The Promise of Palestine

Editor’s Comments: As individuals with different experiences, we all bring a different perspective to the table. And as parents, we care about the world around us – after all, our kids will inherit it someday. We at THE FATHER LIFE want to encourage folks to think through the world around them with an active mind; not just accepting what we hear and see in the news, but actively thinking and constructively engaging the world and media that we’re all part of. Today, there are few other regions as politically charged as the Middle East. Unfortunately, as with all things political, there is always more to a situation than meets the eye. Chad Kyler, who has a traditional Christian background, recently traveled to Israel/Palestine for the sole purpose of getting a more well-rounded perspective on the situation there. We asked Chad to write a story about his experience… and here it is. I trust this article challenges your thinking as it did ours.

This past July I had the unique opportunity of traveling to Israel/Palestine for a Christian conference hosted by Sabeel an ecumenical Palestinian Christian organization. The purpose of the conference was to introduce Western Christians to the daily lives and plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, and specifically to highlight the continued existence of the indigenous Palestinian Christian community which has for centuries followed the path of Jesus in the land. Participants traveled from the U.S, U.K, Norway, Columbia, Sweden, Israel, Palestine and Canada. We came from a wide variety of Christian traditions, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, UCC, Lutherans and even a pastor from the Church of God (Cleveland, TN).

This was not your typical Holy Land experience. Our group met with both Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations. We were briefed by the U.N. office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, we walked through the same checkpoints that Palestinians walk through to get from place to place in the West Bank (there are 528 such checkpoints in the West Bank) and we volunteered our time assisting people who have suffered greatly from the occupation of their lands. Most of my time was spent in the occupied West Bank with visits to East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Taybeh (the only remaining Christian village in the West Bank), Jifna, Bethlehem, Hebron, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. To say that this experience was eye opening would be a gross understatement. I was fully exposed to a side of the Arab-Israeli conflict that most Americans rarely if ever have access to and I have been changed dramatically as a result.

In May of 1948 94% of the land of Palestine was owned by Palestinians both Muslim and Christian. That particular month of May brought two events in the history of the land that have forever been linked together: the founding of the modern State of Israel and the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe). 750,000 Palestinians became refugees during the Israeli “war of independence” and none have ever been allowed to return to their homes. Instead they reside in what have become permanent refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, the West Bank and Gaza.

I visited two of these long standing camps. Ayda camp just outside of Bethlehem was formed by refugees from 27 Palestinian villages destroyed by the Israeli army during its military campaign, records indicate that over 500 such villages were ultimately destroyed with residents dispersing to various parts of the region. The camp is extremely impoverished and is entirely cut off from the rest of the West Bank. The residents of this camp, old enough to have been displaced from their homes in 1948, still hold on to the keys for their property in the hopes of some day returning to reclaim what is theirs.

Anata camp just outside of East Jerusalem is made up of both people who are from the historic village of Anata as well as former residents of Jerusalem who were evicted from their homes and property following the 1967 war when Israel took possession of and occupied East Jerusalem. For centuries many of the people of Anata refugee camp had lived, or worked and worshipped in East Jerusalem, this year however marks the fortieth year of their expulsion from the city to which most of them are now prevented from visiting by Israeli law. In 2005 the Israeli government began constructing its segregation wall around Anata and Shufat refugee camps, by the date of my trip to Palestine the wall around Anata had been finished, it encircles the area completely even taking up school playgrounds and private property.

Throughout the West Bank, Israel has been building what they call a security wall in and around Palestinian lands. The wall as I mentioned in regards to Anata refugee camp cuts through Palestinian property throughout the occupied territories, and divides farmers from their farms; it separates Palestinians from other Palestinians, from their land, and workplaces and also from Israelis. The route of the wall has been ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice and is considered a human rights violation by the U.N. It is one of the clearest evidences I found while in Palestine that the Israeli government is engaged in Apartheid practices when it comes to its treatment of the Palestinian people and their land. One prime example for me of the devastating effects of the wall is to be found in Bethlehem which is almost completely surrounded by this structure. On our visit to Bethlehem we were able to go the Church of the Nativity which houses the site traditionally accepted as the birthplace of Jesus. Recalling to myself pictures and images I have seen of this place crowded and full of pilgrims I was quite surprised to find that ours was one of maybe three groups present at the shrine. It was quite easy to make our way through the caves, no crowds, no pushing, just emptiness and space. The wall has essentially cut Bethlehem off from its primary source of income namely Christian tourism.

The effects of the Apartheid system of the Israeli government became even more real to me when our group made the journey to Hebron. Hebron is south of Bethlehem deep inside the West Bank. This is the place the biblical book of Genesis tells us Abraham bought a field to bury his wife and it is the place the same book tells us Abraham’s two sons Ishmael and Isaac buried their father. From the rooftop of the Christian Peacemaker Teams headquarters in Hebron we could view the Mosque that houses Abraham’s tomb.

