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30 April 2013

Standing in solidarity

Standing in solidarity

Chine Mbubaegbu travels to Israel to meet Ecumenical Accompaniers walking alongside ordinary people caught in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When many of us hear the word 'Israel', we glaze over. Not because we don't care, but because we don't know what to think. Throughout our lifetimes we have been presented with the Israel problem and if the powers that be cannot see a solution, then who are we to get stuck in? When faced with an issue of such magnitude, most of us will choose to deal with those hardships closer to home.

Not so for hundreds of people of all ages from all over the world – including the Philippines, South Africa, Latin America and the UK – who have volunteered with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).

Since the programme began a decade ago, Ecumenical Accompaniers have travelled to Israel to spend a few months being salt and light amid the conflict. The 'EAs', as they are known, provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor human rights abuses and support those people living in Palestine and Israel who are working together for peace.

I met some EAs when I travelled to Israel with Christian Aid in November. They are hard to miss. By their distinctive EAPPI jackets, we know them. The outfits set them apart. They are immediately distinctive. Set apart amid the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, these people just like you and I bring a strong and calming influence.

One of the tasks EAs can get involved in is monitoring checkpoints – where Palestinians cross into Israel – for human rights abuses. EAs get up at 3am three times a week to monitor various check points across the West Bank. We join Keryn Banks, an EA, at Qalandia checkpoint where she stands from the crack of dawn to monitor numbers and be a positive presence. In one day, around 3,000 people go through Qalandia.

It's a cold, hard, dark place and I'm glad I only have to be there on that morning. But for the Palestinians crossing the border into Israel where they work or where they get medical treatment, it's a regular occurrence. But Keryn is glad that in someway she can make a difference. "People say we are a help," she says. "They say it's better when we're here. They stop and say thank you for watching. They say it's good to know they are not forgotten."

EAPPI came about when in 2001 the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem called for the churches of the world to stand in solidarity with believers in Palestine and Israel. This call paved the way for the creation of the programme in 2002 by the World Council of Churches.

Over the past 10 years, the Church of England has offered support to the programme. Several bishops have provided direct support to EAs, while some parishes and C of E schools have provided platforms for returning EAs to speak. Last year, the General Synod passed a motion "encouraging parishioners to volunteer for the programme and asking churches and synods to make use of the experience of returning participants".

While they are in Israel, all EAs go to church every Sunday regardless of their background, in order to support local Christians. As many of the EAs are exposed to suffering, hardship and pressure during their time, they also have access to a network of local pastors who they can talk to.

Former EA Sarah Rowe said her time in Israel was an eye-opener. "The Israel-Palestinian conflict used to seem to me complicated and rather hopeless," she said, "portrayed in our media only by those who could shout the loudest or when particularly terrible violence flared.

"I was aware that human rights violations were taking place, but not really sure what I could do about it. Eventually though, it became something I could no longer ignore. EAPPI was set up to see and understand what was happening to ordinary communities as a result of occupation; to offer protective presence as internationals to try and reduce the chances of violations taking place, but also to be there with people when they do.

"It is here to make sure that people know that the rest of the world has not forgotten them when their house has been demolished, or their olive trees cut down; to walk alongside Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, and to make sure their voices are heard around the world, and not just those perpetuating conflict.

"For Sarah and so many EAs, this is not about politics. At its heart, becoming a volunteer with EAPPI is about reflecting something of what it is to be a follower of Christ. They are there to walk alongside those suffering on both sides of the conflict. All EAs visit an Israeli settlement called Efrat, for example, to meet settlers and hear their perspective. They also spend a day in Sderot meeting local residents and hearing about having rockets fired at them from Gaza, and they also visit the Holocaust Museum and a Jewish Kibbutz.

"Just as EAs have a mandate because they are there at the invitation of local communities," she says, "Christians have a mandate to 'speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed'. It's not that those who are seeking peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories can't speak for themselves, but that often the world doesn't want to listen.

"To stand with people in difficult times and to share the stories of those making sacrifices for peace – that's what EAs do. I can't help but think that if Jesus found himself in Jerusalem or Bethlehem today, he would be doing something similar."



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