On Monday night, the charity for which I am a trustee, Elijah Trust brought Archbishop Elias Chacour from the Melkite (Greek Catholic) Archdiocese of St. John of Acre, Haifa, Nazareth and all Galilee to address parliamentarians in the Jubilee Room at the House of Commons. The event was hosted by Simon Hughes, Patrick Hall (Labour) and Alistair Burt (Conservative).
The Archbishop is a significant representative of this 20% minority community within Israel. He shared that at 67 years, he is older than the State of Israel, but has lived all his life in that tiny piece of land which has been at the heart of so much conflict and ongoing violence and insecurity. Born into the land of Palestine in the Christian Arab village of Biram in 1939, he became a citizen of the fledgling State of Israel at the age of eight years old, one of the group of Palestinians, mostly the poorest who remained in the land after 1948. Driven from Biram by Jewish soldiers at that time, the villagers were granted the right of return to their village in 1952 by the Israeli High Court. Upon approaching the village to return on Christmas Day 1952, they witnessed the military blow it up and it remains to this day a memorial to the tragedy of more than 460 Palestinian villages destroyed in or after 1948 on the land which became the State of Israel.
Elias or Abuna (father in Arabic) as he prefers to be called talked about his identity as a Palestinian, an Arab, a Christian and an Israeli. A contradiction maybe but one he embraces. As he said, he wasn’t born a Christian – he was born a baby – with no control over where he found himself.We were reminded that through the many occupations of this land whether by the Crusaders, Ottomans or the British at the time of the British Mandate the grass roots indigenous Jew, Muslim and Christian lived together in peaceful unity within their diversity.Today within the Jewish state there is no equality for non-Jewish citizens. Fakhira Halloun, board member of Mossawa the Advocacy Center for the Arab Citizens of Israel (one of the organisations supported by Elijah Trust) and Iman Abu Attar, two young Israeli Palestinian citizens present, added their life experience to affirm the Archbishop’s message. They explained that this minority community remain second class citizens in Israel suffering discrimination at all levels, including formal exclusion by law, racism, social and economic injustice aggravated by Israel’s definition as for the Jewish people.In October 2000 13 Palestinian Arab citizens were killed by Israeli security forces, one of them a pupil at the school which Elias Chacour founded, merely watching a demonstration from under an olive tree and wearing his "Seeds of Peace" t-shirt at the time. 18 more Palestinian Arab citizens have been killed by Israeli security forces since October 2000. In March 2004, Arab construction workers were required to wear helmets marked with a red “x”. As of 2003, 53% of the Jews in Israel state they are against full equality for Arabs. 57% think Arabs should be encouraged to emigrate.
Elias expressed his view that there can be no two state solution whilst the wall and daily humiliation of the Palestinian people continues. For me one of the most powerful things he said was in relation to suicide bombers. He said that they committed 3 crimes, a crime against themselves, a crime against society and a crime against God - but that if we didn't try to understand why these young people's lives were so devoid of hope to make such a choice we would never stop them. He also criticised the idea perpetrated in the Western media that part of the motivation was the idea that they would go straight to heaven and as he put it "have 70 girls to play with" - he asked the question, what about the young women who do the same?
The grim conclusion and challenge of Archbishop Elias to the gathering on Monday night was the sober reality that if Palestinians and Jews cannot make peace with justice together all will be losers – as he puts it, “We must learn to live together or we will surely die in the land together.”
Elias was also interviewed by the World Service so I will put a link up to the programme when it is aired at the weekend. His books, “Blood Brothers” and “We Belong to the Land” are must reads – anyone who would like a copy please let me know.