2002 Peace Mission Study Trip to Israel/Palestine

By Reverend Peter Ilginfritz

This past January a group from University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle and Temple B’nai Torah in Bellevue went on a two-week peace mission study trip to Israel/Palestine. We went as a delegation from the Compassionate Listening Project in order to hear the stories and views of peoples on all sides of the conflict in this war torn land.

In our year of preparation our group sought to: engage in dialogue and shared experiences in order to learn more of who we are as people of faith; to practice and advocate for the ways of love, justice and peace among ourselves and in the Middle East; and to take seriously the prophetic visions of love, justice and peace.

We hoped in some way through our journey to do nothing less than partner with God by contributing to the “repair of the world.”

We went this January to a land of shuttered shops and empty churches. A land seemingly without tourists except for our little group of fifteen and a group of cheery Nigerians in ballcaps. We met embittered rage and broken hope wherever we went. And here and there the witness of those working “in the between.”

Despite the high hopes expressed in our mission statement, peace has not broken out since we returned. Indeed things are even worse than when we left. But we have all been deeply changed and are being changed by our journey. Since I have returned, I have struggled to put words to what we have heard and seen.

The View from the Hill

Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance.

William Shakespeare, Prologue, Henry V

We stand at Gilo, a Jewish middle class settlement or suburb of Jerusalem built on land occupied by the state of Israel since the 1967 Middle East war.

Behind us is a massive block of seven story gray concrete apartment buildings. From this highest point in the city of Jerusalem, they loom down like a fortress on the valley below.

Before us is a concrete barricade decorated with children’s artwork. Beyond that a steep hill dotted with olive trees. And down and across the narrow valley is Beit Jala, a city just to the west of the city of Bethlehem. A city on the occupied West Bank, now under control of the Palestinian Authority.

With our group is Judy Balint, a former resident of Seattle, who emigrated to Israel in 1996. “What you need to know is that I am a supporter of a strong Jewish state and presence in Jerusalem”, she begins.

“Look behind you, look at that window up there sandbagged. That’s left over from this fall when they started firing at us from over there in Beit Jala. The people in Gilo live in fear. Many have moved from these apartments facing the valley to others further back inside the community. At last bulletproof glass was put in the windows here.

“The Palestinian Authority put people in Beit Jala to carry out this violence. They have no tolerance for Jewish existence. Zero tolerance. They don’t want peace. They educate their children to hate us. They won’t compromise.

“I will tell you what the difference is between us: All of the Israelis that have been killed have been civilian casualties; the Palestinians that have been killed were engaged in acts of violence. Yes, there have been a few exceptions but the vast majority has been engaged in violence. We are in danger physically and spiritually.”

Sweeping his hand over Beit Jala, Bethlehem and the land beyond, one of our group asks, “Why then not just wipe them out?”

A few hours later, we stand on the hill in Beit Jala.

Behind us are the ruins of house that had been in the midst of construction. Now the house is in ruins. Gaping black holes from Israeli missiles pockmark its walls. Casings of bullets are scattered around the yard.

We look across the valley at the settlement at Gilo. We realize from here that we are divided by much more than a small, half-mile wide valley. We are divided as third world and first world, a Palestinian community of Christians and Moslems and a Jewish settlement. From here especially, Gilo looms down on us across the valley like a great fortress on a hill.

With us is Zoughbi al-Zoughbi, (or “Zoughbi squared” as he calls himself) the Founder and Director of the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem.

“For ten days this fall the city of Bethlehem and its sister cities of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour were occupied by the Israelis. Tanks rolled through our streets. 47 people in the Bethlehem region were killed. Half of the Palestinians that have been killed in this intifada have been women and children.”

He points to a place by the road, “Here is where a German doctor was killed while tending a young man injured in the shooting.

“I am against violence, violence by all kinds, but look what they do to us. People here fire with pistols and machine guns; they respond with F16’s, helicopters and tanks. Look at this house. It was someone’s dream house. Now it is in ruins. Their dreams have gone up in smoke. We are like sitting ducks in a shooting gallery. We are locked in and can’t move, our hands are tied while the Israelis carry on their practice of collective punishment against all of us Palestinian peoples with their checkpoints, roadblocks, housing demolitions and closures for travel. Less than 1% of us have permits to go to Jerusalem. It is easier for us to go to Europe than to travel to Jerusalem, a half mile across this valley.

“They are worshippers of a new golden calf called security. But there can be no security for Israel without Palestinian security. It is time to call things by their name: the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is evil and corrupt. If it continues it will lead to more suicide bombers.”

Zoughbi wearily shakes his head, “We are the victims of the victims of the Holocaust.”

I arrive at home in time to hear a view from another hill, a hill that has a great influence over what will happen on these two hills and between them.

In his State of the Union Address on Capitol Hill, President Bush looked out at the leaders and authorities assembled before him and at millions of television viewers throughout our country and world and said, “Tens of thousands of terrorist parasites threaten their countries and our own. We are protected from attack only by vigorous action abroad and increased vigilance at home.”

In the view from Capitol Hill, the world is divided for war. Between the hills of “us” and “them,” the “victims of violence” and the “perpetrators of violence”, an “alliance of good” and an “axis of evil.”

And so, in the view from this hill, how can we not spend thirty million dollars a day on defense and support the biggest increase in defense buildup in twenty years, fifty billion dollars?

Why not put prisoners in Guantanamo Bay under our lock and key even if it means snubbing international agreements? Why not a national missile defense system? Why not all that and more?

All of us want and need security. All us don’t want our loved ones to be hurt or killed or put in danger. But in the view from Capitol Hill we are caught in a seemingly endless battle to meet fear with more and more security. How much is enough and how much will be enough? And as we divide the world, the hillsides rage and break below us, and we are left to count the dead.

