Reflections on Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Occupation

Reflections on Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Occupation

These reflections are based, in part, on a recent visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank as part of a trip to visit partners in the Middle East and Germany, March 1-14, 2009.  The delegation included the Rev. John Thomas, Peter Makari, Executive for the Middle East and Europe of Global Ministries, and the Rev. Lydia Veliko, UCC Ecumenical Officer.

The ancient tones of the Armenian liturgy echoed through the cavernous spaces of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem late Friday afternoon as the seminarians and priests of the Armenian Patriarchate moved through the final Stations of the Cross. Here in the old walled city the Lenten liturgy recalls more than one Calvary for this venerable community, survivors of the 20th century's first Genocide. Even before the Armenians had finished their devotions, a Greek priest began making preparations for the procession of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. Candles were hastily lit and pilgrims and tourists pushed to the side as the priests, bishops and Patriarch made their way to the tomb and then to a splendid adjacent room for their divine liturgy. 

Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, pastor of the ChristmasLutheranChurch in Bethlehem, shows our delegation progress on the construction of Dar al-Kalima, a college for Palestinian young people.

My colleagues and I waited for the procession to end, then left to follow the rush of Jewish residents and tourists heading toward the western wall for Sabbath evening prayers. They dashed through the narrow winding streets to be there by sundown, some dressed in Hasidic garb, others in western suits, still others in army uniforms.  There, massed in the great plaza in front of the wall, they clustered in small groups, some at the wall, vigorously bowing their heads in prayer, others dancing in boisterous circles of ecstatic prayer, still others standing around large reading desks, their holy texts open before them for scholarly prayer.

Above the wall the Muslim holy sites were quiet. Muslims had prayed at the Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa Mosque earlier in the day under the watchful gaze of the Israeli Defense Forces. As is often the case, men under the age of forty-five were not permitted to pray there on this Friday, denied access to holy places that would be unthinkable for Christian and Jewish residents and pilgrims in Jerusalem. Apparently only Muslims are security risks in the Holy City.

Here is the Jerusalem that struggles to be home to the world's three great Abrahamic faiths, a multi-ethnic, multi-faith celebration of diversity yet a city where the slightest trespass on another's holy space or ancient privileges is likely to ignite violence between or among faith groups. For some this is a place of inspiration, the ancient stones of the city echoing with the footsteps of sacred ancestors. For some this is a place of religious encounter, the living stones of today's communities of faith striving to maintain ancient traditions. For others it is a kind of curiosity, a living and breathing museum complete with panoramic displays and replete with hawkers of religious trinkets and souvenirs. 

But there is another Jerusalem rarely seen by tourists and pilgrims whose itinerary seldom extends beyond the Old City, Yad Vashem, Hezekiah's Tunnel, the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Israeli Museum and the holy sites in Bethlehem and Nazareth. This Jerusalem, and the villages and cities of the West Bank and Gaza, is the place where the Biblical and Koranic injunctions to love God and neighbor are challenged daily by the reality of Occupation. 

On our pilgrimage we met many in Jerusalem and the West Bank who inspired us with their witness and their work: 

  • The staff of B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories who document the violations and abuse that characterize the Occupation of Palestine. 

  • Bernard Sabella, director of the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees and a Christian member of the legislature of the Palestinian Authority who guides development and humanitarian relief work for the refugees who have lived without a home for sixty years.

  • Mona Zaghrout Hodali who supervises the counseling programs of the East Jerusalem YMCA in Beit Sahour.  In her office adjacent to the Shepherds Field, a traditional site linked to the herald angel's message of peace in Bethlehem, Ms. Hodali supports efforts to address the emotional damage of the Occupation and, most recently, of the destruction in Gaza. 

  • Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and of the International Center which is building a college to provide academic training and vocational opportunities for Palestinian young people.   

  • The members of the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel we met in Hebron who provide a non-violent monitoring presence in Hebron and elsewhere on the West Bank where tensions between Palestinians and Israeli settlers and soldiers keep communities in a constant state of fear and hostility.

  • Naim Ateek of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center whose gentle but courageous spirit and persistent commitment to non-violence challenges the demonizing of him by some prominent pro-Israeli voices in the United States.  His writing provides a powerful Biblical and theological framework for Christian perspectives on the conflict and the Occupation. 

  • Mark Brown and the Lutheran World Federation program on the Mount of Olives.  Here one sees plans for a housing development for Palestinian Christians to stem the decline of a Christian population in East Jerusalem.  Here you see the Augusta Victoria Hospital, a primary source of medical care for Palestinians throughout Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, with its brand new pediatric oncology unit and construction that will double its ability to provide radiological oncology services.  

