JUST WALK TO JERASALEM
The Just Walk to Jerusalem is being organised by the Amos Trust
The Just Walk to Jerusalem will:
– set out from London on Saturday 10th June, the 50th anniversary of the Occupation, walking across Europe for 100 days, to arrive in Jerusalem on 2nd November to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration;
– include more than 100 walkers, taking part in different sections of the Walk, and a core group of ten participants who have committed themselves to walk the entire route, travelling in 100-mile sections through Europe to Istanbul, from which point we will fly to Amman, Jordan, and walk into the West Bank across the Allenby Bridge;
– walk through the West Bank, where we will receive a new “Declaration” from Palestinian schoolchildren, which we will deliver back to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London, where the Balfour Declaration was penned;
– end with a symbolic entry into Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate, where we will be joined by Palestinian and Israeli peace activists for an act of commemoration, to acknowledge our collective responsibility for past injustices, the plight of the Palestinians today and the on-going conflict in the Middle East.
We are planning a series of meetings, encounters and acts of remembrance with faith communities and campaigning groups along the route. We’re also planning a number of visits to refugee camps across Europe, where we will share meals, conduct workshops with refugee-residents and devise performances, exhibitions and installations enabling participants to express and honour their stories of home.
Justin Butcher is planning to weave these encounters together with the overall story of the Walk to create a storytelling performance piece, part theatre/part documentary, to premiere and tour in 2018 (also a year of highly significant anniversaries).
For all details of the route, see www.amostrust.org/just-walk.
Amos Trust is a creative human rights organisation with an extensive track record in promoting a just peace for Israel/Palestine and the rights of street children and marginalised communities around the world. Working with partners in the UK, Gaza,
Justin Butcher continues his Tale :-
Introduction – Bethlehem Unwrapped
It all started in Bethlehem.
In March 2012, I visited Israel/Palestine for the first time, as part of a delegation of British artists sponsored by the UK-based human rights charity Amos Trust and the Greenbelt Arts Festival. As a lifelong adherent of the Christian faith, this trip, it seemed, would represent a great spiritual and cultural moment for me. From this small, bitterly contested patch of land in the Middle East, a cosmic narrative radiates across human history. Like Christians down the ages and across the world, I’d spent half a lifetime reading and singing about this narrative – the life and works of Christ, the Old Testament histories and traditions which gave birth to Christianity, the Acts of the Apostles and the spread of the early church – and now I was poised to set foot on the hallowed stage myself, the “Holy Land” in which this drama has been unfolding for thousands of years.
Jerusalem, Jericho, Nazareth, Galilee – every name is a referential trigger for a thousand hymns, paintings and poems; every brick is laden with legends. Like the most innocent and naïve of religious pilgrims, I experienced a kind of “Indiana Jones”-style mystical thrill as our plane began its descent to Tel Aviv. This is the place. I’m here at last. The place of the Bible stories, the land of Christ Himself. Would I find Him here? On the Palm Sunday path down the Mount of Olives, in the Garden of Gethsemane or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or the grotto shrine of the Nativity Church amidst the snow-clad, starlit hills of the “little town” of Bethlehem?
Well, no, of course. What we found in most of the holy sites was a kind of apartheid biblical theme park, staffed by heavily bearded, rather stressed-out Orthodox monks, policing queues of thousands of tourists from all over the world, pushing and shoving, each eagerly awaiting their holy moment, their special encounter with the Divine in the magical location where X marks the spot of the Crucifixion, the Burial, the Resurrection, the Ascension etc. Quick prayer, quick photograph, buy a candle, on to the next miracle.
What we did encounter, on arriving at last in Bethlehem, was the Wall. The 8-metre high concrete, barbed wire, watchtower and search-camera monolith, symbol and fact of occupation and oppression, monument to despair, a vast physical denial of everything that God and the Bible and religious faith is meant to be about. And my immediate, almost flippant reaction was to turn to my companions and say, “Well, you know what we should do: we should build the Wall in London. Then people would see what it’s like.”
Spoken half as a joke, the idea grew on me. In fact, it became an irritant. It wouldn’t leave me alone. How could one go about it? What would we need to pull it off?
In the wake of the “Occupy” movement, the word from inside the Westminster village, according to my spies, was that online petitions are all very well, but if you really want to make people sit up and take notice, you’ve got to get people out on the streets. So what would we need to bring the Bethlehem Wall to the notice of the public in the UK?
Well, it would have to be in central London – and at Christmas, because that’s the only time anyone ever thinks of Bethlehem. It would have to be on private property – we’d surely never get permission from Westminster Council. Ideally, it would need the collaboration of a supportive faith community with a vision for creative, radical peace and justice projects. All the arrows were pointing towards St James’s Piccadilly and their talented and inspiring rector, Lucy Winkett. It so happened that she was then chair of trustees for the Amos Trust, she’d visited Israel/Palestine many times, and we’d collaborated successfully on a large, ambitious project ten years before at St Paul’s Cathedral, when she was precentor – in all the right ways, her card was marked. So we met, and I asked her if I could build an 8-metre high concrete Wall across her church courtyard for the whole of Christmas 2013. I expected her to laugh, which she did. I didn’t expect her to say yes. To my astonishment, she loved the idea. Over several months, as she shared the proposal with the church community at St James’s, Piccadilly, momentum began to build. Everybody loved the idea.
It was the audacity and simplicity which people loved. I found it almost uncannily easy to recruit a highly experienced and talented creative team of architect, designer and builder, film-maker, visual artist, lighting and video designers and co-producers –all willing to work on spec (with no guarantee of a fee) to make the project a reality. Amos Trust provided endless advice and support, connections and practical help, and within a couple of months, a coalition of nine supporting charities and campaigning organisations had coalesced around the vision, which all this while had to remain secret – Amos Trust, the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, Interpal, the UK branch of ICAHD (the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions), Jews for Justice for Palestinians, the P21 Gallery, Tipping Point Film Fund, War on Want and the award-winning Fairtrade olive oil importer Zaytoun CIC.
