Stories from the West Bank
I must admit that I have been back in the States for two weeks now since my journey with Christian Peacemaker Teams into the heart of the West Bank. Besides a weekend speaking engagement in Farmington, New Mexico, there is a reason why I haven’t written about my experiences yet. The reason is because I’m at a loss for words and I wonder how many of my readers will understand the inner turmoil I am going through about speaking out on a highly sensitive political and theological issue, an issue that could potentially isolate me from a lot of people who have loved me and supported me over the years. I’ve already begun writing a draft of this letter and I’ve had to scrap what I’ve previously written. As much as I’ve tried, I’m just not sure how to communicate to my evangelical Christian brothers and sisters the day to day suffering of the Palestinian people living in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip without running the risk of being labeled an anti-Semite, a heretic, one-sided, or just plain naïve. Worse yet, how do I communicate what I’ve seen without actually becoming those things?
Since the issues are still raw for me at this point, I’ve decided to focus on the stories of people I met on my journey and to try to communicate the situation on the ground from their perspectives. First, let me tell you about Fadi. Fadi is a Palestinian Christian living in Bethlehem. Fadi is the associate pastor of a charismatic church and teaches at Bethlehem Bible College. When Fadi took a group of Palestinian Christians to a conference in Korea, it took the group 12 hours to get to Amman, Jordan (a trip that should only take 1 hour). Because Fadi and the group were Palestinians, they had to pass through a check point to leave Bethlehem, a checkpoint to enter Jericho, and then when the group reached the border to Jordan, they had to cross a Palestinian checkpoint, two Israeli checkpoints, and, finally, the Jordanian checkpoint. If Fadi wants to go to East Jerusalem, he has to apply for a permit, which he may or may not get, and, if he does, he may only be allowed into the city for 5-7 hours. Those who are fortunate enough to get permits to work in East Jerusalem, must get up at 3:30 a.m. in order to get to their work-place (which is only 8 miles away) by 7:30 a.m. The reason for this is because a gigantic wall built by the Israeli military within the past four years now surrounds Bethlehem. Both Fadi and his siblings, even though they are Christians, identify with the struggle of the Palestinian people and wished that more Americans knew that people like them existed, let alone understand their plight.
The wall, which the Israelis call a “security fence,” is not built around the internationally recognized border separating the state of Israel from the occupied territories (which is called the Green Line). The wall cuts right into the heart of the West Bank, dividing people from their families, separating people from their farmland, and, in most cases, cutting the people off from any significant means of survival- all without compensation. In some cases, the wall actually surrounds people’s homes so that when they look out their windows, there is a concrete wall staring back at them over twice the size of the house and surrounding them on three sides. I met one Palestinian family (a Christian family) who had a thriving business out of their garage on a very busy street, but now the wall surrounds their home like a prison. They no longer have the means to support themselves.
In many cases, the wall is strategically placed to separate the Jewish settlements from their Palestinian neighbors and to ensure that the bulk of the water resources are diverted to the settlers. Not only do the settlements use a disproportionate amount of the water resources (as was the case in the Gaza strip when there were 9.000 settlers surrounded by 12,000 soldiers living among 2 million Palestinians and diverting 40% of the water resources), I also heard many stories of the settlements, which are nearly all sitting on top of hills adjacent to Palestinian villages, dumping their sewage onto the hillsides. The settlers then build walls to isolate themselves from their neighbors. As one Palestinian Christian man put it sadly to me, “They don’t even want to see our faces.”
After the settlements are well established (the definition of a settlement being a town built for Jews only outside the internationally recognized border for the state of Israel) and the people have no hope of farming their land again, the IDF (the Israeli Defense Force) then builds roads to connect the settlements, roads that are for Israelis only. In many cases, if a home is in the way or anywhere near the road, it is simply demolished (again without compensation). Such was the case with Atta, a Palestinian tomato farmer whose home I stayed in for a night. Atta’s home has already been demolished twice and the home he is living in currently is his third home. If Atta and his family leave the house for any lengthy period of time, they face the risk of armed Jewish settlers seizing the house and claiming it for God (which has happened once before). Atta does not hate the Jewish people however. According to his understanding of what it means to be a good Muslim, Atta believes God has taught him to love everybody and to treat everyone with respect. Atta believes that all violence is wrong and wants Jews, Christians, and Muslims to be able to live together with each religion able to practice their faith freely. Both times his home has been destroyed, Jewish peace activists have helped him rebuild.
