Friday, December 21, 2007

Visit to Jenin

It's 8.45 am on Friday 7 December 2007, and we're driving north from Jerusalem with our nine-member Australian delegation, heading for restricted West Bank land. Our guide today is Ramzi Zananiri from the International Christian Committee and the Near East Council of Churches.

Travelling through Israel up the controversial new Highway 6 (the Trans-Israel highway, and an efficient security barrier in itself), then via route 65 and 60, we approached the town of Jenin from the north. Jenin is not on tourist itineraries as it is the location of some of the worst recent incursions by the Israeli military into Palestinian territory, and damaging evidence of the impact of Israeli occupation on the Palestinian economy and lifestyle is everywhere. On the other hand, the Israeli Government felt justified in focusing extreme action against the Jenin Refugee Camp; for some background see the contested Wikipedia page on the Battle of Jenin (2002).

To gain entry to Jenin, we had to apply for permits in advance (in fact, before we left Australia). We stopped at the closed Gate as planned at 10.30 am, and waited while the IDF examined our passports and conferred with others. I say Gate (capital G) because it is the largest armoured gate I have ever seen, bright yellow and about 30 metres long, on a rail-track. Since it is an Israeli military installation, we were not allowed to take photographs. Strangely, I could find no images of the Gate online (if you find one, let me know!), and Google maps of Jenin do not show the Gate or indeed any map data. Click here for another map. After a five-minute wait, the Gate rolled opened and we drove on into the West Bank to the centre of Jenin.

In drizzling rain and on a Friday (the Muslim holy day), Jenin was deathly quiet. Hardly a vehicle visible; people gathered in small groups talking, or walking alone along streets minding their own business. Roads and buildings looked almost derelict, a sign of the severe economic decline suffered by most Palestinians throughout the West Bank in recent years.

Our first stop was an hour-long meeting with the Governor of Jenin, translated from Arabic by Ramzi, our guide, and accompanied by excellent Turkish coffee and apple juice. He briefed us on the economic, educational and health situation in the region, and expressed gratitude to the Australian churches for their ongoing humanitarian aid program supplying water reservoirs to houses in the area. He expressed growing frustration at the economic impact of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, but was hopeful that new initiatives would help to reduce unemployment by up to 30 per cent. He said he was tired of hearing words, and wanted to see action for peace and freedom.
The Governor stressed the importance of moving forward, but said that occupation was driving Palestinians backward. "We need a return to the situation that existed before 2000. Israel must remove the Wall, the checkpoints, and the economic congestion," he said.

"Our unemployed youth have nothing to do, and idleness is the playground of the devil," he said. Also of concern was the plight of large numbers of political prisoners, who must be released and reintegrated into their society.

"We Palestinian people live in fear. The occupation tries to control our land and money. We have lost our employment and been evicted from our land. My family home was demolished when I was a child [in the so-called "War of Independence" - see, e.g., here and here], and we lived one year under trees. I spent 15 years in prison...."

"Education is crucial to our future. We have 68,000 students in schools, but lack basic facilities. Class sizes are 45+ per class, with double shifts meaning that half the children go to school at night. There is a high drop-out rate among girls aged 8-16 years. Also many classrooms in regional areas are rented and suffer from very bad hygiene and overcrowding. Something must be done about this," he said.
The meeting ended with a presentation of local craft to Rev John Henderson, and the Governor left to attend morning prayers.

American Jews meet Bethlehem Arabs

By Daniel Estrin
18 December 2007

American Jews studying in Israel get an eye-opening education on Arab life with trips to Bethlehem run by a nonprofit group.

BETHLEHEM (JTA) -- The bus ride to Bethlehem from Jerusalem takes no more than 15 minutes, but for most American Jews studying in Israel, the Palestinian city in the West Bank might as well be worlds away. That may be changing.

This month, a group of 40 rabbinical students, seminary students and young Jews crossed the Israeli military checkpoint -- and the psychological divide that separates Jews from Palestinians here -- to see Palestinian life in Bethlehem firsthand.

