Reports from Israel-Palestine: John H. Thomas

Reports from Israel-Palestine: John H. Thomas


Breaking Down Dividing Walls: Next Year in Jerusalem?

A Report on a United Church of Christ Delegation to Israel and Palestine
November 4-9, 2005

John H. Thomas
General Minister and President
United Church of Christ

St. George’s Guest House, adjacent to the Anglican Cathedral in East Jerusalem, and our home for a six day visit to Israel and Palestine, is a brief walking distance from the Damascus Gate, one of the ancient gates to the Old City of Jerusalem. Our trip was an encounter with walls and gates, with fear and protection, inclusion and exclusion, possession, occupation, identity, and separation. Israel and Palestine is today, as it has so often been, a fractured community preoccupied by walls, fences, and barriers. Thirty foot slabs of concrete and long sections of steel fencing, razor wire, and electronic surveillance surround Jerusalem and snake through the West Bank providing security protection for Israelis and Jewish Settlers while dividing Palestinians from jobs, hospitals, olive orchards, and families. What is for most Israelis a welcome defense against terrorism is, for the Palestinians, a daily oppression, an ominous sign that meaningful statehood in a viable, geographically contiguous nation is increasingly elusive.

Opinions about the wall are rooted in historical memory and contemporary experience. In our meeting with Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, we heard a portrait of the Arab community as hostile, menacing, and dangerous. Muslims in general, and Arabs in particular are, according to Rabbi Metzger, to be feared. Absent here is the typical liberal American Protestant or Catholic yearning for dialogue. Walls are necessary for survival. Coming to the meeting that Sunday from Yad Vashem, the impressive memorial and museum of the Holocaust, reminds one of the inevitable and understandable lens through which many Jews view “the other,” a lens which makes walls attractive. Even a staff member we met with at the liberal Israeli human rights and advocacy organization, B’tselem, affirmed to us the legitimacy of some kind of barrier or protection against Palestinian attacks. Her assessment of Israeli opinion is this: “Build the wall, and build it faster.” Isaac Herzog, a member of the Knesset and Minister of Housing and Construction in the Sharon cabinet, described the fence to us as a kind of “best worst alternative.” “We hate it. But what can we do?”

Like the ancient walls of Jerusalem, including the cherished Western Wall of the Second Temple where we watched observant Jews from around the world praying, today’s Wall is a welcome respite for Israeli Jews from fear and a symbolic statement of resistance to the attacks of anti-Semitism throughout the centuries. Yet even at this sacred place, historical and moral ambiguities abound. It was here that Israeli soldiers celebrated the victory of the Six Day War, a war that began the Occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. It was here, atop the wall on the Temple Mount, the site of two Muslim holy sites – the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque – that Prime Minister Sharon’s deliberately provocative presence helped ignite the second Intifada. It is here that pilgrims like us must pass through security gates to pray. It is here that two Muslim girls we met in Jayyous were insulted by soldiers barring them from prayers at Al Aqsa during Ramadan. And it is here that Jews are reminded that their Second Temple was destroyed by enemies in 70 C.E. Walls are laden with contradictions.

For Palestinians today’s Wall is an oppressive and sinister reality. It is a daily reminder of occupation, of loss, of restriction. It is, in fact, a kind of prison. Even privileged Americans feel it. With our United States passports and a driver holding permits allowing us to travel on the new system of “Israeli-only” highways, we still found walls impeding us. Hostile interrogations upon our arrival at Ben Gurion airport, eight security check points encountered in just our first two days, and the denial of a permit to visit refugee projects in Gaza were all signs of the barriers many experience. In spite of Israeli license plates, our Palestinian driver regularly received far a more suspicious screening then Israeli drivers with identical licenses.