8 metres high and 24 metres across, with 20 tons of water ballast to weight it down. How much would it cost? Don’t know. Did we have the money? Never mind. Think big and aim high. With the vision still firmly under wraps, an astonishing artistic programme was building around the putative Wall. Working in the theatre world, I’m used to most people saying no, most of the time; rejection is our profession. But to my imaginary, secret and unfunded Wall at St James’s Piccadilly, the most amazing people kept saying yes, confounding my expectations again and again. The legendary violinist Nigel Kennedy, comedians Jeremy Hardy & Mark Steel, performance poets Rafeef Ziadah, Dizraeli, Harry Baker, superstar chefs Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi, singers from the Tallis Scholars, the fabulous Catalan singer Clara Sanabras and partner Harvey Brough, Palestinian dancers Al-Zaytouna, film-makers Leila & Larissa Sansour. Everybody loved the idea – its audacity and simplicity. There was a momentum, a zeitgeist, something in the air, or maybe the water. It was unnerving. What if we couldn’t get the funding? What if the Council closed us down? Were they all mad, trusting me to pull this off?
It was Lucy Winkett’s inspiration and initiative that the Wall in Piccadilly should be not only a provocative piece of public art, but also a festival of “Beautiful Resistance” – a term coined by Dr Abdelfattah Abusrour, director of Alrowwad Youth Theatre, in Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem. In this bleak, impoverished setting, right in the shadow of the Wall, amongst a cramped population living as refugees in their own land since 1948, Abdelfattah teaches theatre, dance, music and photography to hundreds of Palestinian teenagers as an expression of hope, using the arts as a vehicle for cultural, non-violent resistance, to counter the daily humiliation and despair of the Occupation. “I don’t want to die for my country,” he told us, “I want to live for my country, and as Palestinian refugees, we don’t have the luxury of despair. Instead, we choose beautiful resistance.” Despite the magnitude of injustice heaped upon them, most Palestinians I’ve met prefer to celebrate life, love, laughter and hospitality. They get really fed up with being depicted as “professionally miserable”. So, back in London, we decided we would build a Christmas festival around our replica Wall – not just in solidarity with, but in celebration of – Bethlehem today, because the reality of the Wall isn’t the only thing which people in the West can’t see and don’t understand.
Everywhere we went in Palestine, yes, we saw signs of suffering and oppression, but springing up all around the checkpoints and barriers, concrete blocks and razor wire fences, we also encountered a community of hope, rising from the ruins. People in the West can’t see, because they’re always looking in the wrong direction, for the wrong thing, looking at governments and official processes and waiting for the great powers to wake up and smell the change in the air – just as most religious pilgrims, seeking an encounter with God in the Holy Land, look in the wrong places. “By all means, visit the holy sites, the dead stones,” said Nidal Abu Zuluf of the East Jerusalem YMCA, “but we’d prefer it if you come and visit us, the living stones, under Occupation, behind the Wall.”
“We are going through the Stations of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa, on a daily basis,” said Dr Zougbi Zougbi, the charismatic director of Wi’am Conflict Resolution Centre in Bethlehem. “Every day we could be angry – legitimately! – but as the Israelis are destroying our lives, we are transforming them, turning the garbage of our anger and hate into the flower and tree of compassion.” With the watchtowers and skunk water cannon of the Wall overlooking their playground, Wi’am works with Palestinian children to heal the trauma of the Occupation through art therapy and sports, runs women’s gender empowerment programmes and provides a safe space to local communities for conflict resolution. It is an astonishing community of hope.
No more do people see the remarkable example of Daoud Nassar, founder of the Tent of Nations, a sustainable eco-farm outside Bethlehem, besieged on a hilltop between louring settlements, drawing visitors and volunteers from all over the world, bringing deprived Palestinian schoolchildren for summer breaks in green fields, reconnecting dispossessed Palestinians with their land, because their land is their future, says Daoud. He has decided to use the near-impossible conditions imposed by the Occupation as a springboard for eco-innovation. “We have no running water, so we have had to become very efficient in our use of rainwater, recycling our ‘grey’ water to irrigate the crops. If we were to build any new structures, the Israelis would demolish them, so instead we have tunneled out caves in the hillside, and are planning to build windmills on wheels. If it moves, it’s not a structure!” Unusually, Daoud’s family has paperwork dating back to the Ottoman era demonstrating their ownership of the land, so they have proved extremely difficult to dislodge. They have been fighting a record-breaking 25-year legal action against the Israeli government to retain their land. Nevertheless, the occupying forces make regular and destructive incursions. The last time I visited Daoud, in 2014, the IDF had just bulldozed his entire fruit crop, claiming it was grown on land that didn’t belong to him. When we expressed our sorrow and distress at this appalling act, Daoud said, “But you know, you also have to feel sorry for the people who did this. These acts they commit – they will follow them for the rest of their lives.” We refuse to be your enemy, proclaims the stone gate post at the entrance to his farm.
Nor do people in the West hear nearly enough about the life and example of Israeli activist and ICAHD founder Jeff Halper. An Israeli Jewish activist for Palestinian rights, Jeff campaigns specifically on the issue which he considers to epitomise the cruelty and injustice of the Occupation: house demolitions. He and other Israeli activists place themselves regularly in front of IDF bulldozers, and organise house rebuilding projects with volunteers from the West supplying the labour and funds. Voluble, short and stout, with a huge white Father Christmas beard and a broad New York drawl, Jeff is a tireless and infectiously engaging embodiment of “Beautiful Resistance.” He’s been arrested more times than he can remember, and picked up a Nobel Peace Prize nomination along the way. Together with his Palestinian friend Salim Shawamreh, whose house had just been demolished for the fifth time, Jeff sat and ate with us in a chilly tent on the hillside of Anata, in East Jerusalem. Salim’s family made us welcome in their tent and gave us food, and in the breaking of bread, we recognised a community of resurrection.
And how I wish that more people around the world could hear the heart-stirring words of Sami Awad, founder of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, whom I sometimes describe, by way of shorthand, as a kind of Palestinian Gandhi. I wrote this diary piece following a group meeting with Sami in June 2014, just as the disappearance of three teenage Israeli settlers from Hebron was about to explode into the Third Gaza War.