Most went without official approval from their yeshivas and learning programs, and some hadn’t told their families back home about the trip.

Some acknowledged their anxiety about the trip, which included an overnight stay in Bethlehem.

“Can someone say Tefilat Haderech?” one student called out from the back of the bus that took the group to Bethlehem, referring to the Jewish traveler’s prayer.

Minutes later the students were standing beside a heap of concrete rubble and twisted metal, which their Palestinian hosts explained was a house demolished years before by the Israeli military.

The participants spent the day running around Bethlehem, at one point visiting an elementary school dedicated to nonviolence within view of the Jewish West Bank settlement of Efrat.

While a girl named Dina greeted each participant with a wide smile and a cheese puff, some of the Jewish students peered out the window at a nearby hilltop where Jewish settlers had pitched caravans in a bid to extend the Efrat settlement.

“Some of my teachers live in Efrat,” noted one of the Jewish students, from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

The trip was organized by Encounter, a nonprofit organization that facilitates meetings between Palestinians and “future Jewish leaders” from diverse religious and political affiliations.

Since its founding in 2005, Encounter has brought nearly 400 Diaspora Jews to the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Hebron. These days it is the only Jewish group of its kind that pays regular visits to Palestinian cities.

By law, Israelis are barred from entering Palestinian Authority-controlled cities in the West Bank, but international passport holders may cross in and out freely.

Yearlong Jewish study programs in Israel “do an excellent job of educating their students about the dimensions of Israeli and Jewish life, but there’s a piece missing,” said Ilana Sumka, director of Encounter’s Jerusalem office. “We give them access to complexities on the ground that they are otherwise not exposed to.”

Encounter is a resident organization of Bikkurim, a project that supports innovative Jewish programs and is funded by the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group.

As part of this month's trip, Bethlehem resident Leila Sansour led the group on a walking tour of the 27-foot-high cement barrier that cuts off the city from nearby neighborhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Sansour has led several groups from Encounter through the streets of Bethlehem; she says it’s good for her own sanity.

“Instead of me seeing Jews coming to my city in the form of soldiers, it’s important to see that they come to find out about me as well,” she said.

Sansour explained to the group how the wall turns Bethlehem into a prison: Some Bethlehemites haven’t been allowed a visit to Jerusalem in years, and the local economy fell into crisis when tourists stopped visiting.

A few days ago, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now a special envoy for Middle East peacemaking, spent a night in Bethlehem to send the message that the city is again open for business.

But on Sansour’s tour, the Jewish visitors followed her from one silent neighborhood to another, the massive gray barrier casting a shadow over boarded-up storefronts and homes.
Israel says the barrier, part of the West Bank security fence, is necessary to keep terrorists out of Israel.

At Al Walaje, a village on Bethlehem’s outskirts, Councilwoman Shireen Alaraj said she is furious about the barrier’s route.

“If you want security, fine,” she said. “Then why do you build the wall in our backyard?”
Rabbinical student Ephraim Pelcovits said he was moved by the Palestinians’ reactions to the barrier. Living in Jerusalem, Pelcovits said, he never feels its presence, but “Palestinians speak about the wall as if it were alive.”

At one stop along the tour, Palestinian peace activists spoke candidly about the internal challenges of Palestinian politics and their close relationships with Jewish colleagues and friends. Professor Yousef El-Herimi said he hosted a group of rabbinical students at his Bethlehem home last year for an Islam study group.

After a packed day of sightseeing and lectures, the Jews went to sleep at the homes of local youths, many of whom said they would add their guests to their friends list on Facebook, the popular social networking Web site.

The following morning, the Jewish students swapped stories about their overnight experiences after a morning minyan at the Bethlehem Hotel.

“As a Jewish girl from New Jersey, I got my first Christmas invitation ever,” one participant told the group with a smile.