Palestinians experience the wall, of course, as far more than inconvenience. The director of the Beit Sahour branch of the East Jerusalem YMCA, Nader Abu Amsha, described the disruption for their outreach workers serving disabled Palestinian youth throughout the West Bank. Twenty-minute trips can easily become two hours; some days visits are not possible. He himself can no longer tend his olive trees; the orchard is on the other side of the fence. At al-Nuaman, a small Palestinian village near Bethlehem, a Muslim family met with us and with Amiel Vardi, an Israeli professor working with Ta’ayush, an Israeli-Palestinian human rights organization. Over tea and coffee in their living room this extended family described living conditions in a community slowly being encircled by the Wall. The road that once gave them access to East Jerusalem is now closed, mounds of dirt plowed over it by the Israeli government. The Wall divides them from their children’s schools. A new Israeli-only road will soon take six of the villagers’ housing. “We are being squeezed out.” In spite of the defiance and determination we heard in their living room, it is clear that soon there will be no more Nuaman (the Arabic word for grace) on the West Bank.

At the one hundred year old Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives, now operated by the Lutheran World Federation, the Wall separates the hospital from its doctors and patients. Standing on the Mount of Olives looking east Dr. Tewfik Nasser, the hospital director, pointed across the valley where his staff and patients live. Licensed by the Israeli Ministry of Health only to treat Palestinians, the hospital must now bus its patients and staff through the check points in a special system worked out with the government. As if this isn’t enough, the Israeli government is now attempting to revoke historic tax agreements with Augusta Victoria, a potential financial burden that could jeopardize the future of the hospital. The hospital’s circumstance mirrors that of many Palestinian institutions and individuals who must daily face the challenges of remaining in Jerusalem, challenges that seem deliberately intended to one day create a unified Jerusalem for Israelis alone.

From most points in Bethlehem, or on the drive to Ramallah, and especially when traveling north through the West Bank, the encroachment of settlements, a long standing challenge to Palestinian statehood, becomes starkly apparent. While some of these settlements may be temporary, many have become large suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv surrounded by the Wall and accessed by Israeli only roads. Construction uproots centuries old olive trees and the Wall that protects the settlements carves the Palestinian population into pieces. Mitri Raheb, the pastor of the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and its International Center, describes the West Bank as “Swiss cheese,” the Palestinian areas increasingly surrounded and disjointed.

A visit to Jayyous, a Muslim farming village, took us to the northwest part of the West Bank. From the high points of the village it is possible to see Tel Aviv in the distance. Our visit gave us a graphic view of the impact as well as the intent of the Wall. While no one denies that security is an important factor in the Wall’s construction, the route of the Wall reveals another agenda, for if security alone was the intent, the Wall would follow a much less intrusive course. The view from Jayyous confirms what maps suggest: the Wall or Separation Barrier’s route is determined by access to the water supply, the location of present Jewish settlements, and the planned expansion of those settlements. Today the olive trees and greenhouses tended by Jayyous’ villagers lie on the western side of the Wall, a fact that can only be explained by expansion plans of settlements east and south of Jayyous. I asked one of the community leaders who is a hydrologist whether the route of the Wall could have been predicted by access to water. “Of course,” he replied. “Ninety percent of the water supplies in Israel and Palestine now lie on the Israeli side of the fence,” a fact confirmed by B’tselem.

Two young Muslim women who teach in the village talked about the limitation of movement caused by the Wall. A recent closure of the crossings kept them from their university exams, delaying for months their education. We stood with community leaders and a World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment monitoring team in Jayyous watching the evening crossing at the main check point. Farmer after farmer waited to have documents and cargo checked as they returned to their homes, a twice daily process that shortens the work day for as much as an hour or two. Occasionally they are turned back in the morning, losing an entire day of work. Near one of Jayyous’ check points a Bedouin family whose home was separated from the village by the Wall, sits forlorn, their daughters no longer attending school after soldiers forced them one morning to remove their clothing for a security inspection. Meanwhile, the route of the Wall in Jayyous conveniently encloses on the Palestinian side a garbage dump used for years by a nearby Jewish settlement.