  • Mira Rizek, General Secretary of the YWCA of Palestine, providing vocational training and economic development of Palestinian women. 

  • Our friend Jean Zaru in Ramallah, Clerk of the Religious Society of Friends, known throughout the world for her commitment to justice and peacemaking and author of Occupied by Nonviolence, a collection of reflections and challenges published just last year.

  • Mission personnel of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) who work on our behalf in Jerusalem and the West Bank:  Samuel and Noemi Pagan, Ian Alexander and  Lydia Bartholomew. 

Yes, there are many whose persistent witness to justice and peace inspire our deepest admiration even under Occupation.

John Thomas speaks with residents of the Abu Tur community, whose apartment building is among those scheduled for demolition

But for pilgrims willing to listen to hard things and to look at painful realities in Jerusalem and the West Bank there are other faces of the Occupation.  Here one finds a kind of contemporary Via Dolorosa, a way of sorrows that can easily inspire discouragement and rage.  Six years after my first visit to the Occupied Territories the Separation Barrier grows relentlessly, in some places an ugly, thirty foot concrete wall, in others a series of well tended fences, in still other places a neatly designed landscape designed to obscure the ugly reality from cars passing by on "Israeli-only roads."  According to B'Tselem, the Separation Barrier runs deep into the West Bank, effectively annexing almost 12 percent of the West Bank and separating nearly 500,000 Palestinians from the West Bank, calling into question its justification as simply a security measure to protect Israelis from attack.

Temporary looking checkpoints have now been transformed into elaborate "terminals" where Palestinians with proper identification must pass through from the West Bank to Jerusalem.  We walked with them through the terminal between Ramallah and East Jerusalem overseen by heavily armed soldiers, an automated set of dehumanizing gates and narrow metal passageways suited more for stockyards than human transit.  Forty checkpoints control entry into Israel, and an additional 63 permanent check points deep inside the West Bank limit Palestinian access to employment, health care and family. 

Israeli settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank tower over Palestinian villages and cities, growing relentlessly in size.  Some of these settlements are veritable suburban communities attracting Israeli families with hefty economic incentives such as low cost residences and no- or low-interest loans.  With the Separation Barrier built to accommodate their growth they increasingly displace indigenous Palestinian populations.  Today there are over 120 settlement blocks in the West Bank and twelve large settlements in East Jerusalem.  In addition there are 100 settlement blocks which Israel does not recognize but which it still supplies and defends.  The 2008 population of the settlements, all illegal in the eyes of international law, approaches 500,000 in the West Bank and Jerusalem, their population growing at a rate three times that of the population in Israel proper.  The settlement expansion – more than 20,000 new units are under construction or approved – reported to be accelerating in the coming years, and the road system being built to serve them, creates a deliberate and growing obstacle to any hope for a meaningful two state solution, up to now the centerpiece of any real peace process.

Hebron represents a particularly poignant case.  In 1968 religious settlers began occupying the center of Hebron's main business district adjacent to the Tomb of the Patriarchs.  In the ensuing years the Israeli government has provided armed security for this illegal settlement, a military operation that has had the effect of closing down hundreds of Palestinian businesses and cutting off Palestinian neighborhoods behind army checkpoints.  Settler violence is regular; even Palestinian children walking to school have stones thrown at them.  Our visit to the area provoked intense surveillance by soldiers and settlers alike who clearly were not happy with our presence.  Young soldiers watched us with suspicion, refusing to let us visit the holy sites.  Two young settler boys threw projectiles at us, eager to chase us away.

In Jerusalem we visited with families who had recently been notified that their homes were to be destroyed within days.  These are not squatters in camps, but home owners in large, modern apartment buildings in Palestinian communities now slated for demolition.  The reason given is that building permits are not in order.  In fact, building permits are almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain in Jerusalem.  In one apartment complex we visited in East Jerusalem, 250 people were awaiting the destruction of their homes with no place to move.  They are prepared to pay any fines in order to stay, but have not been given that option.  Meanwhile, settler communities quickly move in to occupy the newly vacant land.  Together with a resident permit system that restricts access to East Jerusalem even for people who have jobs or families living there, along with the clever manipulation of housing permits and development rights, Israel is relentlessly and effectively ridding Jerusalem of its Arab population. 

