hospital mini-bus, which took a very circuitous route into Gaza City and to the Hospital. “We can’t travel directly to the Hospital,” said our driver, Abu George, “because so many of the city centre streets are already flooded.”

Nashida August 2013 233It was a very overcast, dark morning. The streets were deserted of pedestrians.
However, many businesses seemed to be open, although few had any lighting. “All the schools are closed today. Not just because of the weather, but also because there’s no electricity for heating or lighting.” said Abu George. We noticed a few shops with some limited lighting. “Some shops have their own generators,” said Abu George. “Kerosene powered. Some of these are quite dangerous in the home. The Hospital sees many people with burns.”

At the Hospital we were met by our host Suhaila Tarazi, who has been Director of the Hospital for over 15 years. Suhaila is an orthodox Christian, and was the first woman from Gaza to get a degree in Hospital Management. The Hospital was founded in 1882 by the Church Mission Society (CMS) of the Church of England, and in 1982 was passed over to the management of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.

We had many questions for Suhaila about Gaza, and about how the Hospital is faring. Our last visit to the Hospital had been in the height of summer, and we had then found Gaza City to be a hive of activity, with lots of construction. But now, there is absolutely nothing positive to report. Suhaila outlined the many restrictions impacting on the Community and the Hospital.
Blockade. The recent blockade from Egypt has meant all the ‘tunnels’ are closed, and so no gasoline or construction materials are entering Gaza that way. About 20,000 workers associated with the tunnels have therefore lost their jobs, and possibly a further 40,000 construction workers are now idle because of the lack of cement and steel and other building materials. From the Israeli side, building materials are only now allowed for some projects under the supervision of international agencies like UNRWA.
Electricity. At the moment Gaza City has electricity only six hours a day, and there is no timetable of when electricity is available. “Women often rise at midnight to do their laundry and cooking,” said Suhaila, “if that’s when the power is on.” This is a very difficult situation for the Hospital, of course, as it is not possible to predict when there will be power. Most of the time they have to use their own generators. During our visit there was no heating on in the Hospital office. Suhaila, wrapped in a thick coat and a scarf round her neck, said, “The gasoline we buy from Israel, which is all that is now available, is better quality, but it is more than twice as expensive. We have to ensure we don’t waste anything, so that the Hospital can continue to function.” But the continual use of the Hospital generators is quite a drain on their financial resources. And Suhaila shared further, “There is no power at home either. If power is on when I am working, it will not be on when I get home. I worry for large families – to get any light they will need to keep doors open, and of course that also lets the cold in.”
Water. The community faces a similar situation with water. The supply is intermittent. We were told that the water quality is getting even worse. Water tastes salty, and some of it is contaminated now by sewage. The United Nations recently produced a report stating that by 2020 – at the latest – the water supply to Gaza will be unusable, and the Gaza aquifer destroyed for centuries to come.
Sewage. The failure of the Sewage Treatment Works now means that every day 13 million cubic metres of untreated sewage is poured into the sea. This is creating widespread health concerns. Also, because of the restriction imposed on fishermen – currently Gazan boats cannot fish beyond a six mile limit from the shore – there is concern about the impact this will have on the fishing stocks, and also on the quality of the fish caught.
Food. Again, food is in short supply. Reports by the World Food Organisation state that 60% of Gazans are dependent on food support., and 51% are food insecure.
Unemployment. Even before the closure of the tunnels and the knock on effect this has on construction, etc, it was being reported that 52% of the working population were unemployed.
The Health System. This is in a state of prolonged deterioration. Of the World Health Organisation list of essential medicines that should be available to the community, 35% of them are not available to Hospitals. And there are often intermittent supplies of some very important drugs. Suhaila describes the situation for patients on long term courses of medication – for example children on kidney dialysis, or cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. The medication runs out, and their course of treatment is interrupted until new supplies are available. Added to this, at least 20% of patients who need care outside Gaza are denied permits by the Israeli authorities, so cannot get the treatment they need.
Financial support. Suhaila drew a distinction for us between a chronic problem and an emergency problem. This distinction we have heard before from many agencies in the West Bank. The attention of donors is drawn to the emergency situations in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan, and the chronic long-term problems of Gaza receive less support – and the situation simply gets worse and worse.

Nashida August 2013 230The last eighteen months have been a time of significant transition for the Hospital. A change in the priorities of UNRWA, which funds Hospital treatment for all the ‘refugee’ population of Gaza, has meant a withdrawal of funding from the general activities of the Hospital in favour of other local Hospitals where, we are told, the quality of care may not be so high, but the cost per patient to UNRWA is less. The Hospital has responded to this crisis by focusing more on specialisation, and on our visit we had the opportunity to see the new Diagnostic Center building, which will focus on cancer. Donors have funded the new building, which is now complete, and the Hospital is now seeking support to equip the Center.

