Report from a mission co-worker in Israel/Palestine
‘The status quo has become unbearable’
Although the Rev. Kate Taber was commissioned as a mission co-worker serving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Israel/Palestine earlier this year, she has several other experiences living and working in the region. Presbyterian News Service reached out to Taber to learn more about her work, especially in light of the current conflict, Operation Protective Edge.
Below is an email exchange between Taber and PNS reporter Bethany Daily. Some responses have been edited for length or clarity.
PNS: Your term as a mission co-worker has just begun, but you lived in Israel-Palestine before.
Taber: After visiting Israel-Palestine with Christian Peacemaker Teams in 2007, I returned in 2008 as a volunteer with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program (EAPPI), of the World Council of Churches, where I was placed in Bethlehem for three months monitoring the major checkpoint there, supporting local NGOs and visiting villages threatened by settlements and the wall. I returned again in 2009 for nine months on a fellowship from seminary, living in both Jerusalem and Bethlehem, conducting interviews as well as participating in the work of local NGOs. I came back in 2013 with a group from my presbytery and soon after moved back with my husband [Nathan Stock, director of The Carter Center’s Israel-Palestine Field Office].
PNS: How have your experiences in the region compared?
Taber: It had been more than three years since I had last been here, and the changes were clear, depressing and yet predictable. Obstacles to a two state solution are now even more entrenched.
Settlements in East Jerusalem that had been one small, older building in 2010 are now an entire street of large, new apartment buildings. The Bethlehem checkpoint entry and exit lanes that had been metal fencing in 2010 are now completed stone walls. Bedouin communities located in the E1 area east of Jerusalem that had been living without much interference have now experienced repeated home demolitions. Villages that in 2010 were protesting the future building of the separation wall through their lands every Friday now no longer come together to organize nonviolent actions, as the wall is now built. The undercurrents of tension and prejudice that in 2010 expressed themselves mostly as silence have now turned into violent mobs of right-wing Israelis rioting in the streets looking for Palestinians to attack, violent counter-protests that attack left-wing Israelis demonstrating against the current war, and “price tag” attacks of arson against Palestinian property.
There is the sense now that we are truly on the precipice of change — either a complete change in the political situation or violence. The status quo has become unbearable.
PNS: What has life been like for you since the recent increase in violence? How have your duties changed? What has daily life been like for our partners?
Taber: Nothing can really continue as normal in such a time. My meeting schedule has slowed down, as it seems inappropriate to meet and discuss anything but the current crisis. The students in the class I teach are despondent and wish to spend our time together talking about Gaza. They wear shirts that say, “We are Gaza” and try to raise money to send aid. Shops have been closed in strikes protesting the military operation. People feel hesitant to go out to eat or shop when there is so much tragedy happening so nearby.
More of my time is spent writing and on social media, trying to spread awareness about what is really happening and combating some of the misperceptions about both Gaza and the context of this current war. When we gather together, whether for work or socializing, it is difficult to discuss anything but Gaza. Daily life for all of us revolves around the news alerts that give us the updated counts of the dead and increase in the destruction. We all hold our breaths every day until we can call and talk to our family, friends and colleagues who are in Gaza, to hear if they are OK. We have been waiting until midday to call, as typically they get no sleep overnight due to the bombing and instead catch a few hours of sleep in the morning.
Israeli partners are freezing their normal work while they organize and demonstrate in protests multiple times a week. They have also been organizing groups to be out on the streets in the late evening, providing protective presence to Palestinians from violent, nationalist Israeli mobs.
Then again, in many ways, it is easy for things to continue as normal for us who are not in Gaza or southern Israel. I am not afraid of any rockets or bombs striking my house. I can indeed go freely to meetings, out to eat or out to shop without seeing any destruction or fearing for my life or indeed even having to know about what is happening 50 miles away. If you didn’t know from the news, you wouldn’t know walking around Jerusalem that you are in a country at war.
This in itself seems hideously perverse — that we could be so insulated here from any real discomfort or danger, while thousands are killed and injured nearby and incredible destruction is being wrought. From here, we do not have to see their misery, fear or grief or look upon the destruction of their homes and lives. We hear about these tragedies as numbers. It is truly dehumanizing and, I believe, contributes to Israeli support for this war and the reluctance to make real lasting peace with the people of Gaza.
PNS: Here in the United States, the news we’re getting shows incredible violence and a sense of hopelessness. How does this compare with what you’re seeing? What sense have you gotten from our partners?