We had hoped to visit Gaza to see the humanitarian relief work we are supporting there in the aftermath of the war in late December and early January.  As has been the case, however, in previous visits, our application for entry was denied by the Israel government.  Few internationals have been allowed to enter Gaza where over 1,300 Palestinians were killed and over 5,320 wounded during fighting which also claimed the lives of 12 Israeli soldiers and left two hundred Israeli soldiers and civilians wounded.  The head of the YMCA Counseling Department has been unable to visit her counselors in Gaza to provide care for the care givers.  Even the Anglican and Lutheran Bishops of Jerusalem – both Palestinian – were twice denied access to Gaza to make a pastoral visit their hospitals and parishes in the aftermath of the fighting.  Only this past week, seven weeks after the cease-fire, were they allowed to enter.  Children in Gaza needing advanced cancer treatment at Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem wait weeks for permission, and are then given only one day passes for treatment that requires days if not weeks.  Even before the war the suffering in Gaza was intensified by Israel's closing of the borders.  Unemployment had already reached 50% in Gaza by mid 2008, with 79% of Gazans living under the poverty line.

Palestinians we met expressed little optimism in the changing political realities.  They are uncertain about the real intentions of the Obama administration and face the likelihood of a far right coalition government in Israel.  They expressed frustration with their own Palestinian leadership for failing to offer a compelling and unifying vision for a way forward.   Two doctors from Gaza attending a Red Crescent Society meeting in Ramallah told us chilling tales of the treatment Fatah supporters receive from Hamas, and there is a sense that political leadership from every side has failed them.  The sense of abandonment and vulnerability is profound, the sense of political powerlessness pervasive.

John reflects on the Separation Barrier, just inside Bethlehem.

Is this a fair and balanced view of the situation in Israel-Palestine?  This visit was almost exclusively devoted to our Palestinian partners, or to Israeli groups critical of the Occupation.  On previous trips I visited the Chief Rabbi of Israel and a cabinet minister and member of the Knesset.  There I restated our long commitment to security for the State of Israel behind internationally recognized borders.  I have read the testimony of Israelis who have lost loved ones in places like Siderot and have noted B'Tselem's clear acknowledgment of Palestinian human rights abuses, acknowledging that there is real suffering on both sides of the conflict.  And like many others, I have been moved by the portrait of the Jewish narrative of suffering and persecution found at Yad Vashem, a centuries long narrative culminating in the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust.         

But those encounters only underscore the fact that there is no memorial to the Nakba, to the catastrophe of 1948 for Palestinians whose villages and olive trees vanished in the wake of the creation of Israel.  There is no museum with artifacts of their lost communities, no monuments to the places and people who once called Palestine home.  All we have is the growing apparatus of the forty year old Occupation that is relentlessly completing the process begun sixty years ago, an Occupation that is as much about determining the future as it is about defining the present.  Uncontested, this apparatus of Occupation will increasingly resemble elements of South African apartheid and its end game will feel eerily familiar to Americans brave enough to remember and confront the genocide against our own indigenous population of Native Americans.  Some will find this language provocative, even offensive.  It reflects, however, what I see.  And as citizens of the nation that provides billions of dollars a year to support the Occupation, we are deeply complicit, and therefore called to a particular responsibility to say, "No longer in my name!" 

Is it demeaning to our Palestinian partners and their Jewish allies to view their work as the gilding of the Occupation's cage?  Or rather is it for us instead to acknowledge and reflect their courage to hope in the face of so much that demoralizes?  The Armenians, Greeks and Jews we watched at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall that Friday afternoon, and the Arabs who prayed earlier in the day at the Dome of the Rock, may seem to us as strange artifacts of ancient practices and beliefs hardly relevant to the challenges of today.  Yet each, in their own way, bears witness to a hope that transcends the vanities and idolatries of a particular generation.  The question for them today is whether they can transcend the exclusive claims to a place that lure them toward oppression, violence and despair.  The question for us is whether we can be brave enough to challenge an Occupation seeking to claim the souls of all involved, and that demeans and dehumanizes even those it seeks to privilege.

Naim Ateek reflects on these themes in his recent book, A Palestinian Cry for Reconciliation, concluding with a quote from Karen Armstrong:

We must keep in mind that although humans tend to cling to places – especially so-called holy places – and are willing to shed blood to guard and protect them, God is not limited in this way.  God is bigger and greater than all that we humans create for God.  We do have a need to sacralize the material – we need things that we can see and touch – but we must remain aware that it is through the Spirit that we worship God. . . .  Ultimately, we must build the New Jerusalem here and now.  We live today in the midst of empire, and it demands our allegiance at every turn.  Because empire can exist only through violence and domination, we must rely on our faith in Jesus the Christ to reject the deceptive nature of empire.  When faced with empire, we must remember that the "societies that have lasted the longest in the holy city have, generally, been the ones that were prepared for some kind of tolerance and coexistence in the Holy City.  That, rather than a sterile and deadly struggle for sovereignty, must be the way to celebrate Jerusalem's sanctity today."           

Statistics found in this report related to the Occupation are found in Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, 2008 Annual Report, B'Tselem, the Israeli Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.



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