“Forged in the broken relationships of a brutal war, Pax Christi began its journey 70 years ago with a vision based on the Gospel – love your enemies – and rooted in a deep belief that reconciliation was possible.”
These words, which begin the final declaration of the Pax Christi International World Assembly, held in Bethlehem, Palestine, from May 13 – 17, 2015, could just as well describe the state of affairs in Israel and Palestine.
For five days, I joined a delegation of Pax Christi USA and Pax Christi members from six continents in Bethlehem, and traveled to various towns and villages throughout the occupied territories to discover the realities of life in Palestine, united by this common goal: “Real peace is what we aspire and hope is one of our deepest values.”
For some of us, this would be our first trip to Israel and Palestine. For me, it would be one of the most challenging trips in my life, given the real absence of both real peace and hope.
Most of this past week we have lived in a kind of global village in Bethlehem, in the heart of the occupied territories that make up Palestine, about 22 percent of the land of Israel, at a time when illegal Israeli settlements continue to encroach upon Palestinian lands, villages and neighborhoods.
We have visited Palestinian refugee camps, walked the divided streets and heavily militarized city of Hebron, traveled the Jordan Valley and witnessed the marked contrast between gated Israeli settlements and disappearing Palestinian lands.
We deepened our reflection on our encounters with Palestinian reality by reflecting more broadly on human rights, ecological justice, justice and reconciliation, and demilitarization – all themes which are deeply embedded in the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. We also lifted up the role of women peacemakers, and the hope that young people offer as examples of peacemakers.
Israel and Palestine are deeply divided, and have been since the creation of Israel in 1948, which resulted in the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages and the forced displacement of 750,000 Palestinians. It is an event etched deep in the collective memory of Palestinians and known as the “Nakba,” or the “catastrophe.”
For its part, the creation of the state of Israel cannot be understood apart from the Holocaust, and the destruction of six million Jews in Europe. Nor can European Christians forget a deeply-rooted anti-Semitism that provided the rationale for Holocaust and centuries of pogroms against the Jews.
Two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, with deeply contrasting narratives, and vivid memories of suffering, violence, and destruction. Added to this more recent history is a deeply rooted and shared religious tradition that has since branched out to become what we know today as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In 1967, Israeli occupied the West Bank of Palestine and Gaza during the Six Day War, and set in motion a system a system of control and discrimination that has only resulted in a deadly cycle of violence. And those divisions appear to be growing as both Jews and Arabs are convinced that the other is trying to destroy them.
Yet the reality may be that security of one is bound up with the security of the other. At least that is grounds for hope. As one Palestinian Christian told us today, after a visit to that most conflictive of cities, Hebron, “We are all on this journey together.” What is the reality on the ground?
Hebron: A Tale of Two Peoples
On a trip from Bethlehem to Hebron, two ancient cities in the occupied Palestinian territories, we were introduced to what might be called “a tale of two peoples.” In the occupied territories of the West Bank, there are hundreds of Israeli “outposts” and “settlements.” Deemed by religious Israeli settlers as their “divine” right, and by Palestinians as a violation of their human rights, settlements are illegal under international law.
As we traveled along the road between Bethlehem and Hebron, our guide pointed out dozens of outposts and settlements around Bethlehem and Hebron. The same thing is happening in the Jordan Valley and in East Jerusalem. Since 1948 and 1967, the map of Palestine has grown smaller and smaller and more deeply divided with the advance of the Israeli settlements.
Hebron itself is a deeply divided city, with centuries of peaceful coexistence among Jews and Arabs, broken by more recent violence that has created two separate communities and enforced by a system of military check-points and control. Distrust and hatred abound, as do an intolerable state of tension, daily violence, and fear.
But there are some bright lights, and some cracks in the system of segregation that divides the two communities. For a number of years, Christian Peacemaker Teams and more recently World Council of Churches EAPPI teams monitor the situation on the ground and try to minimize or prevent more violence. A number of Israeli soldiers have formed Breaking the Silence and objected to the violence of the occupation, while Israeli NGOs have protected Palestinians and monitored check-points.
Jordan Valley: Disparity of Land and Water
On another trip, this time to the Jordan Valley, we witnessed another kind of division, this one based on both land and water. Throughout the occupied territories of the West Bank, water is a precious and scarce resource. But access to water is clearly unequal.
According to the World Council of Churches EAPPI accompaniers, studies show that 10,000 Israeli settlers living in the Jordan Valley receive on average 300 liters of water a day, while 60,000 Palestinians receive only 70 liters. This is clear from simple observation, as the gated-Israeli settlements along the Jordan River contrast sharply with the poor Palestinian farms.
We saw an abundance of water diverted to the settlements and their farmlands, while Palestinians relied heavily on water barrels on their roofs to gather water. By law, Palestinians cannot dig deeper than 94 meters to build a well, while the Israeli settlers can dig as deep as 1,000 meters. For the most part, electric power lines carry electricity to the settlements, but not to the Palestinian lands. There is a hospital in the settlements, but no access for Palestinians.
