Shaking off the vestiges of jet lag, a delegation of 26 church leaders representing 12 U.S. denominations and organizations waded into the thicket of Middle East issues December 8, talking with those who are most directly affected by the increasing violence that has plagued the area for the last two months.
As the bus moved out of the gates of Notre Dame Center across the road from the Old City of Jerusalem, Bishop Herbert Chilstrom of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America prayed for the safety of the people, especially the children.
Headed for Bethlehem, the bus passed through an Israeli checkpoint and detoured around the heavily fortified site of Rachel’s Tomb, past the new settlement of Har Homa, a highly controversial part of a belt of settlements surrounding Jerusalem and effectively cutting off many of the Palestinian territories.
Entering Bethlehem, now a closed military area, the streets were strangely quiet and empty, highly unusual in the Christian season of Advent, which draws tourist and pilgrim crowds to the city. The closed shops and hotels cast a noticeable pall over the city when it should be entering its most celebratory time.
The delegation stopped to meet with a family whose home and business had been reduced to a pile of rubble by Israeli rockets and shells. “You have to be our voice, we need you,” said Vera Baboun in welcoming the group.
In explaining that the family would not be allowed to rebuild, in the name of “security,” she pleaded for help “to keep our identity.”
Municipal leaders describe difficult times
Parking near Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity, the delegation entered the Bethlehem Municipality Building to meet with officials from Bethlehem and two adjacent villages, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour..
“We are here to listen, learn and then interpret to our churches the situation,” said Bishop William Oden of the United Methodist Church who moderated the conversation. He pointed out many American churches began a Vigil for Peace on Advent Sunday and would continue until there was a just peace for the area.
Deputy Mayor Ziad al-Bandak began by noting the irony of welcoming the delegation to the city where the “messenger and prophet of peace was born..”
The new intifada (Arabic for “shaking off”) began at the end of September when it became cleat to the Palestinians that seven years of negotiations had not produced a just peace for them.
He said that Palestinian trust for Prime Minister Ehud Barak had evaporated because Barak had reverted to the militaristic thinking of his Army days. As a result, “We are in a war,” one fought against a highly sophisticated Israeli military. “We want to live in peace with our neighbors but that is only possible when Israel respects the rights of the Palestinians.”
Because that is not happening, “The whole region is boiling,” from both a political and military viewpoint.
“Christmas will be sad this year,” he added. “The religious ceremonies will take place but there will be no joy.”
Mayor Fuad Kokaly of Beit Sahour echoed his colleague’s sentiments. “Palestinians thought peace was coming, that we would get justice in the region,” he said. “And we were looking forward to a prosperous future, especially for the children.” Instead the result was “despair and loss of hope.”
He said that Palestinians were convinced that the peace process was built on security concerns only for Israel and that the emphasis that emerged was one of process not a search for true peace. When Palestinians tried to change the process, their efforts were rejected and “we realized that the process was fruitless,” he said. “And we were accused of being against peace.”
Sammy Khalil of Beit Jala added, “This is a war against usé”not just political but also religious.” He said that the Israelis are tightening their grip and denying access to places of worship in Jerusalem, especially now during the Islamic observance during month of Ramadan.
Driving out Christians?
On the way to visit some of the Christian homes in Beit Jala that have recently been bombed, the delegation was greeted by a sign that said, “Merry Xmas America. Thank you for your Xmas gifts,” showing helicopters and bombs with Israeli and American flags.
Down the road, the delegation was welcomed into the heavily damaged home of Dr. Nakhli Qaisieh and his family of 25, including 15 children. He said that the first attack began in the early evening and the family fled to the basement. As the attack became more serious, with heavier shelling, they fled for their lives.
Their house is on a ridge across from Gilo, one of the older Israeli settlements on the West Bank, leading some to speculate that the attacks, blamed on snipers in the area firing at the settlement, may be an effort to protect a by-pass road through the valley below.
The road connects Jerusalem and Hebron. And some are convinced it is still one more example of the attempt to drive out the Christians.
On the way back to the bus, members of the delegation also tiptoed through the shattered glass of an Arab Orthodox Sports Club and a neighboring school for girls, also targets for Israeli shells and bombs. Some members of the delegation picked up shell fragments clearly identified as being made in the USA.
As the delegation gathered at the Applied Research Center (ARIJ), a local non-governmental agency that deals with environmental issues, the news came that there were several more killings near Bethlehem, providing a grim context to what would be a grim conversation about Israel’s attempt to isolate and strangulate Palestinian areas in the West Bank.
In a thorough and sobering presentation, Dr. Jad Ishac used a series of overhead projections to illustrate how Israel was systematically creating “cages” for the Palestinian population, surrounded by Israeli settlements. One of the tactics is to take as much open space as possible, leaving the Palestinians living in increasingly dense areas that won’t be sustainable, what he called “a recipe for disaster.”
He showed how that would affect the Palestinian villages in the Jerusalem District and how it might be applied to Bethlehem.
He called the settlements “environmental disasters.” Not one of them, for example, has a waste treatment facility and they usually use Palestinian land as dumpsites. He drew some direct parallels between environmental issues and political issues.
Despite the gloomy predictions, he said that “everything is still achievable if we find a way, and if Israel stopped dealing with us in a master/slave relationship.”
But he is also convinced that “things may quiet down for a while but will explode again because the peace efforts are not built on pillars of justice.”
Strangulation and isolation
In a wide-ranging discussion after his presentation, Ishac tried to respond to the apparent frustration among members of the delegation in how to inform people in America about what is really happening in the region. “The Palestinian cause is not presented properly anywhere in the world,” he said. “And telling this story is a huge task but tell people to wake up.”
While the Americans may pressure Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to make some concessions, they can’t expect him to commit political suicide, he argued. “But we cannot accept the present situation,” he said. “In the meantime, encourage people to come here. Your presence is important.”
“We are caught between our national and religious loyalties. And we are getting close to extinction,” he concluded. The Christian population in Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza continues to dwindle, now estimated at less than 1.8 percent.
In a debriefing session later, Oden said that the presentation had been “the most substantive, the most important one of the dayé”but overwhelming.” He was relieved that most of the information was available on the center’s Web site at www.arij.org.
Chilstrom said that the obvious attempts at strangulation of the Palestinians, the attempt to tighten the noose, had disturbed him. Bishop Edmond Browning, former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, agreed, adding that he was convinced the Israelis had “a master plan” for isolating the Palestinians.
Patti Browning said that she was particularly upset that American tax dollars were being used in persecution of the Palestinians. She said that it is frustrating to try to tell the whole story to the people back home.. “How are we going to break through this barrier in our country?” she asked.
(Jim Solheim is director of the Episcopal Church’s Office of News and Information and is serving as press officer for the peace delegation.)