Building Bridges, Not Walls: My Visit to Palestine
A Reflection by Rateb Y. Rabie, KCHS, HCEF President and CEO
“A future awaits those who seek peace”
Every year, I take an extended trip to Palestine to check on our programs, develop new ideas with staff, and meet with HCEF’s beneficiaries and partners. And every year, I write a reflection to keep our international supporters abreast of HCEF’s work and of the situation in Palestine. This year, I reflect on my recent visit with a complicated mixture of dismay, urgency and hope.
I am at dismayed at the difficult conditions under which our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land still live. The current dynamic of violence is severe. Since violence intensified in October 2015, there have been over 175 Palestinians killed, many of them under the age of 21, and most of them killed extra judicially. The last few months have seen a spike in night raids, imprisonments, and home demolitions. Just this week, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah stressed to a British Parliamentary delegation that Palestine needs more support from international forces, since disregard for Palestinian lives is evidently widespread. Likewise, approximately 25 Israelis have been killed, mostly soldiers who serve out of obligation to their government.
As a Christian, it is disheartening to see such violence in the land of Christ’s birth and ministry, where Jesus’ message of peace first emerged. HCEF condemns any violent action taken against a person, whether they are Jewish, Muslim or Christian. Our longstanding mission is to work through our Christian faith to build a bridge of peace, sharing common ground with Jews, Muslims and all people of good faith. Rather than take a staunch political side, we instead take the side of humanity, believing always in the power of truth and justice. We urge people to do the same. It is evident that Occupation is the root cause of the violence in this region, and until we deal with the difficult questions head on, the violence will continue. We must move past the symptoms and look honestly at the root if we are to have any chance of fostering peace. So long as this violence continues, we are all losers in this conflict. We must find a way to work toward peace and justice for all. It is with this urgency, that I write this year’s reflection.
Despite my dismay, however, I am also heartened by the ways in which HCEF’s work, accomplished through the generosity of its many, many contributors, has positively impacted these conditions. At a time when our region of the world is embroiled in conflict and violence, I am impressed by the resilience and determination of the Palestinian people to persevere; to keep the light of Christ illuminating the path to peace. Throughout my visit, I had many opportunities to witness this incredible perseverance.
During a field visit with the Society of St. Ives, a Catholic human rights organization providing gratis legal assistance, counsel and advocacy to the local community, I learned about recent developments in the Cremisan Valley case. In August 2015, despite constraints from the Israeli High Court, the Israeli Ministry of Defense began construction of an annexation wall that would illegally expand Israeli territory through the confiscation of Palestinian and Church land. During my field visit, I toured the many areas affected by the land dispute: I visited the Salesian Sisters Convent, which houses the only school in Bethlehem for children with learning challenges; I stood on the giant foundation of the annexation wall which will soon tower over the land, and I listened to the heartrending testimonies of a local landowners. My heart was broken to see this massive cement structure threatening to consume this beautiful valley, from which some archaeologists believe that stones for the building of the Church of the Nativity were first quarried. Standing amidst the uprooted olive trees, bulldozed agricultural lands, and cement rubble, reaffirmed my belief that what we need to build most in this troubled region are bridges, not walls.
Also during my stay, I had the distinct privilege of visiting HCEF’s Birzeit Senior Citizen Center (BSCC), located in Birzeit, a town where my own family has deep roots. I was pleased to find the Elders in good health and enjoying BSCC’s diverse programming, which is constantly expanding to meet the changing needs of the community it serves. I felt reinvigorated as I listened attentively to the Elders speak about their personal histories, families, and challenges. I was touched by their warm welcome and heartened by the impact that HCEF is making in the lives of these important individuals—the Living Stones. In the coming year, we hope to make renovations that will allow for BSCC to continue to grow and flourish.
Throughout my tour, I also met with longtime, as well as emerging, HCEF partners to brainstorm how we can work together in the coming years to make meaningful change for the people of Palestine. I was encouraged by our conversations and look forward to the many activities ahead.
Among those I found most heartening were my conversations with the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, H.E. Fouad Twal, as well as with his clergy and staff. Together, we discussed the many challenges facing the Christian community in Palestine, and brainstormed ways to improve our programing and to increase the support offered to our communities. Most importantly, we recommitted ourselves to interfaith work for peace and justice, which we see as the most viable path to cultivating peace in the Holy Land.
I also had the opportunity to witness firsthand the incredible impact of our Housing Rehabilitation Program (HRP) and our Water Cistern Renovation Project. Every year, these initiatives help Christian families to stay in the Holy Land by improving their living conditions. To date, HRP has repaired over 450 homes. I was touched by the stories of the many families we have helped and remain in awe of the unbelievable difference these simple initiatives are making. Likewise, our Water Cistern Renovation Project has rehabilitated over 28 water cisterns, providing clean water to numerous local homes, community centers, and church communities.
Lastly, I spent most of my days working alongside HCEF’s team in Palestine, whose intelligence, drive and commitment to the organization and its mission gives me confidence that we can achieve anything we set our minds and hearts to. As we looked to HCEF’s future, we discussed the many initiatives on the horizon. This year, we will be adding new staff to our team, we will welcome more volunteers, and we will expand our partnerships to elevate the caliber of service we provide to our beneficiaries. We also look forward to bringing our Diaspora home through our upcoming Diaspora Homecoming Journey and our 5th Annual International Diaspora Conference.
Though our dreams are big, after 17 years in operation, I have faith that HCEF will find the resources and support it needs to achieve those dreams—to continue with our critical mission of replacing despair with hope, fear with security and humiliation with dignity.
Thank you and God bless,
Rateb Y. Rabie, KCHS