19th June 2014
We’re sitting in a quiet, secluded meeting room in the old city of Bethlehem, with one of the most extraordinary men I’ve ever met. The “meditation room”, maybe five metres square, is a cool shaded enclave away from the fierce heat of the mid-morning sun, with low divans set round three walls, and a pleasant stream of natural light from low windows either side of the door. Furnished in traditional Bedouin style, with woven oriental rugs on the floor and embroidered cushions scattered across the divans, the room has a low vaulted ceiling, almost like a tent. We’re in the offices of the Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian organisation working for peace and equality through non-violence, and our host is its director, Sami Awad.
“Before 1948, my family lived originally in a prosperous suburb of Jerusalem,” he tells us, “and we had very friendly relationships with all our neighbours, Jewish and Palestinian. One of the neighbouring families was Orthodox Jewish, and on the shabat (Jewish sabbath), when they’re not supposed to do any work of any kind, my grandparents used to go into their house to turn the lights on and off for them. That was the level of trust and friendship which existed between neighbours.
Then, in 1948, came the war, what we Palestinians call the Nakba, the ‘Catastrophe’, when Palestine was ethnically cleansed by the Zionist brigades. My grandfather was completely committed to peace and was determined that his family would not be involved in any kind of violence. He was climbing on to the roof of his house, with a white flag, to hang it up to show that this was a house of peace, when he was shot dead by a sniper. The next day, the Zionist brigades came to the house and told my grandmother, ‘You all have to leave, immediately, otherwise you’ll be killed,’ and so my family became refugees, fleeing into what is now called the West Bank, to stay with different relatives, some in Bethlehem, some elsewhere. There wasn’t enough room for all the kids to live with relatives, so my father and his siblings went into orphanages. So I grew up against a background of tragedy, dispossession and exile. I grew up with a lot of rage inside me.
The inspiration for my family’s work in peace and reconciliation came from my grandmother. Before she died, she spoke about my grandfather, and about the man who had killed him. ‘I don’t even want to know his name,’ she said. ‘Never find out his name, even if you have the chance.’ When we asked her why, she said, ‘Because if he’d known my husband, he would never have shot him.’”
Sami pauses as we absorb this story. Then, slowly, quietly, as if weighing the cost of his words, he continues. “It’s been said – and I believe this – that the greatest attainment of justice is to achieve reconciliation with those who have wronged you. This was my grandmother’s vision. My uncle, Dr Mubarak Awad, established the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Non-Violence (PCSN) in East Jerusalem in 1984, one of the first internal initiatives of Palestinian mobilisation. He spent three years lecturing in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on the philosophy and techniques of non-violent resistance, and the PCSN mounted all kinds of actions – protests, civil disobedience, planting olive trees on Palestinian land under threat of confiscation, promoting boycott campaigns and so on – until the Israeli government kicked him out. Threw him out of the country. He now lives and works in Washington DC.
Every so often, the IDF commander here in Bethlehem calls me in to see him. For a ‘chat’. For ‘coffee’. And I ask him about his family, his wife and kids. And he often says, ‘You know, Sami, I really respect your work.’ My work? Organising non-violent acts of resistance? Against your Occupation? ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I respect your work.’ ‘So, what then?’ I say. ‘What are we doing here?’ And he says, ‘Well, we’re on different sides in this story, aren’t we?’ And I know for a fact, when he sends in his soldiers to break up a demonstration, he specifically singles me out for punishment. ‘Get Sami,’ he tells them, ‘give him a hard time, a good beating, chuck him in the van.’ Because he really respects my work.
As Palestinian Christians, we reflect on Christ’s injunction to love your enemies. To love my enemy, I must try to understand him. This is why I went to visit Auschwitz. What I saw there helped me to understand the inherited trauma of the Israeli psyche. I saw visiting groups of Israeli kids going round the museum exhibits, the huts and gas chambers, being instructed by their teachers and rabbis. ‘This is not just your past,’ they were telling the kids. ‘This is your present, and your future too.’
So we consider that the collective psyche of Israel is traumatised. They build walls, barbed wire fences, checkpoints, watchtowers – they’ve surrounded this land with a cage of steel and concrete. Just as a woman who’s been raped repeatedly will view the approach of any man as a threat, so Israel looks on any and every other state, people, tribe, entity as an enemy or future enemy who must be met and defeated preemptively with violence. Out of guilt for the Holocaust, the world has given ‘bad love’ to Israel: yes, yes, carry on, you do whatever you want, and we will always support you. But if you had a friend with a drug problem, you wouldn’t keep on supplying their addiction. You have to say no. If the world really loves Israel, they need to stop feeding their addiction. So as Palestinian Christians, we reflect on the meaning of our suffering. And we consider that perhaps the meaning of so much undeserved suffering … perhaps, somehow, our calling is to play a role in healing the traumatised psyche of the Israeli people.”
Seeking an encounter with God, with Jesus, in the Holy Land, I had a palpable sense that I had found him not in the shrines and monuments of the pilgrimage trail, but in people like Sami, Jeff, Daoud, Zougbi and the others. “Jesus was born, and lived and died in a land under military occupation,” Sami reminded us. “And he rose from the dead and proclaimed the new kingdom in a land under occupation. As a people under military occupation, we Palestinians can’t afford to wait for someone else to come and give us our freedom. We must claim and embrace our freedom now, in the mind and heart and actions, in preparation for the day when freedom becomes a political reality.”
Inspired by these encounters, on a wing and a prayer, and the generous collaboration of countless supporters, the Wall in London at Christmas 2013 and its accompanying festival, Bethlehem Unwrapped, was a creative and political success, even a landmark. 30,000 visitors to the Wall installation, 2,000 tickets sold for live events, 62,000 Youtube views of the launch ceremony, at which we broadcast Sami Awad’s message from Bethlehem on to our Wall in Piccadilly, 8 million people reached worldwide via social media, and 10 million reached via print, online and broadcast media in the UK alone.
When I returned to Bethlehem the following June, the “facts on the ground” had gone from bad to worse. Here follows an account of my visit to Al-Khuder, a village near Bethlehem, in June 2014, which I think more than any other single encounter has inspired or provoked the Walk to Jerusalem.