This same disparity was also apparent in other parts of the West Bank, including Hebron. We heard stories from the international monitors of water lines that had been cut by Israeli settlers, and water barrels on top of Palestinian houses that leaked because they had been shot at by Israeli soldiers.
Looking to the Future: Two Sides to the Story
During our week-long stay, we heard from both Palestinian and Israeli voices, particularly those who were looking for a solution based on justice. And we also visited Palestinian and Israeli projects that offered a glimmer of hope for reconciliation based on truth, justice and human dignity. But we also encountered profound discouragement with regard to a political solution to this unending conflict.
On the Palestinian side, we heard from two Palestinian Christian young people who offered a sober assessment of the reality, but also a dream of hope. Mohamed asked, “What is the future for our children? I don’t want my son to grow up and be arrested or killed in a protest. I don’t want him to have to live under the occupation. But what opportunities are there for him? What chance does nonviolence have to succeed? We need international support.”
Rania, another young Palestinian Christian, said: “The Nakba (catastrophe) is still going on, with the building the wall, the settlements, the fear, the silence. We want people to unite. Pope Francis just announced his support for a Palestinian state, and the Vatican just canonized two Palestinian Catholic nuns as saints. This land is a land of love and life. We still have hope, we are resilient.”
On the Israeli side, we heard from the field director from Rabbis for Human Rights, Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, said: “I am the child of Holocaust survivors. I love this land. I served in the Israeli army as a medic. But I am concerned about the soul of my country. The problem is deep. The fact that Israel exists is a tragedy for the Palestinian people. We have a bi-national state but a divided country. We are afraid, and that fear is based on an existential conflict about this land. We are concerned about the Palestinians, from our religious tradition. But we need a change of heart on all sides, and we need the involvement of the international community to help us.”
We also heard from Ruth, a young Israeli Jew and member of the Israeli Coalition against Demolitions. She minced no words when she said: “We are an apartheid state, with an intentional plan in place to further segregate the Palestinians. There is a fear in Israel of a Palestinian majority. Israel has created a matrix of control of check-points, roadblocks, walls, settlements, laws and policies, enforced by the violence of the army.”
When we asked people on both sides about a political solution, we heard mixed results. Several people said the time for a two-state solution is gone: “That train has left the station long ago,” as one person put it. But whether a one-state solution could ever work, without greater justice for the Palestinians, was also a question of debate. But the divisions are deep, the violence profound.
Still, there are glimmers of hope. There are Palestinians and Israelis who deeply desire reconciliation, based on truth and justice.
In Bethlehem, we visited the Palestinian Conflict Resolution/Transformation Center, otherwise known as the Wi’am (agape) Center. Zoughbi Zoughbi, the director of the center, said: “We try to be a center of hope to a people living under occupation and a world that is brimming with the cries of injustice and oppression.” He further shared with us his confidence that most people, Israelis and Palestinians alike, would prefer to live together in a society without fear.
And on the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Neve Shalom, otherwise known as the Oasis of Peace, was formed in the 1970s as an experiment in which an equal number of Palestinians and Israelis came to live together and to raise their children with mutual respect for each other’s tradition and with training in both Hebrew and Arabic. Such “experiments in truth,” as Gandhi would call them, offer glimmers of hope for the future. In Rabbi Grenimann’s words, “All things are possible in God’s world.”
Pax Christi International: The Bethlehem Commitment
At the conclusion to the Pax Christi International Assembly, a declaration was issued in the form of a commitment, and participants were invited to take this commitment to heart. One concrete fruit of the assembly will likely be an increased attention on the part of Pax Christi regions around the world to see how we can contribute to a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.
More than one person at the assembly, and among the Palestinians and Israelis with whom we met, expressed a profound sense of discouragement, with little hope for peace. When asked, do you have hope, one Catholic nun working in the region said, “No.” Yet she, like so many people, Palestinians and Israelis alike, remain, working tirelessly day by day, for a hope that does not exist – yet. In that spirit, the words of Pax Christi International’s “Bethlehem Commitment” may offer, if not hope, at least a direction for hope in the future. “There is no way, we make the way by walking.”
“On this journey we have learned that just relationships are essential for sustainable peace – that we humans are part of an earth community that must be healthy if we are to survive. We have come to see the interconnections between war and preparations for war, environmental damage, climate change and scarcity of essential resources. We are deepening our understanding of sustainability. We also learned that just relationships are essential to just peace…”
“While war, preparations for war, the proliferation of arms and violent conflict seem to be omnipresent, we promote nonviolence, nurture community and work for a world where human rights and international law are consistently respected… As we turn to the future, we claim again the vision that peace is possible and vicious cycles of violence and injustice can be broken. We seek a world where people can live in peace and without fear … relying on the presence of the Spirit to ‘guide our feet into the way of peace.’”