See, Hear and Act – Stories from Palestine

See, Hear and Act – Stories from Palestine

Sermon for Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church – 28 January 2018

Scripture:   Matthew 2:13-18 New International Version (NIV)

                        Mark 10:13-16 New International Version (NIV)

 

I want to start by thanking Trinity-St. Paul’s and Bathurst Street United for inviting me to speak here today. One of the responsibilities I on when I accepted the assignment as an Ecumenical Accompanier was to return to Canada and tell others what I observed in Israel and Palestine. Thank you for helping enable me fulfill this responsibility.

I also want to thank your two congregations for the leadership you have provided over many years and continue to provide on Israel and Palestine issues through your annual Holy Land services and in many other ways. Thank you again.

……

Matthew’s telling of King Herod’s command to kill all the babies in Bethlehem is not what we could call a “warm and fuzzy” feel good piece of scripture.  Some time ago a family had their daughter baptized the Sunday after Christmas when this passage was read.  Much consternation was expressed with the thought that as they were celebrating the birth of this precious child the church would talk about such dreadful violence against children.

On the other hand here is a photo that went viral around the world in September 2015.  A dead 3 year old lying on a beach in Turkey.   Aylan Kurdi was part of a Syrian refugee family trying to flee to Coquitlam in British Columbia. That photo galvanized Canadians to action, including United Church people.  In a little over a year – from November 2015 to January 2017 – over 40,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada.  Many came through church and other private sponsors. And large numbers of congregation and community group sponsors continue to wait for their refugee families to arrive and begin a new life here in Canada.  Our hearts are in the right place.  We do not want children to suffer.

As a grandfather  and a retired lawyer and a member of Amnesty International, I am very concerned about the suffering of children.  I want to find ways to stand with Jesus, offering blessing to children who others might want to dismiss.

So last year at this time I was in the final throes of preparation to serve the United Church and the World Council of Churches as an ecumenical accompanier in Palestine. For 3 months I was part of a team of 31 people from around the world who witnessed, made friends, documented what we saw and heard.  I thank you for your gifts to the Mission and Service Fund which make this work of partnership of the United Church possible. I am taking this sermon time to focus on children. After church, during the Global Gossip session, I will share broader details of what I saw and heard.

I met many Palestinian children during my 3 months there. Here is one photo of a girl looking out at us – I like to think with a sense of hope. Children at school.  Children playing. Children who were part of a nature walk which we took. And the picnic that followed the walk.  A poignant incident, for which I have no photo, was of a 5 year old girl, hair in pretty braids being driven to this checkpoint by her father.  He watched as she trudged alone the approximately 30 metres to where she crossed through the gate, was questioned by Israeli soldiers and then walked out of sight along the wall so that she could go to school.

More recently photos of another young girl have circulated around the world – in major news outlets in many countries and in social media – but those of us who rely exclusively on Canadian media for our news probably would not know about Ahed Tamimi.  Who is she?

Ahed is a 16 year old Palestinian. Her home is Nabi Saleh, a village of 200 residents, mostly members of the large extended Tamimi family.  A village that has lost much of its land, taken for the construction of nearby illegal Israeli settlements.  A village that has been peacefully resisting Israel’s 50 year old occupation by weekly protests for years.  Ben Ehrenreich describes this village in much detail in his book The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine. This is the community in which Ahed has been growing up since 2001.

This past December Ahed’s 15-year old cousin, Mohammed Tamimi was shot in the face at close range by an Israeli soldier, not far from Ahed’s home. When Ahed heard this, she burst into tears. About an hour later, two armed Israeli soldiers entered the courtyard of Ahed’s family home. They met Ahed, her mother, aunt and another female cousin. Ahed confronted them, pushed and slapped a soldier who did not respond. Her family took a video of the event which was shared widely on social media. The soldiers involved in the incident did not arrest Ahed, but three days later, in the middle of the night, soldiers invaded the Tamimi home, arrested Ahed and took her off to jail. This was December 19th.  She has been charged with 12 offences under military law. One charge is for assaulting a soldier. Many of the charges relate to incidents from years ago, including stone throwing.

