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A Palestinian human rights activist told a pre-General Assembly gathering Saturday morning that the Presbyterian conversation about Israel-Palestine needs to change to concentrate on people rather than policies.

“The conversations here are completely different than the conversations in Palestine,” Bassem Eid told the Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PMEP) Breakfast just before the 223rd General Assembly convened. 

People in Palestine are concerned with a secure life, a good education and quality health care, he said. “The majority of people who are Palestinian are seeking dignity rather than identity.”  While he maintained that both Israelis and Palestinians “deserve their own state,” he observed, “Homeland is the place where you find dignity.”

Eid, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, called on Presbyterians to help move the conversation on Israel-Palestine from “hate to friendship,” from “violence to co-existence” and from “sanctions to economic cooperation.”

Often the perspectives from those who do not live in Israel-Palestine fail to advance these goals, he said.  “Some outsiders, including Presbyterians, are sometimes adding oil to the flame,” he said.

PMEP has been critical of some General Assembly policies on Israel-Palestine, including the decision in 2014 to divest from three corporations the Assembly determined had contributed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. While hotly debated in the Assembly, the policy had the backing of several PC(USA) church partners in the Middle East.

“We believe our denomination’s focus on papers and policies have been counterproductive,” said the Rev. Jill Schaeffer of New York City, a Presbyterians for Middle East Peace steering committee member. 

Instead, she urged support for those having “success as peacemakers at the grassroots.”

That sentiment was echoed by the Rev. Todd Stavrakos, pastor of Gladwyne Presbyterian Church in Gladwyne, Pa.

He praised the efforts of grassroots organizations working in Palestine and the microloans and other positive investments from the Presbyterian Foundation.

“We could be putting resources into programs bringing people together,” Stavrakos said. “You can look at the overtures (before the Assembly) and it’s all about casting blame and pointing fingers and not really listening.”