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Message to the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): Don’t Abandon Palestine

by Bob Ross
IPMN Advocacy Chair
 
Two years ago, the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to divest from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. It was the culmination of ten years of hard work by countless Presbyterians, Palestinians, Jews, and Muslims. The action made front-page headlines in newspapers across the world. My friends in Israel/Palestine tweeted, texted, and emailed messages of gratitude and celebration. As I went to sleep that night, weary and exhilarated, I thanked God for this one small, but significant step toward a just peace in Israel/Palestine.
 
Eighteen days later, on July 8, 2014, however, these feelings of celebration were shattered by the start of “Operation Protective Edge,” Israel’s 50-day war with Hamas and its allies. As the bombs fell on Gaza, and the death toll rose each day, divestment seemed a tiny drop of resistance in an ocean of death and destruction.
 
It was clear that summer that we needed to do more than divest from three companies if we wanted to have any meaningful impact on the creation of a just peace in Israel/Palestine. So, I joined fellow Presbyterians, Jews, Muslims, and others in the streets of my hometown of Pittsburgh, protesting Israel’s massacre of hundreds of Palestinian children and our government’s financial and political support of these crimes. Yet, more people were killed every day. I read in the news of the American Jews who disrupted pro-Israel rallies, demanding that institutional Jewish leadership cease their unqualified support for the war on Gaza. Yet, the massacres went on. I signed petitions. I created petitions. I retweeted the voices of Gazan Palestinians crying into the night for someone in the world to care about the hell they were living through. Then Israel bombed Gaza’s main power plant, and the voices went silent.
 
Needless to say, on August 26, 2014, when the two sides had reached a ceasefire, and 2,251 Palestinians (including 1,462 civilians) and 74 Israelis (including 6 civilians) were dead, there was very little to celebrate, despite Hamas’s ridiculous declarations of victory.
 
I wondered then why we engage in solidarity politics at all when the powers that be seem to have no trouble ignoring them. I wondered what our prayers were worth when they seemed to have gone unanswered.
 
Exactly one year later, I had the privilege of visiting Gaza. I toured many of the territory’s UN-administered hospitals and schools, many of which were still damaged from Israeli shelling. I shared meals and tea with old and new friends. I witnessed the unfathomable array of destruction from the previous year’s war, as Israel had not yet allowed a single home to be reconstructed. I saw the ongoing, silent war Israel was still waging on Gaza by sealing off the territory from the rest of the world, not allowing Palestinians to leave or humanitarian aid to enter. I saw fishermen return each morning to the port outside my hotel, limited in their catch by the narrow nautical boundary Israel has imposed.  I heard the Israeli drones roar over the Gazan sky. And I listened to horrific stories of loved ones being killed, narrow escapes from death by the survivors, and ongoing trauma and despair for everyone.
 
One story, however, especially stood out to me. One of my gracious hosts, a young Palestinian man who worked for an American news media outlet, told me that amidst the terror of Operation Protective Edge, “we could feel the pressure put on Israel by the protests around the world. We could feel the situation changing.” And whenever he told his friends and family, “Bob worked on divestment in the Presbyterian Church,” everyone’s face lit up. They, too, had heard the news. And in spite of the war, they carried that act of solidarity with them.  
 
It struck me then and it strikes me now: divestment was powerful. But we cannot abandon Palestine by assuming that divestment alone is enough. We need to continue putting non-violent pressure on Israel to grant all Palestinians their peace, freedom, autonomy, and full slate of human rights—the same things that most Israelis already enjoy. We cannot abandon Palestine by assuming that because the 2014 war is over, that Gaza has somehow slipped from the deadly grip of Israel or that the occupation in the West Bank is somehow acceptable because it is not as bloody as the siege on Gaza.
 
This is why the 222nd General Assembly is still important to the fate of a just peace in Israel/Palestine. We cannot abandon Palestine. We must continue to speak and act prophetically for the sake of justice, peace, and equality. Our mission partners in Israel/Palestine, as well as our brothers and sisters in the broader Palestinian civil society, have made it clear that what they want from us is to use boycott, divestment, and sanctions as non-violent means of bringing about these goals.
 
There are concrete steps we can take in Portland next week toward those ends. We can uplift the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s long history of drawing upon non-violent means of resistance to oppression, a history that stretches back to the early twentieth century and well beyond Israel/Palestine. We can prayerfully study the call of Palestinian civil society to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel. We can boycott Hewlett Packard, the company that facilitated so much of Israel’s war on Gaza and its occupation in the West Bank. We can put pressure on RE/MAX to stop illegally selling Jewish-only properties to Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank. We can call upon the Israeli government to stop imprisoning and torturing Palestinian children. And we can renew our church’s focus on our Christian values when approaching our work in Israel/Palestine.
 
These actions will not, by themselves, end the violence and inequalities in Israel/Palestine. But we cannot abandon Palestine by assuming that anything less than these actions would be any better.
Voices From Palestine

The Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is excited to announce that Susan Abulhawa will give the keynote address at our General Assembly luncheon on Monday, June 20th. The luncheon will take place at the Doubletree Hotel in Portland, Oregon at 11:30 a.m. (Rev. Mitri Raheb is unfortunately unable to speak at this luncheon as originally scheduled.)
 
Born to Palestinian refugees of the 1967 war, Ms. Abulhawa is the author of numerous books, including the critically acclaimed novels,Mornings in Jenin and The Blue Between Sky and Water, and is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Christian Science Monitor, among other publications. Ms. Abulhawa is also the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, an organization that builds playgrounds in Palestine and Palestinian refugee camps.
 
We are thrilled that she will be joining us in Portland!


Also joining us in Portland is Sa’ed Adel Atshan. Dr. Atshan will be the keynote speaker at the National Middle Eastern Caucus banquet on Tuesday, June 21st at 6:00 p.m. The banquet will be held in the Westminster Presbyterian Church. The title of Dr. Atshan’s address is “Loving Justice: Reflections from a Gay Palestinian Quaker.”
 
Dr. Atshan is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College. He holds a PhD (2013) and an MA (2010) in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University. Dr. Atshan has conducted research on nonviolent Israeli and Palestinian social movements, countering old characterizations of nonviolence as foreign to the region. Instead he discovers and reveals “co-resistance” or coalition and joint struggles for social justice between Israeli and Palestinian activists. In addition to his academic career, he has worked for the American Civil Liberties Union, the UN High Commission on Refugees, Human Rights Watch, Seeds of Peace, the Palestinian Negotiations Affairs Department, and the Government of Dubai. Dr. Atshan is also a member of Al-Qaws, an organization promoting LGBTQ Palestinian rights.
 
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