It was a night to remember. I was in a city that has become synonymous with violence, especially in the past few months. International broadcasts have portrayed Ramallah as a refuge for Islamic fundamentalists, of heavily masked demonstrators and terrorists. By Ruby Peckford, Independent Media Producer and Consultant other side of the tank was a UN car with 2 men sitting inside. I didn't stop nor even look back and eventually arrived at the Bible College. Later in the day we learned that Jewish settlers had come to Rachel's Tomb to pray. Rachel's tomb is about a 2-minute walk from the Bible College. It is now sealed off and looks like a fortress with high concrete walls barricading it and watchtowers and sandbags at the top.
Things were never dull around Bethlehem and the surrounding cities and towns. I met the mayors of Bethlehem and Beit Jalla (a Christian man) and also the Governor of Palestine, who was representing Arafat, at a Syrian Orthodox Christmas mass. I was part of the procession, led by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and followed by dignitaries of church and state. Bishara Awad, President of the Bethlehem Bible College, invited Richard and me to go along with him. Thousands crowded into Nativity Square for this annual Orthodox Christmas event. During the week we also visited homes that were bombed, one in particular owned by Palestinian Christians whom we met. She was a student at Dallas Theological seminary a couple of years ago and her husband is blind. In the midst of their painful loss, they were so thankful to God that their lives were spared. Their beautiful home was completely destroyed by Israeli bombs from the West Jerusalem settlement of Gilo. We visited other homes and a school where the gate was full of bullet holes.
I decided not to go to Gaza with Brother Andrew this time but spent that Sunday visiting a couple of churches in East and West Jerusalem. I reconnected with long time Canadian friends, Rev. Wayne and Ann Hilsden, who pastor the largest Evangelical church in Jerusalem. They meet in the auditorium of the YMCA, across from the King David hotel, where world leaders stay when they visit Israel. We attended their church service on Sunday evening. I also reconnected with Israeli Arab Christian friends, Nizaar and Ellen Shaheen, who produce Christian television programs there. Ellen is Canadian and I worked in television with her father when I produced the children's TV series years ago in Canada. We had a grand reunion at the Hilsdons' home one evening and then a couple of different times before my return home.
On a lighter note, Richard and I did experience safer areas, with no roadblocks, in southern Israel. However, leaving Bethlehem to catch a bus in West Jerusalem for Eilat presented another challenge. When we got to the checkpoint to Jerusalem we discovered we couldn't even walk across the border. The Israelis were not letting anybody across not even VIP's or tourists, they said. We turned around and then found a Palestinian taxi driver who took us on a route we had never been on before in Beit Jalla. He dropped us and said there'd be a taxi along soon. We waited and waited. Fortunately Richard could speak Arabic, so when a van came along, he and a Palestinian man flagged it down and we were able to negotiate a price and got a ride to Jerusalem. We made it to the bus in time for the 10AM departure so off we went to Dead Sea and the Red Sea and stayed for a couple of days in Eilat, which borders Jordan and Egypt. This is a very expensive tourist area of Israel. However, even there, the hotels and beaches were practically empty. The tourist industry has been hit hard since the Intifada started back in fall. On the night before I left 300,000 Israelis demonstrated around the Old City and when the Shaheens came to pick us up so I could wait at their house until my 4AM departure for the airport they were forbidden to cross the checkpoint. After waiting past the expected time, I called their cell phone. Richard and I then took a taxi to the checkpoint and hiked across the border with our entire luggage.
There are many other stories to tell, but hopefully you get an impression of how difficult life is there, especially for the Palestinians. When there are closures, they cannot get to work; they are frustrated and scared; and their desire truly is to just be allowed to live peacefully in the land of their forefathers. Their story needs to be told and I try as the Bible says to "speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." Proverbs 31:8-9. I relate equally well to the Israelis and the Palestinians but I must admit my heart goes out to the suffering Palestinians. I prayed continually for the compassion of Christ, the Holy One, in this troubled land.