The Hospital’s work in the broader community continues, and we spent some time with Muhammad El Naqa, who coordinates outreach from the Hospital to villages and refugee camps outside of Gaza City. In many of these places, the poverty situation is extreme. This outreach has three main aspects to it –
Medical Support For Elderly Women (over 50) who have chronic health problems. Their situation is generally overlooked within communities – and families – and the Hospital offers them free healthcare.
Breast cancer screening and education. There has been a significant increase in the breast cancer rates in recent years in Gaza. No study has been undertaken to understand why this is so, but there are many relevant reasons, including lifestyle and war – the effects of contamination reputed to be spread from missile blasts on Gaza. There are many cultural reasons why women are reluctant to undertake breast cancer screening, and the high rate of death from such cancers is because women wait until far too late before seeking medical support. And the high rate of mastectomies is a result of the lack of regular supplies of appropriate treatments. The Hospital offers screening, education and training in self-examination.
Services To Children. The Hospital runs programmes for underweight, or malnourished children, which involves free medical examination and care and treatment for a three month period. The project this year is serving over 750 children. Obviously there are many nutritional issues associated with this extreme poverty. For example, parents with limited resources often give their children bread and a cup of tea for breakfast – sugary tea if the sugar is available. It is filling, but of course, tea, if given to young children, minimises the absorption of iron – and it is estimated that 60% of children in Gaza suffer from iron deficiency. It has also been noted that 45% of lactating mothers suffer from anaemia.

As a visiting group we were again thoroughly depressed by the catalogue of interconnected problems that we hear are facing the Gazan community, and the Hospital we support. Chronic problems, as Suhaila stated, that there is no way out of in the current political climate and conflict.

And the solution to these problems? Suhaila was quite clear. It is not enough to think just about ways to get more food, or medicine, or money to the Hospital. This is all really necessary, of course. But what is crucially important is a sea change in the overall situation, so that chronic problems can be consistently tackled and overcome. And that sea change is PEACE, and JUSTICE. Peace and Justice in the relationship between Palestine and Israel, between Gaza and Israel, is the priority issue on which all else hangs. Without this, the very difficult lives of the 1.7 million people living in the Gaza Strip will continue to deteriorate, day by day.

We commend to your thoughts and your prayers the resilient caring and peace building people we have met in all of our Gaza visits. People who love their community and want the best for all. People who do not see other people as enemy, but as fellow human beings to serve.

Today is the final day of Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Usually in our liturgy at St. Andrew’s Church we quote the words attributed to Cardinal Mercier in 1920; “In order to unite with one another, we must love one another; in order to love one another, we must know one another; in order to know one another, we must go and meet one another.”

In Jerusalem, the local Christian Churches take this advice seriously, and during the Week worship is organised where we can indeed meet and know each other.  A series of eight evening services in different venues is offered, and this year it was possible to attend ecumenical worship from different traditions, led by and in Greek, Armenian, Syrian, Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, and Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran (with whom we participated in leadership) Churches, and also in the Upper Room – the ‘Hall of the Last Supper’ – which is open for use by all denominations.  .

During the week my colleague Colin from Tiberias and I had the opportunity to focus on Christian Unity in a very special way.  But initially, we were thinking about Christmas.  Wednesday 23rd January was our first opportunity to enter Gaza after the Christmas season.  We were taking Christmas greetings to our partner organisations there on behalf of our Church, and also a bag containing 250 Christmas Cards sent from Scotland.  This was part of an initiative by the World Mission Council encouraging members of congregations to send cards and greetings to our partners in Gaza, via St. Andrew’s mail address. 

We had first intended to visit just after our Western Christmas, but delayed it because of the vagaries of the international post.  Cards were still coming in around the time of the Orthodox Christmas on 6th January.  We had to wait till our Israeli permits were renewed, so we even missed the Armenian Christmas of 19th January.

You will understand, I am sure, the particularly difficult situation for ordinary people in Gaza, and you may know a little about the Christian community there.  Over 1 and three quarter million people live in the crowded Gaza Strip, two thirds of them refugees from the political changes in this region in 1948 and 1967.  They are primarily Muslim, and in their midst is a small Christian community numbering about 1,500 people living mainly in Gaza City itself.  The majority are of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and there are a few Episcopalians, and some Baptists and Roman Catholics.  But not, as far as we know, any Presbyterians!

Within the general context, this community lives in complete harmony with their Muslim neighbours, but a small minority always has pressures on it, and always feels very vulnerable – and isolated, of course, because it is so difficult to get out of the Gaza Strip.

On our one day visit, we were hosted by the Near East Council of Churches, who run a number of antenatal clinics for mothers and children – including special clinics for malnourished children – and also some vocational training initiatives.  All these are open to the whole community, particularly those still classed as refugees.  In the morning we also visited the Anglican Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, a 50 bed hospital, again open to everyone, and with a reputation for quality service to the community built up over many years.  As we travelled through Gaza City we saw few signs of the devastation of the war last year (it turned out we were not travelling in the areas that were most badly hit) but we heard many personal stories, and Suhaila, the Director of the Hospital, told us she had been at home in her house when a missile landed nearby, blowing in her windows and doors.  It is a miracle that she came out of the situation with only minor injuries.  But there was significant damage to her home. 

In the early afternoon we visited the Atfaluna Society for the Deaf, another long-term partner of the Church.  Atfaluna is a Gazan charity, not a Christian organisation, but it shares the same values of concern and work for the most vulnerable people in society – and they would easily relate to Paul’s sentiments in Corinthians that we are all part of the same body, and all equally important.  It was there we heard about one of the children of a member of staff, who, months after the bombing, still wakes in the middle of the night, crying out and shaking fearfully.  What costs in trauma for the young, and the not so young, these conflicts bring, and so sad that this should be part of their experience of growing up.

Finally we visited the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius, an ancient church which traces its roots back to the 4th century AD.  Unfortunately we were not able to meet with any of the congregation at that time, but were able to discuss worshipping with them on our next visit.