In 1994 this mosque was the site of the Goldstein massacre. Baruch Goldstein a fundamentalist Jewish settler murdered 29 Muslim worshippers as they prayed at this mosque during the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan. In order to prevent this from happening again the Israeli government has since that time restricted Palestinian access to the shrine, as well they have set up barricades demarking the two feet of space that Palestinians can now walk in on the road that passes the mosque.

The segregation imposed in this area is to keep the Palestinian population of around 166,000 people in Hebron separated from about seven hundred militant Israeli settlers. I had the opportunity to walk down this street which Palestinians are not permitted by law to walk. Passing through a once prosperous marketplace that was closed due to settler violence against Palestinian shopkeepers I noticed a car following close behind our group. The driver was a settler and her goal I suppose was to scare us off. We continued our walk however and were eventually confronted by Israeli police who detained one of our Palestinian participants who lives in Bethlehem and ultimately offered us his freedom at a drop off point out of the neighborhood if we would end our walk and leave the area immediately, which of course we did. About a week after I returned from my trip, violence erupted in the old city of Hebron when militant Israeli settlers set fire to a mosque and then prevented the fire department from extinguishing the blaze. Indeed, I have never felt anywhere the kind of extreme tension that I felt while in Hebron, city of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Bible.

I once thought that I was very knowledgeable in regards to the Palestinian/Israeli situation. I believed that I had enough information to make an intelligent judgment call about both the factions involved in this conflict and ultimately about the possible resolutions offered by both sides. If my journey this summer has shown me anything, it is this, I was wrong in my previous assumptions. The information I had received over the years about this region and its history that led me to form my opinions was and is terribly skewed and biased. As a Christian I view this land as holy, I also view it to the best of my ability through the record I accept as scripture. My faith tradition teaches that this land is a ‘promised land’ once given to a nomadic Chaldean named Abram and later partially inhabited by some of his descendants. The land has also been populated by many other people groups throughout its history, some of whom have disappeared into the sands of time and some of whom still live in the land today. Palestinians have a deep and long history in this land that cannot be ignored, and they too being a Semitic people trace their ancestry not only to many of the previous inhabitants of Palestine but also to Abraham himself. Because of this I must also view this land theologically. The Bible calls for the rulers of this land, no matter who they are, to treat equally all residents of the land both citizens and aliens (see: Ezekiel 47:22). Above all else the Bible tells us that God requires of all humanity justice and kindness (Micah 6:8). I believe that to live in this land, is to accept fully the requirements of God’s justice and to live in a way that honors both the land and the people who live in the land.

The Promise of Palestine today is of a place where justice and mercy is meted out to all who live in the land. In my opinion, justice in the land today calls for a secure Israeli State whose borders are safe from infiltration by those who seek only to act violently toward Israeli citizens. Justice in the land also calls for a complete military withdrawal from all current Palestinian land returning to the pre-1967 borders between Israel and the West Bank. Justice calls for an end to the construction of Israel’s Apartheid wall or at the very least a complete removal of that structure in the many places that it encroaches on Palestinian land in the West Bank. Justice calls for the dismantling of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank each of which is considered illegal by the U.N. and the United States government and the implementation of the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees whose property was confiscated during Israel’s many military campaigns. Finally, if Israel truly desires to be a liberal democracy then there must be an end to the second class status of and discrimination against non-Jewish Israeli citizens.

I do not know the answer to the problems that have plagued this land for so long, but I do believe that peace and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israeli’s can never be realized until justice becomes the norm in the region. In the meantime I believe it is my duty to educate those who are unaware or who, like I did in the past, believe that they know all there is to know about this conflict. I believe also it is my obligation and definitely it is my desire to return again to Palestine, this land of promise, and encourage other Americans to skip the typical tourist agenda and instead visit this land as it really is, a land of troubles, of oppression, of brokenness and yet a land of joy, and life, and promise. Palestine has left an indelible mark on my spirit, it is to me a second home – one I long to return to often. It is a place where peace can be realized and where the world can learn anew what it means to be free.

RECOMMENDED READING:

The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by Ilan Pappe
Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, by Naim Stifan Ateek
Whose Land? Whose Promise?: What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians, by Gary M. Burge

RECOMMENDED WEBSITES:

Palestine Remembered
If Americans Knew

Sabeel.org
United Nations, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

CHAD KYLER is a 31 year old Youth Director at Penfield Presbyterian Church in Penfield, New York. His personal website is: www.chadkyler.com.

Image By: Chad Kyler

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