The conflict between Israel and Palestine is often portrayed as a conflict between Jews and Muslims, sidelining the thousands of Palestinian Christians who are caught up in the conflict. During a visit to Australia in July, Rifat Kassis, a prominent Palestinian community leader and Christian, surprisingly argued for talk about religion to be taken out of the discussion.
Kassis, the international president of advocacy group Defence for Children International, believes the conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian people is between two nationalities, not two religions.
Western countries such as Australia have been supportive of Israel, in part to ensure the tragic events of the Holocaust never happen again. But the events since the outbreak of the second intifada, or uprising, in 2000, have people asking whether Israel's approach isn't just a little heavy-handed.
breaking a child's spirit
Kassis says the animosity the Palestinian people feel toward Israel is born out of oppression and not of religious or racial hatred.
As an example, Kassis talked about his work with Defence for Children and how Palestinian children are often arrested for throwing stones at Israeli tanks. Around 700 children, usually teenagers, are imprisoned annually. Soldiers usually come in the middle of the night, Kassis says, removing the child from their home without explanation, and taking them to facilities across the border in Israel, where their parents are unable to visit.
Palestinian teenagers over the age of 16 are treated as adults, whereas Israeli teenagers are not treated as adults until they reach 18.
Kassis said that in 95 per cent of cases, the child's lawyer would plead guilty just to get a deal because of their mistrust of the legal system, even in cases where there is no evidence for an arrest. He gave the example of a child who pleaded guilty to throwing stones at the Israeli army after being threatened with sexual assault. A lawyer discovered that there had not been any stones thrown on that day.
Kassis worries that there seems to be a deliberate policy to break the spirit of the children, because in doing so, the future of the Palestinian people is threatened.
"You cannot put your boots on my neck and then say, 'look how he curses me, he's anti-Semitic,' " Kassis says.
At the same time, he said there was a danger of demonising the Israeli people. "I can understand their fear, I can understand their calling for security," he says. "But what I am objecting to is them using this as a cover for all the injustices committed against another nation and in this case the Palestinians."
Kassis says that by creating barriers that restrict the way Israelis and Palestinians can interact, the Israeli government's policies increase mistrust between the two groups.
"Some years back, we still had a chance to meet each other-Israelis and Palestinians," he reflects. "But nowadays it's impossible. We cannot go, and they are also not allowed to come in. So there is no physical situation for people to meet.
"My late father, he knew the Jews before 1948. He knew them as friends, co-workers, neighbours sometimes. So he had a different perspective from me, somebody who's grown up under the occupation. So what I know from them, I know from the occupation, I know their soldiers. I work in the prisons, so I know them as responsible [for] prisons.
"If you ask my son, my son doesn't have any positive features about Israelis. They only see them as soldiers and as settlers."
Visiting Australia as a guest of Act for Peace, the National Council of Churches in Australia's international aid agency, Kassis has been involved with various projects to draw the attention of the international community and offer them ways to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
One such initiative is the Kairos document, modelled on the 1985 South African Kairos document developed in response to apartheid.
Kairos Palestine is a call to action, to end the Israeli occupation, to end all forms of discrimination and to end Palestinian suffering. It calls for divestment and an economic and commercial boycott of everything produced by the occupation.
Kassis' experience of day-to-day life is the same as any other Palestinian. "The Israeli occupation doesn't differentiate between Christians or Muslims: they will not ask your ID before they shoot you," he says.
He argued that it was time for the international community to see the Israeli occupation of Palestine in the same terms as the apartheid era of South Africa, and not as something that is about a religious conflict.
"The Kairos [document] is the last call and the last chance for our people since we live in a moment of urgency.... Working on ending the occupation, we defuse one of the conflicts which fuel other conflicts and would help in securing global peace," Kassis says. The statement offers "a cry of hope in the absence of all hope."
hope burns bright
So where does Rifat Kassis find hope in a situation where Gaza is still under blockade and the movement of his people in and out of the West Bank is still restricted? Where is the hope in a situation where there is, as he explains, "a complete matrix of control" and people of Israeli and Palestinian descent are unable to meet as equals, much less as friends?
"For me, I find hope in my faith and from my conviction that wrongs cannot continue forever," Kassis says. "I'm saying this not in an over-optimistic way, I'm saying this from studying history, from understanding the conflicts which we are in.
"I also take hope from the growing numbers of people who decided not to be silent anymore, and to speak out and talk about the injustices committed there. What more hope can you get from people who will just get on a ship to break the embargo over Gaza, knowing that this will lead either to losing their lives, which they did, or to be sent back or to be imprisoned.
"What stronger conviction can you get from people who will sacrifice themselves for a cause, for a nation, even though they might not know anyone from that nation on a personal level. These are strong signs of hope," he says.
Kassis also takes hope from the "courageous Israelis and Jews who are confronting this official narrative of their state, challenging also their society. Trying to give them the chance to look over and to see the other side of the story. From them I get my hope."
the non-violent way
Kassis believes Israel's occupation is unsustainable in the long term, without the support of the international community.
"Non-violent resistance is key," he argues, saying just like ending apartheid, the international community needs to put pressure on Israel through the use of sanctions.
For people who are worried that sanctions would affect innocent Palestinians, his message is simple: "Palestinians are the losers anyway."
However, he suggested that boycotts don't need to be financial, but that Israelis should be boycotted socially and culturally, for example through the arena of sport "so the Israeli people feel it and start to speak out to their own government."
Another way Kassis is involved in non-violent resistance is through his involvement with the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG), which offers a different perspective on the Holy Land for the thousands of pilgrims who make the journey to Israel each year.
"Tourism in Israel is a monopoly, like in the former Soviet Union," Kassis says. "Every year, we have up to two million tourists. They come and see what the Israelis want them to see, so they fix their prejudices that the Palestinians are dirty, terrorists, thieves.
"They will show them how green Israel is, and how desert-like the West Bank is. How clean and how dirty. But no-one will ask themselves why we don't have plants and trees. No-one will know there is a law that we cannot plant, we cannot use water to water the trees or that we have a problem with our garbage because of the movement restrictions. So they fix on their prejudice.
"With the Alternative Tourism Group, we give people the chance to see us from within. To really encounter us, and to see that Palestinians have the good, the bad and the ugly.
"We are just like any other nation, we are not saints in the same way Australians are not saints.
"So this was the idea behind the ATG and this was also the idea within the Kairos document. We challenge people to come and see, because it's a challenge-sometimes you come and you do not see," says Kassis. "And this is also what Jesus Christ said. He challenged the ones who have eyes, to let them see."
The National Council of Churches in Australia has released a statement on Palestine and Israel. To read more visit www.ncca.org.au