The Wall is a massive undertaking at enormous financial expense for construction, maintenance, and military personnel at the crossing points. In rural areas it is a chain link fence. On either side wide swaths of land have been bulldozed creating a barrier of ditches, razor wire, access roads, and fencing topped by electronic sensors. In more urban areas in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Bethelehem, the Wall resembles images of East and West Berlin complete with guard towers. Gray concrete snakes across hills and divides urban streets literally in half. Even the Housing Minister acknowledged that the Wall in Jerusalem is a problem causing much pain. “But we have no choice.”

He and others claim that the Wall is temporary. Obviously it could be removed, though nothing about its construction suggests a brief life span. What cannot be reversed so easily is the altered demographic landscape it creates. Many Palestinian villages like al-Nuaman, or larger towns like Qalquilia, will be so constricted and cut off from markets that they will be abandoned because their economy will no longer be viable. East Jerusalem itself, the hoped for capital of a future Palestinian state, is in danger of losing its Muslim and Christian population. Between the Wall and the system of passes that limit Palestinians either to Jerusalem or the West Bank, the daily needs of family, work, and health care will drive many from the city. The temporary Wall may come down eventually. But the segregation of Israeli and Palestinian communities will be far more permanent, an increasingly separate and unequal demographic arrangement. Apartheid is an ugly word; easy comparisons to South Africa are not completely apt. Yet even some Israelis we met use the language of “Bantustans” to describe the separation of the West Bank and Gaza into three or four isolated enclaves connected one day by “Palestinian-only” roads and tunnels.

Will the Wall end the violence? Attacks by Palestinian bombers against Israelis have diminished since sections of the fence have been completed, a welcome relief for innocent civilians on both sides. But even some Israelis are skeptical of the long term effectiveness. Staff at B’tselem point to indications that it may simply shift tactics from suicide bombings to rocket attacks, or shift locations from current “hot spots” to heretofore relatively quiet places. And they remind us that it continues to be the check points, not areas enclosed by the Wall, that have been vulnerable to incursions by bombers.

A far more ominous response to the question emerges when considering the long term effect on a population forced to live in walled enclosures. The much heralded withdrawal from Gaza over three months ago has been slow to deliver the promise of eased restrictions. The border with Egypt was finally opened two weeks after our visit and there is the promise of the beginning of some access between Gaza and the West Bank. But proposals for an airport and a seaport in Gaza are still resisted. International visitors thus far have been systematically excluded by Israel from access to Gaza. In spite of the fact that we support humanitarian projects in refugee camps in Gaza under the auspices of the Middle East Council of Churches, in spite of the fact that officials in Gaza were prepared to host us, and in spite of the fact that we initiated our request for permits five weeks before traveling, we were denied entry. Our application was bounced from security officials at the Gaza checkpoints to the Interior Ministry in Jerusalem. After an exchange of numerous faxes, including the promise to grant permission the week of our departure, on the day before the planned visit Israeli officials in Gaza and Jerusalem suddenly claimed to have no paperwork for us, no records, no memory of conversations on the phone with Peter. When pressed, they offered the excuse that “you have no churches in Israel or Gaza.” Knesset member Herzog laughed all this off as the proverbial red tape of bureaucrats. “Why didn’t you have your embassy help you? Why didn’t you get David Rosen (a senior official of the American Jewish Committee) to help?” The response, of course, is “Why should we be dependent on the intervention of American Jewish organizations to be able to visit United Church of Christ funded projects in Palestinian communities? Why do we need Israel’s permission to enter Gaza? And why would we want to enter Gaza under the protection of an American government hated by most Palestinians for its support of Israel and its invasion of Iraq?”

The point of this story is not that four American church leaders had to alter their itinerary. The point is that Gaza remains largely a prison in spite of the newly opened exit to Egypt. Settlers are gone. But with the exception of the recently opened crossing, people enter or leave only when Israel grants permission and few can actually go to the West Bank. Palestinians are justifiably skeptical when claims are made that the Gaza withdrawal is anything more than a decision to give up an enormously costly security headache. But even if it is, as Labor party member Herzog claimed, a courageous political move by Prime Minister Sharon, the “first step” on the road map to peace, the first few months of freedom give little cause for celebration. Is the creation of a walled in and poverty stricken Gaza the way to peace?

