In Bethlehem last month, Common Global Mission Board (CGMB) missionary Marla Schrader and her family looked out their apartment window. In the distance, they could see Israeli Defense Forces' tanks aimed directly at their building's vicinity. Knowing that the "disturbances" happen after dark, they made a quick decision. They would sleep elsewhere that night while they considered their next steps.
How many generations of Palestinian children have known only a childhood tempered by the constant presence and threat of curfews, closures and struggle? What will this generation take with them through their life journeys? As events unfold in the land called "Holy" and the death toll climbs, most of the victims are Palestinian children and youth. Through no fault of their own, they have no choice but to live in space that has become extremely violent.
This is the reality that our three-person delegation from the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) observed during our trip to Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Turkey the first two weeks of October. Traveling with me were the Rev. Patricia Tucker Spier, President of the Disciples' Division of Overseas Ministries, and Dale Bishop, Executive Minister of the UCC's Wider Church Ministries.
The feelings we confronted most were frustration and rage, with Palestinians angry enough to be up in arms every day. Most of this stems from the lack of hope. In 1993 the Oslo Accords promised a time frame to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. But seven years after Oslo, there is no resolution. Not only has Israel not maintained the status quo, but instead has changed "facts on the ground" in its favor. For example, as part of its oppressive occupation, Israel continues to plant new settlements and to expand into Palestinian land. All this anger boiled over when, on Sept. 28, Knesset member and right-wing Likud party leader Ariel Sharon visited Islam's Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem. Since then, tensions have escalated; massive demonstrations occur daily opposing this provocation. The Israeli army has responded by using excessively disproportionate force. Beyond that, Israel has blamed the Palestinians for the outbreak of violence.
On Oct. 17, at the emergency summit in Egypt, an attempt was made to end the violence on both sides. However, the confrontations have reached unprecedented levels, with Israel employing much of its military capability against a largely unarmed, and primarily civilian, Palestinian people. Of the more than 100 deaths to this point, only a handful have been Israelis.
What has all of this meant for Palestinian children? One of the most vivid images of the early days of the clashes was 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura, killed as he sought refuge in his father's arms as they tried to seek protection from Israeli fire. The Israelis ask, why was this child so close to the battle area? The answer is simple. He had been shopping with his father, and their home and the shops they frequent have become part of the battle zone.
Only a few days later, in Jerusalem, our delegation visited Rawdat al-Zahur, a primary school that is a partner of the UCC's Child Sponsorship Program. The principal, Samia Khoury, told us that the school, like so many others, was closed indefinitely. The children would have been in danger of being hit by bullets on their way to and from school.
In Beit Sahour, a town near Bethlehem, we met with Nader Abu Amsha, director of the YMCA where CGMB missionaries Betty and Dale Schwicker work. A glass window in the YMCA had been hit by an Israeli bullet the day before, as had the rooftop water tank. Fortunately, the YMCA had closed a few days before because of the tensions.
At the end of the day, Nader cannot simply go home and avoid questions and fear. One night, while lying on the floor to avoid the bullets, his terrified daughter, Catherine, asked him, "Will the bullets kill us, Daddy?"
Catherine also asked, "If the Israeli soldiers come, should we open the door or not?" She continued, "If we open the door, they will kill us or throw us out of the country to be refugees. But if we refuse to open the door, they will throw tear gas bombs and we will die."
So families continue to endure bullets, and parents continue to be faced with unanswerable questions. These realities might seem skewed compared to what we know as childhood, but they are true to life in Palestine today.
Peter E. Makari is the Area Executive for Middle East/Europe in Wider Church Ministries in the UCC's national setting.