Wherever we went we were received with great grace, and expectation.  It seemed that everyone was looking forward to receiving the cards, and aware of what they signified – a powerful connection between the isolated Christian community there and ordinary people in Scotland.  It was a privilege to be the messengers of such connectedness.  Our friends at the Near East Council of Churches office said they would share out their cards with the Baptist and Catholic Churches, so that everyone could receive these messages of friendship and prayer that cross so many boundaries and barriers. 

This was a very meaningful part of Week of Prayer for Christian Unity for both of us, as we gained an insight into the width and the wealth of the ‘body of Christ’ at work.

While we were there I was also arranging for a longer visit which will take place next month, involving a small group of representative of our Church and organisations from Scotland.  When our partners heard this they said, “We have a chapel in the grounds of the Hospital which is not regularly used.  Please, when your group comes, will you lead worship in the Chapel, so we can all worship together? “Some Christian staff from the Hospital would participate, and perhaps some other local Christians as well.

This request caused me to meditate on two things:

 First of all, in St. Andrew’s Church our weekly worship experience gives us a strong sense of the worldwide body of the Church.  Our congregation is both local and international, and during the tourist season we meet people from many different countries.  It is always an enriching experience as we learn about other people’s life and faith journeys.  I am sure most congregations have similar encounters during the holiday seasons, and most members of congregations will have visited other churches during their own holidays.  Imagine if that experience was lost from our lives – no visitors from faraway places, no students or foreign workers making our congregation their spiritual home for a period of time.  And yet that is the weekly experience of the Christian community in Gaza, where there are so few visitors and so few opportunities to go out and visit other places.

And secondly, their heartfelt desire for us to worship together.  When Colin and I made our visit we met with people, we shared together about the work that we do and the experiences we have, we learnt from each other, and we also had an opportunity to socialise more informally over a meal.  And in many situations in life that would be totally satisfactory.  But within the ‘body of Christ’ there is also a need for us to know each other at a deeper level.  One that is not just about our roles in life, our work, or our family life.  We need to be able to stand together in all our inner, vulnerable, hopeful humanity, united together in worship, under the gracious love of God, as the ‘body of Christ’….. “in order to love one another, we must know one another; in order to know one another, we must go and meet one another.”


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When we arrived in Israel three years ago, the church car was already waiting for me in our parking place – a Peugeot 308.  When I first started to drive, I had three main issues to deal with – before getting down to consider the wonders of the Israeli driver:

1.  I had never driven on the right before.  It isn’t a big problem really, as long as there is other traffic on the road.  But sometimes at intersections, I needed conscious thought about which lane I should be heading into.  The biggest problem I had at the start was getting a sense of the dimensions of the car, which was now to my right rather than my left, and that’s crucially important on the many narrow roads in Jerusalem where people park in a way that allows cars to squeeze by, but with only centimetres to spare.  In those first weeks it must have been very stressful for anyone sitting on the passenger side of my car.

2.  I had only ever driven an automatic car once before and only for 30 minutes.  I found it quite difficult for the first few days because every time I needed to brake I found myself using my TWO feet – and it became like an emergency stop.  Once I learnt to pull my left leg as far back as possible, as if it was strapped to the seat, things became plain sailing.  Going in and out of Jerusalem on Route 1 is quite an uphill/downhill process and at first I felt very vulnerable and out of control going down the steep hills, because it was like freewheeling with only the brakes to slow me down.  And there were many Israeli drivers lane-hopping in front of me (centimetres in front of me!) at 100km an hour.  The car had a manual facility but I didn’t understand it at first – the log book was in Hebrew!  However, after experimenting, I quickly found out how to manually change down gears to assist the brakes.   

 3.  I was now driving a spanking new car.  This was probably my biggest worry and I was dreading my first bash.  Israeli cars seem to wear their minor bashes like a badge of honour.  I think 90% of the cars you see on the roads have rear or side bashes. 

Now, after three years of driving here, I am more accustomed to ‘driving with the flow’.  My biggest worry when I go home on furlough to Scotland is that I continue to drive like an Israeli driver!   According to the Israeli statistic department, tourists often complain about the Israeli driver.  Guide books will say: ‘Israelis drive aggressively and like maniacs’, and many books mention the high accident rate on the roads.  Other books say the Israeli’s are like Italian drivers, ‘making generous use of their horns’.

Driving in Israel

One of the signs of this, is just how difficult it is at an intersection to move into another traffic flow.  It feels so dangerous, because you have to push yourself in to the smallest of free space, and have a little struggle – inch by inch – with the driver whose place you are trying to take.  It helped me considerably when a friend explained his understanding of the Israeli driving ‘psyche’.  ‘The Israeli driver’ he said, ‘will continue to drive until something forces him to stop.  Then he just stops.  He is unlikely to let you in, and will use his horn to complain about you attempting such a thing.  But once you are in, the space is yours, and usually there are no further complaints.’  

Pedestrians who stand at the crossings, waiting for the traffic to stop to let them cross, get a poor response. Visitors will wait at pedestrian crossings for a gap in the traffic, rather than step out, even though they do have right of way, and penalties for not stopping are very high.  And once you are on the crossing, there’s no certainty that traffic on the other side will stop for you until you are within inches of them.  Locals often just step into the road, and the traffic WILL stop, sometimes even if it means a screeching of brakes.  The percentage of locals who just step out without even looking is staggering!  And often the cars don’t stop, they just slow down a little and then squeeze behind you, with literally inches to spare. 

You may be driving on the fast lane of a two lane highway, going uphill relatively slowly, because the other lane is clogged up with slow moving commercial traffic.  The car behind you will toot.  What’s the point in that, you think?  I can’t move into the other lane because of the lorries, and the long line of traffic in front of me dictates the speed I am driving at.  But the fact is, I am not right up to the bumper of the car in front and have left a bit of stopping space between it and me.  The driver behind me fancies that space!

