Determining reality in this land is not always an easy task. Earlier in this trip we were told, presciently, that “everyone here is a politician and everyone here is a theologian”. Today we saw this reality play out in stark terms and it is enough to cause whiplash.
Most of the conversations we’ve had on this trip, aside from a conversation here or there, has been with Palestinians or other people who speak out against Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people. We’ve heard a lot of stories about forced evictions, invasions, checkpoints, barrier walls, refugee camps, so called “administrative detention”, and many other atrocities committed against the Palestinian people by the Israeli government. So perhaps it is not surprising that our encounter today with a passionate Zionist Israeli settler felt like quite a shock to our collective system. As a point of clarification, settlers are those Israeli citizens that move into settlements that take land from what the international community recognizes as Palestinian land, either in the West Bank or Gaza. These settlements are heavily protected by Israeli military forces, checkpoints, and Israeli-only roads. They are also quite posh. Green landscapes, beautiful homes and parks, shopping centers and other accommodations fill settlements. Some are small, others are essentially small cities. We met with Eve in a quiet park gazebo surrounded by greenery, which is a rare sight in the West Bank and requires significant irrigation to create. Eve is originally from Los Angeles, is married to a doctor and works as a tour guide. Eve is also a passionate defender of the State of Israel. Unfortunately we only had 45 minutes to meet with her due to other schedule changes that needed to be made, but those 45 minutes were, how shall I say, lively. Eve opened our interaction asking us if we knew the word “Chutzpah” (which loosely translates as brashness or boldness). She stated that she wanted us all to be free to work from a place of chutzpah and not “dance around the hard issues”. Her presentation in defense of Israel and the ensuing debate certainly was some of the most frank discussions/debates we’ve had thus far. Hearing her defense of Israel and in defense of many (but not all) of the things we have seen and heard done against the Palestinian people was jarring. But I am proud of how the conversation stayed civil despite the heat. It is probably fair to say that most (all?) of our group left unconvinced by her, but it was an important piece of the puzzle to hear as we seek to understand the conflict here.
After finishing up that conversation, we got back on the bus and drove to an entirely different environment from the Israeli settlement. From lush trees, beautiful modern homes, and cared for roads, we drove to the Palestinian city of Hebron. Hebron is an ancient city south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem about 30 minutes drive or so. There we met first with two Israeli women who are part of a group called “Machsom Watch”. This group is made up of Israeli women activists who stand against the occupation and as a way to resist the Israeli governments treatment of Palestinians, are committed to standing at major checkpoints throughout the country and watching and recording the behavior of Israeli soldiers. Their commitment to justice is remarkable, especially because they face the stigma of being labeled “traitors” amongst their own people and even their own families.
We next met with a guide named Mohammed who took us to Ibrahimi Mosque, built on what is known as the “Cave of the Patriarchs”. This was our first visit inside a mosque thus far on this trip. In order to enter, all were required to take off our shoes and the women of the group were required to wear a garment provided by the mosque in order to maintain modesty that looked like a choir robe with a hood they had to have on their heads. Mohammed told us the story of a Jewish terrorist massacre that happened in the mosque in 1994 committed by an American-Israeli named Baruch Goldstein in which 29 worshippers were killed and several hundred were injured before he was stopped and killed. He also explained how the cave deep below the mosque held the alleged tombs of several major biblical figures including Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah. After touring the mosque, Mohammed led us to old town Hebron. The main market street was narrow and covered by chainlink fence littered with rocks on top. Mohammed explained that Israeli settlers that took over buildings in the very heart of this Muslim Palestinian city loom over top the market and regularly throw rocks and dump all matter of liquids down on the Palestinian shop keepers including bleach and human waste. The Israeli government has not allowed them to put up permanent barriers over top the market to protect it from settler attacks, citing “security”, which considering they also use that same reasoning to deny many other infrastructure projects by Palestinians, it was obvious to our guide that this was ridiculous. We were also introduced to a popular street art/graffiti character Handala devised by artist Naji al-Ali (see pic below). This character represents Palestinians, dressed in rags, hands behind back, and facing away from the viewer with no face. The artist was assassinated in England by a Jewish Zionist.
For our last stop, we left Hebron and travelled further south to the Palestinian village of Altwani, a very small, quite poor village of around 300 situated in the rocky hills of the southern section of the West Bank. We were treated to a wonderful lunch prepared by some of the women of the village. After lunch, we heard stories from leaders of the village about the long struggle the village has had to keep nearby Israeli settlements from taking over more of their land (the settlements that are there have already significantly decreased the village land which is needed for grazing flocks of sheep). We then toured the village and walked up the hill to observe the encroaching Israeli settlement. We heard stories of settlers beating children walking to the school from nearby villages. We heard stories of settlers harassing shepherds, cutting ancient olive trees, and poisoning villagers sheep. The pain and constant fear of violent conflict instigated by Israeli settlers is apparent and on display in the voices of the Altwani villagers. These villagers simply want to exist as they have for centuries, living simple lives of farmers and shepherds. They are not being given that freedom.
After dinner back at in Bethlehem this evening, we watched a video called “Living of the Pigeons” which is a 17 minute documentary that observes life at the checkpoint that hundreds of Palestinian men line up in and are herded through on foot (Palestinians are not allowed to drive outside of the West Bank) starting at 2-3am simply to get to work on time in Jerusalem. This film was incredibly moving, leaving us all in stunned silence. The inhumanity of their daily treatment simply trying to get to work was hard to watch.
So, from an Israeli settler offering full throated support of her country to more heartbreaking stories of mistreatment and apartheid tactics against Palestinian folk, we covered the full gamut of stories. Sorting through it all is challenging, but we are all growing and being transformed by this process each and every day. Continue to pray for us as we know many of you have been.