Fr. Bob Holmes just days before heading off on a peace pilgrimage to the West Bank. Photo by Michael Swan.

Basilian among pilgrimage of peace to West Bank

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  • July 28, 2014

TORONTO - Fr. Bob Holmes is heading off to war, again.

On July 22 Holmes and more than a dozen Canadian pilgrims were on their way to the West Bank and the Hamas-controlled city of Hebron. The group intended to “visit the holy sites and the holy people” and they weren’t going to let the escalating war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel’s army stop them.

As of the morning of their departure, 550 Gazans, mostly civilians, had been killed in Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. On the other side, 25 Israeli soldiers and two civilians were dead.

The Basilian priest and full-time volunteer for Christian Peacemaker Teams — an ecumenical organization which brings a philosophy of non-violence directly into wars and near-wars around the world — has been travelling to Palestine since 2000, advocating for non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation. But he has also been on the ground during wars in Iraq, Kurdistan, Colombia and Congo. In Canada he visits First Nations communities that are demanding treaty rights and sovereignty over traditional territory.

From street protests to letter writing, Holmes has been a consistent advocate for peace and non-violence. This year that body of work resulted in the Pax Christi Teacher of Peace award from Pax Christi Toronto.

“I can talk with a little bit of authority because I’ve been there,” said Holmes.

In Canada Holmes brings his message of non-violence and siding with the oppressed to schools, parishes and conferences of all kinds.

Holmes wants Canadians to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the point of view of Palestinians who have lost olive groves, water and even access to their own land to Israeli settlements.

“Hamas, well they’re not one of my favourite groups of people,” said Holmes. “But international law allows an occupied people to fight back. If a military takes over your territory, international law gives the people the right to fight back. Being a Gospel peacemaker, I don’t believe in violence as the best way to fight back.”

Israel’s response to the thousands of missiles launched from Gaza at Israeli towns and cities and the dozens of tunnels Hamas fighters have built under the border is out of proportion to the real threat to Israeli citizens, said Holmes.

“Nobody should fire rockets at civilians,” he said. “But there’s no balance here. It’s way out of whack.”

According to the Israeli Defence Forces, as of July 22 Gaza fighters had launched 2,040 missiles at Israel in the previous two weeks, an average of 145 per day. Also as of July 22, Israeli forces had uncovered 23 separate tunnel systems leading into Israel, with 66 points of entry within Gaza.

The expanding settlements and the absence of any real commitment to a peace plan in Israel has built up frustration among Palestinians, said Holmes.

“Every time I’ve gone to Israel and then come back, it has gotten worse,” he said. “From one point of view it’s really discouraging because it has not gotten better. They (Israeli settlers) are taking more land, building more settlements, pushing more people off (their land), taking more resources, putting in more checkpoints. But what is happening is a rising awareness on the international level. Many more people are becoming aware of what’s happening there.”

Holmes advocates for boycotts, divestment and sanctions. He believes international pressure, especially financial pressure on corporations doing business in the West Bank and Gaza with Israeli backing, is more likely to bring peace than missiles, tunnels and assassination squads.

But Holmes has no hope for a two-state solution. Unlike the Vatican and the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, Holmes envisions a single country with an Arab majority and a Jewish minority.

“We’re not choosing sides. We’re standing with the oppressed,” he said. “We’re standing with people living under military occupation, who are being walled in, who are being pushed off their land. Every settlement is expanding and the army is making it possible to do that. People are being pushed into the cities and the cities are being walled off.”

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