Next stop: Susiya and Atwani. I’m not even sure where to begin when talking about these villages. First, I’ll start with the children. Because the children living near Atwani have to walk between two heavily guarded settlements to get to school, they face the daily threat of attacks from Jewish settlers. In the past, the elementary school children have been harassed and attacked by grown men wearing black masks. Because of this, they have to be escorted to school by Israeli soldiers who often either don’t show up or, if they do, will make the journey difficult by going too fast in their jeeps for them to follow. Though some of the soldiers aren’t as bad (some have been known to give the kids candy from time to time), Josh, a full time worker with Christian Peacemaker teams, lives in Atwani so that he can monitor the soldiers to make sure the kids can travel to school safely and without harassment. On other days Josh, along with four other team members, carries a video camera with him as he watches the shepherds and the farmers who also face daily threats and harassments (and sometimes attacks) by the settlers. The settlers can carry hand pistols. The Palestinian farmers cannot.
As I walked through the villages of Susiya and At-Wani, the stories were very similar. In Susiya, I saw a community of people living in tents. Each and every tent had been demolished more than once and, even though the Israeli high court declared that the land was theirs, they still needed a permit to live on the land. The villagers showed me a cistern that the IDF came and filled with rocks so that the people would not be able to access their water supply. A similar occurrence happened in At-Wani, only, in that case it was the combination of the settlers and the military working together. A group of settlers poisoned their water supply with a poison that can only be obtained by a government issued permit. Because of the poisoned water supply, in addition to restricted water access, the people were not able to sell their sheep that drank from the water, thus crippling the village economy. Because the villagers are living under military occupation, they had no legal recourse and there has never been an investigation to this day.
After spending time in Susiya and Atwani, the team went to Hebron, a city where over 850 shops have been closed down by a military order, the people have to pass through 101 checkpoints to get to where they need to go, and where just a few short years ago, the people endured a 586 day curfew where they could only come out of their homes once a week for a period of three hours before they had to return to their homes. As I walked through the streets, I noticed several nets hanging above me connecting the buildings on both sides. I also noticed bottles and blocks and numerous other dangerous objects lying on top of the nets. These were areas where the settlers (who are fully protected by the Israeli military) would throw things out the windows for the sole purpose of maiming or killing the Palestinians walking on the streets.
How did the settlers arrive in Hebron? The stories I heard were mostly the same regardless of where I went. A Palestinian leaves their home for a few days, a Jewish settler moves in while they are absent, the Israeli military declares their home or apartment a closed military zone, and the individual or family is unable to return. Entire apartment complexes are seized this way and when the process is complete, the Israeli military will shut down a street, force the people out of their homes or shops, and declare it a street for Jews only.
In Hebron I met many fascinating people, including two Palestinian journalists who told stories of Palestinian human rights activists being arrested without charges and enduring torture in Israeli prisons. The journalists themselves showed scars on their bodies from the beatings they have endured from the Israeli soldiers in the past. I also met with local Palestinian police who were struggling to maintain order among their people despite the obstacles the Israeli military put in their way (like letting a thief get away and not allowing the police to pass through the checkpoints).
One of the most inspiring people I met was Zleika. Zleika is a schoolteacher who courageously defied the curfew imposed by the IDF, often going out during the day and forming a line to take her students to school. Zleika told us about a day she was passing through a checkpoint holding a sack of sweet potatoes in her hands when a female soldier made the comment “garbage holding garbage.” When the soldier asked her what was in the bag, Zleika replied, “That is my business, not yours.” The soldier responded by pushing Zleika to the ground and beating her repeatedly. The soldiers standing by did nothing. After Zleika got up, the other soldiers joined in by throwing her to the ground, strip-searching her twice, and, when the incident was over, they took Zleika to the police where she was questioned for 10 hours. The female soldier claimed that Zleika beat her up. The police told her that if the case went to court, she would have to pay 1,000 shekels (roughly 250 dollars, equivalent to 3 months wages).
