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Voices From the Holy Land
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
January/February 2001 (pp. 67-69)
Fred Strickert

Over the past months of conflict an extraordinary network of e-mail communication has developed from the Holy Land to the rest of the world. Rather than attempt to summarize these eyewitness accounts, it is best to let them speak for themselves.

Thomas Getman, World Vision International—Gaza: As ambulances ferried the dead and wounded from Netzarim junction in Gaza we spent nearly an hour in the Red Cross/Red Crescent triage center, where skilled medical staff were working under the protection of the International Committee of the Red Cross to stop the bleeding before the casualties were taken to hospital operating rooms or morgues. Most of the wounds were from American Apache helicopter gunships or [Israeli] snipers.  From less than 30 meters away, we observed several people far from the onerous fortress intersection dropped to the ground with head wounds. The only explanation is that snipers from hill- or rooftops 1,000 or more meters distant were picking people out of crowds like the evil shooters from Sarajevo’s Snipers’ Alley.

Four of the awful gunships kept flying over the residential area, spraying it with machine-gun fire and directing antitank missiles at homes and apartment buildings. The guilt and shame I already felt were only increased when I discovered that the shell casings are clearly marked with serial numbers indicating American manufacturers.

Marla Shrader, Disciple & UCC Church—Beit Jala: I haven’t written much lately—but not because the situation is calmer. I haven’t written because the intensity of the Israeli artillery attacks on the Bethlehem area have left me with few words and even less energy.

Last Wednesday we were caught off guard when Israeli helicopter gunships hovered over at least three major residential areas in greater Bethlehem (including the three Palestinian refugee camps of Aida, Azza, and Deheishe). We live next to Aida camp. Leo had just returned from work and we were sitting down for dinner at 3:30 p.m. when the gunships started shooting indiscriminately at all areas simultaneously. We had nowhere to go. It sounded like metal rain all around us. We stayed on the dining room floor (in the room with the least number of windows) for about two and a half hours. (Keeping Jonathan distracted and sitting in one place for so long was not easy.) There was a lull and we ran to the car, staying in the center of Bethlehem for the remainder of the day and night.

We returned the next morning to find that our neighbor’s house had been hit by three shells and our landlord’s rooftop water tanks were full of bullet holes. This is the first time I have written in detail what I personally have been experiencing. I usually restrict myself to sending you reports from other individuals and organizations. But, I also came back to my house the next morning to find that none of my friends in the States knew how horribly Israel had escalated the situation. Some of you even wrote to tell me that news on Palestine was scarce. Frankly, I was outraged. Scarce! There is so much that is NOT reported.

Sandra Olewine, Methodist Liaison—Jerusalem: I admit it is difficult to find words this morning. A part of me just wants to say to you, “Same story, same villages, same destruction, same sleepless night.”

And I could, because you asked, “Are you all right?”

“Yes, we’re all huddled together in the back room. The bakery across the street’s been hit and the house down the street.”

“Are you safe?”

“Praise God, we’re hiding under the stairwell.”

“How are you holding up?”

“We’re still standing. We’ve gathered in the basement. The helicopters are near and shooting all over the neigborhood.”

 “Where are you?”

“We were stuck under the bed for 21 hours.”

Every family in the villages of Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, El Khader and many others has similar stories. For some it is the eighth night in 13 that they’ve spent under heavy artillery fire from tanks and helicopter gunships.

Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders—Zababdeh: Friends, we are weary. To live here is exhausting—emotionally and physically. The West Bank is under closure, there are Israeli blockades between population areas, and every day is a constant reminder of occupation: planes fly low overhead, sonic booms rattle the entire building, power is cut off to nearby villages, work is drying up. We are all aware that, if all roads are sealed, then Zababdeh will not have electricity (because the village relies on petrol for the generator). It will not have water (even in “Area A,” lands under “total” Palestinian control, Israel forbids Palestinians from using wells or digging new ones—so people in Zababdeh, as in most villages, must buy water from Israeli trucks). And it will not have much food, medicine, and other goods that all come from other towns. But still we are extremely fortunate.

The same day as the shelling of Beit Jala began, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed HR 426, which expresses Congress’s solidarity with the state and people of Israel, and condemns Palestinian leadership for encouraging violence. Several folks here (including our shepherd friend) commented on this latest statement by our government: “So did you see what your Congress did today?”

Michael and Susan Thomas, Lutheran Church—Jerusalem: Two weeks ago, while visiting Beit Sahour and Beit Jala homes which had suffered damage, we felt very much on the outside. But as part of an international delegation of Lutherans led by Bishop Munib Younan of the ELCJ, we were shown many things—and invited inside to places where damage and injury has occurred. It was not the Swedes, not the Germans, being especially sought out and ushered in to see the huge holes. No, it was especially important that we be asked again and again, as Americans, “Do you see? Do you see?”

A Palestinian television journalist wanted to interview the Americans—not the Swedes, not the Germans, but the Americans. “What is America doing?” he asked. “Why are they providing these weapons to Israel? Look at these—this shell is from America. Why are you sending them so much military aid? Do you see? Do you see? Are we nothing?”

Andrew Getman, Christian Peacemaker Team—Hebron: We struggle to put into words the depth of our feelings and complexity of our emotions. First and foremost, we are experiencing sadness and horror at how this conflict affects the children. We wonder how families can go on living normally when there are Israeli soldiers crouched on their roofs, shooting rounds for 45 minutes in the middle of the night, when their own people are returning fire or throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. As if this were not enough, inside their homes their televisions deliver images throughout the day of angry crowds; soldiers, tanks, and helicopters opening fire; and funeral processions. When shots burst out at night, we are disturbed that we hear no ambulances, no children crying, no one screaming in pain—just a relentless silence in which the gunshots echo.

