Not so long ago, when more and more people began to hear of the realities of life for ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, their reaction was very often one of disbelief.
Not so long ago, when more and more people began to hear of the realities of life for ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, their reaction was very often one of disbelief. When Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land heard such responses in his travels over the world, he very often replied, “Please do not take my word for anything. Come and see!”
My wife Anne and I just returned from a visit to Jerusalem where we provided a tiny bit of support for a church project in exchange for a fantastic time with friends, both old and new, coupled with a sobering, renewed encounter with those same realities. The hospitality was exactly what we have come to know of the people there, warm, inviting, and sincere. Yet in the midst of reunions, rejoicing, and relaxation was the constant reminder that the news the rest of the world hears not only distorts the actual circumstances in which people live, but leads hearers to assume either of two diametrically opposite perceptions: (1)that positive change is happening, or (2)that positive change is impossible. Either perception serves well the motives of those—regardless of which side they purport to stand on—who believe they will benefit from a prolonging of the conflict. Harsh as this assessment may sound to some, it is the result of 60 years of “official” conflict and more than 40 years of occupation of the Palestinian Territories by the nation of Israel, sufficient time to institutionalize the clash so that the previous generation’s assumptions and images do not need to be argued or justified today for the casual, or even the committed foreign observer. Those assumptions and images seem real and true from a distance, but are seen as hollow and tragic at the distance of a handshake, an embrace…or a rifle barrel. So many of those who came to the land in recent years have departed with the clear understanding that the conflict ceased long ago to be a question of security of either the people of Israel or Palestine. Now it is a struggle for two national identities: the Israelis who have never declared precisely what borders or limits they claim for their state and the Palestinians who have never had a state…only a home.
Here in the West we read and hear the headline-makers: Israelis in the desert town of Sderot under daily Qassam rocket barrages with swift Israeli retaliation, and we assume that this is war without end. In truth, as horrible as it sounds, many benefit from these exchanges. Israel has a constant rallying cry to gather its supporters with their votes, vows, and voices. Hamas, in sole control in Gaza, daily demonstrates that it alone holds the keys to any peace process. When news reports tell us of the ongoing violence, they now mention only that Hamas seized control of Gaza from rival Fatah in June of last year. They conveniently fail to remind us that Hamas was democratically elected to lead the Palestinian people, but that Israel and the United States have linked arms to guarantee that the people will never have the opportunity to see if their choice was a wise one. Here we read of the paralyzing split between Hamas and Fatah and the efforts of Israel and the U.S. to work with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to achieve peace. It is as if we are to believe that peace with justice is possible when one and one-half million Palestinians are completely cut off from sisters, fathers, and heritage. There we watch with dismay as the nascent Palestinian state is skillfully dissected into entities labeled Gaza and the West Bank, and both are forced to stand in helpless dread as their heart in Jerusalem is removed from them.
Here we read that Israel is removing roadblocks and other impediments to movement—not on the line between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but within the West Bank itself. There we find a military version of a “shell game,” in which barriers are added just before Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announces that two score and more such impediments will be dismantled. From a distance it looks like genuine progress. Up close we count even more road closures, earth mounds, and checkpoints than before.
Here we hear threads of a conversation about the curtailment of the illegal Israeli settlement building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. There we witness the relentless tide of housing in one settler enclave after another, built on confiscated land while Palestinians are denied permits to build their own houses on their own land. No one asks why any more. The answer is all too clear and well known.
Is it all bad news? Absolutely not! We listened to Israelis who deplore what their government is doing in their name. We learned of Israelis who were arrested and imprisoned for publicly opposing the demolition of Palestinian houses, destroyed for no legitimate reason. We listened with tears and anguish of the bereaved—both Israeli and Palestinian—who seek not revenge but reconciliation. We broke bread with courageous women, men, and children who calmly walk the daily gauntlets of humiliation with a dignity and a grace that soars far above anything I can hope to achieve myself. And we met again the selfless individuals who are there on behalf of all of us in other lands, speaking, walking with their sisters and brothers, aiding, giving, serving, that the oppressed and the fearful might see light in the midst of darkness.
“Come and see!” he said. And when you do—whether in person or vicariously through others who go—remember to listen to “officialspeak,” but also to venture into the West Bank, share with those who live under another’s power, but who wish and pray only to live in freedom…hear the voices and the lives of the real peacemakers—those who shun the ways of violence and walk the often lonely road that leads to justice, mutual respect and understanding, and reconciliation.
Then let your leaders—religious, political, military, national—know that there is another truth…and another way.