The House at Al-Khuder
20th June 2014
We’re driving out to a village near Bethlehem, a group of British artists performing in the 2014 Bet Lahem Live Festival, together with delegates from UK partners Amos Trust and Greenbelt Festival. We’re going to visit a Palestinian family whose house was demolished two days ago by the IDF. This is part of the mayhem of collective punishment which the Israelis are dealing out all over the West Bank in response to the disappearance of three settler teenagers from the Hebron area last week. Already, in the past week, five Palestinian children have been shot dead, dozens wounded and hundreds arrested, with refugee camps invaded and tear-gassed, the UNWRA administrative offices of the camps ransacked, and many Palestinian houses demolished – all supposedly part of a “police action” to find the missing teenage settlers. Meanwhile, Palestinian prisoners due for release as part of the failed peace talks are on hunger strike, and the PA leader Mahmoud Abbas has invited Hamas in from the cold to form an alliance with Fatah.
We’ve arrived at the remote hilltop farm, close to the village of Al-Khuder (the “Green Man”, the Arabic name for St George). It’s a desperate sight: two ugly heaps of wreckage, shattered plaster walls, smashed lintels, twisted iron rods poking out at weird angles, splintered fragments of timber, all strewn with odd bits of furniture, kitchen utensils, floor tiles, children’s toys – and, lined up around the ruins of their home to greet us, a large Palestinian family, a father and four adult sons and many children, teenagers down to toddlers. They’re pulling chairs out of the rubble to seat us in the shade of a large fig tree.
The father of the family, Ali Salim Mousa, and his eldest son embrace us as we approach, thanking us for coming, kissing us on both cheeks. The farmer is a wiry, slight man in his sixties with a leathery, tanned face and grizzled beard. They insist that we sit. They will not allow any of us to stand. One of the sons produces bottles of water and plastic cups, handing them round. When everyone is seated, Ali Salim stands in front of us, next to another older man, his cousin Ismail, and welcomes us “in my land”.
Our guide, Marwan, translates phrase by phrase: “All my respect to everyone from Europe. We are a Palestinian nation under Israeli occupation. We received from this occupation every kind of suffering in our life. However many occupations there have been in history, never one like this occupation. Every home in Palestine, you will find suffering – someone martyred, someone arrested, someone exiled. Every home, every family is affected. The nations of Europe are like gentle people; you do not have this suffering. We receive all this pain and suffering because we do one big mistake: we stay in our land. This is my message to the people of Europe, to the smart people who support us: you coming from far away, we need to share with you in a very simple way. I use my heart, from heart to heart.” Ali Salim touches his chest with bunched fingers and flings them out to us. “Thank you for coming and sharing our story. It’s my honour to have you here and I say, thank God we still have kind people, nice people like you in the world.
“We have history here – from a long time we are living here. If you ask me what is my name, I have at least ten names – Ali Hassan Salim Mohammed Mousa -” he reels off a string of names – “we have been here so long, but the settlers come here and take our land, under the eyes of the civil administration. For nearly fifty years, we have had our land stolen and taken, building military camps, building the Wall. I have a large family, with two wives and four sons. Then they came to demolish my house. I built again. After three years they come again and demolish, and we build again. After three years they come and demolish again. Three times!”
Marwan puts his arm around Ali’s cousin Ismail. “He has no tears,” he says. “They’re stuck in his eyes.”
Ali continues, “We asked the commander, ‘What wrong have we done?’ They said, ‘This is against the security of Israel.’ You can tell how much they hate us. They said, ‘You have ten minutes.’ They threw away my cousin’s fridge, threw it away in the rubble so he couldn’t use it again. They don’t recognise us as human beings. We are like slaves who have to do service for Israel. They say, God gave the life to all people, but they don’t look on us like that. They want us to give up, to lose hope. But this is my land and we stay here forever. I need to build my cemetery here. Even when I die, I will not move from here.”
The land slopes steeply away from where we’re sitting, down from the homestead, across a dried-up stream-bed to where the Wall cuts across the farmland of Al-Khuder, annexing it to the settlement on the nearby hilltop. Here, the Wall is made up of beige concrete rectangles, blending against the arid soil, almost innocuous, like a garden fence, except for a grey watchtower down to the right, maybe two hundred yards from Ali Salim’s house. Rising like a periscope against the sandy hillside, the watchtower peers balefully towards Al-Khuder through a dark observation slit. We are here. We are watching you.
Ali points towards the settlement. “The leader of this group of settlers is from Russia,” he says. “He has a large pack of dangerous dogs. We don’t let the children go near them. We don’t ride donkeys any more, because they train their dogs to attack them. If an elderly person is riding their donkey down in the village and the settlers come with their dogs, they’ll fall off and injure themselves.” He gestures to his grandchildren, three little girls and two boys. “What kind of mistake have these children made against Israel? Going to school in the morning and coming home to find their house destroyed. These settlers, these Israelis, have children. But they have no feeling, no sensitivity to us, to our children. My grandchildren ask us, ‘Why have they done this? Destroyed our house?’
“I tell my children, ‘This is the Zionist movement, from one hundred years ago.’ I’m not talking about Jewish people!” He shakes his finger emphatically. “I’m talking about Zionists and the Occupation.” He throws out his arms, encompassing our group. “We request all the nations of the world to put some kind of pressure on Israel’s government to stop this cruelty, this humiliation against us.”
He points to the road at the bottom of his field, just beyond the Wall. “We can’t walk on this road, where the Wall runs. Look at the tunnel we have to crawl through, like rats.” I follow his finger and see that there indeed is a tunnel, built under the settler-only road to the smaller lane that runs down to the village.
His eldest son, Ahmed, holding his own two-year old lad, says, “What I’m pleased – my children didn’t see the bulldozers. I have six children, my father has eight. We have twenty children in this house. We are the last occupied people in the world! I teach my children to grow up in the world and have respect for everybody, but they are teaching my children to hate. What will my son learn from this? Please, please share our story with the world. We’re not just talking about demolished houses – all the people in the jail …”
His uncle Ismail says, “My son is in jail for eighteen months, for working without a permit in Israel. A 2000 shekel fine and one and a half years in jail – because he followed the work. Really, by God, we need peace.”