Through meeting with groups like ACRI (the Association of Civil Rights in Israel), the UNRWA (the United Nations Relief Workers Agency), and even the Palestinian YMCA, I learned about many of the numerical facts on the ground. For example, in the past 7 years, over 466,000 olive trees have been uprooted by the Israeli army in order to make room for new settlements and the electric wall that divides people from their families. Many of these olive trees are over 2,000 years old and are considered heirlooms by their owners. A significant amount of Palestinians also rely on these olive trees to feed their families. In addition to the olive trees that have been destroyed, the Israeli army has destroyed 1.4 million trees and thousands of acres of farmland in the Palestinian territories since September of 2,000.
I also learned that in 1948, the year Israel became a nation, approximately 800,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes. Many of them were forced out at gunpoint, others left out of fear. During this time, children were slaughtered, women were raped, houses were burned to the ground, land mines were planted, and Israeli tanks shelled entire villages. Overall 531 villages were destroyed. Those who fled for their lives have not been allowed to return to their homes till this day even though international law mandates their right of return. While some claim that the masses of people fled to join Arab armies to drive Jews into the sea, (I’ve heard this argument by John Hagee, Hal Lindsey, and others), the facts simply do not match these claims.
For those interested in reading about this period of time from the perspective of an Israeli Jewish historian, click on the link below.
One of the things that surprised me was that many of the refugees I met actually preferred a one state solution to the conflict over a two state solution. Though it has been 60 years, the families I met showed me deeds to their homes that date back to the Ottoman empire and told me that all they wanted was to return to rebuild their homes and villages (which most of them remain unoccupied to this day with the exception for a third of them which were taken over by Jews). According to one intellectual I met, over 65% of the Palestinian elite want a secular democracy with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians alike. Their attitude is that if Jews can build towns in the West Bank, then they should be able to live in Haifa or Tel Aviv.
By far the person that made the greatest impression on me was a young man named Gilad. Gilad is an Israeli Jew who works with an organization called ICAHD, which stands for Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions. After Gilad graduated from high school, he refused to serve the mandatory two years in the army for reasons of conscience. Though he has been culturally ostracized from many of his friends and family for refusing to join the IDF, Gilad works to rebuild Palestinian homes that have been demolished by the IDF.
Before taking the team on a tour of East and West Jerusalem, Gilad gave a lecture on how traditionally the Israeli/Palestinian issue has been viewed in the western media from the prism of Israeli security verses Palestinian terrorism. Gilad wanted the team to rethink the issue in light of human rights and international law. Gilad referred to “the matrix of control” a term used to describe all the different ways in which the Israeli government maintains their dominion over the Palestinian people. In addition to talking about the home demolitions, Gilad talked about the land seizures, the curfews, the disproportionate use of force aimed at the civilian population (like the shelling of neighborhoods, the shooting of children), the road closures, the concrete blocks the IDF puts in front of Palestinian villages to restrict commerce, the checkpoints, the travel restrictions, the permit system, the diversion of the water resources and the cutting off of electricity. All of these form what Gilad calls the matrix of control.
As Gilad gave the team a bus tour of East and West Jerusalem, he instructed us to pay attention to the difference in living conditions between West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem. According to Gilad, Palestinians comprise 38% of the population, pay 40% of the taxes, but receive only 8% of the tax revenue in the form of services. Even though they should be considered Israeli citizens (since East Jerusalem was officially annexed to Israel in 1967), they are not. The people have to carry a special form of I.D. indicating they are from East Jerusalem. More importantly, they are not allowed permits to build homes. Every year, approximately 100 Palestinian homes are demolished in East Jerusalem. The people wake up in the morning with an eviction notice. They are given two hours to pack up everything and leave. After their home is demolished, the IDF hands the family a bill to pay for the demolition. The official government policy to support this practice is called “Judaization.” Since 1967, over 18,000 homes have been demolished. Only 5% were declared to be for security reasons. The official reason is to preserve the Jewish majority. Every year, entire Bedouin villages are leveled in the Negev valley (which is inside the state of Israel) for the official reason of maintaining the demographic balance by preserving the Jewish majority.
