I knew I wanted to be a nurse from the sixth form. People are so interesting, and helping them when they’re sick can be so rewarding.
I trained at Hull University as one of the first nurses to qualify with a degree in 1985; so we had the benefit of being part of university life. But we also worked on the wards, which meant getting up at 6 a.m., and working through the summer holidays.
It was hard to be accepted by the local nurses who qualified through the traditional training, but, living in Hull, with its fishing heritage, was amazing.
It took a while to get used to being with someone when they die, and washing their body before they’re taken to the mortuary; but we always treated people with respect, and that made it easier. You learn that death is inevitable, and when someone’s time comes, our aim as nurses is to help them make that journey with as much dignity as possible.
Later, I became a lecturer-practitioner in the Oxford University Hospitals Trust, mainly in the Accident and Emergency department in Banbury. I was in clinical practice, and teaching nurses how to suture wounds and put plaster-of-paris casts on to broken limbs, and so on. I also taught nursing courses at Oxford Brookes University, including managing minor injuries and being part of the major-trauma resuscitation team.
I found out about the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel [EAPPI] when an ecumenical accompanier came and talked to our Quaker Meeting. It seemed such an interesting thing to do that I decided to go myself after retirement.
Just after the second intifada (“uprising” in Arabic) in 2001, the heads of Churches in Jerusalem called on the World Council of Churches and the international community to send an international presence “for the protection of all our people”, and to offer solidarity for a just peace. This led to the EAPPI being established. It provides a continuous presence of about 25 people from across globe in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Each ecumenical accompanier spends three months there, monitoring human rights — access to education, work, and worship — and reporting when the military demolish Palestinian houses, or arrest people and imprison them without trial in Israel. About 20 people a year are sent from the UK and Ireland. Anyone can apply, and they are trained and supported by Quakers in Britain. I learned about white privilege, anti-Semitism, international law, Palestinian and Israeli culture, and how the military occupation of Palestine came about.
I was based in Hebron, a Palestinian city of 220,000 people with 700 Jewish settlers living in the middle of it in Jewish-only houses or gated communities. The settlements are illegal under international law: the Fourth Geneva Convention prevents an occupying power, in this case Israel, transferring their citizens into occupied territory. The settlers want to be there because Abraham and his family were buried in Hebron 4000 years ago, and King Herod built a tomb on the site. The building is a particularly important place of worship for Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
About 800 Israeli military personnel create a security zone for the settlers in the heart of the city. Palestinians can only access their homes, schools, and the mosque where Abraham is buried by passing through military checkpoints. We monitored access through these checkpoints as a protective presence, hoping to prevent human-rights abuses. It’s well documented that military personnel commit fewer human-rights violations when under scrutiny. We were able to do this because we had the privilege of international passports. Sometimes, though, it’s not possible to prevent abuses against civilians, and then we reported the incident to the UN and NGOs.
I visited other teams working elsewhere, and stayed overnight with local shepherd families in the hills south of Hebron. We joined the shepherds with their flocks during the day to deter settlers from grazing their sheep on Palestinian land.
I was impressed by the hospitality and resilience of the Palestinians I met. I was there during Ramadan, and was invited to break the fast at the end of the day with the family at Iftar. I also met Palestinians and Israelis who are actively using non-violent means to resist the occupation, often at great personal risk.
Zidan volunteers with the organisation Human Rights Defenders. He trains locals to record human-rights violations by the military and settlers on video cameras, and publishes videos on the HRD Instagram site. That has prevented many incidents from escalating. He does this even though he’s lost the sight in one eye, and had his front teeth and nose broken for doing so.
Ahmad, another Palestinian, is on the community peacemaker team, which monitors checkpoints, similarly to EAPPI. He has such a passion for non-violent resistance, and huge resilience.
Israelis are non-violently resisting the occupation, too. I met Joel, who was in the Israeli military and is now in an organisation called Breaking the Silence. This shares the testimonies of former Israeli soldiers about the reality of serving in the West Bank, and the abuse towards Palestinians this involves. They receive a lot of criticism from fellow Israelis.
What bothers me is that, in 1979, the UN clearly stated that the Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law. But the international community isn’t putting sufficient pressure on Israel to stop this. Israel is building even more settlements. Until this changes, there seems little hope of stopping human-rights violations.
In 1994, I worked in Bosnia for the International Committee of the Red Cross during the war, which helped me manage my expectations about what’s achievable as an ecumenical accompanier, but also how valuable such an international role can be.
I was brought up in Northampton. My father was a draughtsman, designing lifts for various buildings. My mother was a GP’s receptionist. While my mother used to go to church on Sundays when we were very young, I was brought up in a secular environment, and always considered myself an atheist.
After 40 years in the NHS, I’m retired and live with my wife in Oxfordshire. I share the Clerk role within my local Quaker Meeting, and I’ve been involved with climate-change activism.
I remain a non-theist Quaker, but I believe that many of us share a common experience, which some people call God. When I sit silently and manage to clear all thoughts and words buzzing inside my head, sometimes I become aware of insights. Some Quakers call this listening to the light, others call it the voice of God. You probably know what I mean.
I’ve tried to put my values into practice — to “let my life speak”, as Quakers say. I certainly don’t always get it right, but it led me to be a nurse and a public servant, and to become more involved with climate change and my Quaker community in recent years. That’s what appeals to me about Quakerism — it’s not what you believe: it’s what you do that counts.
Human nature makes me angry. People feel entitled to take what they think they need from the earth’s resources or from other people. They think we have an undeniable right to burn petrol, oil, and gas, even though it leads to millions becoming homeless through flooding, like we’ve seen recently in Pakistan, or starvation because of drought in East Africa. Similarly, Israeli settlers think they have a right to live in the West Bank, regardless of the harm it causes for Palestinians who’ve lived there for generations.
When they put their minds to it, people are capable of amazing things. There are Palestinians and Israelis working together against the odds to improve the situation. Everyone can do something to help end the occupation, even if it’s simply reading more about it at the Quaker eyewitness website, or inviting a speaker to your group.
Being in the mountains makes me happiest. Standing on the top of a mountain with the wind in my face blowing away the cobwebs, I feel really alive.
My favourite sound is silence: I am a Quaker, after all.
During a Quaker meeting for worship, I often hope for equality, peace, truth, simplicity, and sustainability, the main Quaker values.
I’d like to meet Abraham at his tomb in Hebron, and find out how he thinks peace could be achieved in Palestine.
Ian Cave was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.