You may be sitting at the traffic lights waiting for green, to go.  The driver five cars behind you toots, just milliseconds before the light changes to red/amber – urging you on.  Perhaps he thinks that if you do not move immediately he might not get through on this turn of the lights.  It is important not to get irritated by this, although that isn’t easy!  It is not something we are used to in the UK, and if a driver toots his horn it is generally because he is annoyed at something wrong you have done or are about to do.  Nobody is annoyed here – it is just what people do.

You are on a two lane city road but can only use one lane because the inner lane is parked up.  You see a few car lengths in front of you that one of the parked cars has started to indicate it wants to move into the flow of traffic.  A car four or five behind you toots its horn as if to say to the parked car, ‘Don’t you dare!’

On the city road, the scooter behind you honks, and then comes speeding past you.  The message is simple, ‘I am behind you and I am overtaking you. Don’t do anything stupid.’  It’s not a request, it is a statement.  I was driving on one road and saw an obstruction in front of me, so I signalled in plenty time and started to move out.  At that very instant a young man on a Pizza delivery scooter passed some cars behind me, honking as he travelled, and proceeded to pass me as I was manoeuvring.  He had to veer into the oncoming traffic lane which was, thankfully, empty.  He was annoyed at me, as if I was at fault.  He had decided to overtake and that was all that seemed to matter to him.  I speculated that, first, he was travelling far too fast on a city road to see my signal to move out, although it had been flashing for some time, second, he had absolutely no idea what was in the road in front of him and, third, it seemed to be expected of me that I should either stop to let him pass, or plough into the road works.   I do worry about the many young delivery drivers on scooters who weave in and out – they all seem destined for serious injury.

After a good few weeks of learning how to drive on Israeli roads and beginning to ‘drive with the flow’, you relax a bit, and then it is a revelation to discover just how many considerate drivers there actually are on the roads.  It is encouraging, but it takes time before you are aware of them.  And if you stop for pedestrians or signal to them to let them know you are stopping, many of them smile and give a wave of thanks. It is not all bad.  Just mostly so!


I was in the Bank, in the middle of a transaction, when the power failed.  At first I thought it might have been a general power cut.  These had been threatened during the recent hot spell when everybody had their air conditioners on full and the power company was concerned they could not meet demand.  But the power cut was local to the Bank and the teller thought the problem would be solved quickly.  “If you have time to wait,” he said, “just go round the corner for a coffee and then come back.”

The closest cafe around the corner was on the road to Yafo (Jaffa Street) the main shopping centre in West Jerusalem.  The sign outside advertised many things in Hebrew, but had one line in English which announced ‘Bacon and Eggs’.  I was very surprised, to say the least, to find this on offer in the heart of Jerusalem, but it was lunch time and when it came time to order I felt inclined to experiment.

The gentleman sitting at the table next to me was working intensely on his computer.  When I placed my order for bacon and eggs he looked up at me – in fact, stared at me.  Then he looked around him for a while, and I had the distinct sense that he had become very uncomfortable.  So uncomfortable, in fact, that he started to tidy up his papers, closed his computer, and left.  It was as if this place of relaxation for him had suddenly become a place he should not be in.

In this city of so many different cultures, you can so quickly find yourself ill at ease, as if you have unwittingly crossed a boundary into a society you don’t belong in.

But there are powerful struggles going on in Israel at the moment about how society should develop.  For example, at one end, the ultra-orthodox seek more influence in broader society (segregation on public transport, demonstrations against Saturday opening of car parks, etc).  At the other end, groups are campaigning to achieve full equality for all citizens of Israel, irrespective of religion, race, or gender (often citing the founding document of the State of Israel, the Declaration of Independence), and are particularly active on issues of gender exclusion.

Just this week, four Jewish women were detained at the Western Wall, and charged with disturbing the public peace, based on a regulation which outlaws performing a religious act which ‘offends the feelings of others’.  They have now been barred from the Western Wall for 50 days.

The Western Wall (Kotel) is, as you will know, a powerful and meaningful place for all Jewish people, whatever their background – orthodox, conservative, reformed, progressive.  It is the closest point worshippers can freely come to the Holy of Holies.  The area is divided off into two parts, one for men and one for women.  In the male part, worshippers can pray, dance and sing, read the Torah, and express their faith in just about any way they wish.  The women on the other, smaller side of the partition are expected to stand silently in their space, not pray out loud, and not act out rituals normally performed by men.  They are also not allowed to read from the Torah when close to the wall.

Women Praying at the Western Wall

Some of the women wear colourful ‘feminine’ prayer shawls.  The group of four women who were excluded from the Kotel were wearing the black and white Tallit (prayer shawls) that are preferred by orthodox men, and this was seen as a direct challenge that could have led to conflict, perhaps even rioting, by the offended ultra-orthodox males.

There are other places where ‘public order’ rules are strictly enforced.  A Jewish visitor to Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) would likely be accompanied by an Israeli soldier and a Muslim guard, and if there were any sign of prayer, or the opening of a prayer book, they would be quickly led off Temple Mount – because such prayer could cause a backlash of rage against them from the Muslim worshippers.  And it could quickly escalate.

The Human Right to ‘freedom of religious expression’ here, has to be balanced against the need to maintain ‘public order’.  On Haram al-Sharif, of course, there are broader Jewish-Muslim issues, and prayer could indeed be used as an act of provocation. 

