Bethlehem 2011

“We have hope. But still we are suffering.” The words of a new Palestinian friend who daily endures life in a land under the control of a foreign army.

“I cannot wait for this to end.” The words of a 19 year old Israeli soldier serving his compulsory national service in divided Hebron, between right-wing settlers and beleaguered Palestinians.

This is the land of multiple narratives.

The best known is the Israeli Jewish narrative. A group of people who suffered discrimination over centuries only to find themselves the scapegoats of National Socialism in Germany. European guilt fuelled the decision to give Jews a safe place of refuge in the Holy Land. Surely they have a right to feel secure at last from victimage.

There are, of course, variants to the Israeli narrative. Those who do not merely wish to live peaceably in a land with others, but those who claim divinely ordained entitlement to the whole land. Ethnic cleansing of the land is a natural prerogative for those so emboldened by their faith. That so many Christians across the world support this is an abuse of Scripture and Jesus’ message of the Kingdom.

There is also the purely economic and political narrative within Israel that has found the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to be profitable in many ways, not least electorally. Huge investments in building settlement infrastructure pay off. Providing “services” in the West Bank is a bonanza that makes Palestinians more and more dependent on Israeli business. And, of course, three-quarters of the precious water in the West Bank goes west. Into Israel.

Then there is the Palestinian narrative. It surprises many to be told that this is not an entirely Muslim narrative. There have been Christian Palestinians in the land since Jesus. They remain. More than that, they return. I met a small group of tomorrow’s leaders. Or maybe they are already today’s. I observed an ethic that I had not seen in previous visits. Non-violent, intelligent, even loving resistance.

This was my 10th visit to the Holy Land, or as one friend calls it, the not-so-Holy Land. Ten visits made me “a veteran” to another friend, but my 9th visit was a decade ago. And my first was when the Intifada was in full swing.

Many things are the same. The army controls life. Checkpoints are daily moments of frustration, capricious delays and humiliating reminders that life is controlled by others. The Israeli soldier with the gun is the law, and that’s the end of it. Travel is severely restricted. Our Israeli friends could not visit Bethlehem. Our Palestinian friends in Bethlehem could not visit Jerusalem. Of course, permits can be applied for. You can try.

Twenty years ago we heard politicians deny that settlements were being expanded in the West Bank. At least no-one pretends that lie any more. The Facts On The Ground are everywhere. Walls and electric fences are carved across someone’s back yard or olive grove to keep settlements safe. And provide a visible reminder that this is a prison.

The patience and good humour of the people is something to behold. And, praise God, it is not one-sided. That a young Israeli Jew is dedicating herself to guide groups around the Holy Land with a multi-narrative sound track is inspirational. And particularly brave.

Together with the young Palestinian leaders I met in Bethlehem, perhaps there is a possibility for peace. Israelis and Palestinians are, for the most part, such nice people. They would look good together.


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