The Convention of the Rights of the Child, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 20, 1989 and which came into force on September 2, 1990, directs that in all actions concerning children the best interests of the child are to be the primary consideration.

Consistent with this Convention, Amnesty International has called for Ahed’s release, noting that she posed no actual threat and that nothing she has done can justify the continuing detention of a 16 year-old girl. Similarly the Human Rights Watch website points out that the reasons to grant bail are clear – Ahed has never been indicted before and does not pose a flight risk.

But despite the Convention’s provisions and the calls for Ahed to be released, Ahed will be kept in jail until her trial is completed, which could be a year from now. She joins 181 other Palestinian minors who as of Nov. 30th 2017 were being held in custody for the duration of legal proceedings in their cases.Bail is denied in 70 percent of cases involving Palestinian children in military courts, compared to only 18 per cent for Israeli children in civil courts.

Shortly after Ahed was arrested, her mother, Nariman, was also arrested when she went to find out what was happening to her daughter. Nariman was charged with aggravated assault and incitement for uploading the video of Ahed slapping the soldier. Nariman will also be kept in jail until her trial.

There have been many other Tamimi encounters with Israeli soldiers.

In 2012 Israeli soldiers killed Rushdi Tamimi, a close relative of Ahed, at a peaceful demonstration.  In 2011 Ahed’s cousin, Mustafa Tamimi, was killed when an Israeli soldier shot him in the head at point blank range.

Ahed’s father has been arrested 9 times since 1987 for organizing peaceful demonstrations. Most of these arrests resulted in administrative detentions – under which a person is held in jail for extended periods of time without charge or trial.

And this month, Musaab, a young relative of Ahed, was killed by an Israeli soldier, the first such killing in 2018.

Nabi Saleh is not the only village where children’s lives are put at risk.  However, the arrest of a girl is unusual.  Most of the children arrested, imprisoned and mistreated in 2017 were boys.

Our team of ecumenical accompaniers regularly visited the village of ‘Azzun. It is a much larger community, with about 10,000 residents. Like Nabi Saleh, it is surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements  and has lost much of its land to those settlements. It too, has had frequent invasions by the Israeli military.  One day our team of ecumenical accompaniers visited with the family of a 14-year old boy, Nadal, arrested in the middle of the previous night.  His aunt Tissan, the English teacher in the ‘Azzun school told us the details of what happened.

The soldiers arrived at about 1 a.m. After they threatened to break the door down, Aunt Tissan, opened the door. The soldiers entered the house and forced everyone other than Nadal into the living room. They then made their way, with an interpreter, to Nadal’s bedroom. Aunt Tissan protested that Nadal is only 14. The soldiers replied that they had an order from the court permitting them to take boys under 18. When Nadal’s father asked to see Nadal, the soldiers refused to permit it.  At about 1:30 a.m. the soldiers took Nadal out of the house. His hands were tied, his legs shackled and his head covered with a hood. The soldiers would not say where they were taking him.

Agencies working with children and representing them in court informed us that in circumstances like Nadal’s, the questioning, and treatment amounting to torture, often continues until the child signs a confession written in Hebrew, a language the child does not understand – After signing the confession, the child will be taken before a military tribunal, which is where he will for the first time see his parents and perhaps a lawyer – With pleading guilty to the charge being the one way to obtain early freedom for a child, that is how most charges are resolved.

What offences are these children alleged to have committed – almost invariably it is stone throwing – an offence that does not exist in most countries and one for which the child could be sentenced to 10 or 20 years in prison, depending on whether the stone is alleged to have been thrown at a stationary object such as the Israeli Wall or a moving object.