But for those who have a sincere desire to pray in thanksgiving to God, wherever they find themselves in the City, public order issues seem so often to ‘penalise the victim’.  I am always aware at the great Christian festivals, with the intense security and the presence of troops and police, supposedly to defend the worshippers, that often it is the worshippers themselves who come off worst, as they are herded about and barred from moving freely.

However, at the Western Wall, the struggle seems to be about the ‘heart’ of Judaism.

One organisation, IRAC (Israel Religious Action Centre), which describes itself as the ‘public and legal advocacy arm of the reform movement’, and has the goal of ‘advancing pluralism in Israeli society and defending the freedoms of conscience, faith and religion’, has been active recently in a legal campaign.  They have gone to Israel’s Supreme Court to demand a change in the make-up of the Western Wall Heritage Council, which is currently made up completely of Orthodox Jews. ‘We want the body to resemble the real diversity of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora’.

As a guest in this country I do not want, wittingly or unwittingly, to offend another person’s religious sensibilities.  I seek to understand the different cultures.  I recently spent a fascinating day at the Israel Museum, visiting the exhibition about the Haredi Community (what we might call the ultra-orthodox community) and learnt a lot from it.  But I would not want that community to dictate how I live in my space – I have my own cultural background and values.  Nor would they want me to dictate to them how they should live. 

But in public space it is a different matter.  And that is where the struggle for the future of Israeli society is taking place.  And this is not something that anyone can be impartial about.  We all feel we have a right to be who we are in public space.

I felt sorry that I had unwittingly caused discomfort in that cafe – but if it is any consolation to anyone, the coffee was lovely, so were the eggs, but the bacon – never again.  “It may be bacon, Jim, but not as we know it”.


When I decided to take a break from writing this blog, I think it was because the ideas I was having for the blog were becoming more complex, less about where I had gone and what I had seen, and more about society here.  And that required more research than I seemed to have time for.  But I didn’t expect the ‘holiday’ from the blog would last so long.  In the interim I have been working on the Church Facebook page, the new Church Website – almost finished – and on a historical blog for St. Andrew’s Church – ongoing.

But I am back…well, almost.


In the meantime, over the Summer we had the pleasure of welcoming Aniko Schuetz as our ministry student for ten weeks, full time.  Aniko is a student at New College, Edinburgh, training for ministry in the Church of Scotland, and she too has been writing a blog about some of the places she has been, some of the things she has done, and some thoughts about what she experienced.

Her blog is well worth a visit.  It is www.anikoinjerusalem.wordpress.com , and it covers a whole host of experiences which she accompanies with lots of lovely photographs.  Here is a list to whet your appetite:

GALILEE: a visit to learn about the work of our church in Tiberias, which took her also into the Golan Heights, to the Lebanon/Syria border, Magdala,  Mount of the Beatitudes, Capernaum, Tabgha, Sindyanna of Galilee Fairtrade organisation, and to a destroyed Arab village called Ba’ram, where she met with some fascinating people.

BETHLEHEM: Al Shurooq School for Blind Children, Wi’am Conflict Transformation Centre, the Wall, the Tent of the Nations outside Bethlehem, and a day spent at the Aroub Refugee Camp close by.

JAFFA: a visit to our Tabeetha School, and to the Old Port of Jaffa.

WEST BANK:  the threatened Palestinian village of Susiya in the South Hebron Hills, the city of Hebron, the Dead Sea, the Christian village of Taybeh, the  Al-Maghtas baptismal site, the Inn of the Good Samaritan.

JERUSALEM:  the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock, Sabeel, the Israel Museum and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the British Consulate.

AND ALSO:  Aniko shares thoughts about Palestinian liberation theology, differences between the West Bank and Israel, food, life and culture here, and the work of the church.

Aniko’s blog is well worth a visit for the insights it shares.

I hope you will take the time to look at it –  www.anikoinjerusalem.wordpress.com

And perhaps by the time you finish reading it, I will again be online!

Over the last decade a major high speed highway called Route 6, part of it a toll road, has extended across Israel from North to South.  It can carry you quickly from city to city, and also from modern to ancient.  When you travel south and leave Route 6 near the modern city of Be’er Sheva, and head east, within minutes you come to an archaeological site – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – called Tel Sheva with evidence of habitation since 4,000 BCE, and signs of demolition that date from around 586BCE – the time of King Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the kingdom of Judah.    This site is believed to be the ancient and biblical Be’er Sheva.

Confusingly there is another Tel Sheva close by, and it was this we visited along with the Moderator’s party, in December last year.  Tel Sheva is a major Bedouin town with a population of about 25,000. 

We parked our vehicle close to the Matnas (Community Centre) and as we waited for the others to arrive, we explored a small street market, where modern goods and children’s clothing – T shirts, trainers, etc – were on sale to local women.  All of the women had head covering.  A few were traditionally dressed and completely covered so you could see only their eyes.  Our guide, Nava, a Rabbi from Rabbi’s for Human Rights, told us that this small market was very useful for the local women.  They cannot travel to the markets in nearby Be’er Sheva on their own – the men will not allow it.  ‘This aspect of the culture,’ said Nava, ‘is pre-Islamic.’  We learnt that some women cannot leave their homes unless accompanied.  Some even cannot visit their own female relatives without their husbands.  Many of these girls and women do not have basic literacy skills. 

So this, our first experience of the town made us aware of both ancient and modern cultures alive and influencing at the same time. 

