Palestine: May 2008

HOLY SITES, CULTURE AND HOPE IN THE HOLY LAND

Report of the May 31-June 9, 2008 Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation to Palestine/Israel

by Cherice Bock

“I'm here to visit holy sites and learn about the culture,” we said upon arrival in the Holy Land. And visit sites we did. The fourteen members of our delegation — individuals from Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and Italy — have visited more areas of Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories of the West Bank than most living Palestinians. It is ironic that our foreign passports allow us to travel almost freely in the West Bank, while those with Palestinian IDs must receive special permission to travel outside their village or town.

 

We traveled to holy sites. We visited the Al Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, passing through three checkpoints with armed soldiers and metal detectors to see the tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs. (Since the 1994 massacre of dozens of worshiping Muslims by a Jewish settler, this mosque is half-synagogue.) We saw Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of the most holy Muslim sites outside Mecca, in which most Palestinians under 40 years old and living outside Jerusalem have never been able to worship because they can rarely obtain permission to visit Jerusalem. We also visited Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where tourists unload by the busload in this West Bank town just long enough to light a candle, then are swept back onto the bus to stop for souvenirs at an Israeli-run gift shop. Tourism used to be a thriving Palestinian economy in Manger Square, but now most shops struggle to survive. We saw the Wailing Wall on a holy day, Jewish families dressed up to pray together for the restoration of the Temple. We walked on paving stones dug up from the streets Jesus walked. We visited the Mount of Olives and the place where Jesus wept for Jerusalem, and many times we wanted to weep for Jerusalem and all her children.

 

We also learned about the cultures. Some of our most cherished memories are of the families we met and stayed with, their hospitality, their joy and hope in the midst of despair. We stayed with families in At-Tuwani and villages nearby, some of them in caves inhabited by their families since well into the Ottoman Empire. These caves are in danger of demolition by the Israeli army because they were not built with a building permit! One family's outhouse was demolished for lack of a permit. Permits cost $1500 (US), and Palestinian requests are routinely denied. We stayed with a family in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron whose home is overshadowed by an Israeli settlement. On many holy days, settlers amass outside Palestinian homes and attack them, destroying property. Video footage can be seen on B'Tselem's website (http://www.btselem.org/english/Video). Settlers also throw stones at their Palestinian Tel Rumeida neighbors and threaten them verbally and physically. Tel Rumeida is the area where Abraham is said to have lived in Hebron. Soldiers stand by watching settler violence, unless Palestinians fight back. We stayed with a refugee family in Deheisha, a refugee “camp” since 1948. Palestinians fled their homes when violence erupted, taking their house keys and very little else. They have not been allowed to return, violating international law's declaration that refugees have the right to return to their homes. Sixty-year-olds have been refugees their entire lives.

 

Along with visiting holy sites and learning about the culture, we participated in actions. We went to Um Salomona, a village outside Bethlehem, to participate in a weekly demonstration against the Wall with the Holy Land Trust (http://www.holylandtrust.org). Demonstrators used to go to the site where the Wall will be built, but weekly the Israeli army has pushed back the demonstration site farther and farther from the actual building site, preventing many from attending the demonstration as well as destroying its symbolism. Internationals and Israelis stood in solidarity with Palestinians, but it is the Palestinians who should receive the badge of bravery: internationals and Israelis risk very little being there because Israel does not want the bad press their injury would cause. Internationals and Israelis can return home to safe places after the demonstration. Palestinians, however, must live in this situation day in and day out.

 

An impromptu action occurred when we came upon a checkpoint one day where a normal roadblock to traffic was elevated to a blockage of even pedestrian traffic due to an Israeli bicycle trip. We happened on the scene in our red CPT hats, trying to figure out what was going on. We asked a few questions of the soldiers, and before we knew it an armored vehicle forced people to move back, soldiers waved guns, and a member of the delegation was detained for 20 minutes or so. Now, at home, we might have roadblocks erected due to a bike race, but there would be major differences: the roadblocks would be advertised ahead of time, detour signs would clearly mark ways around the race, pedestrian traffic would not be totally blocked, and the people in uniform would not be soldiers and would not carry automatic weapons. They would answer in a friendly manner questions about the bike race, when the road would be open, and so forth. Our presence in this situation made the soldiers nervous so they backed people up farther than before and called in more soldiers. Our presence showed up the injustice and complete silliness of the situation so that the soldiers felt they had to make an even stronger show of power.

 

We also witnessed an incredible amount of hope. We returned home from this delegation with anger and frustration at the unjust ways people are treating other people, but we also have hope for a peaceful resolution to this conflict. The Palestinians we met are ready and eager to work in nonviolent ways to show up the injustice of the situation in which they live. They have hope and determination to work for a resolution to this conflict, although they do not have overly optimistic expectations: one man we met said he expects peace, but he does not expect it in his lifetime. He thinks it will come in his grandchildren's lifetime. And yet he still works tirelessly for nonviolent change. We also met Israelis who are working on behalf of the Palestinians, to effect change in their own government so that human rights are observed. Two such organizations with whom we met are Israeli Coalition Against Home Demolition (http://icahd.org/eng/) and the Bereaved Families Circle (http://www.theparentscircle.com/). Another organization with whom we did not get to meet is Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers who speak out about the way soldiers are asked to act toward Palestinians during their service (http://www.breakingthesilence.org).

 

International cooperation is perhaps not completely necessary in this situation—the Palestinians are quite capable of taking care of themselves. And yet international solidarity with the Palestinians brings them hope to continue working in nonviolent ways, and helps the nonviolent actions to be effective by getting stories and pictures out to the rest of the world. Internationals and Israelis can also work in ways within the country that Palestinians cannot, such as accompanying people past illegal settlements in relative safety. Palestinians have requested CPT's presence in Hebron and At-Tuwani, and other places would love to have teams in their area. The work CPT does in Hebron and At-Tuwani is incredible and appreciated and is only limited by the number of team members available.

 

As people of faith, those of us on the delegation felt called to take a first step to put our belief in peacemaking in action in a conflict zone. Jesus calls us to “the least of these” (Mt 25:40), to those marginalized by their societies, to stand up for the oppressed, to take good news to the poor and bring hope to the world (Lk 4:18-19), to overcome evil by remaining firmly fixed in the good (Ro 12:21). Many of us from the delegation hope to continue working with CPT in the future in order to answer this call. Do you feel that same nudge? What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?

[Members of the delegation were Anthony Antoniades (Corning, New York), John David Ashworth (Newmarket, Ontario), Cherice Bock (Newberg, Oregon), Henry Dick (Bloomington, Illinois), RolfeEvans (Saffron Walden, United Kingdom), Jeanette Hernandez (Chicago, Illinois), Wendy Love (West Bath, Maine), Vaughn Miller (Hesston, Kansas), Samuel Nichols (San Diego, California), Pieter Niemeyer (Stouffville, Ontario), M. Brooke Robertshaw (Logan, Utah), Ross Weaver (Bloomington, Illinois) and Courtnay Wilson (Dundas, Ontario).]