Ali Salim explodes suddenly, slapping the back of his hand against his palm. “I couldn’t even say, ‘Ay!’” he exclaims. “They put their feet on my neck, and I couldn’t even say, ‘Ow!’ If he needs water, I’ll give him water from my house. But to come and … look, I’ll show you the well I built. They destroyed it.” He leads us over to the edge of the slope and points down to a deep gash in the ground, where the wellhead has been bulldozed and choked with boulders. He’s almost spitting with anguish. “Are you here with any kind of international law? They demolish, they put the boot on our heads and say, Shekit, shekit, shekit, shut up, you can’t say anything. Could anyone live under this Occupation? Anyone in the world? They could not. We sleep like sardines, ten in the tent, suffocating.
“They demolish my house four times, but even if they drive over us with tanks, we will not move. We will not be moved.”
Another son, Khaled, shows me a video on his phone of the bulldozers demolishing the house, with IDF soldiers lined up in the foreground, holding back the family. Ali Salim’s second wife is sitting in the shade of a corrugated iron fence, feeding her one month-old baby. “I agree with my husband, that we should stay here,” she says. “We’re trying to keep hope alive that we can live here in peace. This is our children’s land, and there’s no substitute for their land. For them to have life, they should not go somewhere else.”
Now Khaled has produced a pot of coffee and is filling plastic cups for us all. It’s rich, dark Arabic coffee, sweetened with cardamom. Our group leader, Nive Hall, is thanking Ali Salim. “Our hearts are broken for you,” he says, as Marwan translates. “We have heard you. We know that your voice is silenced, and we promise to use our voices to tell your story.”
“Everything I tell you is the truth,” says Ali Salim. Once again, he spreads his arms to include all of us. “God bless you, give you a nice and relaxed life. We will pray for you. All my respect. Thank you for coming to hear my story.”
Extract from Tonight the bombs fall down in Gaza
By Justin Butcher, written during the Third Gaza War 2014, after the death of four Palestinian children in an Israeli air raid
Tonight, the bombs fall down in Gaza,
And this is how it looks and sounds,
And how it feels and how it is.
Ambulance teams can drive so far
And then must park and clamber, scramble
Over the crumpled ceilings,
Bristling with iron rods,
And do what human beings must do
To claw their shape and sense from ruin,
Unearth, unpick the unkind
Scree from children’s clothes and sponge their dusty limbs
And close their staring icon eyes.
At dawn, they will lay the little limbs
In rows outside the mukhtar’s house,
Outside the mosque, or in the village square,
The trophies of another night
In Gaza, where the bombs fell down.
In a week, or a month, or a year, or a day,
When the dead are buried and their little names
Have dropped like rain into the salty sea of grief,
This rubble dust, that choked away
their brief time in the troublesome space
of light and noise and heat and pain
between the sleeps of womb and death,
this rubble dust will be cleared and heaped
and shoved and shovelled and mixed and shaped
to mend the shattered walls and floors,
contaminated igloos seamed
with traces of the little ghosts –
a hair, a scrap of skin, a nail
of Hamid, Khaled, Hind or Yousef –
all they left behind tonight,
when the bombs fell down in Gaza.
Just Walk to Jerusalem
“We promise to use our voices to tell your story.”
Since that visit in June 2014, I have tried to use my voice, as a writer, performer, producer and activist, to continue telling this story, as detailed below (pp. 31-32).
2017 marks three highly significant anniversaries in the Palestinian struggle:
10 years of the blockade of Gaza –
Israel’s land, sea and air blockade of Gaza began in June 2007. The inhabitants have suffered untold humanitarian consequences, including three major wars, and today 80% are dependent on food aid, while 30% of children in Gaza suffer acute anaemia.
50 years of Occupation –
Fifty years after the Six Day War of June 1967, Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and Golan Heights continues. With more than 700,000 illegal settlers now living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the notion of a geographically contiguous, functioning Palestinian state is a fantasy which serves as a fig-leaf for perpetual occupation and apartheid. Mahmoud Abbas and the so-called Palestinian Authority are discredited in the eyes of the vast majority of Palestinians, who regard them as a wholly corrupt, Vichy-style puppet regime in collaboration with the Occupation. As hopes of a political settlement recede, the frustration and despair of young Palestinians deepens.
100 years since the Balfour Declaration –
The Zionist Movement began in the late 19th century, as a project to create a national homeland for the Jewish people, conceived by the Czech playwright and journalist Theodor Herzl. By the time of the First World War, Palestine had been part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire for nearly four hundred years. During WWI, the British Empire’s assault on Ottoman Palestine saw the second largest commitment of British forces after the Western Front.
Zionist leaders in Europe courted the sympathies of the British government as a major power sympathetic to their cause, and on 2nd November 1917, as battle raged in Palestine, the Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote a letter to Lord Rothschild, in which he stated, “His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use our best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” (By “existing non-Jewish communities”, he meant the Palestinians, who comprised 90% of the population.)
This letter, published on 9th November in the press, became known as the Balfour Declaration and sowed the seeds of a century of intractable conflict. One month later, on 11th December 1917, General Allenby entered Jerusalem on foot at the head of the conquering British Army, capturing the ancient city “as a Christmas present for the British people.” (Allenby’s phrase in a telegram to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, informing him of the capture of Jerusalem.)
The Hungarian-Jewish author Arthur Koestler, writing from the new-formed state of Israel in 1949, described the Balfour Declaration as “one of the most improbable political documents of all time, in which one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.”
A time of risk and opportunity
2017 also marks a tectonic shift in global politics, with the central fault-line falling between Europe and the Middle East. The Sunni-Shia strife now playing out across several continents has been described by some commentators as a “Third World War”. The flood of migrants into Europe, fleeing the Syrian civil war and chaos in Iraq, represents the biggest refugee crisis since WWII. Britain, historically one of the prime movers both in the political formation of the modern Middle East and its more recent conflagration, now moves to extricate itself from Europe and wash its hands.