The town itself dates back only to 1968, founded as part of a government project to settle Bedouin in permanent settlements.  It developed its own Local Council in 1984.  A socio-economic study of the area in 2000 showed that the average family monthly income was just under 50% of the national average for Israel.  Unemployment is a big social issue.

The purpose of our visit was to meet with a group of female Bedouin students from Sapir College, Sderot, who are participating in a programme called ‘Sisters for Peace’.  This project is run by the College and ‘Rabbi’s for Human Rights’, part of it funded by the Church of Scotland Guild.

We had last visited the Sapir College project a year ago, to meet the students – twenty young women, half of them Bedouin, half of them Jewish, who have been learning about each other’s cultures, and also working together on projects in their own communities.  This was the first time we had visited one of the community projects.  

Nava led us to an open space where we met three young female students who started to explain their project to us.  Again we were aware of the contrasts of ancient and modern as we listened to these educated and articulate young women explaining (in English) how their group is working to improve their own community.


One of the young women, Sonia, told us about her dream for her community.  She lived close to one of the primary schools in the town, which is situated behind large open area we were standing in.  In season it has a stream running through it, but most of the time it is a large barren area.  Sonia remembers when she was a young child that her family went on picnics.  But they always had to go out of the town to find a suitable space.  Her dream was that this open space could be transformed into a green area, which local people could use for recreation.

In our short time in and travelling into the town we had become very aware that people have great pride in their own homes and garden areas, but community space is not developed.  There is not much care for areas which don’t belong to anyone.  There was lots of rubbish lying around in front of us.  To be fair, the previous two evenings had been very windy, so rubbish was circulating from everywhere.  One of our party noted that most of the rubbish was plastic bottles and packaging – the detritus of a modern culture.

The three young women told us that the project they have been working on for the last year is to make Sonia’s dream a reality by transforming the open area we were standing in into a ‘environmental park’ – a communal green space.  They told how they had approached the local Council with their ideas, and how it had taken them a few months to convince the Council to listen to them and to give support.  Once the Council understood their vision, and could see how well planned and supported the project was, they gave it their wholehearted support.  That includes financial support from the Council budget and also from the State of Israel, and an agreement that once the project was completed there would be resources to maintain it over the long term.

We were impressed with the depth of thought which had gone into this initiative.  The group approached this as a community development project, not just an initiative to transform an empty space.  The young women were clear that the project will only succeed if they can educate people about waste and recycling, and then develop a sense of ownership of the project.

Their strategy was to start working with the youngsters at the primary schools, and they had developed a programme of education about waste and recycling. The group took us to the nearby Primary School to meet the Head Teacher, who explained how 25 school children had volunteered for the programme which included learning about recycling and environmental issues, visiting other communities to see what happens there, and exploring responsibilities and possibilities within the community.  Their intention is that these volunteers will then cascade that learning to other children in the schools and also into the community – particularly ‘educating’ the parents and older generations.

It was energising to sit with these young women and listen to their vision for their own community.  And it was good to feel that, in a small way, we were a part of this positive development.  The project at Sapir College gives them support and inspiration, and draws in all the experience and insight of the project leaders to help the students with problems solving.  In fact, it gives them all they need to make ideas become actuality.

The three young women sitting with us represented the first generation of young women from their community who have gone on to higher education.  As we walked back to our cars through the small market, we saw with new eyes how ancient and modern live side by side in this town.  The traditional culture, symbolised by women in traditional covering, next to the modern culture, symbolised for us by these young women who are acting as role models in bringing something good into their community, and who are developing leadership skills to carry with them into all aspects of their lives.

Making prayer visible

“Dear Pastor Mitri”, said the message inside the Christmas card, “I am 81 years of age and have visited your country twice before.  Christians in Scotland do not forget you and we are praying that God will bless and encourage you in the difficulties that face you every day in Bethlehem.”

As part of the Invest in Peace initiative of the Church of Scotland’s World Mission Council, this year churches and individuals were encouraged to send Christmas Cards to Bethlehem – to projects associated with our work here.  These included the pastor and congregation of the Lutheran Christmas Church, the Al Shurooq School for Blind Children; the Ma’an Lil-Hayat project of L’Arche Bethlehem which works with people with significant intellectual disabilities  Doaud Nassar and the community at the Tent of Nations;  the Wi’am Conflict Resolution Center;  and the artist and teacher, Faten Nastas, who had recently visited Scotland.

I was a willing ‘postie’ for this initiative, and almost 700 cards were received.  A few of them, of course, arrived just after Christmas – such are the vagaries of the international post – and also, as some people explained, they found out about the initiative too late to meet the Christmas deadline, but were still keen to participate.

One such group was Cranhill Parish Church’s ‘Crazy Church’ group, where the youngsters have an evening of games, storytelling, art and food, accompanied by parents and carers.  I was sent a picture of the young group gathered around a table, at work on their cards.  One of two of them, reportedly, quite wide-eyed at the thought of someone in Bethlehem ‘really getting one of our cards.’

Nearly all of the personal messages on the cards received said something like ‘you are in our thoughts and prayers’.   And such care and support was really appreciated.  At the Wi’am Conflict Resolution Center, Usama, who has been our guide and friend on many occasions said, “This is so wonderful – knowing that people of all ages are thinking about us across all these miles”.  And on our last visit, on Christmas Eve, Dr. Zoughbi Zoughbi spoke movingly about how practical support is always welcome, but also how much they welcomed ‘our spirituality support’ – the thoughts and the prayers that accompany their deepest selves in their work and daily living.

