OPP Report on the Churches for Middle East Peace Annual Advocacy Summit by Galen Fitzkee
Representatives of the Brethren Office of Peacebuilding and Policy (OPP) tuned in to the annual Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) Advocacy Summit on Monday, June 22, to become more educated about the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and advocacy efforts to bring peace to the Middle East. We were soon reminded that a virtual conference is not a perfect substitute for meeting together on Capitol Hill, however technical difficulties were resolved in short order and the program commenced. The theme of the webinar was Equal in God’s Eyes, Human Rights and Dignity for all in Israel and Palestine and focused heavily on the efforts we can all take to promote a peaceful and holistic solution to the fraught situation between Israel and Palestine.
Jeremey Ben Ami of J Street oriented those of us who were less knowledgeable with a brief summary of the human and political considerations involved in the fight against annexation of Palestine. He shared a message of optimism and encouraged each of us to get involved to change the course of American policy and thus the future of the Palestinian and Israeli people who both deserve a right to control their own futures. Ben Ami answered some questions about the immediate future of the region and layed out points of action that the US can take including clearly defining purposes for financial aid and making fair and balanced criticism of Israeli actions in international bodies.
COVID, Middle East, and Intersectionality
Next, we quickly transitioned into a panel of speakers from all over the world including Jerusalem, Gaza, Geneva, and the United States to talk about the human rights work of their various organizations. COVID-19 is making a tough situation worse throughout the Middle East and all around the world, according to World Council of Churches rep Carla Khijoyan. Jessica Montell, executive director of Israeli human rights organization HaMoked, reminded us that restrictions to reduce the spread of the virus are necessary but can be used as a pretext for human rights abuses and actually exacerbate other injustices. Bassam Nasser of CRS informed us about the current reality of life in Gaza, which has been defined by intense restrictions since before the pandemic. He noted new restrictions particularly affect access to education, which is usually a source of hope for Palestinians looking for a way to overcome their oppression. Overall, they encouraged us to get our information directly from the source and to focus on people rather than politics to both solve a humanitarian crisis and address the systems of power that undermine sovereignty and contribute to instability for all parties.
After a break for lunch, CMEP provided us an overview of their mission and programs that work to Educate, Elevate, and Advocate for the Middle East. Initiatives such as Pilgrimage to Peace Tours offer a first-hand look at the conditions in Israel/Palestine and help build relationships with local peacebuilders. CMEP also has made an effort to bring marginalized women’s voices to the forefront in the peace movement. Conflict resolution, even between extreme ideological groups. CMEP demonstrated that they have meaningful connections with faith leaders all across the region in places like Egypt and Iraq, and our very own Nathan Hosler made an appearance in a picture with members of CMEP and the Assyrian Church in Erbil. CMEP offers a wealth of video resources on their website as well as educational literature and ways to get involved with advocacy for peace. They often use the hashtag #ChurchesAgainstAnnexation on social media.
Protecting our Right to Stand for Palestinian Freedom
In light of the current unrest due to racial injustice in the United States, CMEP welcomed Dima Khalidi of Palestinian Legal Aid to draw parallels between the plight of Black Americans and Palestinians. “We are all held captive by a global system that prioritizes profit over people” she said as she encouraged us to hold fast to the truth about inequality and systemic realities that affect our neighbors here at home and abroad. Once we understand our origins, there is a responsibility to finally react to the work of black artists and organizers that implore us to act. We must follow their lead and listen to the solutions that they require in order to imagine an alternative society that is free of oppression. The response to movements against oppression such as the Black Lives Matter coalition has been and will continue to be repression and mislabeling, which we have seen first-hand in the United States. Palestinians face repression in the fight for their rights too. Leader reputations take a serious hit from smear campaigns and intense legal scrutiny in Palestine just because they speak out in favor of Palestinian rights. These threats and mischaracterizations of Palestine as terroristic or anti-Semitic have increased as grassroots support has grown. Pro-Israel groups have unleashed an assault on peaceful advocacy by bogging down efforts toward progress in legislation and seeking to criminalize and intimidate dissent strategies such as boycotting. While Khalidi wanted to make clear that the root causes of the situations in the US and Palestine are fundamentally different, it is amazing that we are witnessing similar strategies from the US and Israeli governments play out in real time. So, what can we do to stand with those fighting the uphill battle against oppression and subsequently repression? First, we must protect the right of advocacy and free speech rights as ways to dissent and fight for social justice. We should recognize that bold demands will not be easily accepted by the powers that be in either case because they have a stake in the oppression of minorities and the status quo. Finally, we must go back to the roots of the injustice in Palestine and the US so that reform and redevelopment can result in holistic and lasting changes. Khalidi left us to ponder a variation of the following question: Are we willing to listen to the oppressed and give up comfortability in order to finally achieve the worldly embodiment of Equality in God’s Eyes?
Foreign Policy and Election Panel
Since 2020 is an election year and the presidential election is fast-approaching, CMEP Senior Director of Advocacy and Government Relations Kyle Cristofalo hosted a panel of experts to address United States foreign policy. The consensus of these experts was that the current administration and ambassador to Israel David Friedman have been enabling Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s far right policies by encouraging de jure annexation and other illicit activities. They encouraged us to take a look at writings and actions that began at the outset of the administration’s term which include: recognizing Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel, moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, discontinuing aid to UNRWA and consequently Palestinian refugees, closing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington, D.C., allowing incremental annexation of the Golan heights, failing to recognize violations of international law, and pushing a one-sided peace plan. The pattern of action in US foreign policy has been blatantly pro-Israel at the expense of the Palestinian people and hope for a two-state solution. Going forward, policy considerations should seek to reverse this steep trend towards the annexation of Palestinian territory and depoliticize the policies themselves. We were encouraged to maintain awareness of the human rights abuses occurring in the middle east. We can expect more of the same from a second term of a Trump administration who will likely continue to move the goalposts when it comes to opposing annexation as they seek to make changes irreversible. The speculation is that a Biden administration would not take a firm pro-Palestinian stance but may reengage with multilateral organizations and reverse extreme policy shifts that have occurred. It is likely that if Palestinians were able to vote in the US election that they would support a changing of the guard, however the unfortunately reality on the ground is that the Palestinian people continue to lose freedoms and the sovereignty of their own nation every day.
In closing, Grace Al-Zoughbi Arteen, a Palestinian Christian and accomplished instructor at Bethlehem Bible College, offered us a moving prayer in both English and Arabic. She reminded us of the meaning of the beatitudes for the oppressed, of our shared humanity and experiences, and of our hope in Jesus who offers us help, peace, and love.