Tuesday, January 6, 2009


[This report was written just days before the brutal Christmas week assault on Gaza. Since then, the heart-breaking conditions it describes have worsened markedly. In Hebron, for example, young boys are now throwing stones at the IDF soldiers who are firing back tear gas and - so far - rubber bullets. From Nablus, one of the author's student guides reports that the city is again under seige, adding "I hope you will pray for God to help our people in Gaza" and asking again that we listen to the Palestinian's story. Is that too much to ask - to pray and to listen? The hope of so many young people hangs in the balance.]

Just before Thanksgiving, I returned from a two-week visit to Palestine with a team of 22 Christian peacemakers, most from around the Bay Area. We went to mark the 60th anniversary of what the Palestinians call the Nakba or Catastrophe – the destruction of 531 villages in 1948 and the expulsion and scattering of their people. We went also to stand in solidarity with the suffering Palestinians, especially the dwindling flock of 160,000 Christians among them, and to provide witness to their suffering.

The initial portion of our learning process was a week-long international conference in Nazareth and Jerusalem sponsored by Sabeel – The Way – an ecumenical Christian liberation theology center run by The Rev. Naim Ateek, an Episcopal priest. The line-up of speakers – 15 Muslim, 13 Jewish and 21 Christian – was impressive, and we learned a lot.

There is, however, no substitute for first-hand experience. And mine in Palestine has proven to be life-changing. I was stunned, heart-broken, and horrified by what I saw. I still am…and fear I still have a lot to process.

Before and after the conference, our small group travelled the length of the West Bank and to the shuttered gates of starving Gaza. We visited big cities like Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, and Jericho; squalid refugee camps like Aida, Abour, Daheisheh, and Balata; and two tiny villages I will never forget.

In all these places, the Nakba – the Catastrophe – is not history. It is an on-going moral outrage and a story that is unknown in this country. "The time has come," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said, "to say these things." So let me try...with just a few impressions from along the road.

In Aida refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem some 10,000 souls struggle to survive in one half sq. km. The streets – mere alleys – are impassable except on foot. No sunlight gets in the few small windows and those inside look out at gray concrete walls. Little boys pick through the garbage beneath a scrawled "Don't Forget Palestine" on the larger wall that pens them in and a brown-eyed girl asks plaintively "Why do you come?"

In Hebron, the city center, taken over by extremist settlers, has become a ghost town. One has to pass through a pedestrian checkpoint to gain entry to Abraham's tomb, now a mosque. We had hoped to pray there but were turned back by Israeli soldiers…for no apparent reason. Strolling instead through the now near deserted market, we found it covered by chicken wire…littered with dead animals and garbage tossed from the windows of settler apartments overhead.

Up in Nablus, we walked through a section of the old town that had been besieged for months at a time and that was still subject to nightly raids by the IDF. There were several bombed out or bulldozed houses and, on nearly every corner, their was a makeshift memorial to one or another "martyr" – "Heroes," my young guide from An Najah National University whispered. Maybe they were, defending, as they were, their homes and alleyways.

It was at An Najah, I must add, that I experienced the brightest ray of hope on the whole trip. Our student guides from the Zajel Youth Exchange Program were bright and optimistic and, as we mingled with the more than 10,000 students on two sparkling campuses, we experienced no animosity – only curiosity and a desire to be in touch with the rest of the world. Zajel, by the way, means carrier pigeon – a symbol of communication and peace.

In the far southeast corner of the West Bank, where the Hebron Hills begin yielding to the desert of the Negev, we visited two villages. The first, Az-Zuweidin, is a Bedouin settlement, a collection of tents and corrugated metal shacks on the outskirts of the much more substantial Israeli settlement of Karmel. While the expansion of the latter continued unabated, the IDF, just the week before, had demolished one of the Bedouin shacks. Walking through the rubble, a shiny object caught my eye. I reached down and held it in my hand – a tiny yellow bear once part of some larger toy. It remains my dearest souvenir of Palestine.

The second village, At-Tuwani, is but a collection of stone hovels on a rock strewn hillside, where some 150 people eke out a subsistence living from a small olive grove and as shepherds. Lying in the shadow of the forested Israeli settlement of Ma'on, it has but four substantial buildings – a half-finished well, a clinic, a tiny mosque, and a school attended by eighty children from At-Tuwani and two neighboring villages. With the exception of the school, all those structures are under current demolition orders. The mayor's home had already been demolished and his family now lives in a tent.

Living among the villagers are a few "Internationals" – members of a Christian Peacemaker Team or CPT who accompany shepherds in the fields and escort school children on their daily three hour walks to school from the neighboring villages. Those children are attacked most every day by stone-throwing settlers and, two days after we were there, twenty settlers from Ma'on – all wearing black ski masks - attacked a shepherd and a CPT member, killing a donkey, scattering the flock, and injuring the CPT member. All I could think of at the time was "What kind of God do these people believe in?"

And then there is Gaza, cut off from the outside world since November 5 and denied adequate fuel and UN food and humanitarian assistance in a brazen display of collective punishment. The lights have gone out there and 1.5 million men, women, and children are slowly dying of starvation. And the world does nothing.

For our part, we could not do nothing, when we learned that a collection of international NGOs would again try to gain entry to Gaza November 18. So we traveled - on the spur of the moment - to stand with them at Erez Crossing "as a united people of conscience in non-violent solidarity with the people of Gaza and in support of the NGOs" as they were again refused entry. While we explained our stance to European and Israeli journalists, we could hear the sounds of sonic booms and bombs…and, from America, the continued, deafening sound of silence.

I tell you these things not because I believe Palestinians are better than Israeli Jews – or any worse – but just to let you know that there is a Palestinian people and that they are suffering. All they ask is the dignity that comes with recognition of their humanity.

You should know also that, in Israel, there are many good Jews who are speaking truth to power, resisting the occupation, and exhibiting great moral courage. I met several and found in them a great source of hope.

Most poignant of all was Josef Ben-Eliezer, an aging veteran of the Palmach, who, as a teen-ager in 1948, had participated in the expulsion of Palestinians from Lydda. He had journeyed to Nazareth from London to tell the story of that horrific event and to ask, toward the end of his life, for forgiveness. I will never forget the breaking of the hushed silence, as Samia Khoury, a member of the Sabeel board, strode to the front of the room and, standing before Josef, said simply "Josef, I forgive you."

And that's what it's all about – truth and reconciliation.

So, how do we, as Christians and Americans, promote truth and reconciliation in the Holy Land? As individuals and as a church community, we can:

- promote truth-telling about Palestine and afford the Palestinian people the dignity that comes with the recognition of their humanity;

- support the courageous efforts of the many Israeli and American Jews who seek honest reconciliation;

- urge our church and government to divest from those companies that enable occupation and oppression in the Holy Land;

- urge the new Administration in Washington – as a first priority and at the highest level – to re-engage in the peace process and to bring it to a just and speedy conclusion; and, yes,

- pray.

With that last task in mind, let me offer the following prayer, a collect for the Peace of Jerusalem:

Creator of all – Abba, Adonai Elohenu, Allah: we offer our

prayers today for Israel and Palestine, and especially for the

peace of Jerusalem, that one day she may shine as a beacon

of peace and reconciliation to the world, through Jesus Christ

our Lord. Amen.

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