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Two Sides of the Despair Coin

May 18, 2009


Monday, 1:10 pm local time


We met this morning with two groups working on the Palestinian problem in the town of Bethlehem. Christians know Bethlehem as the site of the birth of Christ, and we will indeed be visiting the Church of the Nativity later this afternoon, but for many Palestinians, Bethlehem is merely another part of the Occupied Territories.

In 1948, the United Nations partitioned the British Mandate in the Middle East into two states – 54% of the land for the Jewish settlers, many of whom were European refugees of the Holocaust, and 46% for the Palestinian Arabs already living there. When Israel declared its independence – its right to that state, at it were – the Arab nations immediately went to war. At the end of the war, Jordan occupied the land that had been for the Palestinian state, and what is known as the 1948 Armistice Line was set up: the border between Israel and Jordan, in effect.

In 1967, during the Six Day War, the Israelis captured the Jordanian occupied land, now known as the West Bank of the Jordan River, as well as the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. The people living in those areas reverted to Israelis control.

In 1994, the Oslo Accords established a process by which the displaced Palestinians could begin to establish a state of their own. The Accords designated three types of lands within the West Bank: Area A, which would be completely controlled by Palestinian administration and security; Area C, which would be completely controlled by Israeli administration and security; and Area B, which would be lightly administrated under Palestinian authority supplemented by Israeli security measures.

In 2002, Israel began building a wall around the Palestinian Occupied Territory. This wall does not follow the Green Line, the name given to the 1948 Armistice Line after the Six Day War, but instead snakes its way into the territory in multiple places, putting Jewish settlements on the Israeli side of the wall, but also Palestinian-owned lands,

This (very) brief history of the exchange of lands in this area over the last 60 years does not do the situation justice; for that, you might want to have a conversation with the first group with whom we met, the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem. We sat through a 90-minute talk that presented statistics I had never before heard. For instance, there are over 200 Israeli outposts or settlements inside the borders of the West Bank, in direct violation of international law; this after the Annapolis summit at which former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised that no more outposts would be built.

It’s a genius strategy, if you think about it. The outposts and settlements are not huge; on maps, it may look like a large area, but in reality, these settlements are moving block by block, street by street, until suddenly a sizable community has grown up, and then, where are they supposed to go? You’re really going to kick them out of their homes? Never mind the illegality of their actions or the actions of the Israeli government – it’s hard to displace people from their homes. You think.

I’ll be honest, the presentation from ARI-J was a little off-putting for me. I understand that the situation is complex, and that the Palestinians often get the shaft in diplomatic negotiations, but the presentation tried to put the Israelis in an evil light. The Israelis are not evil. Militaristic, yes, land-grabbers, yes, but they are not evil – they are reacting to an awful situation as much as anyone else. They don’t want war; one of the snide comments during the presentation was that the Israelis actually want a nuclear war, and that’s just plain stupid.

I’m finding as I talk to more and more people in this region that I believe someone’s credibility only insofar as they give credit to the other side of the argument – even if the other side is utterly, completely wrong. I connected with Elias’ anger in Ibillin because he was able to say that Israel shouldn’t be destroyed; I sympathized with Sharon’s fear on Shabbat because she was able to say that the Palestinians deserved to move freely within the country. The presentation from ARI-J, though, amounted to the same type of propaganda as the advertisement I saw in the Jerusalem Post last night, calling on Prime Minister Netanyahu by way of Judges 2 not to negotiate with “the inhabitants of this land”; such propaganda is always false and never helpful, no matter how ‘true’ the information presented is. The narrative is important. A true story isn’t always a list of facts.

Our second meeting of the morning was with the director of a Lutheran ministry in Bethlehem called the Diyar Consortium named Dr. Mitri Raheb. The Diyar complex is the third largest employer in Bethlehem, and their main goal is to empower Palestinians in the area. His presentation started out well, but he quickly succumbed to something I couldn’t name. It wasn’t until later that Miriam was able to name for me why exactly this meeting was just as uncomfortable as the first, just in a different way: Dr. Raheb was tired, overcome by sadness.

