Q&A Session with Sir Vincent Fean, Chair of the Balfour Project
It’s a pleasure to be with you. I think it’s important for us to address questions raised by participants at the 2 April talk. We will try and make a habit of that.
During the talk, Michael Goodwin made the comment: “Good to see several Ecumenical Accompaniers listening in. Another way to become involved could be to serve three months in Palestine with EAPPI, which is the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel”.
The EAPPIs are the salt of the earth. They do good. They don’t do good by stealth, because they come home after their three month stint in Palestine and tell at least 10 gatherings what they have seen and heard. I find that a very noble cause. Here in the UK, it’s the Quakers who manage the programme. The training of the Ecumenical Accompaniers entails experience in Israel, as well as the three months’ experience in Palestine. I find that very balanced. The experience that people gain from that day to day life, sharing life with Palestinians in the West Bank (I don’t think that the Ecumenical Accompaniers can reach Gaza) is first of all life changing for the people who do it and secondly, it has a multiplier effect because coming home, the Ecumenical Accompaniers have that task of sharing their experiences, spreading the word.
There is nothing better than witnessing and – more than witnessing – trying to affect for the better the day to day life of Palestinians. Be they school children, old people, whoever they may be. There’s nothing better than to gain knowledge of the situation on the ground and to be able to speak with authority. Because seeing is not just believing. Seeing leads to action. The Ecumenical Accompaniers do act for the benefit of the vulnerable in Palestine. There’s nothing better than that to persuade others that this issue cannot be left as it stands. The status quo in Palestine is unacceptable. Needs to change. It will only change by political action.
Our second and third questions come from Stevie Docherty: “ If you support a two state solution, do you support the removal of the 600,000 illegal settlers in the West Bank? Surely funding organisations like UNRWA is in some way sustaining the occupation and siege of Palestine. The Palestinians need economic investment and development, not charity, aid, and dependency”.
Let’s take the UNRWA question first and then the settlements. UNRWA is a force for good. The need for UNRWA is still there, because refugees are still there and the cause of the refugee problem is unresolved. So I see a need for UNRWA. My direct experience of UNRWA has been looking at what they do in education and in health. When I was based in Jerusalem between 2010 and 2014, I found UNRWA summer camps for refugee children in Gaza, which were a little oasis of peace and happiness. I found clinics that deliver basic health services in Lebanon, in the West Bank and in Gaza. I found schools that offer Palestinians a way forward. A force for good.
The question from Stevie is, is it propping up the occupation? That’s a difficult question. Israeli policy on the occupation needs to change. The British government needs to advocate that. Will UNRWA, in the end, work itself out of a job? I’m sure that’s what the staff of UNRWA want. But today if you think through what’s happening on the Coronavirus in Gaza, the role of UNRWA in providing food, food vouchers, in providing those clinics, those education opportunities, is essential. If a decision were taken by the international community, which it will not, but if it were to stop funding UNRWA, who would fill the gap?
It’s a big question. We need UNRWA, we need UNRWA for as long as there is not an outcome to this conflict. I call it a conflict and Jean Fitzpatrick asked me about that in the talk. I call it a conflict because there is more than a dispute, a contest between an occupied people and the occupier. There is a military occupation and resistance to that occupation. That needs to be resolved, in my belief, by negotiation at some point. Not now: it is not an option now.
In the meantime the best way forward, it seems to me, is to seek policy change by our own Government and make reasonable proposals for action by it – currently on the issue of annexation – and at the same time, to help Palestinians to remain where they belong: where they were born. That includes Gaza and the West Bank.
I see the role of UNRWA there as fundamental and it needs support. It needs support by our Department for International Development. I hope that that will be maintained and indeed strengthened. Not least because the current US administration has reduced its support to UNRWA to zero. The US was the biggest single donor under Obama. That zero support policy too needs to change. It’s not within the gift of Britain to change American policy, though we can argue for it. Coming back to the point about UNRWA, for as long as there’s conflict, we need UNRWA and we shouldn’t take away one of the building blocks of Palestine’s future at this point.
On settlements: settlements are illegal. There are 650,000 settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Should they all go is what Stevie was asking. I think that that is a matter for negotiation. We are a million miles from genuine negotiation today and therefore what we need to insist upon is the illegality of the settlements, which is repeated by our Government every time there is a settlement expansion or the creation of a new settlement by the Government of Israel. We need to focus on the question, when will our Government move from condemnation of illegal acts to consequences for them?
Vincent, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions that we didn’t get a chance to do on the live talk, which you can see on our website www.balfourproject.org.
If our listeners would consider giving us a donation, that would be fantastic.
That’s important. I mentioned the three charities earlier. They matter in relation to the coronavirus and they matter, come what may. As far as the Balfour Project is concerned, we need help to organise ourselves, to undertake this kind of exchange that we’re doing today. To keep that going, to respond to the questions and suggestions of our supporters and the participants in the talks.
We plan two things which need money. One is to increase and extend the pilot project that we have on Fellowships, our Peace Advocacy Fellows, of whom there are now four attached to the Balfour Project. You can see their CVs and their ideas on the Balfour Project website. We hope to extend the project in the next academic year in the U? For that we need some money: we need to give a stipend to the Fellows and we need to cover the organisational costs of that activity, which is intended to raise awareness and share experiences around university campuses in the UK – and to argue for equal rights for all.
The second big expense of the Balfour Project this year will be a one day conference on Jerusalem at Church House Conference Centre on 27 October. We will be inviting four speakers, two from Palestine, two from Israel, plus British specialists in international law, members of the faith communities, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Members of our Parliament, to think through Jerusalem today. The international law aspects, the British role in the past, the Trump proposal and its attempt to talk about sharing Jerusalem when in fact the offer, the derisory offer, is Abu Dis – beyond the separation wall. And we know the separation wall should go. What should British policy be on Jerusalem today, and tomorrow?
27 October is a date for the diary. To make that event happen properly and to good effect, with some impact on British policy makers, we need to spend £20,000. Any contribution from our listeners, large or small, will be very welcome. We’ll keep going. But the more support we get, the better we can do the job.
Thanks again, Vincent. All those links that we discussed and all the different documents that you discussed will be in the show notes. Just to remind, our website is www.balfourproject.org. See you for the next episode. Bye.