Anita Fast, Christian Peacemakers Team—Hebron: As our team fasted last Saturday, thousands of Palestinian families living all around us had empty stomachs for another reason. As a result of the escalation in visible violence in Hebron, 35,000 Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in H2 have been under curfew. The poverty of many of these families is exacerbated by their inability to open their shops and market stalls. Except for a few hours every three or four days, they are not allowed to leave their apartments, even to buy food for their children. People are going hungry. I have never, nor, God willing, will ever condone the use of violence, even in revolt, but I wonder, what right has the hand that gives stones in the place of much-needed bread, to condemn and demonize God’s children when they take the stones they have been given and begin to throw them?

Thomas Getman, World Vision International—Jerusalem: The situation here seems to be spinning out of control…with so many bent over with grief and disbelief about what the horrific violence is bringing. The biblical message that it is only in weakness that strength is found seems to be totally lost. It puts people in the humanitarian community in a position where it is clear that we must align ourselves unequivocally with the nonviolent, marginalized, frightened, traumatized and weak. Each political side is trying to enlist outsiders (journalists, visiting politicians, diplomats, aid workers and expatriate church employees) to sign on for the battle for world opinion. We cannot be in complicity with the powers of domination and oppression...whether Palestinian or Israeli. But when we see injustice we must speak even if it appears to be “political.”

Pray for people of good will here that none would end up aiding and abetting the powers of domination, or give in to the appeals of the violent powers of oppression. Please pray for those who are suffering not only severe shortages but a diminishing of their humanity...that they will not succumb to the counterproductive but understandable slide toward actions driven by hopelessness only to bring more tragedy upon their heads.

Mitri Raheb, Lutheran Church—Bethlehem: We are mainly worried about the young children, who constitute up to 60 percent of our population. They are traumatized by the experience and are constantly worried for their safety and that of their parents.  The image of Muhammad al-Durra, the 12-year-old boy who was killed execution-style by the Israeli soldiers, is haunting both Palestinian children and parents. They watched the helplessness of Muhammad’s father and his inability to protect his son from Israeli bullets that killed the son and left the father permanently paralyzed.

A few nights ago Israeli settlers attacked the home of our Dar al-Kalima Project contractor. He told us of the 100 bullets that were shot into his home and of the scene that he will never forget in his whole life, when his children knelt on the floor asking God to spare their lives. These traumatized children, for whom this terrible experience will be hard to forget, need healing of the soul to become carefree. Therefore, our Dar al-Kalima School has decided to start a counseling program for both students and parents in order to help them better deal with these traumas.  Under these circumstances we are more and more convinced that music and art are important healing mediums for our society.

At a time when everybody is losing hope in this region, we at the International Center of Bethlehem believe that now is the time for healing and constructive actions. It is our deep belief that in a time when all are losing hope we need to hold on to the hope of resurrection especially in these dark days of death.

Solomon Nour, principal of Hope School—Beit Jala: Hope School is going on as usual. Most of our students and staff manage to get here, despite the closure. The main road from Beit Jala to Hope School is now blocked with heavy concrete blocks to stop vehicles from driving in and out of town, and all the back roads are blocked off with boulders and rubble. Our students make great efforts to get to school, and are trying their best to study. Wednesday evening was very difficult. Beit Jala was showered again, for 10 hours, with heavy machine guns, rockets, and missiles. Many houses were hit, and some were destroyed. A German doctor was shot and killed by a rocket while trying to assist the injured near his house. My own house did not escape stray bullets. Many hit the wall and exploded. One 500 mm. bullet hit the stone windowsill, broke the glass, and made itself at home in my sitting room! We thank the Lord for our safety and that of the children.

Daoud Nassar—Bethlehem: The last weeks showed how weak the peace process is. It was a good start for this peace process to bring Israeli and Palestinian politicians to the negotiation table and put an end to the violence but, on the other hand, it failed to bring both nations together. Peace has to grow as a plant with strong roots and bear fruits. This was our expectation from peace, but this process failed to produce these fruits. In order to believe in this peace we (Israelis and Palestinians) have to see some positive changes on the ground, and this is what we have not yet seen. Peace agreements were put on paper, which is not enough.

We are living in fear of the future, the political, with our economic and social hopes destroyed. The autonomous area controlled by the Palestinian Authority, which is a small percentage of the West Bank and Gaza, is becoming a prison for us. No Palestinian is allowed to leave the Palestinian cities. There is no freedom of movement—not only when going to Israel, but also within the West Bank. All the Palestinian cities and villages are separated from each other.

Children from both sides are living this violence every day.  Imagine how a Palestinian or Israeli child will grow up in this situation. Hatred is growing up with them in their hearts, they see each other as enemies. This picture will never create peace.  These children need instead to live normal lives like many children in many places of the world, away from violence.

People, especially children and youth, are hoping and praying for a peaceful and positive future. This hope was and is still a dream and we don’t know when this dream will come true!

Christiane Dabdub Nasser—Bethlehem 2000 Committee: This year, Bethlehem will not be able to celebrate Christmas as planned and there will be no Christmas Festival. The children will not have their gifts, the worshippers will be mourning and the pilgrims will be absent. At Bethlehem 2000 Project, we will see all our efforts of the last two years come to naught…Our guest choirs from many parts of the world will not be able to come for Christmas Eve and sing in our Star event, Choirs of the World on Manger Square. The Christmas Market will be forsaken and New Year’s Eve will be a moment of silence.

Dr. Fred Strickert is professor of religion at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.