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Catholic Relief Services urges dialogue, provides aid

Building the separation wall in the West Bank reinforces the negative perceptions Palestinians and Israelis have of each other, Burcu Munyas reported in a recent presentation in Spokane as part of her one-week educational tour in the area for Catholic Relief Service.

In the crossfire of the daily violence on both sides, many civilians and children are injured and killed, creating another generation with bad memories on both sides, she said.

Burcu Munyas
Burcu Munyas

Burcu attended a global peacemakers retreat for youth in the Archdiocese of Seattle, focused on peacebuilding, solidarity and empathy with a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The 26-year-old Muslim woman from Turkey, who works with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to build solidarity between people in the United States and people in the Holy Land, spoke with Catholic and community leaders.  Her focus is on peacebuilding among the Palestinian factions, so they end violence against each other.

As CRS project officer for  Partnership and Strategic Alignment in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, she designs youth development and education projects for Palestinian youth and explores new strategic partnerships between CRS and Palestinian and Israeli civil society.

CRS has been in the Middle East for 50 years, engaged in humanitarian relief, emergency aid, educational programs and advocacy efforts.  Their overall goal is for Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding and dialogue, in which the Christian minority plays a unique role, said Scott Cooper, director of parish social services with Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Spokane.

He added that the CRS focus is on humanitarian aid for the Palestinians whose lives are disrupted.

“Without a political resolution, there will be no change in the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories,” said Burcu, telling the “story on the ground” through a slide presentation of maps and people.

On maps, she showed the Palestinian areas and Israeli settlements, the barrier wall and checkpoints, the trenches across and gates blocking roads, earth mounds, blockades and other impediments in the West Bank, where 2.5 million Palestinians live.  About 1.5 million live in Gaza.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Bilkent University in Ankara, she completed a master’s in international peace studies at the Joan Kroc Institute of the University of Notre Dame in 2006.  As part of her studies, she spent a semester with Catholic Relief Services in Cambodia to do research on her thesis on “the transmission of the memory of genocide to second and third-generation Cambodian youth.”

Memory, as well as current realities, plays a role in the Middle East, too.

“One of today’s biggest challenges in the Holy Land, is from the unresolved refugee situation.  About 800,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their homes in 1948,” she said.  “Now 4.5 million refugees live in 60 refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.  Some still have keys to their grandparents’ homes and want the right to return.  Others just want to live in dignity.”

Burcu showed photos of the wall some Palestinians call the “apartheid wall,” the “annexation wall” and part of the Israeli “closure regime.”  She said Israel began building the wall in 2002 to prevent suicide bombings.  In some places, it is made of 25-foot-high concrete blocks.  In other places, it is an electrical fence.

She reports that many Israelis are unaware of the separation wall and its impact on the daily lives of Palestinians.

While the wall is designed to protect Israelis, it “snakes around Palestinian neighborhoods, cutting children off from their schools, people from their jobs, farmers from their farms and markets, and families and friends from each other,” Burcu said. 

While she said there is fear on both sides, young Palestinians see that the wall, curfews, closures and violence block their future.

Citing the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Israeli Peace Now’s Settlement Watch, she showed locations of 161 Israeli settlements, 96 outposts and 27 military bases.  About 500,000 settlers live in the West Bank in what Palestinians consider their territory, dating back to the Ottoman Empire, she said. 

Burcu reported that about 100 Palestinian homes are demolished each year by the Israeli Defense Forces, because they are built without permits, which are hard to obtain from Israeli authorities.  Meanwhile, new Israeli settlements, which she said are illegal under international law, continue to be built.

The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions reports that Palestinians account for 20 percent of illegal construction but 75 percent of house demolitions.

With the collapse of the peace process in the late 1990s, the deterioration of the economy, fighting between Hamas and Fatah, and concern the November summit may force another “unviable solution,” she said, “hope has eroded, yet the Palestinians remain resilient.”

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