London to Jerusalem: Walking 2,000 miles in solidarity with the Palestinians
In the small town of al-Khadr, near Bethlehem, a family scrambles to pull chairs from under the rubble. Wiping them down, they invite their guest to enjoy some tea with them. Overwhelmed by their generosity, Justin Butcher sits down with the family and listens to their story. "We're stuck here," they told him, "but when you leave, don't forget us. Tell people our story."
'When you leave, don't forget us. Tell people our story'
- Palestinian family
Although this took place around three years ago, Butcher, a playwright and creative director, says that he always thinks about it. In the lead up to the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, it galvanised him to work on launching the initiative Just Walk to Jerusalem. The 2,000-mile journey from London to Jerusalem is a show of solidarity with the Palestinians and it highlights the role Britain has played in the ongoing injustice they have suffered.
"That moment never left me, and I decided that I had to be their voice. And what better way to show it than by a show of public solidarity and a pilgrimage of penance for our role in the injustice forced upon the Palestinians?" says Butcher.
The five-month-journey started on Saturday from southern England. It will go through France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Jordan, where they will follow an ancient pilgrimage route to Jerusalem, entering on 2 November, 100 years on from Balfour's Declaration.
"There's something symbolic in the walk," Butcher explains. "It's sort of a reverse refugee path, and at the same time, represents the right of return deprived to so many Palestinians."
The walkers are now in Rochester, on their way to Dover in southeast England.
Butcher works with Amos Trust, a small human rights organisation based in London that is organising the walk.
'It's time to tell people the honest truth, a hundred years is far too long for an injustice to continue, and most people aren't even aware of our role in history'
- Garth Hewitt, founder of Amos Trust
"It's time to tell people the honest truth, a hundred years is far too long for an injustice to continue, and most people aren't even aware of our role in history. If anything, people are craving some honest truths, and the consequences of what we caused in the Middle East are resonating till today," says Garth Hewitt, the founder of Amos Trust. "We need to show the Palestinian people that we recognise the injustice that we've committed against them."
On 2 November 1917, the UK's then foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, declared:
"His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine."
With these words, the landscape of the Middle East was completely changed. Rarely has a document had such profound, far-reaching consequences, reshaping the region for years to come. Thousands of Palestinians were dispossessed and exiled, and until this day, settlements continue to be built on occupied territories in the West Bank.
"The first part of the Balfour Declaration was implemented, that's all very well and good - but the second half of the declaration, the part that promises to not infringe on the Palestinian's rights, has been completely overlooked," says Hewitt. "We need to call the government to firstly recognise the state of Palestine, and to ensure their rights are met."
'I wish I had done more'
There are more than 120 people participating for the duration of the trip, some joining in at different stretches of the walk. David Cuschieri, one of the walkers committed to doing the entire trek, is not from London. An Australian author and activist, he made a special trip to join the walk.
'I visited Israel 24 years ago … you can say I have firsthand knowledge of the injustice experienced'
- David Cuschieri, Australian author and activist
He tells MEE he took a flight from Australia to London, purely for this walk, and with a heartfelt expression, explains, "I visited Israel 24 years ago … you can say I have firsthand knowledge of the injustice experienced.
"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity you know. People will find numerous reasons to not leave now, to not take a five-month break, but what it really comes down to is you don't want to find yourself saying, I wish I had done more."
In the heart of London, the walkers and their families gather for the official launch. Palestinian band, 47Soul, bid them farewell with an ode to Jerusalem, "From London to Jerusalem, I'll walk." A cosmopolitan blend, they rap in Arabic and English, premiering songs from their upcoming album, Balfour Promise.
'People will find numerous reasons to not leave now, to not take a five month break, but what it really comes down to is you don't want to find yourself saying, I wish I had done more'
- David Cuschieri, Australian author and activist
Tim Hagyard, a geographer and blogger, and his wife Denise are an elderly couple and seasoned long-distance walkers. They believe they will be able to commit to the end.
"The walk's easy," Denise laughs, "whether the same can be said for our relationship we have yet to see!"
Growing up in America during a period of civil unrest, Denise explains she's not unfamiliar with injustice. "You have to do what you believe is right."
Jack Rose, 17, is one of the youngest walkers in the initiative. Taking a gap year, he also plans to walk the entire journey to Jerusalem. "It's just the right thing to do, really," he says.
'It's just the right thing to do, really'
- Jack Rose, 17
The director of the Amos Trust, Chris Rose, describes how the Balfour Declaration was an act of colonisation based on racism, utterly discarding the rights of the Palestinian people which made up 90 percent of the population at the time.
"The walk is cut down into stages, and we're coordinating with different volunteers in the different countries. It's quite tricky because a lot of trust is needed especially when some of the organisation is out of your hands.
"The walk should go smoothly, at least until we enter the West Bank. We've got our volunteers there and we have a few events planned with the Palestinian groups we're coordinating with," Rose says.
"Unfortunately, we'll be unable to get into Gaza, but we hope to get as close as possible, until the Israelis force us to turn away," he adds. Gaza has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007.
The journey will end in St George's Cathedral in Jerusalem. "As we're coming from England, and because the story began here, it felt like the right place to end our march," Rose explains.
Rose and Hewitt recite events that took place In 1965, when Rabbi Abraham Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, to call for voting rights, Heschel said at the time, "I felt my legs were praying."
According to Rose and Hewitt, the walk to Jerusalem is a nod to Heschel's powerful statement. "This walk is symbolic on many fronts. Not only is it an act of penance for Britain's 100-year long failure to ensure Palestinian rights, but it's also a reminder of how many Palestinians are denied their freedom of movement."
A prayer inspires this walk, Rose shares it and says he hopes it will be read out every night.
We walk this day with those whose freedom is denied
We walk with those who have fled war, torture and despair
We walk in penance for broken promises and political fixes
The prayer ends with a popular Latin refrain, Rose explains wistfully, Ambulando Solvitur - it will be solved by walking.
While it is wishful to hope that the injustice faced by the Palestinian people could be solved by walking, it is a step.
According to organisers, as Christians, Muslims and Jews alike come together in their quest for justice, it is the words of Mother Pollard, adviser to Martin Luther King Jr, that will be remembered when they enter the Holy City: "My feet are weary, but my soul is rested."
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