< Report Five
Final Days of the Delegation: Bethlehem, Bil'in, and Jaffa
All along the watchtower, so the Bob Dylan song goes, the princess kept the view. It was a song that despite its faux medieval setting was all about the Viet Nam War. The music was filled with menace, filled with a sense that something really dreadful was sure to happen, and happen soon. When you see a tower about thirty feet tall, a column of gray with about twelve-foot diameter, capped with an observation post, and then you see that the observation post has tinted windows and the top overall is often draped with camouflage, you get the same feeling that Dylan captured in that song.
Now think of several score of such towers studding the countryside. Think of them at hillcrests and at checkpoints. Think of them at so called “flying checkpoints,” the surprise roadblocks at surprising places. Think of them at the entrance to settler-only roads. And then add to them the military closures of entrances and exits to a certain village, and add to that the wall itself. And you come up with the inevitable and nearly universally articulated metaphor for what the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has become: a vast open-air prison. Click here for photo of a watchtower.
One of the enabling myths of the forty-one year occupation of the Palestinian territories is that it was and is supposed to make the Israeli nation safer and secure. But two weeks in and out of the West Bank can teach you otherwise. Security is not the central issue now, even if it was in the beginning. I am not sure what the central, driving force is. Some say it is a slow motion ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, a real-estate land grab proceeding by making life so miserable for the Palestinians that they will simply leave, and indeed many do. But not all. And if that is the dream of the occupation, it is a vain one in the extreme. My guess is that a peace settlement, were it ever to happen, will in effect require the Palestinians to concede more land to Israel in and around the illegal settlements. Meanwhile what exists is but a cantonized Palestinian state, an archipelago of areas under Palestinian control, but with the connections between them so fraught with anxiety, delay, and difficulty that contemporary Palestinian social, political, and economic life is continually in crisis.
Paradoxically, however, the spirits of each Palestinian we meet are high. Here, for example, is a bulletin from this delegation: active and creative non-violent resistance to the occupation is alive and well in the West Bank. So contrary to the image of the Palestinian in the mind of the American public, the most memorable people we meet and the most vivid discussions we have inevitably focus on the commitment to non-violence as a way of opposing what is going on. Yesterday, for instance, we met with Zoughbi Zoughbi, director of Wi’am, the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem. The Center’s brochure quotes our own Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Returning violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars,” and Zoughbi’s work with children, with women, with the ongoing trauma of the Occupation is so much at odds with the demeaning image we have that every Palestinian is a terrorist.
Today I met Iyad Burnat, who is head of the group that organizes weekly demonstrations against the Wall near his village of Bil’in in the West Bank. The film of his group’s confrontations with the soldiers is not easy to watch and there is a great deal of clubbing and tear gas, and some angry face-to-face confrontations. Still, he is explicit in his commitment to non-violence, and has earned the local nickname of Palestinian Gandhi. When we walk to the Wall with him, which at his village is an electrified fence with perimeter roads on both sides, I recognize his commitment to these marches. They are not about the Israeli soldiers, whom he repeatedly says are just doing what they are ordered to do. It is about the Watchtowers, and the insult they pose to the very idea of a civil society. He wants the wall pushed back some few hundred yards so that the farmers of his village can have clear access to the fields and groves. The gate is opened arbitrarily it seems to him for a few hours each day. Yet Iyad is friendly to the sergeant who comes to ask what we are doing. Not too friendly, I might add, but not unfriendly either. The last thing he says to the sergeant is in Hebrew. As we leave, Iyad says it over his shoulder, as if to someone he has known a very long time: “See you tomorrow at the demonstration.” And he will. Click here for photo of Iyad and delegates at the Wall in Bil'in.
Time to Reflect
This picture is of the nave of this nearly1600 year old church built over the cave believed to be the place of Jesus' birth. Construction on the church began in 326 C.E. and work continued on the church throughout the centuries to arrive at the present structure. It has many altars and is used by many liturgical denominations including Anglicans who hold a Christmas Eve carol service in the chapel of St. George on the left of the nave. The Franciscians, Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox Churches lay claim to the various altars. St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, is buried here as well as other notable saints.
This church with all of its sometimes gaudy trappings is probably my favorite in these holy lands. In 1987, I was in Jerusalem on a spiritual pilgrimage. It was in January and because the Armenian Orthodox Church has a different calendar than we do it was Christmas. Some of us decided to go to the Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It was a wonderful experience. In spite of our language differences it was clear that both of our liturgies came from the same early sources. We knew where we were in the service by the actions going on around us.
My visit there last Tuesday was certainly poignant. My warm reflections about my experience there were caught up short as we met with Jiries Canavati, a resident of Bethlehem who was one of the people caught in the Church of the Nativity in 2002. On April 2, 2002 the Israelis invaded Bethlehem to reoccupy it. The Palestinian policemen who numbered about 150 took refuge with another 50 or so people who were in the square (Jiries being one of them) along with priests and nuns who care for the church. There were also some militants present from both Hamas and Fatah. Jiries description of the 40 or so days that they were held in the church was chilling. The priests and nuns cared for the sick and dying, continued to hold services. In spite of being disturbed by the presence of guns, the local Franciscian priests who are Palestinians, supported the struggle of those inside as the struggle against their occupiers. The experience was emotionally scarring for Jiries who remained inside the entire time. He showed us the scars of the siege on the church structure as well. There were bullet holes and deep gouges in the walls.
As I listened to Jiries pain I thought of the pain in God's heart, not because of the scars inflicted on the material substance of stone and mortar, but the pain of a parent whose children make war with each other. Each gouge in the stone is a wound in our own hearts as well. We may not feel any pain but we are wounded when our brothers and sisters hate each other in such a violent way. There is so little that I feel I can do in the midst of such pain. But I can write and tell those of you who read this that hate is more hurtful than I ever imagined. There is no land in the world worth the pain of this hatred. There is no political stand that wins in the midst of this kind of wounding hatred.
It feels like weeks since I last wrote here. We have been to Bethlehem and Beit Sahour for overnight stays on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday we had a long day visiting the Nassar farm and today we had a full day as well.
At the end of today we went to Tel Aviv and the old city of Jaffa. I remember being in Jaffa 20 years ago and standing on a roof top looking out over the Mediterranean Sea while someone told the story of St. Peter praying on a roof top in Jaffa. While he was praying a sheet was lowered from heaven with animals of all sorts on it - both clean and unclean. A voice from heaven said, "Get up Peter, kill and eat." Peter protested that, as a Jew, he had never eaten anything unclean. The voice said, "What God has made clean, you must not profane." This happened three times and Peter went forth a changed man. The Christian mission and message of God's love to all went forth from that moment to all humankind both Jew and Gentile. Click here for picture from Jaffa.
Today I had a different experience in Jaffa, which might not be that far from Peter's. We met with Eitan Bronstein with an organization called Zochrot. Zochrot is an organization of Israelis who are seeking to raise awareness about the Nakba. Nakba is the Arabic word for "catastrophe." It refers to the mass destruction and depopulation of Palestine in 1948, during the war that led to the founding of the state of Israel. Zochrot (this is the Hebrew word for "remembering") was organized in 1994. It seeks to find a just and workable resolution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Their working philosophy is that any resolution must be founded on the pursuit of equality for all people of the region, including the right of the refugees to return. The form and substance of this right of return will need to be worked out carefully and no doubt take many different forms. Eitan was clear that the understanding of how this might happen is not as clear as the need to work towards reconciliation. Achieving reconciliation will only be possible when people begin to recognize and talk about the Nakba. So hearing about this work reminded me of Peter's experience. "...What God has made clean, do not profane."
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