I can understand. 61 years of occupation has got to be disheartening. Looking around the city as we ride the bus, there’s very little of the vibrancy that we experience in Jerusalem, even in the Old City. A situation like this has to beat you down…but especially for a Christian in this context, letting hope shine through is so important. Dr. Raheb, like many of the Palestinians we’ve talked to, are absolutely against participating in the political process, viewing the whole “peace talking” as he calls it a waste of time. And it might look that way, but surely small steps have been taken, and in a conflict like this, maybe small steps are all we have.

I was angry enough at the Church of the Holy Whatever yesterday to be distracted during Semaj’s message to us, but not so distracted that I don’t remember what he was trying to communicate: as Christians, we have a hope that transcends situations. This is not the hope of someone like Joel Osteen, the hope that only comes with wealth and power and leaves you when you’re down on your luck. No, this is a hope that stretches across the centuries, a hope that holds this broken land together, in a sense.

And, before Chip can yell at me, this hope isn’t an ineffectual religious ideal – it’s a vital part of maintaining the dialogue here in this country. A solution to this problem will only be found if we keep looking. ARI-J, it seems, would rather rant about broken promises and displaced lands, and Dr. Raheb is too hurt and sad to talk above a grassroots level – and while both of those positions need to be recognized and validated, we can’t stop there. I keep hoping for the voice of a generation that might speak to these issues, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. Surely, there’s more to the issue than Israelis on one side of the fence and Palestinians on the other. Surely, there’s more to opening up dialogue than screaming at the top of your lungs or whispering in defeat. Surely, as Noa and Mira Awad – the Israeli and Arab duo in the Eurovision American-Idol-eque competition – sang in Moscow, there must be another way.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bev. Henkel (Sarah Henkel's Aunt Bev.) permalink
    May 18, 2009 7:45 pm

    Read Blood Brothers by Elias Chachour, who you actually met and spent time with. Wonderful!! Read A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconcilliation by Naim Ateek, former Canon of the Cathedral of St George in Jerusalem. An Arab Citizen of Israel, President and Director of Sabeel,living in Jerusalem. He is also author of Justice and Only Justice, and co-editor with Marc Ellis and Rosemary Ruether of Faith and the Intifada: Palestinian Christian Voices. Your trip has been one leaving you with new information and insghts and lots to consider when you return to the US. Will you continue to invest in ways that is detrimental to Palestinians? Do you feel more connected to others in far away places? Brothers and Sisters in Christ? May God help each of you to discern and act on what you are learning. See You at graduation!

  2. Jeremy Hutton permalink
    May 19, 2009 7:52 am

    Ryan, this is a significant reflection on the problem of violence, and you’ve done a wonderful job of summarizing the different voices at play. However, while I continue to hope and pray for reconciliation in Israel-Palestine, I would encourage you not simply to dismiss those voices that are unable to take into account the other side of the argument. It may be true to say that “such propaganda is always false and never helpful”, at least from a political point of view. When such expressions of mistrust and radical objection are examined theologically, however, I believe we can — no, MUST — carve out a place for such voices (on both sides of the issue) as part of the ongoing dialectic. After all, Psalm 137 cries out in anguish in its closing verses (trans. NRSV):

    O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
    Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
    Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

    Obadiah, too, offers no kind words for those who participated in the destruction of Jerusalem:

    As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.
    For as you have drunk on my holy mountain, all the nations around you shall drink;
    they shall drink and gulp down, and shall be as they they had never been…
    they shall burn them and consume them, and there shall be no survivor of the house of Esau. (vv 15-16,18)

    The Bible holds these passages in tension with more moderate ones; the situation may have changed, but the rage and terror, the grief and agony remain the same. Hearing these voices that speak from the gut in the midst of despair and anger is just as important as hearing those that speak from the mind in cool, calm reflection.

    Pray for reconciliation.

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