The priest at Svalbard Church is spending this summer as an observer south of Hebron and calling for a boycott of all Israeli goods. It's evoking strong reactions.
Leif Magne Helgesen traveled this week to the small village of Suisya on the West Bank. The village has about 350 inhabitants who mostly make their living by farming. The Israeli Supreme Court has issued a ruling ordered the razing of the village by Aug. 3. The priest said he intends to remain in the village until Aug. 6.
"I got a call from Norwegian Church Aid few days ago. The UN Refugee Agency has requested an international presence in the village of Suisya. The village is situated in the area I was in during winter, south of Hebron in the West Bank," said Helgesen, referring to the three months at the end of 2014 he spent in the Middle East, also as a representative of the church.
This year he is choosing to use the summer holidays and a few weeks of the mission working with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), a companion program of the World Council of Churches.
"I see it as a vote of confidence to be asked and it is a calling that I am saying yes to," he said.
Until early August, Helgesen plans to move around the area, calling attention to it by documenting and reporting his observations. Close to Suisya is a historical site and a new settlement, and Helgesen said he fears the destruction of the village could happen at any time.
When I was there in the winter the the Israeli military or government came and took two water towers and a tractor," he said. "Thus I know the people and the village well, and I know their fear of being chased away from their homes. We are a team of four or five internationals who are going to be a constant presence in the village for the next two months."
The priest is already engaging in a major political commitment as part of his church work in Svalbard. He recently organized and led an outdoor climate Mass, which included prayers for Store Norske, and during a May Day sermon he said Longyearbyen should be an area free of Israeli goods.
The Church of Norway has repeatedly called for such a boycott. A year ago, Berit Hagen Agøy, general secretary of the church's ecumenical council, said the call concerns goods produced in illegal settlements.
"The boycott is a major and an important instrument for putting pressure on Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank," Helgesen said.
He reiterated the call during a telephone interview from the West Bank. In addition, he said the boycott should not only be for goods from the West Bank, but all of Israel.
"By buying Israeli products, you are supporting an occupation of the West Bank," he said. "The economy is the area where we really can strike Israel and its military regime. There is very much that is good about Israel, but the army and the occupation means that I am advising everyone to boycott goods from Israel, as we did in South Africa."
Demanding an apology
The request is getting a hostile reaction from With Israel for Peace (MIFF). Chairman Morten Fjell Rasmussen said he believes there's no problem talking about solidarity from the pulpit.
"But to have a political sting, and use it against a people and a nation is something completely different," he said. "What we usually hear about is boycotts concerning goods from the West Bank, but here they're taking it even a step further."
Are there reasons to complain?
"There are reasons for regret," Rasmussen said.
Should the church apologize?
"The church should do that," he said.
Rasmussen said his main concern is it "gives the impression that this is the world's biggest problem" and that could fuel more anti-Semitism.
Has he been to the West Bank?
"I've been in the West Bank a few times, both in settlements, and Palestinian settlements and villages," he said. "The fenced areas are actually no more than two percent of the West Bank. I do not believe that the settlements are a huge obstacle to peace, as some would have us believe."
Tougher than expected
But that's not how the parish priest in Svalbard sees it, as he's maintaining his call for a boycott and comparing the West Bank with a society that increasingly resembles the apartheid regime of South Africa with a larger amount of discrimination. The village he's living in consists mainly of tents in the central area. On the outskirts there is farming and the atmosphere is characterized by turbulence. According to the priest, residents fear losing their homes and cattle. He said he believes the fear is even greater after the supreme court's ruling.
"It was tough in the winter, tougher than I thought, to be in a conflict that is so cemented, that is accelerating and ongoing, and it feels like there are few who are helping," Helgesen said. "The Palestinians want us to be there."
When he was in the area for three months during the winter, he participated in practical aspects of everyday life. He will continue doing that during the next two months as well.
"In any case, if we document what happens it may postpone the razing. So the hope is that it does not happen and that we can prevent it. There is much hatred, much violence that has happened in the last decade, " said Helgesen, who is blogging about his visit for Stavanger Aftenblad and planning a to release a new book about the conflict Sept. 20.
"We must have faith and hope, and the hope that it will turn around," he said. "It is important that people know what is happening. It is far away from Longyearbyen, but Longyearbyen at its best is that we care."
Translated by Mark Sabbatini