The group at Ma’an Lil-Hayat were still at work when we made our first delivery.  They know about Scotland because of the number of doves they have made to be sent there – at the last count, over 5,000 since the May General Assembly.  “The workers will have great fun opening these cards during their morning break,” said L’Arche’s administrator, Rusann.  “And at our barbecue on our last day of work, the 20th December, the cards will be spread out around the tree. We all write our hopes for the future on a piece of paper and then hang them on the tree.”

One card to Ma’an Lil-Hayat said, “Thank you for the lovely things you make that we can buy here – they are so unusual and are a powerful message of the work you are doing.”

Some cards were simply signed by individuals, or on behalf of congregations.  Many also expressed an understanding of the difficulties faced by people and organisations in today’s Bethlehem, and expressed a hope for the future.  And as I read these messages, I felt very positively that this coming together of hearts and minds in support and understanding is indeed one sign of hope.

The highlight of delivering your cards was when we took them to Al Shurooq School for Blind Children.  We opened them with Helen Shehadah, and Helen wanted to hear every message and to touch every card.  Afterwards, we separated the cards into two different types.  Some we put into a pile for hanging up in Helen’s office.  These were the cards which worked best visually.  The other cards we kept back for the children to feel; some were embossed, some were hand-made with raise bits and shapes, many of them made by children in Scotland.  A few of the cards had added messages in Braille, which was a real excitement.  The second time we arrived with a delivery, one of the young pupils was with Helen in her office, and as fast as we opened the cards, she was in about feeling them…and asking Helen all the time ‘ma hatha?’ – ‘what is it?’

The staff at St. Andrews really appreciated their mail collections – they collect from the Box at the Post Office in the nearby German Colony twice a week (there is no delivery to the door) – and then handing me, with a wry smile,  a black bag full of cards.  Inside there would be single cards sent by individuals and big envelopes full of cards sent from congregations.  A couple of primary schools also participated – there was one from Newhaven – and it was obvious many Sunday Schools had enjoyed in the Invest in Peace initiative.

I saw some of the additional messages that some people included – some wee notes.  One explained that the cards were from the most northerly Church in the mainland – was it Dunnet? – another person explained that they lived out in the highlands of Scotland, isolated and far away from any towns or villages. 

And as I flicked through the cards at Al Shurooq, I was surprised by just how many people said they had once visited the school – and encouraged to read a few who said they would be visiting in the coming year.

This was a wonderfully well received initiative.  The lady who wrote, ‘you will know that you are always in our prayers – these cards just make that visible’, got it quite right.

Parallel Lines?

Jerusalem tram heading towards East Jerusalem

Jerusalem tram heading towards East Jerusalem

I need first to interpret this photograph for my friends in Edinburgh. This moving object with all the people inside is indeed a new tram. And I know my friends will not believe me, but for Edinburgh, as has happened recently for Jerusalem, a time will come when trams move, and people are carried!

In August this year, when we returned to Scotland for deputation, the Jerusalem trams were in the final stages of testing. The city centre to East Jerusalem line has just ended a period of free operation. Now passengers have to pay the equivalent of about £1.15 for a ticket. The ticket is time-stamped and can be used on trams and buses for up to 90 minutes after purchase.

There have been some striking parallels between Edinburgh and Jerusalem in the development of the tram ways – and I will outline some of them. Then later I will look at some of the major differences.

Both city centres have been subjected to chaos as roads are dug up to prepare for tracks being laid – Edinburgh for the trams, Jerusalem for the start of an 8 track light rail system. Residents of both cities have wondered if there would ever be a time when it was possible to get about the city without unexpected delays and road closures.

Both cities have significant traffic problems that need to be dealt with, and both have come up with controversial plans of action that have ended up well over budget, (the estimated budget for the Jerusalem light-rail is $1.2 billion), have experienced disputes between local authorities and the consortium of contractors, and have seen dates of completion extended.

The work in Jerusalem began in 2002 with the trams planned to begin working by January 2009. Retail businesses on the routes have complained of a prolonged period of disruption and loss of trade – some have even gone out of business, blaming ‘the trams’. Earlier this year a vegetable vendor at the central Yehuda Market was quoted by ynetnews.com, saying, “The entire city centre, market and residents have all been crushed for the sake of this wretched project. They said 2006, then it was put off to 2008, then 2009. Now it’s 2011…..”

The main shopping street of Yafo while tramlines are being constructed

The main shopping street of Yafo while tramlines are being constructed

The vision for Jerusalem’s light rail system comes from the early days after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accord in 1993, which was a time of optimism. It was thought that Jerusalem might become a major international city which peacefully bridged both east and west, and the city planners felt they had to plan for a major influx of visitors, and at the same time limit the number of cars that enter the city centre. The idea of upgrading the public transport system with a light rail system modelled on European cities like Strasbourg and Bordeaux, seemed very attractive.

But right from the start the construction work was plagued with delays. There were disputes over approval of plans, and some work that needed to be re-done. At one time a whole section of track had to be re-laid when the concrete began to crack. (In Edinburgh in October they were digging up Princes Street to relay track for a similar reason). And, of course, in a historical city there are always delays due to archaeological finds.

The delays and disruption to daily life seemed to be endless, and the development became very unpopular with the public. In 2008 a new Mayor, Nir Barkat, swept to power in the municipal elections. He stood on a manifesto that included conducting a thorough review of the whole light-rail project and, possibly, scrapping most of it. He told reporters, “The whole way this was managed was extremely poor. There was no accountability,”

Many Parallel lines, perhaps? But there are many issues which make the Jerusalem situation quite unique.

