I am going to tell you about the people I met on this pilgrimage. I felt throughout the time spent there, that we were in an extremely difficult and complex situation. I am convinced we cannot take sides in this conflict. We cannot be part of the solution for peace if we call one side our friend and the other our enemy. This fact was brought home to me on many occasions.
We visited a village in the Golan Heights called Majdal El Shamas. It is the largest town in that area. The population is entirely a Druze Community. In Israel, the Druze community is officially recognized as a separate religious entity with its own courts and spiritual leadership. Their culture is Arab and their language is Arabic. (Google The Druze in Israel) We went to the Golan Heights Development Center for Arab Villages. Here we met Dr. Maray Taiseer. He gave an excellent talk in which he made me realize that our thinking about the conflict between Israel and Palestine cannot be thought of in terms of black and white. There are many shades of gray to this issue. He was quick to remind us that it took him many years to realize this fact. His conviction now: we are all human beings, created by God and all are seeking peace. GOD DOES NOT KILL. Education is of prime importance to the people in the Arab towns. They are making every effort to keep the children in school. We spent time in the nursery and the school. On leaving, we drove to NO MANâ€™S LAND, an area between Israel and Syria. Here the families are separated by land mine fields. Using bull horns, they shout across the borders to each other. It is called the Shouting Valley.
The next person who spoke to us as a group made a deep impression on me which lasted the whole trip. He was a deeply spiritual man, Abuna Elias Chacour, Archbishop of the Melkite Church of Christians. He founded Mar Elias Educational Institute in Ibillin. This institution began as a small school and now includes a University. At the beginning of his talk he asked us to tell him what we wanted to know about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He spoke of the reality of the situation. He asked us to do somethingâ€”something constructive to end the conflict. He said,â€ Donâ€™t just pray and contem plate. Become active! However, when you pray, you have to ask the Lord to bless the man who makes himself your enemy.Then the Lord will bless you with INNER PEACE.â€ He believes in a one state solution where everybody coexists in harmony. Unrealistic as it may seem to us, Abuna Chacour once lived in his country where all persons, Jews, Christians, Muslims, lived as neighbors. This is how it was before 1947. He has written BLOOD BROTHERS and WE BELONG TO THE LAND which further explain the situation. He signed the copy of BLOOD BROTHERS with the words I had already heard: “GOD DOES NOT KILL. Elias Chacour.”
Traveling from town to town, we passed many mine fields,(you could not get out of the bus), checkpoints, rubble from homes that had been demolished, olive groves that were stumps in the ground and some settler homes that were built in and around the rubble. We drove to Taybeh (Efraim) in the West Bank. It had been home to about 3500 Christians, but now the population is about 1500. We met Father Raed. He has done much to help the people living in that town. Hi is a very energetic person who has promoted schools, industry, and artistic endeavors. He too encouraged education to lift the spirits of the people. He wants to keep the Christians in the Holy Land to preserve the Christian sites. Otherwise it is feared that the places we revere as Christians will become only museums and tourist sites. He begged us to pray for the oppressor as well as the oppressed.
We passed through a checkpoint to enter Jerusalem and drove on to Bethlehem, the Walled City. The Wall snakes in and out of farms, olive groves, pasturelands and homes. A family could have a home on one side of the Wall and their farm or pasture land on the other side of the Wall. This necessitates passing through the checkpoint on a daily basis. This can takes hours. You can be detained at the checkpoints for many reasons. We went through one checkpoint where the soldiers just came on board the bus with rifles, to ascertain if we were all Americans.
In Bethlehem, we met Hanna, an elderly woman who has a nursery and pre-school, run at her own expense,. She has 120 children in the school. The parents, if they can afford to, pay $70 a month. It is on a sliding scale. If she wants to take a field trip, maybe to the zoo, she needs a permit from the Israeli authorities. They sometimes wait till midnight of the day for the field trip to give the permit and then it is only to Muslim parents and their children. Christian children may not go because they are Palestinians. She said it is very hard for her to discriminate, so she rarely takes them on field trips. It is hard to tell a small child that they may not go on a field trip because they are a Palestinian Christian. I sincerely pray that child is not a future terrorist.