In December of last year, the outgoing Obama administration expressed its exasperation with the Netanyahu government by abstaining from voting in a UN Security Council Resolution condemning Israeli settlement building in Palestinian territories. The resolution passed with 14 countries in favour and one abstention – and provoked a reaction of unprecedented fury from the Netanyahu government. Perhaps even more significantly, the outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry immediately launched a blistering defence of their abstention, saying, “It is not this resolution that is isolating Israel. It is the permanent policy of [Israeli] settlement construction that risks making peace impossible.”
By way of contrast, the new Trump administration has appointed David M. Friedman as its ambassador to Israel, a bankruptcy lawyer with no diplomatic experience, an extreme Zionist aligned with the Israeli far right, who supports settlement building, the annexation of the West Bank and, in his own words, moving the US embassy to “Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.” President Trump has cited Israel’s Wall as a resounding success, which he intends to emulate on the US border with Mexico.
While these developments represent tremendous potential risks to the stability of Europe and the Middle East, and particularly to the defenceless Palestinian populations in the Occupied Territories, in so far as they mark a shift or fracture in the deadlocked Israel/Palestine paradigm, they also offer an opportunity for change.
After our promise to Ali Salim in Al-Khuder, and the horrors of the 2014 Gaza War, I knew that I didn’t want to let these anniversaries of 2017 pass without trying to mark them in some way. A big, crazy stunt, it seemed to me, was required. Something bigger and crazier than the Wall.
Europeans have been travelling to the Holy Land for nearly 2,000 years, as pilgrims, penitents, scholars, crusaders, conquerors and colonialists. Reflecting on this history, and Britain’s complicity in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, I conceived the idea of a pilgrimage, a “Just Walk” to Jerusalem. Over the course of two years’ planning, in partnership with Amos Trust, the Just Walk to Jerusalem has become a reality: 100 years on, 100 days of walking, 2000 miles to Jerusalem. In penance, solidarity and hope. Following the ancient pilgrimage routes across Europe, tracing in reverse the migrant route from the Syrian civil war, walking the refugee road, enacting symbolically the Palestinians’ right of return, which is denied, gathering and travelling with fellow activists and faith communities along the way.
We will do this –
– in penance for Britain’s colonial history in the Middle East, giving away a land we had no right to give away;
– in solidarity with the Palestinian people, in their ongoing suffering under Israel’s occupation and colonisation of their territories;
– in hope & determination, inviting people across Europe to join the call for an end to the current political stalemate and for full equal rights for everyone who calls the Holy Land home, as there will never be peace in the Middle East until there is a just peace in Israel/Palestine.
Book Style and Structure – the “Outer Route” and the “Inner Route”
Justin’s book proposal –
I imagine this book as a combination of walking journal, travel writing and pilgrim stories, a kind of Time Of Gifts-meets-From the Holy Mountain-meets Canterbury Tales.
These elements and episodes interspersed throughout with “digressions” on Balfour and Christian Zionism, Weizmann and cordite, colonialism, Jerusalem Syndrome, Desert spirituality and some of its crazier manifestations, the Holocaust, my visits to Auschwitz, Berlin, the Warsaw Ghetto, Israel and Palestine etc.
I see it less as an exhaustive travel guide to walking across Europe than an exploration of the many strands radiating from the Holy Land and its narrative, weaving paths across place and history, through the lives of my fellow-walkers – and, of course, my own life. My godmother, for example, was a German Jew, born in Palestine in the 1920s to rather lukewarm Zionist parents who subsequently gave up on the project and moved to England, where she later converted to Christianity. Polish members of my family, prisoners-of-war after the fall of Poland in 1939, were among the first prisoners sent to Auschwitz.
The places we walk through of course will gain in interest for us insofar as they resonate with – and perhaps deepen – the themes of the pilgrimage. In Canterbury Cathedral, for example, a pilgrimage destination and starting-point for many centuries, we might reflect not only on the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett but also the story of its founder, St Augustine of Canterbury, who arrived in Britain in 597 AD, sent from Rome by Pope Gregory. As narrated by the Venerable Bede, the famous (possibly apocryphal) story goes, that the Pope had been struck by the beauty of the fair-haired Angles he saw in the slave-market in Rome. He asked his acolyte Augustine who these beautiful children were. “They are called Angles,” said Augustine. To which the Pope made the famous reply, “Non Angli, sed Angeli” (“Not Angles, but Angels”) and promptly sent Augustine to carry the gospel to “Anglia” (England). For pilgrims setting out to walk in solidarity with a captive, subjugated people in present-day Palestine, it may perhaps be meaningful in this place to remember the origins of Rome’s mission to Britain, on the impulse of a Pope moved by the beauty and humanity of people from far away, held in bonds of slavery.
Portraits of fellow-walkers, modern-day Canterbury Tales, exploring the stories which have brought them together on this endeavour: “Why the hell are you doing this? Taking months out of your life to walk to Jerusalem? What do you think it will achieve?” Self-searching and soul-searching, sifting the quirky, disturbing and – perhaps – illuminating ruminations that rise to the surface through such an ordeal: “What is it with me and Palestine? I love it, can’t leave it alone. Is it the Jesus thing? Jerusalem Syndrome? Messiah complex? Playing at being a hero in some epic drama? Or is it the dusty hills and olive groves, bustling souks and Ottoman architecture or the ancient churches, monasteries and mosques? Is it some kind of addiction to suffering? Or a huge well of empathy with the injustice of the Occupation? Or does the Palestinian narrative of loss speak somehow to my own story of loss? Perhaps on this journey I will find some answers …”
What inner demons, ghosts or cobwebs are we seeking to exorcise? What wrongs expiate or vices purge? Or sorrows assuage? What illumination are we seeking? And how does “real life” intervene? Chance meetings along the way, friendships and frictions between fellow-walkers, the state of our feet, knees, hips and blisters, emergency calls from back home, developments in world events, the PR impact of our endeavour etc.
The route itinerary is set out below. The themes are set out above. Between these, the “woods and the water”, I hope to chart a chronicle of serendipity – happenstances hilarious, infuriating and occasionally numinous. Perhaps trying to capture that fleeting sense of the eternal – that everything, in this place and moment, for a moment, makes sense.
A chronicle of serendipity – or, as pilgrims might say, encounters with the Divine.