Taber: In the West Bank and Jerusalem, there have been increasing protests against the operation in Gaza, resulting in violent clashes with police and military, who are shooting tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, sound bombs and even live fire into crowds to disperse them. Police presence around Jerusalem has increased dramatically, especially on Fridays as they prevent all men under 50 from praying in the Old City.
The mood when I talk with Palestinian partners is one of increasing despair and anger, while the Israeli partners express a sense of helplessness and grief. As for Gaza, I am still in the midst of cultivating relationships with partners there. It is difficult to go there, as I must obtain a permit from Israel in order get in at all. Even having been granted a six-month permit, I must convince them of the necessity of each visit. So far I have been on one overnight trip with the Mennonite Central Committee, visiting one of their partners. I hope to go back soon and visit the Holy Family Catholic Church, which is located in an area that has seen a lot of bombing. The military sent them texts to evacuate, but they had nowhere to go as well as dozens of disabled children and elderly women who could not be evacuated. The parish school was housing more than 1,400 displaced people. It has been reported that parts of the school and offices were destroyed in the shelling.
I also hope to visit the Al Ahli Arab hospital, which has been a long-time partner of the PC(USA). Since the beginning of this military operation, they have been short on medicine and overflowing with patients while also sheltering 100 displaced families. Airstrikes have damaged their emergency room, operation theater and ventilation system. I hope that my visit to Gaza will equip me to tell Presbyterians what the cost of this war has really been.
PNS: As you know, the subject of Israel/Palestine is a heated one within the PC(USA), with many voices on each “side.” As someone on the ground there, what message do you have for the church about how we can/should respond?
Taber: As a church that attempts to follow in the way of Jesus, I believe we should be most concerned with human rights. We should feel compassion for the suffering of all people and examine the real causes of the suffering in order to find ways to use our voice and resources to alleviate it.
All my experience here, as well as my relationships with our Israeli and Palestinian partners, tells me that the root cause of suffering for people on both sides is the maintenance of the military occupation and the increasing obstacles to a solution that would provide sovereignty, security and freedom for all people. As Americans, we certainly have an investment in this conflict in a way we do not in any other, as Israel receives more foreign aid from the United States than any other country, indeed more than we give to all the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean combined, and most of it is military aid.
Furthermore, as Christians, we have an interest in the welfare of the land that gave birth to our faith, as well as a concern for the welfare of the Christians there. Therefore, it is not only appropriate but imperative that we as American citizens and as Christians use our voice and influence to affect a just peace.
As Presbyterians, we have already declared through General Assembly resolutions that we are against the separation wall beyond the 1967 borders, against settlements, against the occupation itself — and more. We must back up these words with actions or they are meaningless. More, they make our relationships with local Palestinians, and Israelis working toward these objectives as well, empty and hypocritical.
Ideas for such action include advocacy with elected officials; holding local media accountable in their coverage of this conflict and contributing with your own articles; educating ourselves and our communities through classes, conferences, speakers and more; visiting mission partners in Israel-Palestine in order to learn more and provide solidarity; partnering with churches and organizations in Israel-Palestine; including this place in your liturgy in worship; joining or organizing local advocacy groups; considering what economic measures you or your community feel are faithful like buying fair trade from Palestine or avoiding products made in settlements. The list goes on. We are truly not helpless to influence this conflict.
PNS: How can Presbyterians learn more? Do you have any resources/news sources you would recommend?
Taber: There are many ways to learn more, from personal reading to community events. I recommend reading books and articles written by our local mission partners here (from Mitri Raheb to Naim Ateek to Sahar Vardi). Read alternative news sources to mainstream American news, which often does not accurately represent this conflict; consider Israeli sources like Haaretz or Palestinian like Maan News.
Invite former Ecumenical Accompaniers (of EAPPI) to your church or be a host when speakers from Israel-Palestine travel through your area. Organize congregational studies of resources like Kairos Palestine or Steadfast Hope. Learn more about the work and ministries of our local mission partners, for this can teach a lot about how the occupation functions in their context and how they are responding. Some partners, like Israeli human rights group B’Tselem or the American Friends Service Committee, use their websites to provide information you might not find elsewhere.
When you do travel to the Holy Land, get in touch with me and include meetings with our local partners rather than only seeing the pilgrimage sites. You are also invited to sign up for my monthly newsletter, in which I give updates on the situation and our mission partners.
Taber also encourages Presbyterians to give to Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza. Monetary donations will go toward medicine, medical supplies, fuel, food and linen.