Holy Land visit offers insight into dispute
Most of my adult life, I dreamed of visiting the land of the Bible. When I heard that the Rev. Sandra Olewine, United Methodist liaison to Jerusalem, was inviting people to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, I knew that this was the right time. I would see this land of Jesus' birth and life, and of the persons and stories of the Bible. Now, as an ordained pastor, I would "walk where Jesus walked."
In January, I flew to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, and rode by bus to a modest hotel in Bethlehem in the West Bank. Here our group of 51 people, including three of us from Hawaii, stayed for 10 days.
I was part of a team participating with the mission board of the United Methodist Church program entitled "Seeking Peace and Pursuing Justice: Mission, Education and Advocacy for Israel and Palestine." We heard speakers and panel discussions, and traveled to schools, medical clinics, mediation centers and houses of worship. We "talked story" with many different people, smelling the aroma of Turkish coffee and sage tea; tasting fresh fruits such as tangerines, persimmons, bananas; enjoying freshly caught and cooked "St. Peter's fish" and home-grown, home-cured olives, and were introduced to life from their perspective.
We saw the land of the Bible. I bent low as I entered the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, thought to be the place where Jesus was born. We walked the streets of Jerusalem and of Hebron, land of Abraham and Sarah. And we saw the strikingly beautiful yet often harsh land of the three major monotheistic religions as it is today. We spoke with Palestinian Christians who have descended from the churches founded by the early apostles and whose families have lived in the Middle East for 2,000 years and more.
We spoke with Israeli Jews. I stood one Friday in Hagar Square in Jerusalem with the Women in Black, Israeli women who for 18 years have carried signs that say, "Stop the Occupation." We heard from leaders of organizations working to bring justice and peace to this troubled land, such as B'tselem (Israeli lawyers who defend land rights of Palestinian people) and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition.
The Rev. Barbara Grace Ripple stands at one point of the 26 1/2-foot-high separation wall being built by the Israeli government in the Palestinian West Bank.
We were deeply touched by the people we met. We heard the concerns of the Israeli people and their deep desire for security that has led to the building of walls and checkpoints to lock people in and shut people out. We saw the separation barriers, in many places a 26 1/2-foot-high cement wall and in other places two rows of heavy fencing with barbed wire on top. While we were told that the barrier was to protect Israel from Palestinian terrorists, it appeared that the barrier, built on Palestinian land, was meant to protect Israeli settlements in the West Bank and to isolate and separate the residents of Palestinian villages from each other.
We experienced the frustration and anger of people who cannot live freely in their own land -- Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, who must seek permission from the Israelis to travel from one village to another. One example occurred the day we arrived in Bethlehem. We were to be greeted by the mayor of Bethlehem, Dr. Victor Batarseh. When he arrived he apologized for being late and explained that he and the mayors of neighboring villages Beit Sahur and Beit Jala were returning from Jerusalem and were stopped at the checkpoint gate of the wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Although the three mayors had their proper papers and were well known, they were forbidden entry through the checkpoint and had to drive around the outside of Bethlehem to find a checkpoint that would allow them entry. "We do not need walls of separation," said Batarseh, "we need bridges that lead to peace."
I went to the land we call "holy" to walk where Jesus walked. What I learned can best be summed up by the Rev. Mitri Raheb, Palestinian, born and raised in Bethlehem, educated in Germany, pastor of Christmas Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. "You did not come to run where Jesus walked as do so many tourists. You have come not just to observe, but to find ways to act."
The people we met in Israel and Palestinian territories spoke to us of their deep desire for a just peace for the Jews, Muslims, Christians and other people who dwell in this land.
Those who want to know more about the situation in the Middle East and ways we can help promote justice and peace will be able to hear Jerry and Sis Levin, peacemakers from Hebron and Bethlehem, speaking at several venues on Oahu next week.
The Rev. Barbara Grace Ripple is a United Methodist Church minister.