I pause and wonder, “Is there no other way?”

Halfway through our trip we sit on another hill, the Mount of the Beatitudes in Galilee. Somewhere near this spot, Jesus sat down on the grass and spoke to his disciples and a crowd of followers. As we paused here looking down the green slopes of the hill and across the blue expanse of the Sea of Galilee beyond we wondered about this Jesus who walked here long ago and has so affected and changed our lives.

And we heard his words again,

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for there is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12

That day when I heard those words, and this day when I read them again, the Beatitudes draw me down from talk of policies and programs to people. To people.

And what a surprising part of our humanity, Jesus draws our attention to. Not the strong, confident, vengeful, warrior parts of ourselves and our humanity but the incomplete, longing, hungering parts of our humanity.

We were able on this journey to see what hardly any Jew or Palestinian in this part of the world gets to see: a view from two hills, a world apart from one another. I was tempted then, and I am tempted now on return, to run to one of those hills. And certainly, my heart was broken open by the suffering of the Palestinian people. But if my sympathy means hatred or violence against the peoples on the other hill, then it would be best for me to go home and do nothing. For this land does not need more hatred, more violence.

Standing on the Mount of the Beatitudes that day, I am called again to the importance of the work between the hills. The Beatitudes in calling forth, celebrating, lifting up the broken, longing, hungering parts of our humanity recall me to hearing, listening to the stories and longings of people on both sides of the hill. To seek out, recover the humanity of those especially I would run to demonize or hate. To see the them in us and the us in them. To hear the rage in them and in us. The grief in them and in us.

Our Palestinian Muslim bus driver Jalal put it well. “The problem is we see like this (he covers his left eye) or like this (he covers his right) but we do not see like this, with both eyes open.”

But how can we see and work with both eyes open? Three people we met on our trip – a negotiator, a resister, and a builder – show me a way.

As the government liaison between the state of Israel and the Christian communities from 1973 – 1989, Orthodox Jew, Daniel Rossing has lived and worked between communities often in conflict in this land. He challenges our group, “We run to one side or the other rather than deal with the challenge of the between. And how silly of us! We can’t choose one eye or the other, one ear or the other. We need both. We need the between.”

And yet how often, I realize, do I run to one side of a conflict or the other! Instead, Rossing challenges me to ask myself, “What of the other do I need to take in?” “What do I need to hear in that other’s witness and perspective?” “Why do I want to cover my ears, shut my eyes to what they are saying?”

Rossing has a deep call as a negotiator between the hills. He remarks, “Ours is not to solve the problem of the between but to live constructively with it. We need to learn each other’s languages. We will have peace when people stop using slogans and start sharing life and caring for one other. I don’t care what side people choose, it is not good. Life in the between can be shared. That’s what makes it sacred. In the sharing it is made sacred.”

We stand in front of a house in Issiwiya, an Arab village in East Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Israeli army the day before. The builder of the home, a young Arab man, stands in the distance kicking the dirt, dazed, disconsolate. We stand in the rain, silenced again by all that is destroyed of past hope and future dream in this land of violence. Wondering what to say, how to respond.

Israeli Peace activist Gila Svirsky knows how to respond. She and other women peace activists like her, place their bodies between the bulldozers and the homes that they come to destroy. When the Israeli government sends out the machinery of the state to destroy Palestinian homes because they were built without permits, Gila and resisters like her place their bodies between the blind destruction of the state and the violence it would do to another.

Gila places her body right there in the gap, right there in places of oppression and hurt. There in the gap as a reminder that such blind destruction comes with human cost. She stands as a human reminder that it is not just an object being destroyed – a house, an “illegal dwelling”, a “permit violation”, but a home built with human sweat and embodying human hopes. Gila stands in the between as an act of resistance, as a witness for hope, that the war between the hills must end. And in her standing, she makes me ask where I am called to place my body in resistance and hope between the battles that rage in our world, and here, in my land.

Melkite Priest Elias Chacour, bears the wounds of the battles between the hills. After his family had welcomed Israeli soldiers into their Palestinian home during the 1948 war, he and his family stood on a hillside weeks later and watched in horror as their home and village was intentionally destroyed by Israeli bulldozers.

If anything could make one run to a particular hill and side, an experience like this certainly could. But instead, Chacour’s life work has been to build relationships between peoples where there has been only too much destruction, hate, and death. As the founder and headmaster of an interfaith high school in Nazareth, his life work has been to build community where there was none. Often such building of community has been seen as a threat and met with much resistance.

He challenged our group to join him in the work of building community between the hills. “Our school needs many things, but I want something much more than your financial support. On behalf of all the children, Jewish and Palestinian, I want you to refuse to be one sided. Some of you have seen the Palestinians plight, seen their suffering, enjoyed their hospitality, and in your heart you seek to take their side in this conflict. But if your sympathy means hatred or violence against other peoples in this land, then we do not need your help. It would be better for you to go home and do nothing. We have been violent long enough. Now is the time to act, to get your hands dirty not with the blood of others, but with working to build community.”

It is rare to find such people like Daniel, Gila and Elias who stand between the hills in creative ways. So much easier to run to the hills than to do the hard work they call us to! Much more common to hear what one Palestinian man expressed to us at one point, “The most human thing in the world you can sometimes do is to pick up a gun.”

Today as I read of another suicide bombing in Israel and more housing demolitions in Gaza, it is the faces of Daniel, Gila, and Elias that run before my mind’s eye, calling me to the work of the valley, between the warring hills.

Such work will take us right down into the hard and dirty work of listening to those we don’t want to listen to, having our hearts broken open again and again. Placing our bodies between the blind destruction one side will do to the other. Building relationships with those we cannot stand and have every good reason to hate. But seeking to call down from the hills their hidden humanity – and our own.


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