What are we to make of these stories – as we hear about Nadal and Ahed?    What effect does this violence have on teenagers and their families?   In an interview conducted a few months ago Ahed said this to a reporter:

Although I am not afraid of death, I am always afraid of losing my family, or my loved ones, or my friends. All my family here is in danger, we are at risk of dying at any moment. At any time I can expect a soldier coming towards me to shoot me and kill me. This feeling affects us permanently.

Amazing words from a teenager.  When we hear the story of Herod condemning the babies to death we don’t hear the words or the wails of the victims.  Only reports of “Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted”.  How do we listen and take the action that might change life for Ahed and hundreds of other teenagers?

How is Ahed’s arrest embedded within the broader issues of the occupation?  The determination of Nabi Saleh’s residents to protest is grounded in the loss of its land taken for illegal Israeli Settlements. Under International Law – specifically Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention – it is illegal for an occupying power to transfer its own people into territory it occupies as a result of war. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem began in 1967 as a result of the 6-day war.

Today there are over 600,000 Israeli settlers in illegal settlements throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, constructed on land taken from Palestinians. The number of such illegal settlers increases every year.

One of our United Church partners – Defense of Children International Palestine – focuses on responding to this illegal mistreatment of children.  They represent Palestinian children in Israeli military courts and they investigate and document the mistreatment of the children during arrest, in the military courts and during incarceration.

 

DCIP reports that each year the Israeli military arrests and prosecutes around 700 Palestinian children. But as bad as this is, it is not the worst of what happens to the Palestinian children.

 

Last year was the deadliest in a decade for Palestinian children – with 35 killed by Israeli forces and armed civilians. As Brad Parker of DCIP stated in a recent interview after the arrest of Ahed:

“…while the attention and the awareness around the violence against Palestinian children is heightened at the moment, really these violations are widespread, systematic, that are really occurring on a daily basis.”

Defense for Children International Palestine has chosen to move beyond defending the children and publicizing their mistreatment under the Israeli military occupation. Last Fall it began the No Way To Treat A Child Campaign in Canada after a similar campaign in the United States has shown some success. It is a campaign supported by the United Network for Justice and Peace in Palestine and Israel and by the United Church of Canada as well as by many other organizations. The Campaign’s objectives are to make clear what is happening to Palestinian children who are arrested and imprisoned illegally, to make it common knowledge in Canada, and to ask our government to hold the Israeli government accountable for its actions.  .

 I have brought postcards for you to take home.  Please take a postcard and read it. Please visit the website.  Please watch the video where Palestinian young people tell their own stories.  Please sign the petition asking the Canadian government to hold Israel accountable for what it is doing.  Please pass the postcard on to a friend.

I am convinced that people within the UCC can respond with great energy from the heart.  We have seen it as we have learned about the impact of residential schools on children and on the lives of indigenous people.   We have seen it as a result of the photo of the Syrian child Aylan Kurdi.

The question for me is how can we become engaged around the story of Ahed and the hundreds of other Palestinian children who are impacted by the insidious nature of the occupation on their lives and the lives of their families.

The objective of NWTTAC is to reach Canadians and through the caring of Canadians to reach our federal government.  King Herod heard the message of the magi and acted to destroy and kill.  How can Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister Chrystia Freeland hear the message of the church and civil society and speak out against the abuses of human rights and the blatant breaking of international law by the government of Israel?

 

And how can we mobilize people within the United Church, caring people, to hear the stories, tell the stories and take action – at first the simple action of signing the petition but the broader action of telling others and becoming engaged with our politicians?

In December at Bloor Street United I shared similar stories to those am sharing here. Growing out of that sermon and seminar we are having a 3-week study on “Colonialism Impact on Children – Canadian Indigenous and Palestinian”. People from TSP and Bathurst are welcome to join us. Come and bring your friends and neighbours.

And last but not least – we can pray for Ahed, her family and all the people of Palestine and Israel who are suffering because of the occupation.

Amen.

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