The geopolitical partition of Gaza and the West Bank into isolated pockets of a rapidly growing Palestinian population offers an ominous picture of the future. It is a portrait made more frightening by the small brush strokes of daily humiliation. One sees it in the resignation of Jayyous’ farmers lined up at the check point waiting for permission to go home at night. One sees it in a young law student we watched being questioned rudely by Israeli soldiers his own age at a random stop at the Damascus Gate, a student who had made the mistake of letting his Jerusalem permit expire. In spite of his identity papers and his university ID the soldiers lectured him: “Get out of here and don’t come back until you renew your pass.” (A process that consumes hours every three months) In fact, missing class was a light punishment. He could have been arrested.

The daily humiliation could even be experienced in the Old City where the Redeemer Lutheran Church’s roof top terrace now plays host to a garbage bin placed there by a Yeshiva illegally squatting several yards away on the roof of the bazaar in the Muslim Quarter. Municipal authorities had agreed to remove it until they discovered it belonged to a Yeshiva. “Sorry, we can’t do anything about it,” the clerk told the Lutheran pastor. The simmering rage can even be heard in the voice of the gentle, 85 year old Armenian Patriarch who leads a weekly liturgical procession from the Armenian Quarter to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Along the route adults and children of some of the ulta Orthodox Jewish communities spit at him. “Is this how you teach you children to practice their faith?” Patriarch Manoogian asks?

The Wall, and the passions that have produced it, snakes through Jewish and Palestinian life establishing “facts on the ground” that are devastating for the Palestinians’ future. But ultimately it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the segregated society Israel is imposing through this Wall will also be disastrous for Israel as well, both morally and politically. Palestinians also struggle to create their own “facts on the ground.” Augusta Victoria Hospital opened a radiation oncology a month ago, assisted in part by Advocate Health in Chicago, a joint United Church of Christ and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America hospital system. The unit offers Palestinians a quality of care second to none. The Lutheran World Federation director in Jerusalem, Mark Brown, is seeking investors in a housing project, a media center, and a youth recreation center to help maintain a vital Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem. The Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, and its pastor Mitri Raheb, dream of a university in Bethlehem that will train Palestinians in the arts. The East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA of Palestine invite partners around the world to “Keep Hope Alive,” planting olive trees throughout the West Bank to replace the thousands of trees uprooted by the building of the Wall. The Friends’ Meeting in Ramallah, under the leadership of Jean Zaru, a long time friend and colleague of ours, has restored its building to serve as a worship and conference space for Palestinian and international groups seeking to support a Palestinian future through non-violent resistance. Facts on the ground.

On the morning we watched the Palestinian law student turned away from class by his armed Israeli contemporaries, we visited Rawdat El Zuhur, an elementary school in Jerusalem that has served Palestinian refugee children for over fifty years. Among its supporters is the United Church of Christ through our child sponsorship program. The children shared their lessons with us in languages – Arabic, French, and English – math, and science. Some must brave security check points on the way to and from school each day. Physical education and music classes do more than educate; they offer an outlet to the emotional tensions and fear daily life produces in Jerusalem. Ninety percent of Rawdat El Zuhur’s graduates ultimately go on to university. In one class the principal, Mrs. Salwa Zananiri, led the children in a song in English for us: “We shall overcome. We shall live in peace. We’ll walk hand in hand.” Does that dream include the hands of Israeli children? Someday? We listened to their song just a week after the funeral of Rosa Parks. “Do they know the story of Rosa Parks?” I asked Salwa. “Of course!” Facts on the ground.

The victims of segregation were blessed by leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., visionaries who captured the imagination of the oppressed and of those who supported them. The victims of apartheid were led by the likes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Palestinians, divided and hemmed in by a wall, continue to revere Yasir Arafat, but even some of them admit that he failed to make the transition from charismatic movement leader to international statesman. Mahmoud Abbas struggles to lead, contending with the violence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the one side and the constant restraints and humiliations of the Israelis on the other. Who will lead?

