Palestine April 2016
“We refuse to be enemies” is the commitment of the Daher Nassar family who own a fourth generation farm in the occupied Palestinian territory surrounded by three Israeli settlements. They host an international center called, Tent of Nations, which teaches sustainable agriculture and ways of peaceful hospitality with all people. They are constantly in the Israeli courts to prove their rights to their land. They are constantly under the threat of incursions from the surrounding Israeli settlers who have destroyed over 1500 fruit trees and carry guns. The Israeli army has barricaded the road leading to their farm. They are under daily threat of demolition of their farm home and structures. The Israeli army, IDF, does not allowed them to have a well for water or solar panels to generate electricity.
The international community praises this family for their non-violent response to this coercive violent power inflicted upon them. This family vows to stay on the land that is rightfully theirs and to welcome to tea and conversation anyone who comes onto their land. They refuse to be enemies.
This is the spirit I bring back from my latest trip to Bethlehem, Palestine where I attended a seminar, Faith in the Face of Empire, with 12 people from around the United States. This commitment to non-violent response to actions of coercive power by Israeli settlers and the IDF was everywhere that we went.
For two weeks we stayed at the Lutheran Guesthouse in Bethlehem and traveled daily throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem. We met with political leaders including the Mayors of Bethlehem and Hebron; an official of Efrat, an Israeli settlement in the Palestinian territory; and Communications Advisor of the PLO Negotiations Affairs Department. We interviewed faculty and administrators of Al Quds University and Dar Al-Kalima University College. We also talked with members of the Palestinian business community including the Bethlehem Development Foundation, the Hebron Business Incubator Center, the Taybeh Brewing Co., and Bashar Masri, Palestinian-American entrepreneur and co-founder of Rawabi, a planned Palestinian City for over 100,000 people.
Over and over again we heard stories of efforts to overcome the adversities of life under Israeli occupation by means other than meeting violence with violence. The Mayor of Bethlehem, Vera Baboun, is determined to revive Bethlehem’s historic tourist trade. The challenges include 29 checkpoints in the Bethlehem territory, a wall that “walls in the Bethlehem message of peace,” and 1,800,000 annual visitors to the Church of the Nativity while not spending any time in the city of Bethlehem. Mayor Baboun seeks voices of encouragement to people to visit and stay for a few days in the city of Jesus’ birth and the “place where he prayed under its olive trees.” Until then, “it is faith and resilience that keep us going.”
The Mayor of Hebron, Dr. Daoud Zatari, highlighted many difficulties such as Israeli settlers taking over housing, roads to shops barricaded by the IDF, and 85% of water taken by the Israelis. However, his response is to work to restore 7000 ancient wells in the West Bank, treat wastewater as a resource, and develop small-scale farms raising figs, plums, olives, and grapes.
Water is a major issue in Palestine. Israel controls all of the water resources. The new planned Palestinian community of 100,000 people, Rawabi, must buy all of its water from Israel and is not allowed to use water from wells on its own land. The village of Taybeh has access to water only Friday through Sunday each week. They must store all they are able for the rest of the week. This stored water also serves the brewery in the town. Overcoming water restrictions are attempts to live non-violently in a violent-based occupation.
Education is another way Palestinians seek to overcomer the stresses of occupation. Education is highly valued. In the two Universities we visited thousands of students are studying technology, the arts, political science, and medicine. While we were there, we witnessed democratic elections for student government. By attending the universities students are attempting to non-violently resist the restrictions that have been place on their lives under occupation.
Each person we met, Mayors, PLO leaders, Professors and students, farmers, shop keepers all embraced the concept of non-violence. The exceptions were the reports of an occasional Palestinian young person threatening the IDF with a knife. These occasions have inevitably resulted in the shooting death of the young person, 159 in 2015 and 2016. The people we met grieve the desperation of these youth who have lost all hope. The retired Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem spoke to these young people during the Orthodox Christian Holy Week. Michel Sabbah said, “ To those, among the Palestinians, who despair, to the young people who go to death in these days, we say, ‘You must live not die. Believe in God, and in his Providence. Do not despair. Know that you have the power to give life.’”
As I process my experience in Palestine I’m experiencing a significant disconnect. Both here in the United States and in Palestine there is the expectation that Palestinians must only be nonviolent in their resistance to injustice. Any Palestinian violence is deemed aggressive and labeled as terrorist activity. But, in contrast, the United States and Israel claim for themselves coercive force as not only appropriate but also the proven means to acquire peace and security. (It is understood that Israeli and United States military financing, weapons, and technology exchanges are integral to their relationship). Therefore, together, the United States and Israel have the power and justification to seek peace and justice with military force.
I reject such justification. I celebrate the Christian and Muslim Palestinian commitment to meet violence with nonviolence. However, as a Christian in the United States, I’m challenged by Palestinians to explain the militaristic posture of my government who joins Israel in military coercion to block all Palestinian efforts to live in dignity, freedom, and prosperity. Do I really believe in nonviolent resistance or am I affirming it only as a way to subjugate a powerless people?
I choose to add my voice to over a dozen U.S. faith based organizations who wrote a letter to the Obama administration and all members of Congress this week. It reads in part, As people of faith, we are deeply grieved by the violence, displacement, and abrogation of human rights playing out in the Middle East today. We believe the role of U.S. military assistance and arms trade is a major factor in fueling a downward spiral of militarization, dehumanization, and destruction of lives and livelihoods across the region. From 1946-2010 approximately $75 billion in military aid has gone to Israel from the United States.
We in the United States need to take stock of our ethics and morality. Do we join with Israel to relate to the Palestinians as enemies to be overpowered or as neighbors with whom to have tea and coffee? Patriarch Michel Sabbah told us, “Israel must surround itself with friends. The first of these friends can be Palestinians. It will make them safe and make peace possible.”
it seems to come down to the affirmation of Martin Luther King Jr. who said at the University of California in 1957, “every person who believes in nonviolent resistance believes somehow that the universe in some form is on the side of justice…There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice.” I believe it is time for ourselves, our faith communities, and our President and Congress to unfold justice for all humanity, beginning with the Palestinian people.