I recently had my second opportunity in Sderot to host a group from the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). EAPPI is a program supported and funded by the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, a major supporter of the anti-Israel divestment campaign.
According to NGO Monitor, EAPPI policies reflect a radically pro-Palestinian agenda, presenting a biased Palestinian narrative and failing to make any mention of Palestinian terror or the human rights of Israelis. In fact, the principal agenda of EAPPI includes the Ecumenical Campaign to End the Illegal Occupation of Palestine.
Since the EAPPI program was launched in August 2002, 198 activists have participated from more than 30 churches and ecumenical partners in 12 countries. According to NGO Monitor most of these activists, upon returning to their home countries, become active in anti-Israel campaigns.
In other words, this was not going to be an easy tour. Usually, visitors to Sderot express sympathy, sometimes horror to the plight of Sderot residents living under the terror of rocket fire for almost a decade.
But left-wing and pro-Palestinian groups who have previously visited with Sderot Media Center have always surprised me with their almost indifferent reactions to the suffering of Israelis in Sderot and opinionated comments on why Sderot residents are targeted by rockets.
Therefore, the verbal line of fire that would follow from this EAPPI group did not catch me by surprise. In fact, I expected no less from this nice group of people, mostly Europeans, which included college students, journalists and senior citizens, all gathered together on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon to impart some of their wisdom to me.
The tour began at the Sderot police station, where hundreds of rockets were on display including the May 19 rocket that struck in the heart of a Sderot residential neighborhood, damaging two homes, injuring two people, and sending eight others into shock.
The first question that was asked of me and repeated throughout the tour was-What percentage of Sderot residents were in favor of the war in Gaza?
Each time the question was asked, those in the group carrying pens and notebooks were poised to write down the answer. Other questions also followed-Do Sderot residents understand why they are in the line of fire? How do the people of Sderot feel about the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza? Do you feel the war was successful? And so on.
Keep in mind that these questions were asked as we were surrounded by visible signs of a city preparing for future rocket strikes. As we passed by Sderot homes with newly built bomb-shelters outside, and stood in Sderot’s ‘rocket-proof’ playground complete with concrete caterpillars that children run into when the siren blares, the aggressive questioning continued.
I emphasized that Sderot residents were in favor of stopping rockets from continuing to devastate their homes and community–that Sderot children did not hate Palestinian children–that no Israeli wanted innocent Palestinian civilians harmed in the war. And that if I was in Gaza, I would be telling the EAPPI group the human story there.
The group calmed down after I made the last statement. But I also told them to keep in mind that there was another narrative to the Middle East conflict and Sderot was at the center of it. “Sderot residents place full responsibility on the Hamas regime. Since the radical Islamic organization came into power, over 7, 000 rockets have been fired at southern Israel, injuring and psychologically traumatizing thousands.”
But that was a little too much. “It’s not Hamas’s fault,” one elderly lady from England angrily told me. “Then are you simply blaming Israel for all this?” I asked her.
The blame game is an easy game to play for those who are led to believe that Israel lies at the root of the conflict and remains the primary reason for Palestinian suffering.
When I led the EAPPI group around Sderot, I understood that I was speaking to average everyday people who have been presented with a very one-sided view of the Arab-Israeli conflict-so one-sided that it was difficult for most of them to recognize Israel’s right to exist and defend, even when standing right in the heart of a city targeted by unrelenting rocket terror.
I knew what this group believed-that the rockets fired on Israeli civilians were a primitive means of resisting Israeli occupation-although there is no Israeli presence in Gaza. The EAPPI personnel constantly compared the number of Gazans killed to the number of Israelis killed in the war. But this comparison did not faze me.
As a part-time resident of Sderot, I know that the suffering that Israelis here have been forced to endure under the terror of rocket explosions and siren alarms is cruel and intolerable-and had to end.
And when one young Swedish student came up to me at the end and told me frankly that in his college studies he had always been taught the Palestinian side and then thanked me for sharing Sderot’s story, I knew that the tour had made some kind of impact on the group.
However, the greater point of dispute lies in the goal behind EAPPI and the WorldCouncil of Churches. According to the EAPPI website, the NGO was launched to end the illegal occupation of Palestine and support a just peace in the Middle East. Does EAPPI believe that a just peace entails a Jewish state of Israel who has every democratic right to protect and defend her citizens? It appears not.