The “opening ceremony” outside the Foreign Office in Whitehall, 10th June, as the walkers and their supporters gather for departure on the date marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Occupation. Two days after a UK general election, which will confirm Britain’s exit from the EU, we set out to walk across Europe from west to east, “reuniting” the continent with our own footsteps (and blisters, shoe-leather, creaking knees, aching hips etc.) Will the current occupant of Balfour’s office, Boris Johnson (or his successor) come out to see us off?
Stage 1: London – Dover 10th – 16th June 159km (23km per day)
We will leave from the central London send-off event in the early afternoon of Saturday 10th June, fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War of 1967 and the beginning of the Occupation. After a ceremony of “pilgrimage blessing” at Southwark Cathedral, we walk to Stone, near Dartford. On the second day, we walk to the Dickensian town of Rochester and see its historical keep and cathedral. From there we travel on a combination of the Augustine Camino (a pilgrimage route through Kent leading to the shrine of St Augustine of Canterbury at Ramsgate) and the North Downs Way, to Canterbury. There we will be received at the cathedral before being sent off on the Via Francigena, the “Way through France” – the ancient pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome, as pilgrims have been for the last 1,500 years. The first week comes to an end as we bid farewell to the group at Dover Harbour on Friday lunchtime, and board the ferry for Calais.
Stage 2: Calais – Arras 16th – 23rd June 148km (25km per day)
When we arrive in Calais we will walk along the fence that has been erected around the site of the former refugee camp – the Jungle – a poignant symbol of “Fortress Europe’s” self-defence against people fleeing from persecution. We will then meet up with charity teams working with young refugees who have gone missing after the dismantling of the Jungle.
From Calais our journey proceeds south-west to Guines, and then south-east down the Via Francigena through the Pas de Calais to the beautiful city of Arras. Here, we will visit the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, the scene of prolonged and heavy fighting during WWI. En route we will travel through Wisques with its historic abbeys and visit the stunning 15th Century Chateau d’Olhain.
Stage 3: Arras – Corbeny 23rd – 30th June 169km (28km per day)
This route from Arras to Corbeny is dominated by memorials of WWI as we follow the Via Francigena down the German “Western Front” through the Somme region. Local guides will join us for part of the route. From the historic city of Bapaume, we will visit the Somme memorial at Thiepval. Towards the end of week three we pass through Laon with its beautiful Gothic cathedral before walking the Chemin de Dames Ridge which saw three major offensives during WWI, and end in Corbeny.
Stage 4: Corbeny – Lentilles 30th June – 7th July 192km (32km per day)
Week four has a very different feel as we enter the Champagne region and head to the beautiful city of Reims. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous not only for its wine but also as a masterpiece of Gothic art. We will stay in the Grand Cru village of Verzenay (where we may be delayed visiting a local vineyard). We then head down to Chalons-en-Champagne with its beautiful 12th century cathedral and the pilgrimage site of Notre Dame-en-Vaux, after which we continue south into tranquil rolling countryside punctuated with idyllic hamlets before ending the week in the beautiful village of Lentilles, regarded as a “jewel” of the region.
Stage 5: Lentilles – Langres 7th – 14th July 168km (28km per day)
Stage 5 continues through the beautiful Champagne region. From Lentilles we walk south to Brienne-le-Chateau whose medieval lords had a claim to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. We then travel through la Foret d’Orient and stay at Bar-sur-Aube, tinderbox of the 1911 Champagne riots (possibly the best riots ever), including a visit to the beautiful medieval city of Troyes. This week’s walk concludes in Langres with its ancient defensive walls surrounding the old city, home of the renowned cheese of the same name.
Stage 6: Langres – Pontarlier 14th – 21st July 187 km (31km per day)
From Langres we head into a forested region of France. The route becomes gradually more demanding in gradients and distances, mostly along quiet woodland roads, till we reach the beautiful city of Besancon.
Cradled in a loop of the river Doubs, the ancient city is one of the best-preserved historic cities in France. When Julius Caesar conquered the region he described this naturally defended site as “the jewel in my crown” and today it is one of the most remarkable, but little-known, towns in France and home to the fantastic Musée des Beaux Arts collection. We then enter the Jura Mountains, fortifying ourselves with local Comte cheeses, heading for the town of Ornan and the river Loue which runs through it. The week concludes at Pontarlier, famous for the production of absinthe, the city to which Jean Valjean refused to report after his release from the galleys in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, thus breaking his parole.
Stage 8: Saint-Maurice, Switzerland – Issogne, Italy 28th July – 4th August 140km (23km per day)
This is the hardest and possibly the most breathtakingly beautiful week of the Walk as it includes the climb up to 2,469m over the Great St Bernard Pass.
The week starts with one of our shortest days, along the Rhone Valley to the Alpine town of Martigny. From here we have a far harder climb up to Orsieres at 890m before heading up to Col-Grand-St Bernard the next day. We come down over the pass to the ancient Roman city of Aosta the next day. We continue down the stunning Aosta valley to Chatillon and finish the week at Issogne with its famous castle and wineries.
Stage 9: Issogne – Garlasco 4th – 11th August 157km (26km per day)
From Issogne the Via Francigena takes us down the Aosta Valley through a string of historic towns: Arnad with the architectural gem of St Martin’s Church, Bard with its imposing fort, Pont St Martin and its iconic Roman bridge, Montalto Dora with its impressive 12th-century castle and above all, the remarkable town of Ivrea. From Ivrea we walk through farmland, woods and small villages to arrive at the bustling university town of Vercelli, with its grand central piazza, numerous Roman relics and the Basilica di Sant’Andrea, one of the best preserved Romanesque buildings in Italy. From Vercelli we follow the Po Valley to Mortara, and on to Garlasco, where this week’s walk ends. The Via Francigena runs between Turin and Milan (both are 30–35km away) and during this week there will be opportunities to visit one or both of these.
