Newlywed Rebecca's Palestinian Calling
Published on 19 March, 2015
Last July, the World Mission Council's Twinning Development Officer Rebecca McGonigle married her longtime boyfriend Manus. Within 3 months she was kissing him goodbye and boarding a plane to the Middle East to work as a human rights monitor with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel.
Along with 33 others across the West Bank, she would be working to support Israelis and Palestinians seeking to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Rebecca had been fired up for this mission since hearing Palestinian farmer Daoud Nassar speak during the Church of Scotland's 2011 General Assembly. A Christian, Daoud Nassar represents theTent of Nations farm which aims to build understanding among people from different cultures.
"He said, 'We refuse to be enemies.'"Rebecca recalls. "His steadfastness and his commitment and hearing him speak about taking peaceful actions in the face of occupation made me realize I had to do something practical to help."
With inspiration from the Bible, Luke 4: 18-19, she resolved to go to Palestine. Three years later, after many hours of preparation and a two-week residential training course, she was on her way. But how did her husband feel about her taking off so soon into their marriage, not to mention for one of the most dangerous places on the planet?
"He was initially quite appalled," she says. "But after he read about the programme and heard from people who had been there, he really understood this was something I had to do and it was worth me leaving. So he was incredibly supportive."
Rebecca McGonigle and her husband Manus leave the church after their wedding
A St Andrews University graduate with a degree in international relations, Rebecca has been working for the Church's World Mission Council for the past 5 years. Her job involves twinning Scottish congregations with congregations around the world.
"I've always been interested in international development and I've been doing voluntary work and fundraising since I was very young," she says.
Through meeting Palestinians and studying the history of the Middle East, Rebecca had learned about the plight of Palestinian people living in the West Bank. She remembers her dismay when she discovered that the Bethlehem of the Bible is today a walled city in the midst of an occupied territory.
"This is what I'm passionate about because the injustice is too big to ignore," she says. "As a Christian you are called to stand with those who are suffering."
Sponsored by the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, a programme supported by the Church of Scotland, Rebecca was sent to Hebron, one of the most volatile cities in the West Bank. The only Brit on a diverse multinational team she was working with two men and two women from Finland, Norway, Poland and Sweden. One of their jobs was to monitor Israeli military check points, counting the number of children who passed through them and reporting to UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.
"It's the only Palestinian city where illegal Israeli settlers live right in the heart of the city," Rebecca says. "So twice a day, during the school run, we physically stood beside the checkpoint counting the number of children who came through and how many children have their bags searched or their body searched. And we recorded when someone was detained or taken away."
About 80 children a day pass through the checkpoints on their way to school, Rebecca says. That's if the schools in the Israeli-controlled areas are open. Once during her mission, the schools were closed for two days after a settler entered one with a gun. Another time, after a border clash, the schools were closed for two weeks.
During the middle of the day, the team visited shopkeepers and families who had been victims of attacks.
"The idea is to lessen tension through the presence of international observers," she says. "So whenever something happened we'd write an incident report."
The reports go to the World Council of Churches, which shares them with the United Nations and the Red Cross. They help those organisations develop policies and advocate for change.
Evenings were spent with the other women on her team in their shared room as Hebron isn't safe to walk around at night. It was colder than she expected too.
"We saw snow. It was absolutely freezing and there was no heating in any of the houses," Rebecca says. "The thing I was most glad I'd taken was my insulated coffee cup."
Human rights monitors make a commitment to educate others and share their experiences when they return home.
"It's important that people know what is happening," Rebecca says. "I want everyone to know that life for people in Hebron under the Israeli occupation is getting almost impossibly hard. I passionately believe that the occupation must end."
Hear more from Rebecca about the World Council of Church's work in Palestine and Israel:
22 March 2pm at Balerno Parish Church, 2 Main Street, Balerno, Edinburgh EH14 7EH
24 March 7pm at Dunblane Cathedral Halls, The Cross, Dunblane, Perthshire FK15 0AQ