Members of the International United Churches of Canada visit An-Najah



A delegation of the International United Churches of Canada in Toronto visited the University as part of a trip around the occupied Palestinian territories. The United Churches of Canada, which has maintained a steadfastly liberal position, is Canada’s second largest church after the Roman Catholic Church and its largest Protestant denomination. The twelve representatives of the Church have all very different backgrounds that range from a psychotherapist, a filmmaker, and a college teacher of humanities, a retired nurse or a lawyer for the city of Toronto. Their trip was scheduled in direct relation with their desire to learn more about the current situation of Palestine and the boycot and divestment of Israeli military products, an initiative presented by the church’s branch in Toronto that will possibly extend to a national level if the other regions give it a positive vote in a conference that will take place in August.


During their two-day stay in Nablus the delegation had the opportunity to talk to the Mayor of Nablus, Mr. Adli Yaish, and to Bassam Shakaa Former Mayor of the city, as well as to visit the university, the camp of Askar and get an insight into the old city.


During a talk with Saed Abu-Hijleh, Director of the Public Relations Department of An-Najah, about the dimensions of anti-semitism, he stated that “Zionism has done more harm to antisemitism than anything else in the world. After a while, if you’re not educated, you start not making a difference between Jews and Israelis. That’s why we need more American Jews to raise their voices”. He recalled the fate of some of the victims of the occupation, among them his own mother, Shaden Abu-Hijleh, who was 62 years old when she was murdered in October 2002 while sitting at home with her family. About Asem Yousef, a recently deceased student of An-Najah and volunteer at the Zajel Youth Exchange Program he remembers: “When we went to bury Asem in his village, soldiers searched the ambulance at the checkpoint which was carrying the corps with dogs and arrested his brothers. After one hour they let the ambulance go”.


A campaign to denounce the systematic violations of the right to education is being carried out, with press releases being sent to newspapers and reports periodically appearing on the website of the Zajel Youth Exchange Program. Ala Yousef, Coordinator of the program explains: “We already had a 4 months curfew at university in 2002. History repeats itself, as we are experiencing a similar situation nowadays. During the regular military presence in the surroundings of the university we have to keep our students inside to guarantee their safety. This is an impossible situation, 52 students have been killed in the last five years”.


For Vicky, a representative of the United Churches of Canada in Toronto, one of the most shocking experiences of the trip up to that moment was the group’s visit to Betlehem, which coincided with the assassination of two youths, so the group witnessed the procession leading to the funeral and listened to the relatives sharing their experiences with them. Joanne, a retired nurse who has worked in a number of countries –among them Afghanistan-, tells about their struggle at Huwara checkpoint upon their arrival to the city: “I was amazed by how rude they are at the checkpoint. What they were saying was bad enough but how they were saying it was even worse”.


Emily, employed at the Ministry of Health and Longterm Care and her husband George, a lawyer of the Municipality of Toronto, are here in response to a personal interest. “In Canada we don’t get an accurate image of the conflict. In general we get no information of Palestinians dying by Israelis, but there’s a lot of coverage about the last blast in Tel Aviv. We get the Israeli point of view of the story, even if a newspaper article is overall balanced, the headline and the first paragraph, which is what most people read, are almost always pro-Israel”.


The reasons for this one-sided coverage are hinted by Karin Brothers, a housewife actively engaged in documenting the conflict. “The Jewish lobby is indeed very powerful, not only in the US but also in Canada”, she says. “A significant amount of elections money comes from the Jewish community, to the extent that right after the massacre of Jenin, about 96% of Congress was in favor of Israel. They created something like an Israeli solidarity vote to support Israel. It’s at that moment that Israel’s lobby showed their muscle”. She has no doubt about the influence of the Jewish community both in politics and within the media: “Any politician would be targeted if he turned his back to Israel and would lose his job. It’s amazing the amount of people, especially politicians, who are offered a free trip to Israel”.