During our visit we met many gifted Palestinian leaders, Christian and Muslim alike. One is the Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. Today Naim is demonized by many in the United States, including Jewish leaders, Evangelical Christian supporters of Israel, and by Christian Zionists whose unqualified support for Israel is a mixture of end time theology and right wing American politics. Naim, an Anglican proponent of non-violent resistance, sees the Palestinian plight through a theological lens using, not surprisingly for a resident of Jerusalem, the symbol of the cross. For Naim, the Via Dolorosa is not simply the route of Jesus through Jerusalem’s Old City, a route we watched being retraced by tourists and pilgrims on our visit. The Way of Sorrow is also a contemporary reality experienced by oppressed people in many contexts, including Palestine. One needs to be careful with this symbol, remembering charges of deicide – “Christ Killers” – leveled against Jews by Christian anti-Semites over the centuries. But such a symbol cannot be denied to Christians, for it makes compelling the meaning of suffering and complicity, including our own, and it calls forth a form of non-violent resistance born of resurrection hope.

Israel and Palestine is a disturbing and discouraging place today where ancient identities are reshaped and warped not only by competing narratives and competing claims to the land, but also by concrete walls, steel fences, guarded gates, parallel roads, and communal resignation and rage. My journey home went through Berlin where representatives of the United Church of Christ and the Union of Evangelical Churches in Germany met to celebrate twenty-five years of Kirchengemeinschaft, an ecumenical relationship of full church fellowship or communion. In Berlin the Holocaust, the narrative through which Israelis and many Jews around the world view the Middle East, is never far from view. In Berlin, the Cross carries with it meanings both ominous and glorious, shameful and sustaining. Here we know the ambiguous mystery of a faith that can at once distort and misuse its symbols. Since World War II Christians have had to confront this mystery through confession and repentance. One day I suspect the Walls of segregation in Jerusalem and the West Bank will prompt Israelis to confront similar shadows. Whether that is a spiritual pilgrimage Jews and Christians alike can share – in the Middle East and in American – remains to be seen.

Memories in Berlin, of course, are shaped not simply by the narratives of the Holocaust, but by its own wall that divided the city for decades. Today only fragments remain as memorials. We visited one such place near Check Point Charlie less than twenty-four hours after traveling through the tense check point into Ramallah directly in the sights of Israeli guns. As one views the remains of Berlin’s wall, one’s prayer can only echo in a very new way the ancient hope: Next year in Jerusalem!

Persons, Communities, and Organizations Visited

Mr. Nader Abu Amsha, Director of the Rehabilitation Program, East Jerusalem YMCA in Beit Sahour al-Nuaman, West Bank, with Professor Amiel Vardi, Ta’ayush
Fr. Michael McGarry, Director of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, Jerusalem
The Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, Christmas Lutheran Church, Bethlehem
Dr. Tewfik Nasser, Director of the Augusta Victoria Hospital, East Jerusalem
The Rev. Mark Brown, Lutheran World Federation, East Jerusalem
Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, World Council of Churches in Jayyous, West Bank
Ms. Michelle Schohn and Ms. Mary Glatz, United States Consulate in East Jerusalem and former members of the United Church of Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, the Old City of Jerusalem
Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum
Rabbi Yona Metzger, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel
B’tselem, an Israeli Human Rights Organization
Mr. Mordechai Vanunu, a former nuclear energy technician jailed in the 1980’s for 18 years for revealing information about Israel’s nuclear program
Mr. Isaac Herzog, Labor member of the Knesset and Minister of Housing and Construction
His Beatitude, Michael Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem
Rawdat El Zuhur, Mrs. Salwa Zananiri, Principal
The Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, Director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center
Dr. Bernard Sabella, Director of the Department of Service for Palestinian Refugees, Middle East Council of Churches
His Beatitude, Patriarch Manoogian, Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem
Bishop Munib Younan, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jerusalem and Jordan
Ms. Jean Zaru, Clerk of the Friends’ Meeting, Ramallah, West Bank