No lingering summer warmth welcomed the new day as I walked across the tarmac in the watery grey dawn at Glasgow Airport in early September 2017. Only a few degrees above freezing, the rain threatened to turn to sleet on the stiff breeze. There were similarly chilly conditions just north of London where the day’s second flight took me east to Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories. I was going to fulfil an obligation which had begun a few years previously.
In 2014 I was involved in the wider work of the Church of Scotland’s national councils and visited the Holy Land with a group of colleagues where we had met a number of the church’s partner organisations. Often in challenging settings, I learned how they were involved in areas as varied as women’s empowerment, youth development, former offender rehabilitation, medical aid and human rights advocacy.
Their work was diverse but their message was remarkably consistent: they all wanted people to come and discover something of the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories for themselves, and then return home and tell other people what they had seen and heard.
Meeting such committed and enthusiastic people encouraged me to do as they asked, but was less certain about my role in that task of seeing and telling. My re-telling of their situations wouldn’t be as accurate as theirs, and even the best of my comments would always be the weaker for being interpreted, snapshot views which were always at least one step removed from the direct experiences of those on the ground.
I had developed a basic ability to shoot video and, along with a colleague in the media, we had gathered a small amount of audio and video equipment. I had amassed a bit of Study Leave, too, which the church allows ministers to use to take time away to think more broadly than life in the parish sometimes allows.
I brought all these elements together in a project which took me to a place I had previously found confusing and attractive in equal measure. It was a land of tremendous hospitality and deep division, and highly influential for many.
The idea was to stay for several weeks in this land which I’d heard about since attending Sunday School as a boy. However, I wasn’t simply going to see where Jesus had lived and walked, talked, taught and healed. It was a land steeped in religious conviction and mired in religious and political controversy, and my intention was less to discover the geographical setting for historic Christian faith than find out more about the present experiences of life in these lands as far as I could in a few weeks.
A Century after Balfour
The autumn of 2017 seemed an appropriate time to engage in this sort of venture. It was exactly a century after the British Cabinet had issued – in November 1917 – the Balfour Declaration. This was the first clear articulation of support by the British Government for a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. It affirmed both the intention of supporting the establishment of such a home, and that doing so would not prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, nor of Jews living in other countries.
I was interested to learn from a range of people living in the area, or those with a long-standing interest in it, what life was like in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories a hundred years after Balfour. I wanted to hear people’s views in their own words, and bring these back to Scotland.
There is no shortage of background material to read. The history and politics, legal and theological positions, and much else, have all been hotly contested during the past century. A hundred years have seen substantial developments, perhaps most prominently the establishment in May 1948 of the State of Israel through its Declaration of Independence following the Arab-Israeli War.
There have been armed conflicts with neighbouring nations, the annexation of territory in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, the occupation and then withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip – and the continuing blockade of that small parcel of land on the Mediterranean coast. There has been continuing occupation by Israel of the West Bank since 1967.
I was keen to find out what I could about life as it is lived by people from a range of backgrounds, religious affiliations (and none), and diverse cultural roots. Rather than offer some broad and general overview of the current position, I wondered if it might be useful to try to ‘see the general through the particular,’ to borrow a phrase from Marton and Booth.
The technicalities of that social science methodology are less relevant, but their point is that, in endeavouring to explain a more general idea, a good starting-point is to investigate the actual experiences of individual people as they describe them. The task of understanding individuals’ experiences in some depth, in people’s own words, provides the raw material for reflection.
There’s always the danger that the ‘tail might wag the dog,’ and these individual reports cannot simply be generalised: that would run the risk of gaining a skewed view by assuming everyone, or at least many, think alike. However, there is value in gaining reasonably deep insight from a few people, encountering these side by side.
This won’t encompass all the variety of views which are held by the entire population, nor does it offer a sense of which are the most popular. Yet, taking various perspectives and opinions themselves at face value, and placing them adjacent to one another, might reveal similarities, contrasts or the consequences of the holding of particular positions or interpreting experiences as these are reported. It helps get under the skin of the situation, but it takes a long time and needs a number of connections.
The Church of Scotland in the Holy Land
The Church of Scotland helps provide some of these. For a long time, the Kirk has had a close relationship with people and places in the Holy Land.
A Scots medical missionary, Dr Andrew Watt Torrance, set up a hospital in Tiberias on the disease-infested western shores of the Sea of Galilee in the mid-nineteenth century, which operated as a medical facility until 1959. Today it is the Scots Hotel, operated by the Church and employing local staff from a wide variety of cultural and religious backgrounds as a worked example of co-operation in a divided land.
In Jerusalem, the Scots Guest House – sitting only a few hundred metres from the walls of the Old City – has offered hospitality to pilgrims and tourists from across the world for over half a century.