If you have visited St. Andrew’s Church and Guesthouse in Jerusalem by car, you will know that the last stretch of the main road passes the entrance gate, but road restrictions deny access into the driveway. You must turn back and travel quite a distance away from St. Andrew’s before you can manoeuvre into the lane that allows you to drive in through the gates. Local businesses similarly affected have complained to the municipality that this is very difficult. The response they got was – ‘We know. But it will just have to be difficult. The centre of Jerusalem is a nightmare for traffic. More people need to leave their cars at home and take the bus or taxi or tram.’

A recent newspaper article stated that the town planners are pinning a lot of hope on the success of the tram way to eventually carry about 35% of public transport. It is seen as an important element of an integrated transport policy.

‘Integrated’? Now that is a very interesting word to use in the context of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem tram in Yafo

Jerusalem tram in Yafo

The active tram line I see in my travel by car runs from Yafo (Jaffa Street) in the West Jerusalem city centre, out alongside one of the main traffic routes out of the city towards Tel Aviv. The route passes through the arab villages of Shu’afat and Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem communities of about 60,000 people, and into major Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. This route is controversial because East Jerusalem is recognised by the United Nations as ‘occupied territory’ and therefore under international law it is illegal for the State of Israel to take this land for its own purposes. There have been court cases in other countries that have impacted on some of the international developers.

The municipality argues that the trams are there to benefit all, (there are three tram stops in Shu’afat), and the Mayor was quoted in the local press in July as saying, “This is an effective way to create a network which enables all residents of Jerusalem, regardless of their religion, to move from any source to any destination.” The Guardian newspaper recently quoted Nadav Meroz of the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan as saying that the railway will serve all communities in Jerusalem: “men, women, Arab, Christian and Jew…. Muslims in the north and east of the city will be able to travel quickly to pray at mosques in the Old City. Our project is for all communities, it’s a solution for everyone.”

But residents of East Jerusalem are suspicious that the primary purpose of this line is actually to service the further out Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem where the tram line currently terminates – and, of course, any new settlements that might be built in the future.

I think it will be interesting to see over time who actually travels on this line. It is hard to imagine that there would be many travellers between the arab villages of Shu’afat or Beit Hanina and the Jewish settlements (or vice versa). And I also wonder if there will be significant travel by tram into central West Jerusalem from these villages. If there is, it will be a positive new development.

There have already been reports of youngsters in Shu’afat throwing stones at passing trams. True, this can happen in any community (concrete blocks thrown off bridges above motorways!) but it can also be a sign of ‘this doesn’t belong to us’, ‘this is hostile to us’.

This is not an ‘integrated’ city – it is a city of different parts, a ‘mosaic’ – and in practice people from the various different sectors of the city do not want to travel together, or to travel to the same destinations. A friend in Scotland told me she had read a magazine report about the Jerusalem tram way and that it had been described as an opportunity for peaceful co-existence – that arabs and jews would be travelling in the same compartments, that conversations could spring up and perhaps new friendships begin.

Interestingly, in the newspapers recently it was reported that a tram had to be evacuated after dozens of Arab and Jewish girls clashed in one of the cars. It was reported that a Jewish girl pulled out a personal canister of tear gas and sprayed it at the Arab girls. When the gas spread throughout the train, the driver had to stop and let passengers out.

Last year there were demands from Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox community that some of the carriages should be segregated by gender so that men and women would not be forced into close proximity. These demands were unsuccessful.

And recently Veolia City Pass, the operator, has been criticised on two fronts. They undertook a survey of Israeli’s asking if they would be uncomfortable using the tramway with arabs. Some of the language in the survey has been widely criticised as discriminatory. And more recently in recruitment, they have been accused of looking only for employees who can speak Hebrew and English, despite the fact that the official languages here are Arabic and Hebrew, and all the signage and automated instructions are in three languages.

Jerusalem tram close to the New Gate of the Old City

Jerusalem tram close to the New Gate of the Old City

The advent of the trams has become another arena for the loud and confusing discourse that so often settles in over Jerusalem. It is a new initiative that asks the different parts of the ‘mosaic’ to inter-relate, and that is difficult. But more, the voices that say, ’don’t look at the trams, look first at the injustice’ are shrugged off as almost spoil-sports, standing in the way of a brave new future. And those who make claims for the ‘vision’ of the trams, express that vision as if there were no hard political and social issues to be dealt with. Ynet.com reported one of the municipality officials as saying, ’one day the tramway could stretch as far as Ramallah’.

But many things would have to change before such a tramway could bridge the gap between the heart of Ramallah and the heart of West Jerusalem. Today such a journey involves travelling from a major arab city under occupation, through Jewish settlements on arab land, through arab East Jerusalem communities absorbed into greater Jerusalem, right into the Jewish heart of the city. In our everyday discourse, some of us talk peace when there actually is no peace – and then truth is not only not heard, it is often just completely ignored.

In the meantime, these trams will glide elegantly along the streets of Jerusalem, carrying their commuters and visitors. And I for one will stop and admire them in the passing (a tram-spotter!). But perhaps if the problems in this region do have a satisfactory resolution, the trams could indeed become meeting grounds of peaceful co-existence.

….and more rain

When I arrived at the Al Shurooq School this morning with a couple of visitors from Scotland, I took a picture of one of the old olive trees which supplied the olives for our olive oil (see below). Ten minutes later, from the safety of the building, I was taking another picture of it – in the midst of a cloudburst.