During their stay, both the Canadian group and those who were accompanying them had the privilege of visiting Bassam Shakaa, Former Mayor of Nablus from 1976 to 1982, and have an interview with him at his home. Mr. Shakaa spoke about the atmosphere in Palestine during the 1976 elections and the turbulences that marked the years after; when as a consequence of an Israeli attack aimed to kill him he lost both his legs.


“At the time of the 1976 elections”, he recalls, “Both the international community and the other Arab countries did not strongly back our cause. We accepted the elections as a mean to strengthen the international opinion; we wanted to be legal from the very beginning. But Israel wants us to live for them, not for ourselves and by organizing ourselves we made them feel threatened. So they threatened me. I remember their words: ‘You shall have physical punishment if you continue your policies against us’.”


“They were of course referring to the policies we were carrying out in relation to the settlement of Elon Moreh” he explains. “Three months after that I was subject to an attempt of deportation, but Palestinian officials supported me by saying they would resign if that happened. So Israel blackmailed me, I would be allowed to stay only if I stopped my policies. But I told them ‘I don’t work for you... I’ve been elected!’ After that they released me.”


“Their strategy afterwards was to try to prevent us from being self-sufficient, from being able to help ourselves. They wanted us to be dependent on them, so they started cutting our water, our electricity... Further, they tried to kill me by bombing my car. One midnight settlers came to my house and placed the bomb in it. Before that, they had sent traitors who told us they would help us by killing some mayors who are close to the Israelis. When the bomb exploded I directly lost my two legs. At that moment, my wife tried to call the hospital, but the phone was cut off, both at home and at the hospital. I thought my situation was hopeless but God gave me the chance to live more.”


“Ironically, Israel offered to treat me in an Israeli hospital. I refused. First they try to kill me and then they offer me treatment? I needed to go to Jordan for treatment, as in Nablus it was not possible to provide me with appropriate treatment. But the Israelis didn’t let me pass. It was only after the international community exerted pressure that they finally allowed my trip.”


“As they failed to kill me, they tried to kill my social relations by destroying my freedom of movement, by controlling the municipality and by controlling my home. I was under house arrest for 45 days, I couldn’t even receive any visits and also my children were banned from receiving visits. Even the Consul of Britain stayed 20 minutes under custody by Israeli soldiers for visiting me.”


“The bomb in my car occured in the year 1980. When they tried to assassinate me they also tried to kill the mayors of other cities, like Ramallah. From 1982 to 1986 the mayors of the main Palestinian cities were forced to resign. Instead, Israeli military took their position and became mayors of these cities”.


In 1982, that is also the year Mr. Shakaa’s presidency ended. His presidency finished, but not his influence. Respected and admired, by receiving us in his home and recalling his memories for us he has shared an important part of his personal life with us.


Next stop was a visit to Jacob’s well and to Askar refugee camp. 6000 people live at New Askar refugee camp that was founded in the year 1964, not officially recognized by UNRWA and consequently devoid of the social, health and educational services, other camps benefit from, as Amjad Rfaie, Director of the Askar Development Center said. “As refugees, we don’t want to renounce to our right to return to our places of origin, and we consider those people who renounce as treators”, he says in response to the question of why people, provided a two-state solution is possible, don’t try to make a better life here. “Israel must say sorry to the refugees, exactly as Germany said sorry to the Jews”. The Development Center in New Askar was created in the year 2000 and hosts a public library, a computer training center, activities such as theater, art and dabka workshops and a center for disabled persons.


This trip through the Palestinian territories is fulfilling a strong need of first-hand information all members of the group have in common. Whether representatives of the Church, housewifes, lawyers, nurses or filmmakers, for many this has been the first opportunity to visit Palestine despite their interest back in their countries. This is the case of one of the group members, an ex-employee of the computer industry now employed in an Art Gallery who has been studying the conflict since the sixties and has never had the opportunity to personally come here. For him as for others this trip has been a unique opportunity to visit a country they have longtime been interested in.