Jane Walker Arnott opened a school for girls in Jaffa in 1845 and this continues to be run by the Church as Tabeetha School, offering education to girls and boys from a wide range of backgrounds.
There are the two churches. St Andrew’s in Tiberias, recently renovated, sits only a few metres from the shore of the Sea of Galilee. St Andrew’s in Jerusalem, sitting on top of a hill immediately to the west of the Old City adjacent to the Zurich Garden has a fine view of the Dormition Abbey and the Jaffa Gate.
Today, the Church of Scotland not only employs local staff but engages two mission partners who serve in Tiberias and Jerusalem. I received indispensable assistance from Rev Kate McDonald, a priest who formerly served in the Scottish Episcopal Church in central Edinburgh, whom I met on the visit in 2014, and who, since 2015, has been the Church of Scotland’s Mission Partner in Tiberias.
Her insight into the issues and work of partner organisations, as well as local congregations and others, was of huge value to me as I prepared the project; her down-to-earth advice about life in Israel meant I was much better prepared and equipped for the task ahead. This work would not only have been much the poorer, but would in all likelihood not have been feasible, without her singular involvement.
Adjacent to the manse in Tiberias is a flat used by various volunteers and those engaged in peace work. In September, it is not in high demand, and it was generously made available for me to use as my base for a large part of my stay. From its balcony are wonderful glimpses of the Sea of Galilee, though you need to stand in one far corner to see round what is a bit of a monstrosity of a part-built hotel and which sits, somewhat oppressively, across the narrow Dona Gracia Street.
This concrete and steel skeleton had, apparently, been intended as a luxury hotel nestling on the hillside slightly above the Sea. Its five or so floors were partially constructed, with rooms clearly visible as a series of little boxes round its perimeter.
Except that the boxes faced inland, not sea-ward: the story goes that someone had built the hotel the wrong way round and the views from the rooms were not of the Sea of Galilee, but the service road behind the hotel. Perhaps the money just ran out, or insecurity in the region made the project less financially viable. Either way, the half-finished building has stood, ugly and out of place in a part of town which is both built-up and naturally beautiful.
The part-built hotel accommodation isn’t entirely unused, though: a mongoose family had taken a room on the second floor and scurried around, often at dusk. I noticed, once, a hedgehog try to navigate the rusty steps of the fire escape. Good intentions and grand plans, now unlikely ever to be finished, obscure the view of a place which has, at least in Christian tradition, spoken of peace in storm, companionship in adversity, and generous providing when fishermen were tired and their resources had run dry.
As the weeks passed, the structure which had been planned as a place to relax and recharge but in practice served only to restrict the view, became one image of what I came across as I took part in conversations and spoke with people from all sorts of backgrounds.
Heat, for good and ill
Another image spoke to me of the situation: the heat. I landed at Ben Gurion airport in the late evening, still wearing a jacket over my jumper which had given useful warmth in the airport transfers earlier that day. I left the aircraft door and took my first breath of the exotic air. It was hot: very hot. The terminal building offered air-conditioned comfort, as did the ninety-minute car journey north.
When I opened the car door once we arrived in Tiberias, though, it felt as though I was standing beside a pizza oven. Well after ten in the evening, the heat was still intense. The air felt hot on my skin, and when I breathed in, I had the sensation that my body was being roasted, slowly, from the inside and outside simultaneously. I don’t think I’d experienced such consistent, oppressive heat before. I didn’t wear my jacket or jumper any time in the next six weeks.
It turned out that Tiberias, generally a hot place, was enduring something of a heatwave. Even the locals were wilting a bit. They had hoped September would bring some relief after four months of constantly cloudless blue skies and temperatures which could be relied upon to hit the mid-thirties Celcius every afternoon.
That dependable warmth, with a constant sunshine, is a wonderful resource. Provided there is sufficient water, – which, with desalination technology, is perfectly possible – the climate allows a wonderful variety of fruit and vegetables to be grown. There is an astonishing range of fresh, moist produce: peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, all sorts of leaves, fresh chillis, figs, pomegranates and so much more. The warmth is bountifully benign in many ways.
Israel has needed to become, and now is, a world leader in desalination:p fresh water from salt. That’s an energy-intensive business, but electricity is plentiful in Israel. Even in the heat and endless sunshine, there was no suggestion that water was scarce. Many gardens and public areas had inbuilt irrigation systems, lengths of perforated hose wrapped round the base of plants like never-ending grass snakes with timer switches for heads; hissing water, usually early in the morning, and drenching the plant roots. Much of Tiberias was greener than Scotland after a fortnight’s dry spell.
While I was there, I used a hose to wash the car, following the example of the chap in the house next door who had, the previous afternoon, cleaned his power-boat in the same way. Water to wash, and cook, was always on tap; the only tell-tale signs of its source were the very slightly brackish taste and a poorer than expected froth from the shower gel. But these are first-world problems.