Jill Levy, a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said the trip was difficult but important. After losing two friends in the 2002 suicide bombing at Hebrew University, Levy said she “lost a lot of compassion for the Palestinian people.”

But “as a future rabbi, I need to be really educated about the situation in the Middle East. An integral part of that education is hearing stories from the Palestinian people,” she said.
Having visited Bethlehem twice, Levy said she is planning to return on Christmas along with some fellow students.

The popularity of Encounter’s trips to Palestinian-populated cities has prompted the program to expand its offerings. Encounter recently led a tour for Jewish federation executives, and the group is planning trips for other American Jewish delegations.

“I initially thought that the word ‘Palestinian’ rendered any program treif in certain quarters of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, a co-founder of Encounter. But, she said, “we have hit a nerve and struck a need that already existed.”

["treif" means "non-kosher" - click here for more]



Christians and Muslims weep together

A Christmas Reflection on Palestine
19 December 2007

As Christmas approaches this year, the thoughts of Christians all over the world will once again turn to Bethlehem, the holy town where Jesus was born over two millennia ago. Voices will be raised in joyful celebration and children everywhere will re-create the Christmas story to help us remember the circumstances in which the Christ child was born.

Such a momentous occasion in such humble surroundings heralded a new way of thinking about people's relationship with God and with each other. It shook the foundations of an unforgiving society presided over by an unforgiving God and proclaimed peace and goodwill on earth amongst all people. There was indeed much to hope for.

However, the tranquil pastoral scene so familiar to us is not at all evident in Bethlehem today. Bethlehem does not lie still, and peace on earth and goodwill towards all is as elusive as ever. The tyranny of Israel's occupation and its colonial expansionism is crippling the lives of both Palestinian Christians and Muslims alike. Yet, many Christians will again ignore the misery suffered by the Palestinians in the Holy Land and will celebrate Christmas without remembering that it was amongst this people and in their land that Jesus was born. Priests will chant, masses will be said, carols will be sung and nativity scenes will be created, but it is unlikely that many sermons will urge Christian congregations to speak out against the crimes being committed in Palestine.

Only recently, a delegation of eminent Australian Church leaders returned from visiting the Holy Land and reported their distress at "the suffering and fear experienced daily by large numbers of people." [1] The report criticizes Israel's military occupation for the "systematic harassment, physical and psychological oppression, widespread unemployment, poverty, and economic deprivation" [2] of both Palestinian Christians and Muslims. No doubt these church leaders will encourage their ministries to spread the word before the momentum is lost, but there are many forces working against justice for the Palestinians. Their statement has already been criticized by the Israeli ambassador and they are likely to face objections not only from Jews who support a Zionist state in Israel, but also from Christian quarters.

A dangerous Christian ideology which endorses the rhetoric of Zionism and the conquest of all Palestine for Israel is making its presence felt in Australia. This Christian fervour for Israel has found expression in a revitalised Christian Zionism that began back in the sixteenth century [3] and is directed today against Islam and Muslims. In America particularly, it has misconstrued the messianic and apocalyptic legacy of the Christian faith and has replaced the Jewish and communist Anti-Christ of Christian Zionism's earlier imaginings with an Islamic Anti-Christ. This Anti-Christ, it believes, will be defeated in Israel where all mankind will gather for the coming of the Messiah. That it should take place in Israel, given the numbers of the world's populations, is an absurd notion even amongst the most devout. That the dispossession, degradation and humiliation of the Palestinians who have lived in this land for millennia, can be condoned on such a pretext is even more abhorrent and preposterous.

Unfortunately, the influence of this Christian Zionism is growing rapidly and threatens the thinking of a whole generation of mainstream Christians regardless of their denominations, including Christians in the Holy Land. Father Rafiq Khoury of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, gives a very disturbing account of Christian Zionism's effect on religion and politics. [4] Where once Christians and Muslims shared common values and aspirations in Palestinian society, Christian Zionism has succeeded in fragmenting this already battered community as it struggles to withstand Israel's punishing occupation. Amongst certain sections of this society, Christians and Muslims are now viewing each other with suspicion, and Christians in Palestine, like those abroad, are beginning to see Islam as the enemy. Needless to say, this has been enormously detrimental to the Palestine liberation movement.

