We arrived at the outskirts of Bethlehem and caught a view of the city from the Tantur Ecumenical Institute. Tantur is located on a hillside overlooking the city. What strikes any visitor to Bethlehem today is the wall that surrounds it. Many ancient cities are surrounded by walls, of course, including Jerusalem. But such walls are constructed by inhabitants to protect themselves from enemies that threaten from the outside. The walls now surrounding Bethlehem were constructed by Israelis to keep its inhabitants under control and confined within it.
Citizens of Bethlehem need special passes issued by Israelis in order to leave their own city for nearby Jerusalem, greater Israel, or even neighboring Palestinian villages and cities, whether to attend school, conduct business, work, visit families, or represent their people in the Palestinian National Council. Indeed, much of the politics of building a new government in the Palestinian territories will by necessity be conducted by cell phone, email or video conferencing simply because members of the Palestinian legislature are not free to travel to meet with their peers who may be located only a few miles from their homes.
A view of the walls surrounding Bethlehem and the main security gate from the grounds of Tantur.
The first thing one notices upon passing through the security gate and thus gains a view of the wall from within Bethlehem is the graffiti. Not only does the was provide security for the Israelis, as well as major difficulty for the Palestinians, it also offers an obvious canvas for graffiti artists, and for expressions of outrage on the part of those it confines.
We were greeted in Bethlehem by Zoughbi Zoughbi who directs The Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center. He introduced us to the work his organization is doing. Wi'am is a grassroots organization that cooperates with others in the larger Bethlehem community to build a democratic and just society. The Center aims to address injustices rather than avenging them and in doing so attempts to dignify persons on both sides of the conflict rather than demonizing them.
Zoughbi introduced us to George Sa'adeh, who is not only principal of the Greek Orthodox school in Bethlehem, but also serves as the municipality's deputy mayor. George told us the chilling story, of how he, his spouse and his two daughters were ambushed as they were driving to the drugstore one morning in Bethlehem by Israeli soldiers who had set up a trap from suspected terrorists. Their car was riddled with hundreds of bullets and, before the firing stopped, George's daughter, Christian, age ten, was dead. George and his wife were hospitalized with serious bullet wounds. Young Christine was the innocent victim of the Israeli governments policy of "targeted assassinations." The Israeli soldiers had mistaken George and his family for terrorists simply because their car was similar in appearance to one the terrorists were known to be driving. As, later in the day, our own car was brought to a stop at a check point, by heavily armed Israeli soldiers, I shuddered to realize how easy it would be for them, in a moment of miscalculation or panic, to open fire on us.
Despite the devastating experience of seeing one of his own children shot dead, it is astounding that George is still committed to building bridges of reconciliation with Israelis. He and many, many others on both sides of the green line are dedicated to finding non-violent solutions to the conflict. One small step in the healing process for George was receiving a phone call one evening from an Israeli woman who introduced herself as a representative of The Families Forum. The Forum includes hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families who have lost an immediate family member in the conflict, but remain committed to a non-violent, negotiated settlement.
Meeting people like George and Zoughbi, and their families, together with others on the Israeli side, equally committed to peace, was the most important and most inspiring part of our trip. Not the beauty of the countryside in early spring, not the architecture or the many sacred sites, replete with meaning for people of Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions, but rather the living, breathing human beings who continue not only to hope and pray, but to work in down to earth, practical ways to heal the wounds of war and achieve a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict; this was what inspired me most in my recent journey to Bethlehem. Today my prayer remains that Bethlehem may be surrounded not by walls of stone, but by the liberating deeds of such persons.
Through their work it may one day be possible to tear down the walls surrounding the city and knit the people of two independent nations together in lasting bonds of peace. For Zoughbi's children (pictured below on their way home from school), and others of their generation, I fervently pray that it may be so.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.