On a bright clear Sunday morning I stared at the beautiful hills and countryside of Biblical Judea and Samaria right outside my huge bay kitchen window. Many Sundays especially during these last 18 months of the Palestinian Uprising, we had to get ready for church listening to the horrid news that another bomb has gone off in Israel. There was a period of time where Sunday after Sunday an attack would take place that continues to brand the Palestinians as “terrorists.”
On a bright clear Sunday morning I stared at the beautiful hills and countryside of Biblical Judea and Samaria right outside my huge bay kitchen window. Many Sundays especially during these last 18 months of the Palestinian Uprising, we had to get ready for church listening to the horrid news that another bomb has gone off in Israel. There was a period of time where Sunday after Sunday an attack would take place that continues to brand the Palestinians as “terrorists.” And there’s nothing you can do with such news except go to church with a heavy heart and a very sick feeling in your stomach and pray to God for peace to come in the Land of Christ’s birth. I screamed at my children to hurry up since church attendance in our little Christian village of Taybeh is a number one priority and was quite relieved that Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) took a day off. But still the thought crossed my mind that in a land full of violence and bloodshed what kind of future do my children really have as part of the Christian minority?
Little did I know a psychological bomb was about to explode in the Khoury family. Every parent’s nightmare was about to happen following a Saturday night party in Miami. Our twenty-one year old cousin Ibrahim George Khoury tragically lost his life to a bullet that ripped through his heart. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time for a nice altar boy born in the village of Taybeh. As Palestine empties out of its Christian population, many families search for the “American Dream” of better education, better living conditions and better job opportunities. But, prosperity and success sometimes have a very high price. This family tragedy and shocking death made us re-evaluate our values, traditions and reasons for returning to the land of promise after twenty-four years of middle class America.
The current unemployment of over 60% in the village and the awful closure and terrible checkpoints still make every young man want to leave this Biblical town of Efraim. The new modern name “Taybeh” was given to the village during Salahdin’s visit in the late 12th century but our location is mentioned in the New Testament: “Jesus therefore walked no more openly among the Jews; but went thence unto a country near the wilderness, into a city called Ephraim…” (John 11:54). Therefore, the Christian presence in this village dates back to the time of Christ. The archeological ruins of the first St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church in Taybeh date back to the fourth century built by St. Helen when the Nativity Church was constructed in Bethlehem.
A mere ten to fifteen minutes drive from the village to the city of Ramallah takes over two to three hours depending on the checkpoints. I can almost handle one checkpoint with patience but when you stop three times on your way to school to show your identification traveling from a Palestinian village to a Palestinian city, it is frustrating because you are not going anywhere near Israel or threatening the security of Israel. The most aggravating feeling is when the soldiers deny you the right to pass. I JUST WANT TO BLOW UP!!! The worst I have experienced with the checkpoint phenomenon on more than one occasion is sitting at the Qalandia checkpoint for four hours following a tiring school day in a van with nine children, only three of which are my own. During the whole time, I kept yelling at all the young boys that came to hide behind my van and throw rocks at the soldiers. I kept screaming “Why do you want to die today, can you please go home.” In the mean time my sons were starring out the van window as soldiers were shooting more Palestinian boys hiding behind trashcans. We watch the violence as we watch a movie and ask for the Grace of God to keep us safe. By the time we get home some days, it is completely dark out and we get up the next morning at 6 am to go through the same miserable way because it is the only way to get to school in Palestine. All the main roads have been blocked for such a long time. Money can buy you solutions, so we took an apartment in the city of Ramallah to avoid these checkpoints but when the Israeli tanks invaded and the noise of shooting was constant, my children wished to sleep in the village where they had less fear and anxiety.
