Injustices Observed First-hand

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On November 6, 2009, we returned from a ten-day visit to
Palestine and Israel. Our trip was organized by John Setterlund,
a retired campus minister from Urbana who had
recently spent two years working at a Lutheran complex in
Beit Jala, a small Palestinian city adjacent to Bethlehem in
the West Bank.
Our purpose for making the trip was to visit the sites
and experience the culture of this region which is of major
significance to millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims.
We went to see with our own eyes how the practices of the
State of Israel affect the lives of the people of Palestine.
We encountered the Israeli Separation Wall and armed
checkpoints throughout our travels. Many in the United
States do not realize that the Wall does not follow the
internationally recognized boundary between Israel and
the West Bank but that it exists largely within Palestinian
territory. It prevents the free movement of Palestinian residents
to and from their jobs, health care centers, and
schools. It separates members of families from one another
and owners from agricultural land or businesses on which
they depend for income. It denies Palestinians access to
water for drinking and irrigation.
U.S. passports are the credentials that allowed us to cross
the checkpoints. Palestinian residents told us that it is common
practice for Israel to answer a family’s request for crossing
papers by denying the request to at least one of the family
members. Our group attended the special Reformation
Day service at the packed large Lutheran church in
Jerusalem. The Bishop delivered the sermon; many international
guest clergy were present. Although the program stated
there would be special music by the Beit Sahour Lutheran
School Choir they weren’t there. It was announced that
not all the children were issued travel permission.
Many of our excursions from Beit Jala began with our
boarding an Arab tour bus, greeting our Palestinian driver
and riding through Bethlehem to a check point in the fortyfoot
high Separation Wall. The check points are guarded by
young Israeli soldiers armed with automatic weapons. Vehicles
queue up at the checkpoints and wait for unpredictable
amounts of time, which are affected by both the volume of
traffic and the actions of the soldiers. It’s impossible to know
what time to leave Beit Jala for a scheduled appointment in
Jerusalem because the six-mile drive can take minutes or
hours. The soldiers’ inspections of vehicles and passengers
appear to be capricious rather than standard. At times our
tour bus was waved through after a brief exchange through
the window between our driver and a soldier. Other times,
after a longer exchange between the driver and a guard, an
armed soldier or two entered our bus and demanded a display
of our passports. We saw people ordered out of their
vehicles, their persons and automobiles searched by armed
guards. Checkpoints can be closed without notice.
One evening, approaching the Bethlehem checkpoint,
which we routinely used to return home, we found our way
blocked. We later learned that access to Bethlehem through
that gate had been blocked to accommodate attendees at an
Israeli festival. On our way to Jerusalem the next day, our
driver, having been told the festival was a two-day affair,
drove us to the checkpoint to which we had been diverted
the previous night. Our bus wasn’t allowed through and we
were sent to the gate that had been closed the night before.
We were told this nuisance behavior is common.
City buses run between Beit Jala and Jerusalem. The
day we took the public bus, an armed soldier entered the
bus at the Bethlehem checkpoint, walked down the aisle
and ordered all the women who wore head coverings and
one man with very dark skin to leave the vehicle. The bus
waited while they were questioned and inspected. All were
eventually allowed to reboard but it was a humiliating and
time-wasting experience.
We heard stories of university students routinely hassled
on the way to class and of arrests and the long-term
detention of some without charges. After the last three
elected presidents of the student body at Birzeit University,
near Ramallah, were arrested and detained, the students
decided to no longer elect anyone to this position. At both
Birzeit and Bethlehem Universities, enrollment has
declined because students have been unable to get permission
to cross checkpoints. Fewer males are seeking college
degrees because of the need for young men to take what
employment they can to help support their families.
Another device that the Israeli government uses to
inconvenience and frustrate Palestinians is to build and
maintain roads in the West Bank for use by Israeli citizens
only. These new highways connect centers of commerce in
Israel to Israeli colonial settlements established on prime
land seized from Palestinians in the West Bank. Palestinians
must travel routes that are often circuitous and on
roads that are poorly maintained. We were told that where
an Israeli and a Palestinian road intersect, vehicles on the
Israeli road always have the right of way while the Palestinian
vehicles are forced to wait.
We saw the stumps of ancient olive groves in the West
Bank that had been cut down to make room for the development
of Israeli plantations and settlements. We passed by
settlement after settlement, established and under construction,
as we traveled throughout Palestine. From our ‘home’
in Beit Jala we could see one of these settlements, just
beyond the separation wall, built on land that had not long
ago been part of Beit Jala.
Home for the 18 members of our group, the majority
from Urbana-Champaign, is called Abrahams Herberge. It
had been built not only as a welcoming guest house but
also as a meeting place that could serve as an ecumenical
link for peace in the Holy Land. It is one of three parts of
the Lutheran complex where John Setterlund had stayed.
He had lived and worked primarily at the Boys Home, a
boarding home that serves about forty Arab Christian and
Muslim boys aged 5-18 years. The third part of the complex
is a church which serves a local congregation.
Treasured experiences were meeting Palestinians in Beit
Jala who shared their stories and demonstrated humanity
despite repression. Some of our new friends are:
Mohammad, the manager of Abrahams Herberge, who
grew up in the Boys Home from age 5, escorted us to nearby
Deheishe Camp populated by 12,000 Muslim refugees
waiting to return to villages from which they had fled during
the 1948 war. Poverty and 70% unemployment determine
daily life for the residents. We visited Abraham’s
Tent, a project of Abrahams Herberge that provides afterschool
activities and a daily hot meal for hungry children.
Mohammad said other refugee camps in the area were asking
for similar programs.
Jadallah, Lutheran pastor/peace activist who creates
opportunities for ecumenical engagement, introduced our
group to the Muslim sheik who has responsibilities for 5
million worshipers in the region.
Hannalore, the music teacher/pastor’s wife /emigre to
Palestine, directed a children’s performance for us that
included Arab dancing, singing and a reconciliation play
featuring Isaac and Ishmael. We joined the boys from the
Home at the annual olive harvest in her garden. She said
she coped with the repressive treatment by staying busy.
Haifa, professor/mother/daughter, who met with us to
talk about life in Beit Jala, described some of the challenges
that restricted movements create for faculty, students and
families. Despite her accomplishments, she says it’s hard
not to feel inferior in the face of demeaning treatment.
Ahab, Laith, and their fellow Boys Home residents mixed
English, Arabic, gestures and exuberance to welcome us,
tease us and show us that they are Palestine’s future.
Please listen to the stories of the Palestinian people.
Work for peace and justice in the region.

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