Listening to Local Voices - Friends International Center in Ramallah
Following the Centennial Celebrations in early March 2010, the Friends International Center in Ramallah held a three-day consultation event to evaluate its work for the past 5 years, and to identify any changes in direction for the Center.
The Center is located at the back of the Meeting House in Ramallah, and one of its principal purposes is to support the life of the Meeting. This has to be done, of necessity, in the context of the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza since 1967.
Quakers are careful to practice impartiality and listen to all voices in a conflict. However, this does not mean a stance of sterile neutrality, but an overriding concern for the protection of the weak and vulnerable, and advocacy for equal rights for all human beings. It is this spirit that moved Friends in Europe in 1938 to actively support the rescue of Jewish children through the Kindertransport, and to volunteer in the Friends Ambulance Service as an alternative to military service. In the same spirit, Friends today support initiatives that seek to heal the trauma of Palestinian children and youth through psychological interventions, drama and coaching programmes, while encouraging those Israeli teen-agers who refuse military service on the grounds of conscience, and standing together in solidarity with the many Israeli peace and human rights organisations that are active within Israeli society.
How does this principled impartiality play out in a conflict between an overwhelming military, economic, administrative and legal power, and a civil population whose own rights – to self-determination, religious expression, property, economic development, citizenship, freedom of movement – have been constantly eroded and reduced?
Friends in Ramallah see themselves firmly within the local Christian tradition of coexistence and mutual respect. They support the Kairos Palestine declaration of 2009.
During the consultation exercise FICR invited a range of people to come and give their candid views on the situation and on the future. Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the Palestinian National Initiative and an advocate of non-violent resistance, came to share his assessment of the current political situation and the lack of any prospects of a real peace process. A medical doctor, Mr Barghouti also has a dream of reducing smoking amongst Palestinians, but it is difficult to deliver a programme of health promotion and education in a community that does not have the benefit of the kind of infrastructure that a sovereign government can bring.
The consultation also heard from young graduates from the Friends School who had completed their education at prestigious universities in the United States, and were working for an international programme of Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions, which were seen as the only way of bringing true pressure to bear on the Israeli Government to end the occupation. Peace activists from the Hebron area told the consultation of the aggressive behaviour of extremist Israeli settlers, who attack villages with impunity, protected by a large military presence.
The consultation also had the benefit of a conversation with an Israeli journalist who has written extensively, and often critically, about the occupation.
There was some comfort in learning of some cross-communities solidarity initiatives, such as Wadi Fuqin/Tsur Hadasseh, a Palestinian village and neighbouring Israeli neighbourhood petitioning the Israeli High Court of Justice against the building of the “Separation” Wall, on the grounds that it will cause environmental destruction that will irreversibly damage the water springs in their area.
Aware of the Court case in Haifa relating to the death of Rachel Corrie, and as the ill-fated visit by US Vice-president Joe Biden was unfolding, Friends sought prayerfully to discern God’s will for the consultation. The concluding minute and the Epistle carry the hope that Friends around the world will unite in their support for a small and beliegered Quaker community that is trying to be “Salt and Light” (Matthew 5:13-16) in a world of fear, mistrust and despair.