While we were in Bethlehem, Israel cut off the gasoline supply, but our tour director and guide managed to get us to Hebron., which is a totally Muslim city in the West Bank. Here we met Diane Roe, a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team which strives to settle disputes. She told us about one elderly deaf woman who lives alone in a building scheduled to be demolished. An Israeli settlement is going to be built on that site. The elderly woman refuses to leave because it is her home and she believes if she remains there the building will not be demolished. Hence, no settlement.
We met the deputy mayor of Bethlehem. In 2003, he, his wife and two daughters were going to the grocery store. They saw 3 army jeeps approach. One of the jeeps fired shots at the car they were driving. He and his wife were wounded, his 12 year old daughter was killed, his 15 year old daughter is crippled for life. It was a mistake, the soldiers told him. They thought they were terrorists. His crippled daughter now attends Bethlehem University. He became mayor deputy of Bethlehem to try and restore some peaceful atmosphere to this Christian town. 87% of the city of Bethlehem is under the control of Israel, hence, a strong military presence. There are 220 outposts (future settlements), 561 checkpoints in the Occupied Territories. The mayor said even though they are totally surrounded by a wall of 9Meters in height ( an open-air prison) they have hope for peace with justice. They have no health or dental care. They cannot go to Jerusalem hospitals because they are Palestinians. West Bank is fast becoming another GAZA STRIP.
One of the highlights of the trip was the visit to the University of Bethlehem. An American , Brother Jack, has been teaching there for five years. I asked him why he chose to leave his country and come to live in this turmoil. His reply, â€œI see injustice on both sides. I want to educate the young to seek justice for all.â€ Four students attending the University spoke to us about their life in Bethlehem and in the school. They are passing through checkpoints daily in their trip to and from school. There is harassment at the check points, especially for women. But in spite of all this, they spoke realistically about the situation and hope for a peaceful solution. They have plans for a future.
We met a settler from the United States, currently living in Israel for about 30 years. He lives in a settlement called Efrata outside Jerusalem. He said all the settlements are built on private land. No deeds were produced by those living on the land at the time of demolition. Many villages around the settlement were destroyed on this private land. The rubble was still piled up. There are 200 settlements in the West Bank, numbering 530,000 settlers. They receive $20,000 grants to occupy this territory.
We met Daoud Nasser. He produced the deed to his property of 100 acres, along with $18,000 to retain the land. Since he could not get a permit from the Israeli government to build on his own land, he built under the land. He has established a school, a gym, playing areas, and a computer lab. His reply to the situation is that we must respond positively –not with guns and violence. This is Jesusâ€™ teaching for all Christians. (www.tentofnations.org)
Our tour director arranged for each couple on the tour to have a meal in the home of a Palestinian family. This was a delightful experience. The food was very good and the family we met was most gracious. They invited us to come back and stay with them for an extended visit.
On a different occasion when we were walking back to the hotel, we were stopped by a gentleman named Ibrahim Ahmad. He is a Muslim living in Jerusalem. He told us he would provide transportation to his home on Mt. of Olives for our entire group if we would like to come. After checking his email, I find that he invites people from all over the world to visit him and they accept.
On Saturday night, we met Jeff Helper. He is associated with ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions http://www.icahd.org/eng/). When this organization hears about disputes or the demolishing of homes, they call Jeff and others to stand in front of the 2 story bull dozers scheduled to destroy the homes. It is very dangerous work. Recently, a young woman was killed by the bulldozers for such action. I guess you call it creative nonviolence.
There are many others I met. The tour director said I talked to everyone on the street, but it was my objective to meet as many Israelis and Palestinians as possible. It was an overwhelming experience. I leave you with one thought: There is no way to Peace. PEACE is the way.