Following the Oslo Peace Agreement, the picturesque Taybeh village was not a bad place to raise children. We would avoid the Saturday night parties because everyone just visits their grandmother. We would not have teenage peer pressure for drugs because they were simply not available in a little village on the West Bank. We would avoid the malls and being spoiled with too much materialism because we would see so many people that don’t even have food to eat. We would easily go to church on Sundays because there would be no hockey conflicts or soccer games at the same time. Raising children in a small Christian village in the Holy Land appeared like an innocent and wholesome upbringing. There was only one small problem. As an American of Greek descent, I did not have any connection to this land. However, with time and with personal and psychological suffering, the land of Christ’s birth gave me a deep spiritual awakening as an Orthodox Christian.
I felt it was the legacy of my children to experience their Palestinian Christian roots since their father, a Palestinian Orthodox Christian had grown up in this tiny village where everyone is related. I thought my children would know themselves deeply if they developed a strong sense of cultural identity and experienced the richness of the Palestinian culture. I even firmly believed the love of a close-knit extended family would help my children be good human beings. When I met my husband at Hellenic College in Boston in the late 70’s, I must admit I did not know anything about Palestinians and truthfully speaking I did not even know there were any Christians in the Holy Land. However, being an obedient wife, I followed him to the land of promise. His personal promises that it was the best place in the world to raise responsible children. It has been a long, painful and rewarding six-year learning adventure.
My husband had a dream to return to his homeland, to be an obedient son who travels to the West for education and money and brings back the skills and the knowledge to help Palestine. It’s the ultimate dream of every Palestinian father. It’s sort of a noble thing to do and being an entrepreneur, he talked the family into building a microbrewery in the village of Taybeh that would boost the Palestinian economy. The Oslo Peace Agreement gave many people a false promise of peace and prosperity that led into over five years of frozen negotiations where people continued to invest in Palestine. “Taybeh Beer” was launched in the market in the summer of l995 as the first Palestinian beer and the only microbrewery in the Middle East. We also spent five years out of suitcases building a huge stone mansion that now we pray the apache helicopters will not see if they decide to bomb Taybeh. The new beer was so successful that it made history in Palestine by being the first and only Palestinian product to be franchised and brewed in Germany under the Taybeh Beer license. Hundreds of newspapers articles were written because reporters were so curious who are these people who invest millions of dollars to produce beer in a 98% Muslim population. These brave and loyal men are my husband David C. Khoury and my ingenious brother-in-law Nadim. They invested their heart, soul and money to help build Palestine. Receiving Arafat’s blessing for the brewery was also a test when there would be a democratic Palestinian state, there would be a place for the Christian minority.
Then came Sharon and September 28, 2000 and all the dreams of Palestinians that had returned to their homeland following the Oslo Agreement were shattered. Slowly but surely, destruction took place each day with bombings, shootings, assisinations and outright massacres of unarmed civilians. The Israelis have destroyed lives, houses, businesses, roads, olive trees, the economy and education. Everything that was built following Oslo and any progress made was completely ruined. The list of destruction is far too long. There is nothing left to destroy except the peoples’ will power to be free and to seek their human rights and independence. We watched as many families picked up their belongings and returned to their previous lives. They all gave up the hotels they built, the battery factories they created, the health clinics they established. These Palestinians tried to invest and live in Palestine but could not handle the harsh conditions imposed by the Israelis. They gave up the dream to help their homeland and to live in the land of promise. Sometimes I just can’t understand my husband’s decision to stay especially when the imported bottles that he needs so desperately to fill with “Taybeh Beer” are stuck at the Israeli port due to red tape. The fees and storage costs are far beyond what the bottles are worth themselves. I feel it is such a high price to pay, financially and psychologically, to be a Palestinian businessman. Not to mention a 40% production tax that basically cripples you as a new business. The war against the Palestinian economhy is an entire story by itself.
