he day began ominously. Several Israelis
had been killed over the last few days, and Israel was
the mood for retaliation. We went down to Gaza in the morning.
At the Erez checkpoint dividing Israel from Gaza, foreigners
choose the VIP, diplomat, or international organisation/tourist
categories. Palestinians, meanwhile, are filtered off to
enter what is a cross between a long tunnel and cattle
But of course there weren't any Palestinians. Gaza has been
closed for a long time. Over 100,000 Palestinians used to
work in Israel. Now because of the current crisis or Intifada,
the Israeli army prevents the majority from leaving Gaza.
Unemployment is now at 60%.
The oppression of a people is nowhere more tangible than
by taking the dusty road down to this tiny strip of land -
a mere 5 x 25 miles. Disconnected from the West Bank (the
other Palestinian Territory, known in the bible as Judea and
Samaria), Gaza contains over a million people. Blown about
by desert sand, it is more akin to Egypt or Pakistan than
Israel or the West Bank. In Gaza, 490,000 Palestinian refugees
live in crowded refugee camps. Yet 40% of this strip of land
has been taken over by 4000 Jewish settlers living in luxurious
settlements that take a high proportion of the water for their
lawns and swimming pools. Meanwhile Palestinian agriculture
has been devastated because of a severe water shortage, and
many Palestinian children are ill from the lack of clean drinking
This is an insidious and subtle war. It is so easy for tourists
and pilgrims to bypass these almost daily realities in pursuit
of other holy sites. It is the same for Jewish settlers who
have special roads and bridges to drive on which connect their
settlements in the West Bank and Gaza strip, so that they
don't have to mix with 'Arabs'. With so little contact between
ordinary people, forgiveness amidst so much bitterness is
hard to imagine. "By the age of five, we know who is
the enemy..very soon you start using religious language to
denounce the other side" said Salim Munayer, director
of Musalaha, a Christian organisation trying to reconcile
Israelis and Palestinians. The irony is that although locked
in an immensely complex conflict, Jews and Arabs are - in
many cases - identical in genes and often looks.
Their separation, however, was nowhere more exemplified than
in the story of Costa, the 62 year old Director of the Near
East Council of Churches in Gaza. He, like 75% of the population
of Gaza, is a refugee. Costa was eight when he fled with his
family from Haifa during the war of 1948 when Israel was created.
All his father's relatives were in Gaza, so to Gaza they went.
In 1967 he and his younger brother were preparing to emigrate
to Australia as his parents had done. His visa was granted
and all was ready, when at the last minute he felt called
to stay. His parents put on the pressure, but he resisted.
So his brother got on the plane and he stayed. At this point
in the story, Costa went silent, and then after a long pause,
quietly started to cry...He had never seen his parents again
and now they were dead. The pain of this past event just seemed
to erupt into the present pain of the morning's bombing. "I
feel happy I stayed. I never regret it", he said in wiping
He went on to say how he is unable to see his two daughters
who live 90km away in the West Bank. "I cannot see them.
They cannot see me". They have not seen each other since
before the Intifada started 18 months ago. This is because
the towns and villages of the West Bank have been closed off
by Israeli checkpoints, which exist to stop the free movement
of Palestinians, and to 'protect' Jewish settlers who live
illegally on Palestinian land. Palestinians require permits
to travel anywhere, and often their applications are refused.
Checkpoints cripple all aspects of Palestinian life. There
is no pathology unit at Al Ahli hospital in Gaza. All blood
and urine samples have to go to Jerusalem. Palestinians have
to apply for permission from Israelis each specimen to cross
the checkpoint. It takes one week to get that permission.
It recently took 3 months to obtain a basic shipment of humanitarian
supplies from Jordan. 30% of the hospital staff live in South
Gaza, which on days when security is tight, the Israeli army
keep firmly closed. (Gaza has been split into 3 sections).
The root of the violence in this area is the Israeli occupation
of what is Palestinian land according to international law.
It is the cancer which has crept over the land, slowly but
insidiously since 1967. Jewish settlements linked by special
roads and bridges litter the hills in the West Bank and Gaza
bypassing Arab towns and villages. The question is whether
to expect a reversal of these 'facts on the ground' - after
all, the building of settlements and roads accelerated throughout
the seven year Oslo peace process - or whether it is a fait
Many Israelis and Palestinians recognise that any true vision
of the future, whether it be a single state encompassing Jews
and Arabs or two separate states will require them to live
and work together. Yet rival theologies form the basis for
a politics of separation. With so much communal segregation
the challenge is tough. In the words of a Israeli military
service refusenik we met, the goal of reconciliation has to
be "to see the other as he sees himself."
Katharine Maycock was with an 11-member CMS (Church Mission
Society) fact-finding mission to Israel and the Palestinian
Territories (February 3-11th).