You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)
A major point of tension in Israel/Palestine are the checkpoints. To get into the West Bank is not a problem. It’s in the getting out of the West Bank back into Israel that is a problem for most Palestinian people. According to the Israeli human rights monitoring group Machsom Watch, there are about 120 different kinds of permits that may be granted for someone living in the West Bank to enter Israel.
Standing in line, with a
Two mornings a week our team leaves the placement house at 4am with a taxi (buses don’t run that early). On these mornings, we encounter mostly men going to work and college students going to school. On Fridays, we arrive at 8 am, since most of the foot traffic through the checkpoint is for those attending mid-day prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of East Jerusalem.
When we arrive, we walk through a few open turnstiles and stand on the “into Israel” side. Our role is to see how the checkpoint is operating – are all gates open? Does the humanitarian gate, for people with special needs, open at the proper time? How long does it take the average person to pass through?
Most mornings the people stand patiently in three orderly lines to enter metal cages that remind us of the chutes that are used with aggressive animals. They give themselves, on average, about an hour and a half to get through the checkpoint and on to work. As time wears on, the line often grows. Soldiers open the chutes about every 15 minutes, allowing about 25-100 people through at time. Sometimes the men begin pushing and shoving, and we back away. When this happens, the men resemble a “scrum” in rugby where the players push each other from side to side hoping to make some headway.
Once I met an elderly man who spoke as much English as I speak Arabic (which at that time was none!) who was attempting to get through the Humanitarian gate, which is supposed to be open between the hours of 6-8am so that the elderly, women and children, school teachers and those with a medical permit can pass. He gestured to the gate, to me, and to his foot. Gingerly, he sat on the ground and proceeded to take off his shoe and sock. His big toe was swollen and discolored, he must have been in great pain.
We advocate for the elderly
I showed him as much compassion as possible before approaching one of the soldiers on his behalf. Three stood in a small square building about four feet away from us. Their feet up on the desk, they were eating breakfast and laughing, quite captivated by their smartphones. Respectfully, I called out to them to please open the humanitarian gate. They ignored me. After about a half an hour, I walked away. Moments later, the gate opened and he was let through. Perhaps they just wanted to teach me a lesson.
Yesterday was a very bad Friday morning at the checkpoint. When we arrived a number of military vehicles and personnel were gathered in the parking lot. I later learned that there had been clashes between the people and the soldiers many of the evenings that week, and they were likely showing their power on a day when it would be noticed by the most people.
When we got inside the checkpoint, there were more people waiting on line than I had ever seen, and they were quite angry. Everyone was being processed VERY slowly. All three of the lines were packed up four across to the parking lot, with many families with infants and small children, elderly and handicapped.
I was approached by many wanting my assistance to get through. A 50 year old woman in a leg brace on her way to a Doctor’s appointment, a 70 year old man with only one leg and arm braces, and an elderly man with very bad legs were all turned away from the Humanitarian Gate. I called the number we are given to complain about the gate not being open and was told "there's nothing to be done".
Then, I tried speaking with the guards on shift in the watch house. The first, a tall young man with a face like my son’s, refused to listen/acknowledge my presence. The second, who seemed just as young but a little “greener” at his job, at least had the decency to speak with me about individual cases. He even called his supervisor to see if he could bring the key so they could open the gate, who said "not unless he is in a (wheel)chair".
My response to him was “How does he get through a turnstile with one leg? Do you need permission to show some decency and compassion for these human beings? Please, just open the gate for the elderly and handicapped!” The man with one leg left, clearly out of frustration. I don’t blame him.
The morning line at
The worst moment was when a ten year old boy became accidentally separated from his grandfather in the middle of the checkpoint without his papers. The guard on duty did nothing to help reunite them for 45 minutes, which upset not only the family but many others in the line. Towards the end of our six hours there, fights broke out in the lines and a woman's voice kept screaming quite loudly – the crowd was so dense we could not see where she was.
It was not safe for us to leave until an hour past when our shift should have been over. It took us an hour to stand in line, pass through the chute, stand in another line, put our items through the metal detector and show our papers to the guards. When we were finally outside we noticed that the military had surrounded the area with tanks and soldiers, and buses were not being allowed near, so we walked down the road and I called our driver to come and pick us up.
When we arrived back on the placement house, my partner and I were emotionally exhausted. We were frustrated by our inability to help make matters better and standing six hours witnessing the military-industrial complex of Israel dehumanize these poor people: Women, children, working men, elderly, the handicapped. As an American, I also feel the great weight of shame knowing that my tax dollars are funding this human rights fiasco of an occupation.
But then I remember, Jesus too lived under occupation (and he probably looked a whole lot like the men waiting in line to pass through the checkpoint, too!). Within his Sermon on the Mount (as told by Matthew), Jesus preaches about turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile which has been traditionally interpreted to mean, basically, “Do good things”. Perhaps, as my Palestinian Christian friend Omar suggests, there is a deeper meaning that was appropriate then, and is appropriate now.
When Jesus suggested to his followers they do these things, he was really giving them a context for a non-violent Christian response against an aggressive occupying force. According to Roman law, a soldier could conscript a Judean into carrying their rucksack for a mile as they traveled through town. More than a mile was considered too much, and a soldier could be court marshaled for requiring it. By volunteering to carry the extra mile, that Judean peasant was forcing his occupier to break his own unjust law. Using your unclean hand to slap someone and requiring as payment more than the clothes off someone’s back were also against the law. Any of these simple actions would cause shame and possible reprimand for the soldier.
Jesus says give them what they want, and let them suffer their own shame. To resort to violence is to become what the oppressor wants you to be: less than human. Do not give them this victory.
Omar’s point was that Jesus’s path of non-violent resistance is far from being meek and mild, it is putting one’s body on the line for the cause of justice. It is making the occupier follow through with the ridiculousness of their own law. It is also in not allowing the people to become fractured. When done carefully and ethically, this form of protest can bring an occupying force to its knees.
Here, in a place where the occupation is so thickly wrapped around the lives of both the Palestinian and the Israeli like a sickness, I pray that non-violence becomes the agent of change. When we look at history, we see that systems do adapt over time. Perhaps not immediately, but in time. And it’s often the peaceful movements of the people that bring justice to the people.
As I continue to walk this road, I will continue to pray for justice: a change in attitudes, a change in hearts. May it be so, and may it be soon. To be honest, right now I am just working on finding hope.
I served on the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) as an Ecumenical Accompanier. Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the WCC. Please do not forward or use any part of this communication without permission. Thank you.