The Bible says in Proverbs 18:17, “The first one to plead his cause seems right until his neighbor comes and examines him.” Like many of my friends and family, I have only heard one side of this story for most of my life. Not only was I raised reading books by Hal Lindsey, Pat Robertson, John Hagee and other charismatic leaders (many who raise millions of dollars to finance Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip), I also attended a Bible School that taught me if I didn’t support the Jewish people in reclaiming the Promised Land, I’d make myself an enemy of God. Needless to say, for the first 23 years of my life, I don’t think I could have had the frame of reference to view this conflict in an objective manner by any meaningful sense of the word. It wasn’t until three years ago when I read a book called “Light Force” by Brother Andrew, one of the greatest missionaries of the 20th century, that I started to hear the perspective of King Solomon’s examining neighbor.
I’m still not sure if I’m objective. Now that I’ve seen what the other side of the story looks like, I’m not even sure if objectivity is possible anymore. Whether one has an insiders’ perspective on a situation or an outsiders’ perspective on a situation, all of us interact with the world around us based on presuppositions (whether philosophical or theological) that determine how we interpret everything we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Sometimes our presuppositions are right. Other times they’re dead wrong.
Though many things remain unclear to me regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, what is crystal clear to me is this conflict is clearly a conflict between the powerful and the powerless, the Israelis being the powerful and the Palestinians being the powerless. Those who argue that a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem or a Bedouin living in the Negev Valley (which is inside Israel) have the same rights as a Jew living in Tel Aviv are either willfully ignorant or delusional. What is also clear to me is this is not merely a conflict of Jews verses Arabs or Israelis verses Palestinians. Rather, it’s a conflict between Israeli and Palestinian war-makers verses Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers. Both sides have villains who want to drive the other into the sea and heroes who work tirelessly for peace and reconciliation. Also on both sides are the vast majority of people who are neither heroes nor villains, but ordinary people who want peace on one hand, but fear for their safety and well being on the other hand.
On our last day in Hebron, I was pleased to have the opportunity to take part in a symbolic action helping a Palestinian farmer and his family harvest their olive trees. On the man’s property, Jewish settlers have built a sidewalk cutting through his orchard and nearly every day the settlers walk through his property with guns in their pockets, hate in their eyes, and threats on their lips. What gave me hope that day was seeing an Israeli peace activist that I had met earlier on the trip working side by with the Palestinian farmer helping him pick olives from his olive tree. As I was observing the two working side by side, a thought entered my mind that has been with me ever since and refuses to let me go to sleep at night.
Which is more Christ-like? The TV evangelist who cheered last year as Israeli warplanes were dropping bombs on buses and bridges in Lebanon, calling the action a “miracle from God” -or the liberal Jew picking olives with a Palestinian farmer? Even more nagging is this question. What does it say about the state of the American Church, a Church comprised of millions of people who claim to follow the Prince of Peace, if I as an American Christian, would have to prepare a two hundred-page theological dissertation to defend myself for picking option number two?
While there is still time,
p.s. Here is a link to the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition’s website. The link will take you to an excellent article called “Facts on the Ground” to give you a better understanding of what I have described. They also have an excellent FAQ section on the political issues.
p.p.s. Here is a link to a group called “Breaking the Silence.” This organization is a group of former Israeli soldiers speaking out against abuses in Hebron. http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/index_e.asp
p.p.p.s Here is a link to Ilan Pappe’s website. Ilan Pappe is an Israeli Jewish historian who has written extensively on the events surrounding the formation of Israel in 1948. Understanding how the two sides view the same year is crucial to understanding the rest of the conflict.