The combination of warmth and water makes for perfect conditions allowing growth for plants and people alike. It’s not surprising that Israel is almost self-sufficient in food despite only around one-fifth of its land being naturally suitable for crop farming.
This quite astonishing development in agricultural technology is closely tied to the influx of Jews to Israel over the past century and more. They have developed technical irrigation systems to transport water from the relatively rainy north to the desert in the south, and can remove salt from sea-water.
All this allows significant plantations of bananas, all manner of citrus fruits, avocados, kiwi fruits, grapes, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers as well as a considerable variety of field crops such as wheat and cotton. Date palms dot the landscape from north to south, and every town market has stalls heaving with lush, fresh fruit and vegetables.
The climate, coupled with sufficient water, makes for rich and varied harvests in Israel. It also encourages a most lively outdoor life for many of Israel’s citizens. At the beach in Tel Aviv-Yafo, not more than a thirty minute stroll from the city centre, the Mediterranean laps gently on the golden sand. A few hundred metres to the south, the sand gives way to a rocky outcrop at Jaffa where there has been a harbour since ancient times. This is the port from which Jonah is said to have caught a ship to Tarshish.
I stayed for a few days in Haifa near the end of my trip. The instructions were that I should let myself in and feel at home. Maya, my absent hostess, returned home the evening before I left. She had been away for most of the weekend camping outdoors but with no tent, sleeping under the starry sky beside the Dead Sea. A physiotherapist in a local hospital, she loved the ready access to the countryside which living in Haifa offered, and told me of one recent adventure: trekking through the desert in Timna Park far to the south of Israel at night, under the light of the full moon. It sounded wonderful.
Dan, whom I met in Modi’in, enjoyed mountain-biking along paths well off the beaten track, camping as required. Virtually all the homes I stayed in had balconies or patios to make the most of the sunny weather.
I had a most civilised conversation over a cup of mint tea, kindly made by Shiran’s flatmate, (Shiran was my oher absentee ladlady) in Jerusalem. The mint was freshly plucked from a pot in the herb-garden corner of the first-floor balcony. The mixture of refreshing drink and enveloping warmth in the afternoon sunshine made for a perfect place to rest and enjoy the most pleasant hospitality from genuinely welcoming, friendly people.
Yet for all its benefits, the heat is also oppressive. There is no escape unless the air conditioning is kept on full-tilt. Night-time temperatures dropped only to the mid-twenties which made for quite uncomfortable sleeping.
At the height of the day’s heat in the mid-afternoon even the locals, I discovered, hid away from the searing temperatures and remained largely at home, or holed up in cafes whose air-conditioning might have been at least as big a draw than the quality of the coffee.
The scorched brown hills around the Sea of Galilee also bear witness to the relentless, life-sucking heat of the sun from April to September. The spring rains, sometimes turn frazzled fields into carpets of green in just one day. The greenery doesn’t last, though, and it is not long before the heat and the power of the sun take over again. The earth returns to dry dust.
Maybe the weather says something about the challenges faced in relations between Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories. Like the heat, Israel is inescapable, even in the West Bank. There is a pervasive presence of Israeli forces, in Areas (in terms of the Oslo Accords) ostensibly under full Palestinian control.
Even when not directly visible, Israel is present not least because the Palestinian state has insufficient infrastructure to maintain the basic functions of government. Israel collects a substantial portion of the taxes which are due to the Palestinian Authority, for it does not presently have the infrastructure comprehensively to collect all its own taxes. Funds are, on the whole, transferred according to agreements but there is always the possibility, sometimes put into practice, that Israel withholds payments in times of crisis or substantial dispute. John Howard explains:
“[There are] questions around the Palestinian Authority and the way in which that operates. It is semi-independent in what’s called Area A, but actually depends for all of its income on the taxation system created by Israel. So the result is that they haven’t got the means actually to sustain the education system, or the welfare system, without the income coming in from Israel, So, therefore, there are all sorts of ways in which they are not independent even though it appears they are. And all of this leads to an impact upon Palestinian lives in so many different ways.”John Howard
John described this all-encompassing Israeli presence in the West Bank:
“I think it’s fair to repeat what has been said to me by people who have visited me, who have ended up saying the occupation of the West Bank affects every aspect of life here.John Howard
“So Palestinians are affected in every aspect of their life, from education through the supply of water, through to the question of whether they can travel. In all these different ways they are affected. Here in Bethlehem we have water one day in twenty. It has to be stored reasonably well, but of course there are hygiene questions about that.”
