by J. Daryl Byler
A group of twelve MCC constituents from British Columbia visited Palestine and Israel, March 18-27, tracing the footsteps of Jesus and learning about the current political realities from a broad spectrum of Palestinians and Israelis.
MCC sponsors learning tours twice a year, with the hope that groups will return to their home communities to share stories and act for change.
Palestinians described their suffering under Israeli military occupation. Still, many embraced a vision of Israelis and Palestinians sharing the land as neighbors.
Melkite Catholic Archbishop Elias Chacour told how his family was expelled from their village of Biram when he was 8 years old. Biram was one of 531 Palestinian villages destroyed or depopulated to create the State of Israel in 1948. “We started our own Via Dolorosa (way of suffering) at that time,” he said. Chacour urged the learning tour members to work for change by befriending both Jews and Palestinians.
Dr. Jad Isaac, director of MCC partner Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, documented how Israeli settlements – illegal under international law — have expanded dramatically since the beginning of the Oslo Peace Accords, dividing the West Bank into increasingly smaller cantons and fortifying the Israeli occupation. “We will never accept the Israelis as occupiers,” Isaac said, “We will accept them as neighbors.”
Shireen Al-Araj gave a tour of her West Bank village of Al-Walaja, soon to be completely surrounded by the separation wall in order to create space to expand the Israeli settlement of Gilo. The planned route of the wall will come within steps of Shireen’s home, cutting off access to her garden.
Salim Shawamreh told how Israeli authorities have destroyed his home five times now, most recently in January 2012. Shawamreh described the nearly impossible bureaucratic maze that Palestinians must navigate in order to obtain building permits for their own land. After paying thousands of dollars and waiting for years to receive permits, many Palestinians simply build out of necessity.
“We are finding the grace of God even in our own suffering,” said Nora Carmi, a Christian Palestinian who supported the drafting of Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth. “Apartheid in South Africa came to an end because of the work of the churches,” Carmi challenged the group, “Advocacy is part of who we are as Christians.”
The group also visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, to learn about the tragic history of anti-Semitism, which culminated in the killing of six million Jews in the 1940s. Many Israelis cite this traumatic history as the reason a state is needed to provide security for Jews.
Participants heard a variety of Israeli perspectives, including Col. Danny Tirza, architect of the 760 km- (472 mile-) long separation barrier, and Ardie Guildman, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat. Underlining the core challenge of the conflict, Guildman told the Canadian group, “We are here. We are not going anywhere.”
Still, many Israeli speakers lamented the suffering caused by the military occupation, home demolitions and settlement expansion, saying that Israel will not be secure until the occupation ends.
“The occupation is destroying the moral fabric of Israeli society,” a Jewish Israeli member of Combatants for Peace reflected. “I want to see the end of the occupation for the benefit of the Jewish people and the Palestinian people.”
“There won’t be peace until we understand the narrative of the other,” Yehiel Grenimann of Rabbis for Human Rights told the MCC constituents.
Itay Epshtain, co-director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, said that Israel has demolished some 26,000 Palestinian homes and buildings since 1967. He described the Israeli policy as the “Judaization” of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Some 95% of the Jordan Valley — the richest agricultural land in the West Bank — is already off limits to Palestinians, making them reliant on foreign aid for food security.
Eitan Bronstein Aparicio, founder and staff member of MCC partner Zochrot, gave a tour of Canada Park, built over the ruins of three destroyed Palestinian villages. Eitan is among a minority of Israelis who favor a one-state solution to the conflict, noting that living side-by-side is less of a security risk than an ongoing military occupation which will inevitably lead some Palestinians to take revenge. Eitan was jailed for his refusal to do military service.
Palestinian Christians offered a consistent message that Christian Zionism, often used as a rationale for not challenging Israeli government policies, misrepresents the expansive nature of God’s love for all people.
“God does not play favorites,” Archbishop Chacour reflected, “All are called to become children of God.” Rev. Alex Awad, professor and dean of students at Bethlehem Bible College and pastor of East Jerusalem Baptist Church, offered a New Testament overview that challenged the assumptions of Christian Zionism. “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,” said Awad, quoting the Apostle Paul (Gal. 3:26).
Participants also read Scripture at Capernaum and on the Mt. of Beatitudes and took boat ride on the Sea of Galilee.
The Common Lectionary readings for this fifth week of Lent focus on Jesus’ suffering and service as the path to wholeness and resurrection. Reflecting on his upcoming crucifixion, Jesus tells his followers, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
With so many stories of suffering, the group at times felt overwhelmed by the reality on the ground. One participant described the situation as “war in slow motion.”
Is there any hope?
“It’s a long struggle, keep hope, keep resisting,” urged Hafez Hreini, a leader of the nonviolent resistance movement from the village of At-Tuwani.
Long-term MCC partner Zoughbi Zoughbi reminded the group that the 14th station on the Via Dolorosa is an empty tomb. “My faith is based on a resurrected Lord,” he said.
J. Daryl Byler, along with spouse Cindy Byler, are MCC representatives for Palestine-Israel and several other countries in the Middle East. They are based in Amman, Jordan.