When the Palestinian Intifada first broke out, we would usually wake up every morning not knowing if we were going to school or not. You must get up, get dressed and try to go to school before you discover the road situation. There is nothing more frustrating than going through all the preparations and not being able to have a school day. Sometimes the road was open, sometimes the road was closed. Sometimes you make it all the way to school passing many checkpoints just to find the school was cancelled because of a funeral or protest. Sometimes while in school, a bomb would go off in Israel and we couldn’t get back home. This anxiety was unbearable and drove me crazy. Not knowing day to day what will happen. In the fall of 2000, it was so common to hear “they’re bombing Ramallah.” I would drop everything, try to get my children out of school as fast as possible and get back to the village where it was perceived safer. So, you have hundreds of parents doing the same thing. There was panic in the streets and in the schools. The constant fear was very nerve recking.
To top off this instability, constant attacks were happening on the roads because we have hundreds of illegal Israeli settlements choking us up in the West Bank. Israeli settlers killing Palestinians and Palestinian gunman killing Israeli settlers back and forth until the violence escalates so much that it’s totally out of control and takes on a life by itself. Then we would observe an abnormal kind of quiet, which is the type of quiet before a heavy storm. There is so much anxiety and confusion, you can’t decide what scares you the most, the violence itself or the silence before the bloodshed occurs. Driving down these roads where innocent people were killed every day was not the easiest thing in the world. The only comfort I could possibly give my children was explaining to them that if it was God’s Will for us to die, we would die no matter where we live. For the first three months, I would physically shake driving to school every day. Now, I have somewhat adjusted myself. I just do my cross and say my prayers. I have gained a type of inner peace that allows me to live here and see devastation all around me. I must admit, I owe this inner peace to each and every person that prays for me. May God be with you.
What really amazes me the most is day in and day out, I see and experience the suffering of the Palestinian people and the world continues to support Israel and allow them to get away with human right violations. I am amazed at how people survive on such low incomes and under such awful conditions. Any human being living under these harsh conditions of Israeli Military Occupation would turn into a terrorist because you reach a mental point of either “freedom or death.” My children keep reminding me of the license plate they saw in New Hampshire on their summer vacation stating “live free or die.” I can’t remember this plate myself because they say I have lived four decades. But my children insist that if Americans can make such statements why can’t Palestinians have the same rights. The struggle for freedom has taken more than fifty years. In this new millennium we must give Palestinians their full human rights and treat them as part of humanity not creatures of a lesser God. For the love of humanity, peace should come to this region where the Prince of Peace lived.
It is important to keep a Christian presence in the Holy Land because it is the land of Christ’s Birth. The Holy Land being the “mother church” of Western Christianity stands proud to have so many brothers and sisters in Christ. Together we can work for a great awareness of the Palestinian struggle so that congress can have real names and real faces of how the American support to Israel affects over three million Palestinians in a negative way and cheats them from their basic rights. We need many prayers to live together as Christians, Muslims and Jews in this precious land. We need people to make their government officials aware of the atrocities that occur in the Holy Land. We need people who can see the human suffering that the Zionist movement created since l948. We need the occupation to end. We need the world to see the suffering and humiliation the Palestinians face every day. We need the world to understand the cause of terrorism is the Israeli occupation itself and America’s policy in the Middle East.
Living in the land of promise may be full of bloodshed, violence and deep anxiety but also it has been the place where I have grown very close to God. I literally must live each day as if it is the last day of my life. Praying more, going to confession and fasting help me realize our final destiny is the kingdom of God. I truly believe God gives us every blessing and every suffering so that we may come to know Him who gives us eternal life. All the riches and the materialism in this world will not provide a place for us in God’s kingdom. It is only our good works on earth that will count and the firm belief that Christ is our Savior. When Christ is in your heart you do love your neighbor as yourself and forgiveness becomes essential. As Christians our ultimate goal is to give glory to God. We are called to see God in each and every human being. Let us pray these Christian values and principles can be practiced in the land of promise, in the land of Canaan as is my first born son’s name who as a young Palestinian Christian proudly carries his grandfather’s name “Canaan.”
Editor’s Note: Maria C. Khoury is the author of four Orthodox Christian Children’s books published in Jerusalem. She has written over forty articles helping bring awareness to the Christian presence in the Holy Land.