Stage 10: Garlasco – Fidenza 11th – 18th August 148km (25km per day)
From Garlasco, we walk through the Padania (Po Valley) to Pavia, a beautiful hilltop university town, home to numerous artistic, cultural and historical treasures. From Pavia we follow the Po Valley through farmland and a series of small towns until we reach the famously hospitable city of Piacenza, with its numerous historic and interesting sights including the beautiful Piazza Cavalli. From Piacenza, we walk on to the ancient town of Fiorenzuola d’Arda, and then on to Fidenza, which grew rapidly during the Fascist period before being badly damaged by Allied bombing during WWII. At Fidenza we leave the Via Francigena, and join the Via Emilia towards Ancona.
Stage 11: Fidenza – Castel San Pietro Terme 18th – 25th August 155km (26km per day)
For the next two weeks, we follow the Via Emilia, the ancient Roman road between Piacenza and Rimini on the Adriatic Coast. For this first week, we will be staying in some of the most fascinating and beautiful cities in Northern Italy.
Our first stop is the beautiful city of Parma, home to cheeses, the famous ham, infamous football side, the ancient university and numerous churches and cathedrals, palaces and the famous Baptistry. From here we walk to the nearly-as-beautiful city of Reggio Emilia. From the 15th century, Jews started to settle in Regio Emmilia and there was a thriving Jewish community. The slow decline of this population was accelerated drastically by the Nazi occupation and today only a small community exists. We then walk to the even more beautiful city of Modena. The Cathedral of Modena, the Torre della Ghirlandina, Campanile and Piazza Grande are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. However, it is just as famous for its love of cars. Italian sports car manufacturers Ferrari, De Tomaso, Lamborghini, Pagani and Maserati all had factories here and the Ferrari 360 Modena was named after the city.
We then walk on to the largest city in the region, Bologna, home to numerous major cultural, economic and political institutions and centre of Italy’s left wing political movements. One final day’s walking to Castel San Pietro Terme brings stage 11 to a close.
Stage 12: Castel San Pietro Terme – Ancona 25th August – 1st September 195km (33km per day)
The final week in Italy continues along the Via Emilia, passing by Imola, the home of Ferrari and of the San Marino Grand Prix, to arrive at Faenza, the first of the numerous historic towns we will walk through. From here we walk on to the city of Forli and finish day two in Forlimpopoli with its imposing 16th-century castle. We then continue to Cesena and then to Santarcangelo di Romagna, home to the International Festival of Contemporary Arts. Just west of Santarcangelo lies the holiday resort of Rimini and to its south the principality of San Marino. We now leave the Via Emilia and follow the coastal roads along the Adriatic, walking to the port of Cattolica and then, the longest day’s walk so far (40km), along the coast to Senigallia. From here we walk on to the port city of Ancona, the final part of our walk through Italy. We will be received at Ancona Cathedral, a centre of historic pilgrimage, to celebrate the crossing of France and Italy on foot before taking ship for Albania.
Stage 13: Durres, Albania – Thessaloniki, Greece 3rd – 22nd September 452km (30km per day)
The Via Egnatia is a completely “new” walking trail, which follows the ancient Roman Cargo way from Rome to Istanbul. This is a chance to explore little-known parts of Albania, Macedonia and Greece.
Starting in Durres the first two days’ walking lead us down to the ancient City of Pegin, where there are remains of the Ottoman castle and parts of the mosque built by the great Albanian Ottoman leader Abdurrahman Pasha. From here we walk up around the north of Lake Ohrid, a World Heritage Site with a unique ancient aquatic ecosystem.
We enter Macedonia at Qafe Thane and travel on to the beautiful and picturesque city of Ohrid. From here we will walk up to Bitola, Macedonia’s second city with its combination of historic churches, mosques and bazaars and thriving modern life.
Then we head south into Greece, walking through the Greek mountains, through the Florina region and on to Giannitsa. From here we walk down to the Aegean and the ancient port city of Thessaloniki, which marks the end of this stage.
There is much to explore in Thessaloniki, from sites of antiquity to the present day. It has the oldest Jewish population in mainland Europe, 96% of whom were deported and exterminated by the Nazis during the Holocaust. We will spend time in Thessaloniki’s three refugee camps, with those fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and join a network of musicians working with refugee-residents in the camps for a special performance.
Stage 14: Thessaloniki – Istanbul 22nd September – 20th October 638km (27km per day)
We leave Thessaloniki and continue east on the Via Egnatia. Several days’ walking bring us to the remains of the ancient Macedonian city of Amphipolis, and shortly after to the ruins of the Roman city of Philippi, which St Paul visited. At the Battle of Philippi, in 42 BC, Mark Antony and Octavian defeated Julius Caesar’s assassins, Cassius and Brutus, bringing an end to the civil war (and the Roman republic). The picturesque port city of Kavala also lies on this route.
The Macedonian coast has a number of refugee camps, which we will visit, to spend time meeting with and hearing the stories of these communities. We walk on through Xanthi and Komotini, to enter Turkey at the Kipoli border crossing. From here we continue to Kesan, and travel down to Gallipoli and the WWI memorials at Anzac Cove. We then come to the Byzantine city and tourist resort of Tekirdağ on the Sea of Marmara. From here we follow the shore to Marmara Ereglisi, heading into increasingly urbanised areas as we come to the city of Silvri.
Then, at last, we enter one of the world’s greatest cities, the magnificent Istanbul, Byzantium and Constantinople in former times, last capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and centre of the Ottoman Empire until 1922. We will spend a couple of days here savouring the city and its numerous sights – the incredible Church of the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar – before flying on to Amman, Jordan, to complete our journey.
Stage 15: Walking the West Bank 23rd October – 3rd November
Two days’ walk from Amman will bring us to the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge across the Jordan River, where insha’allah we will cross into the West Bank. Linking up for individual days with a series of different Amos Trust partners – Holy Land Trust, Alrowwad Youth Theatre, Wi’am Centre etc – we will travel through the West Bank on foot, taking in Jericho, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Hebron before the culmination of the walk in Jerusalem on 2nd November. We will collect messages from Palestinian children for the UK Government and leaders around the world, demanding their rights and opportunities. The Walk will reach a climax in the Old City of Jerusalem on 2nd November where, in a sober and reflective act of remembrance in St George’s Cathedral, we will recall the Balfour Declaration penned exactly 100 years previously and its legacy of conflict, dispossession and injustice, and commit ourselves afresh to work for peace and justice for all in the Holy Land.