– Unless You’re Palestinian
This article was written by the Windermere Centre Director, Lawrence Moore, following his leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in October 2014.
Jesus likened himself to bread and water – the staples of life. That’s in John’s gospel, where John presents Jesus not simply as the giver of life but the Author of Life. Jesus takes the staples of life in order to illustrate the gift of Life in all its abundance that he brings (John 10:10). Jesus is never concerned with anything less than life (survival) but yearns for us to discover the “something more” – the very Life of God that ought to be our daily experience.
It’s not like that, of course. The yawning chasm between the haves and have-nots on our planet extends to the very staples of life. We know that. We’re a church that cares and makes ourselves aware. We know that vast swathes of the planet don’t have enough food to eat, let alone throw away because they’re stuffed! And we know that clean, drinkable water is a distant dream for millions in rural villages, let alone being able to turn on a tap whenever they need to.
What was profoundly, horrifying shocking, though, was to discover how water is deliberately being used as a weapon of war and oppression in the West Bank. Revd Brian Jolly and I took a group to Palestine and Israel last month to follow in the footsteps of the radical Jesus – the Jesus who got himself crucified as a religious heretic and a Roman political criminal. We were reading the stories of Jesus, recognizing that they were texts written in the context of the Roman occupation. At the same time, we were meeting our brothers and sisters from the indigenous Christian church in Palestine and learning what life was like for them under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Palestinian territories.
We met Mohammed, whose home had been destroyed that same morning by the Israeli soldiers who had made a point of coming at 5am so that the terrified children had been forced to witness the event. We met some of the inhabitants of Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, and were told how the women slept fully clothed because the army regularly invaded their homes at night either on training exercises or for “reasons of security”, and how the children suffered severe trauma so that they wet their beds well into their teens. We saw the school, surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, with the gates marked by bullet holes from the Israeli watchtower on the separation wall at the end of the street. We listened to harrowing tales of beatings, intimidation and humiliation at the checkpoints, of homes and businesses broken into and taken over by Israeli settlers who were supported by the army, and family land stolen.
Somehow, though, what got to us most was the way in which water is used as an instrument of subjugation and military strategy. Sister Martha, the feisty, faithful principal of the Russian Orthodox school in Bethany, pointed out the black storage tanks that adorn the roof of every Palestinian home. That’s because Palestinian towns and cities get water only twice a week – theoretically. Much of the time there are no re-supplies. In the summer, particularly, it can be 2 months before the water is turned on again for just 24 hours.
She told us, “We do our cooking using bottled water, use disposable plates for eating and we can send our laundry and live-in students to the monastery in the Jerusalem for a wash. But the stink of the toilets remains a problem – we can’t just stop going.”
Ali told us about the problems faced by farmers: they are not allowed irrigation systems. Their farmhouses do not have running water. They are forbidden by law from digging wells without permission (no permission is ever given to dig wells) and from collecting rainwater. Ali had Roman cisterns on his farm: they were destroyed by the Israeli army. Every olive tree, vine and date plant on his farm has been planted and watered by hand.
Water is not considered a “natural resource”. Its collection and distribution is tightly controlled by the Israelis, who allocate 1/3 of the supply to the 1.7 million residents of the West Bank and Gaza, and 2/3 to the 700,000 Jewish settlers who live on confiscated Palestinian land. We visited Ma’ale Adumin, a settler city in East Jerusalem, fresh from a Palestinian farm. It has two municipal swimming pools, fountains, a water park, and, because it was the weekend, the residents were out watering their lawns and washing their cars.
John tells the story of a Samaritan woman at a well who gave Jesus a drink of water (John 4). Wherever we went, we were given water, Arab coffee and tea. Families fed and watered 17 of us at a time. We used their loos. And when we worried about how much of their precious water we were consuming, we were told it was a pleasure to be able to offer us hospitality. When we asked what they wanted of us in return, they said to us, “Tell our stories when you get home”.
We went to homes where water is made scarce to oppress the people, and received from them wellsprings of living water. I’m still trying to get my head around that.