Church group that sends volunteers to the West Bank to "witness life under occupation"

A major church group pays for youngsters to go and witness the occupation. For one returning UK girl, the 'Jewish lobby' is to blame; the solution is total boycott


In a meek, gentle voice, young Hannah Griffiths informs the crowd that she has an important story to tell.

The largely female, 40-strong audience that has come to hear her speak at a south London bookshop await her story with stern, concerned looks.

The event last Wednesday night, ominously titled "Tales from the West Bank: Life Under Occupation", was a platform for Griffiths to speak about her experiences in Hebron, where she spent three months from September last year with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (Eappi).

Since its launch in 2002, Eappi, which is run by the World Council of Churches, has sent 1,500 volunteers like Griffiths to the West Bank to "witness life under occupation".

The group, described as "inflammatory and partisan" by the Board of Deputies, call their volunteers Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs). The objective appears to be to get EAs to spread the "truth" about the occupation.

And that is what Griffiths - who has already spoken about the occupation at churches and events across the country - has come to the bookshop to do.

Wearing the Eappi-monogrammed waist-coat she was given in Hebron, Griffiths starts her PowerPoint presentation. Throughout her talk, the mainly middle-class group tuts disapprovingly; many shake their heads; some furiously tap their leather boots at every mention of the IDF checkpoints.

Griffiths talks about life for the Palestinians through the eyes of Quasi, a 10-year-old student she sometimes accompanied to his Cordoba school on Shuhada Street.

She tells the entranced audience that without the presence of international human rights activists such as herself, the Israeli army would not let the school open. Tears are visible in the eyes of listeners.

She uses the story of "Shai", a former IDF soldier, to let us know that there are some "Israeli peace activists" out there. Shai, she explains, is part of Breaking the Silence, a group of ex-combatants who speak out, anonymously, against alleged human rights abuses carried out by the IDF.

At times, she says she struggled to stay hopeful: "When things did happen, it was difficult not to lose hope. Palestinians keep hope through family support, through belief of their own right to be there, of their own ownership of the land, of their family heritage."

At the end of it all, the audience claps. Most have finished their glasses of wine and beer; some clutch info-sheets that have been handed out. There is a pervasive sense of piety - and inspiration.

Next, Madeleine McGivern, who was an EA in 2011, takes centre stage. She tells us that she has also volunteered with Christian Aid in Gaza, adding: "You do see what Hannah has described. You do see those human rights abuses on a daily basis, you do see violations of international law, you do see brave Israelis, you do see remarkably resilient Palestinian children." She adds: "There is no doubt that the control the Israelis have over the Palestinians... is everywhere you go."

She talks about the photos she took, which adorn the walls of the basement room we sit in.

All of this, one could argue, is above board. It could be said that while the portrayal of the conflict is mostly one-sided and too heavily drenched in emotion, the criticisms are not all unfair.

That is, until the question-and-answer session.

It is at this point that Griffiths puts down her pre-prepared sheets of paper. She fires up and starts to talk about the "Jewish lobby", and accuses Israel of planting knives besides the bodies of shot Palestinians. She calls for a full boycott of produce and services from Israel, while arguing that all military aid to the Jewish state should cease.

One woman in the audience asks Griffiths why Evangelical Christians are not as sympathetic to the Palestinian plight.

For Griffiths, the answer is simple - and is met without challenge from the audience. It is down to the "Jewish lobby".

"It is extremely difficult for them to speak out, in some ways. As you know, there is a really strong Jewish lobby in America," she says, adding: "The UK follows the US in all political negotiations and decisions internationally so we as citizens don't have any influence over what is happening in America."

McGivern steps in at this point, recommending the website If Americans Knew (IAK). "It is basically an e-newsletter that they can sign up to - it is a record of what happens every day."

The website, which purports to expose pro-Israel bias in the US media, has been accused of "delegitimising American support for Israel" by antisemitism watchdog the Anti-Defamation League. One article on the IAK website, which appears to sympathise with the aims of terrorists, says: "While the large majority of Palestinians oppose suicide bombings, many feel that armed resistance has become necessary - much as Americans supported war after the attack at Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, only a small portion take an active part in the resistance, despite the fact that virtually all support its aim: to create a nation free from foreign oppression."

Griffiths tells us she did spend some time dining with an Israeli family in Haifa. She made the connection thanks to "a group of Jews, a Jewish community within the UK", but she could not remember their name.

It is likely to have been the UK branch of Rabbis for Human Rights which, in 2013, announced a plan to give people on the Quaker-run programme more contact with Israeli families. Griffiths' conclusion from that experience, however, is that the Israeli families have a "victimhood mentality". She says: "They were very liberal Israelis… but they very much linked to the victimhood mentality felt within the Israeli population for obvious historical reasons. But also more generally, [they] see Israel as one pocket in the Middle East which is being attacked from all sides. That is the kind of wording they used."

At the conclusion, one audience member asks Griffiths what she steps she would take if she were made "peace envoy".

"I think many organisations would recognise that a two-state solution is dead in the water," she says, narrowing down her peace plan.

She puts forward a solution that involves "looking at enabling the right of return and the rights of Palestinian refugees wherever they may be living in the world."

In other words, the end of the Jewish state.

She is then asked whether Palestinians are still hopeful for their future.

"Ummm," she sighs. "Whilst I was there, in Palestine at the time of increasing violence, roughly 125 Palestinians were killed in three months, a third of which were in Hebron.

"During that time they were becoming less and less hopeful. Roughly every two or three days someone was killed.

"And that's not from doing anything necessarily. It's supposedly having knives. However there are videos that show that those knives were planted."

Perhaps that is the only conclusion Griffiths can come to with the itinerary she was given.

Professor Gerald Steinberg, president of Jerusalem-based watchdog NGO Monitor, says Eappi's itinerary for its EAs are biased, with "a pre-planned schedule which limits contact with Israeli realities and reinforces the Palestinian victimisation narrative.

"Evidence shows that most meet only with fringe Israelis who refuse to serve in the army or other anti-occupation activists. We have also seen evidence of token meetings with 'settlers' which reinforces the biases. They are discouraged from encountering the real Israel and learning about their experiences, including terrorism and wars."

He added: "Eappi also works closely with Breaking the Silence, which also confirms how horrible Israeli policy in the West Bank is, as well as ICAHD-UK, which is one of the most radical anti-Israel, pro-BDS, one-state groups."

In response, an Eappi spokeswoman said: "Of course we are aware that Christians and others [ourselves included] have been criticised for speaking out against policies of the Israeli government. We actively encourage our EAs to engage with Israelis across the wide political spectrum."

The spokeswoman said the organisation did not have an official position on the claim that knives were planted next to bodies of Palestinians who had been shot by the army, adding: "Eappi rejects the use of violence as a means of solving the conflict. Instead, we seek to bring change by engaging individuals and groups in peaceful strategies. We believe non-violence is the only way to a true and lasting solution to conflict."

The Eappi event in London came as senior Christian and Jewish figures from across the religious spectrum returned to the UK last Wednesday after a three-day delegation to Israel and the West Bank with the Council of Christians and Jews.

Meanwhile, America's United Methodist Church, which has 12 million members, rejected motions calling for the boycott of three companies with ties to Israel.

The motions, which were put to the Church's conference in Portland, Oregon, this week, called for church heads to cut ties with Hewlett-Packard, Motorola and Caterpillar.

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