On Saturday evening, our group met with Pastor Mitri Raheb of the Christmas Lutheran Church here in Bethlehem. Among the wealth of wisdom and information that he shared with us about this region was the insight that people living in this area are torn on a continuum of optimism and pessimism. One moment there seem to be signs of hope, looking toward a brighter future, and the next moment there is news of more struggle and conflict. Today, on a much smaller scale, of course, I feel like I experienced this tension.
The main focus of our Monday, May 11th was to visit three different organizations, with connections to Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), who are working within the current situation here in Israel-Palestine to bring hope and make a difference in the lives of everyday persons.
The first stop was at the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD) located in West Jerusalem. An Israeli young adult shared with us about the history of the conflict and tension in the region and then took us out to a viewpoint over Jerusalem. From there, we could see the difference in living conditions between the Israeli settlements (any Israeli housing area in the West Bank) and the Palestinian homes and communities. It was also apparent how the Israeli settlements are strategically being located to divide and separate Palestinian communities so that a shared capital in Jerusalem becomes less feasible. ICAHD works to advocate for Palestinians who are not able to apply for building permits and so their homes can be legally demolished by the Israeli government. Their illegal crime is simply living in their home and doing any building or repair work to it. Approximately 100 homes in East Jerusalem are destroyed each year.
Over lunch and early into the afternoon, we visited the Hope School in Bet Jalla. This is a secondary school started by Mennonites for students in 7th-12th grade. They have about 130 day students and, currently, just a handful of boarders. Many of their students come from low income families or broken homes. We were given a PowerPoint presentation about the school and several speakers shared some of the history and current work. The last several years, 100% of their literature and science students have passed the state exams required after graduation. Even though we had brought along simple picnic items for lunch, the school treated us to a delicious hot lunch! What a wonderful sign of hospitality!
Our last stop was at the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center back in Bethlehem. Here the director, Zoughbi Zoughibi, shared about the important work of this organization in working on conflict meditation on the local level. They also help to empower and give hope to children, youth, women, and men in the area through various clubs, summer camps, and job creation. We were particularly impressed by how they have intentionally contextualized their work within this Arab culture to ensure that people maintain their dignity and save face because honor and shame are such powerful forces here.
Riding from Wi’am back to the Abu Jubran guesthouse, I was feeling pretty hopeful about what we had seen today. Of course, we had heard stories and statistics about all that was going wrong, but we had seen the positive steps being taken to move forward. Group members echoed that sentiment in our evening prayer time as we celebrated the efforts of these organizations to work within the situation of tension and conflict to advocate for the basic needs and rights of all people – a home, education, and human dignity. Then it happened.
As Osmi, the bus driver, parked to let us off, I overheard our tour guide, Tony, share that we needed to make sure we got everything off the bus because we might not have the same bus or bus driver tomorrow. What was the reason? Osmi had just learned that his son had been arrested by the Israeli Police. I was quickly jerked back from the optimism of the day to the harsh, pessimistic realities of the present. Of course we know nothing about the circumstances of that arrest. It may be completely founded on evidence of true illegal activity. But, when 1 in 4 Palestinian men have served time in Israeli prisons, as we learned today, it does make you wonder what so many must have really done wrong to require imprisonment. You start to wonder if maybe the system of justice here isn’t very just, at least not for Palestinians. You worry that maybe, whether guilty or not, Osmi’s son may not be treated with the dignity that all people deserve.
If he’s not there, I’ll miss Osmi tomorrow. Every day of this trip we have greeted each other as I have boarded his bus and he has so kindly helped me learn my few Arabic phrases. I would say good morning, “sabah al kheir,” and he would reply with good morning, “sabah an noor.” Each evening we have exchanged thank you, “shukran,” and you’re welcome, “afwan.” Just this morning, I added hello, “marhaba” to the list. Even off the bus, Osmi has been so kind, even helping me to find a shopping basket in the store! I can’t imagine what receiving that phone call must have been like for him or how he is journeying through this evening. The prayers of our whole group are with him and his son and his family. Perhaps it will all be nothing – that’s my hopeful side coming out again! – and soon I will be able to try out, “Marhaba! Keef halak,” (hello, how are you), and then really listen.- Linetta Ballew