It would surprise many Christians in the West that Palestinian Christians and Muslims have prayed in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity for centuries. In fact, the Qur'an - the holy book of Islam - refers often, and with great reverence, to Jesus and Mary. Muhammad himself preserved an icon of Mary and the child Jesus after the conquest of Mecca and ordered that it remain within the Ka'ba to which Muslims make their obligatory pilgrimage from all over the world. [5]

Since 638 CE, Muslims have had the right to pray in the south aisle of the church when the Patriarch of Jerusalem handed over Palestine to Caliph Omar as he swept into Bethlehem with his Arab armies. [6] Muslims recognise Jesus as the Christ, the mightiest Messenger of God who was born miraculously of the Virgin Mary and who, through God, was able to perform miracles. However, Christians and Muslims part ways on Christ's divinity. Muslims believe that there has always been and continues to be one God only and that joining Christ and the Holy Spirit with God the Father in what is known as the Trinity ­ a major tenet of Christianity ­ compromises that singular divinity of God.

It has not though affected their recognition of, and reverence for, Jesus and Mary. The highly regarded theologian of the early Christian Church, St John of Damascus actually thought that Islam was merely another form of Christianity[7], and indeed today, St John would probably be more comfortable with the practices and beliefs of Muslims than he would with the form of Christianity that has developed in the West, particularly Christian Zionism.

So much of the fear and antagonism we see today against Muslims come from ignorance. In Palestine, Christian and Muslims have lived together in harmony for centuries, and particularly in Bethlehem, they have not only shared Christmas celebrations, but even the Muslim feasts Eid al-Fitr at the end of the Ramadan fast and Eid al-Adha. As one young Bethlehem tour guide commented in 2002:

We know how to celebrate together, because we know how to weep together. We have suffered as one people under 35 years of occupation. The same week that Mary, a Muslim mother of seven was killed in Beit Jala, Johnny, a 17-year-old, died in Manger Square as he was coming out of the Church of the Nativity, both shot by Israeli snipers. We're all inmates together, Muslims and Christians, in the same miserable prison called Palestine. We have no freedom, no peace, no jobs, no money for winter heating, no travelling to Jerusalem or between towns and villages, no future.

And that is the sum of what is so often forgotten in the search for peace and justice: the escalating inhuman situation suffered by the Palestinians ­ Christians and Muslims.

Sing as we might this Christmas, the hopes and dreams of all the years is unlikely to be met in Bethlehem for those who live there. Nor are they likely to be met for the Palestinians barely hanging on to their miserable existence in Gaza, or the Palestinians in the other cities, towns and villages in the Holy Land and even less for the stateless Palestinians long deprived of hope in the refugee camps. Every chorister's hallelujah will just be a death knell for another generation of Palestinians and every Christmas reflection will become meaningless words of Christian faith, unless we are prepared to look beyond the tinsel and the feasting and really do something to stop Israel's crimes against both Christians and Muslims in Palestine.

Sonja Karkar is the founder and president of Women for Palestine in Melbourne, Australia. See

[1] Statement by Australian Church Leaders, Bethlehem, 18 December 2007
[2] Ibid.
[3] Fr Rafiq Khoury, "Effects of Christian Zionism on religion, Christian local churches and peace research", Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Jerusalem, 2004 (a presentation given at the Al-Sabeel International Conference on 15 April 2004)
[4] Ibid.
[5] Uri Rubin, "The Ka'ba: Aspects of its Ritual Function and Position in Pre-Islamic and Early Islamic Times", Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 8 (1986) 97-131
[6] Dr G S P Freeman-Grenville, The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine Exploration Fund, January 1994
[7] William Dalrymple, "What Muslims and Christians share: A Christmas meditation", The New Statesman, 19 December 2005