I spent some time with John during the Jewish festival of Sukkot in Beit Jala, a predominantly Christian town (though with a fast-dwindling number of Christian residents) adjacent to Bethlehem, about four miles south of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank. For all that this festival, known more widely as the Feast of Tabernacles, is not one celebrated in the West Bank, it had a significant impact on the lives of many people living there. John Howard explained:
“So a simple example is, over this period of the Jewish holidays the way in which closures take place, normally at short notice. So we’ve just learned that the whole West Bank is to be shut down for a whole ten days. It’s going to happen in forty-eight hours time. Lots of people have commitments over that period, because it’s not happened this way for many, many years. I don’t think it’s ever happened before, that it’s been shut down for such a long period. But the decision comes, no consultation, and the result is that those who had intended being in parts of Israel through the permit system are no longer able to be so.”Joh Howard
A pervasive, sometimes supportive – but frequently deeply oppressive force. That seems to be the experience of Israel which many Palestinians share. At the same time, the fear of attacks by terrorists from across the Separation Barrier or from other nations in the Middle East which are long-standing enemies of Israel means that even at the best of times, dark clouds of potential violence are always on the horizon, even if they appear no bigger than man’s hand. In such a climate no-one rests easily.
I spoke with nearly fifty people who kindly agreed to let me film what they said. I spoke with almost everyone individually, and found these conversations were most helpful, because I was able to hear each person’s story in their own words.
From a sukka in the garden of someone’s home in a settlement in the occupied desert east of Jerusalem to a sheikh’s rather palatial reception room in Hebron; from being a passenger in a car travelling south in the West Bank to sitting in someone’s living room in Efrat; from the air-conditioned coolness of the library in the Scots Guest House to a makeshift tent sitting next to the rubble of a demolished community centre in the South Hebron Hills village of Umm Al-Khair; in the welcoming warmth of an up-market private hotel in Knightsbridge, London and in the comfortable but more modest setting of a church hall in Troon in Scotland, I met with people who generously gave me their time, told me how they saw things, and recounted what their life had been like in Israel and the occupied West Bank.
Through these pages I hope to share something of what I saw and heard. This fulfils the obligation to show and tell in a way which is, I hope, authentic, helpful and interesting.
One weakness of this approach is the lack of opportunity to have people with different views debate with one another across the table. That would have been challenging to film, and wasn’t really the intended purpose. My aim was to glean people’s own views as fully and clearly as possible, and not to see how they responded under pressure. I wanted to hear and record their views and opinions expressed fairly and clearly in their own words, and then to put these views side by side as it were, to let the viewer come to a broader perspective by having access to all these viewpoints.
It would have been practically impossible to get people together, anyway. Movement restrictions prevent West Bank citizens from travelling into Israeli territory without permits, which are difficult to obtain and only irregularly granted. It is illegal for citizens of Israel to enter many parts of the West Bank, with clear notices warning them off and declaring their lives may be in danger if they do come in.
People living only a few miles apart and, in some cases, only a few hundred metres apart (but with a high security barrier in between) never speak to one another, hardly know of each other’s hopes and fears, and for all practical purposes could live in different continents.
As a foreign visitor I had no difficulty going from one area to the other and back again. Soldiers on border checkpoints were, without exception, polite to me, even if the automatic rifles they carried everywhere were a little intimidating. If I needed directions, I generally tried to ask someone with a gun, because I knew they’d be helpful – and they were.
Offering these conversations side by side like this is the best way I can help the viewer to hear, and see, people who might never meet face to face. One encouraging thing is that, on the few occasions people from these separate societies do get together, they get on reasonably well. If only that could become more mainstream.
I have tried to arrange the material thematically to aid understanding, and to start video clips at a suitable point to focus on the issue being discussed. This makes for some duplication, which is unavoidable. It is also possible in all the clips to play the whole piece, though some extend to thirty minutes.
I hope that, viewing them largely adjacent to one another in this way, the viewer will be able to obtain a reasonable introduction to some of the presenting issues in this land of complexity and conflict, in very large measure seen through the eyes of those experiencing them.
There are several experts, too, who contribute; and also people with long-standing involvement in these places and issues. Their perspectives are helpful and shed light on matters which have caused tension and brought, for more than a century, at one and the same time tremendous security and hope, but also impoverishment and loss.
None of this is offered as the last word on any of the issues. These are always a partial word, and a biased one, too, for all these people have a viewpoint. It is impossible to confirm the veracity of some of the statements made, though in places I have tried to offer some background material. The viewer is advised to watch between the lines as it were, and to see where lines cross and cannot be held in parallel. Little of what is contained here simplifies the issues; there is also not much which offers a basis for optimism.
Whilst I met people and filmed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem without difficulty, there was no opportunity to visit, film or record in Gaza and the best I could do was obtain some accounts of life there. These, though, are the reported experiences of people connected with Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territory.