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Dear Prime Minister,
We are writing to you from the Occupied Palestinian Territories on the West Bank, where we, a group of sixty British pilgrims aged between 16 and 79, are nearing the completion of the Just Walk to Jerusalem, organised by Amos Trust, a 3,300 km journey on foot from London to Jerusalem to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
Departing London on 10th June, we have walked through England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and Jordan, and will arrive in Jerusalem this Thursday 2nd November.
This walk also marks the tenth year of Israel’s land, sea and air blockade of Gaza and the fiftieth year of the military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights. Our company also includes walkers from America, Australia, Ireland, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Palestine.
We have undertaken this walk
You have stated publicly that you intend to celebrate the Balfour Centenary this week “with pride”, attending a celebratory dinner with Israel’s Prime Minister, and that Britain should be “proud” of its role in creating the state of Israel. Well, some of us feel differently.
Walking across Europe, we have received heart-warming encouragement from countless people inspired by our journey, who have welcomed us and gone out of their way to offer us hospitality and support. Here in Palestine, there is a mood of widespread dismay and astonishment at your announcement of your intention to celebrate the Balfour Centenary.
On Saturday, as we walked through the remote village of Tuqu, to the south of Bethlehem, we were welcomed by an elderly Palestinian farmer, who shook his head and asked us, “What can we do with Balfour?” “We have to change it,” we replied. He shook his head again and said, “Theresa … Theresa … is no good.”
This, in a nutshell, is what Palestinians think of your recent announcement. We have been welcomed in every city, town, village and refugee camp by Palestinian governors, mayors, councillors and community leaders, who have expressed their deep pain and disappointment at your desire to celebrate the centenary of the Declaration which has caused them so much suffering over the past one hundred years.
Yesterday, the Mayor of the town of Sa’ir, near Hebron, welcomed us at a civic function and said,
“To hear from the Prime Minister of Britain that she is proud - is very shameful. I cannot understand, really, that the Prime Minister of a great country like Britain, which has a history of civilisation, a state that we can look to, to teach civilisation, teach history, teach poetry, she is a civilised state – I cannot understand that her Prime Minister can say this.
Because of the Balfour Declaration, a lot of Palestinians were expelled from their land, and became refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and I saw with my own eyes, a lot of women and children refugees leaving, crying and living in camps, where it was so cold, without the essential, basic necessities in those camps. This I saw with my own eyes.
Everyone created by God misses the place where he was born. I would like to say that the Palestinian people are a very civilised people, who love people, who love the other and like to live in peace, really from the depth of our heart, we love to live in peace. We give you all our thanks for this initiative, which gives us hope for a better life.
This gives us hope that one day, all peoples will stand with us to give us justice and a return to our land. You are so welcome here and we thank you.”
We have seen the dispossession experienced by the Palestinian villages in the South Hebron Hills and saw the shocking intimidation and confrontation in the city of Hebron by illegal settlers against our Palestinian companions walking with us.
Israeli soldiers and police reacted by arresting the Palestinian official who was the victim of this intimidation. In contrast to the dismay provoked by your announcement, our arrival in Palestine has been met with effusive welcomes everywhere, and profound satisfaction that a group of British pilgrims have walked so far to express penance, solidarity and hope.
We can even say that there is a widespread feeling of joy and relief that their suffering is not forgotten. May we urge you, on behalf of the pilgrims of the Just Walk to Jerusalem, to reconsider your recent statement and make a suitable apology to the Palestinian people for your insensitivity to their suffering, in which Britain has played such a lamentable role and bears the lion’s share of responsibility.
May we also urge you not to attend this grotesque celebration of a declaration which a British Foreign Secretary had no right to make, in which – as Arthur Koestler wrote memorably in 1949 – “one nation solemnly promised a second nation the country of a third.”
At this historic moment, we welcome your Foreign Secretary’s reiteration in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph of the Government’s position. However this is not enough without seizing this moment and the unique opportunity that lies before you to galvanise the “best endeavours” of the British government to the achievement of what has been so chronically lacking for so long in Israel-Palestine – full equal rights for everyone who calls the Holy Land home, recognition of the State of Palestine, and calling on Israel to end its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, and the inhuman blockade of Gaza. This would be a worthy celebration of the Balfour Centenary.
Justin Butcher and Chris Rose
On behalf of all those who have taken part in Just Walk to Jerusalem, and together walked for over 50,000 km between 10th June – 2nd November 2017.
Justin Butcher is a writer and originator of Just Walk; Chris Rose is Director of Amos Trust who have been responsible for Just Walk to Jerusalem.
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