The Common Good
January 2006

A Kindling of Hope

by Phil Haslanger | January 2006

Bridging gaps in the Middle East.

Every so often in the tense and troubled lands of Israel and Palestine, glimmers of hope appear. For a week in mid-November, the glimmers flickered a little more brightly.

Amir Peretz displaced Shimon Peres as leader of the Labor Party, giving new life to the peace movement in Israel. (And even Ariel Sharon, in quitting Likud, has taken a step away from extremists.) Condoleeza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, brokered a deal to open up the borders of Gaza. The parents of 12-year-old Ahmed Ismail Khatib, a Palestinian mistakenly killed by Israeli soldiers, opted to donate their son’s organs to six critically ill patients in the hospital where the boy died, all of them Israelis.

So an act of politics, an act of diplomacy, and an act of humanity kindled hope in this region.

But things are never simple. Within days, the Israeli government had invited bids for building 13 new homes in the largest settlement in the West Bank, adding to the contested settlements that encroach upon the land designated for Palestine, and significantly tightened security checkpoints at
Bethlehem.

For all the glimmers, one of the hard realities of this region is the huge gap in understanding between the people of Israel and the people of Palestine. At a conference in mid-November at the International Center of Bethlehem, there was much talk about the perceptions of land.

For Israel, said Jerome Segal, scholar, author, and head of the Jewish Peace Lobby in the United States, “to be a Jew is to be part of a people and a people has to have a place of self-determination.” For historical and scriptural reasons, that place for Jews is Israel.

For Palestinians, the land is often the very specific place where a family has lived. The ancestors of Father Elias Chacour had lived in the village of Biram in northern Israel for hundreds of years. But as Jewish forces consolidated their victory in the 1948 conflicts that Israelis call the “war of independence” (and Palestinians call “the catastrophe”), Chacour’s family was driven from that village. For them and for so many other Palestinians, the land is the particular place that they consider home. “We will not forget our land,” Chacour’s nephew, also named Elias, said as he stood amid the ruins in Biram. “It is part of us.”

ANOTHER GAP comes with what the Israelis call “the barrier” and the Palestinians call “the wall.” It is the network of walls and fences that Israel has been building since 2002, ostensibly to protect Israelis from terrorists but which has effectively annexed Palestinian land by redrawing the boundary between Israel and the West Bank. Inside Bethlehem, the wall looms over the city, a constant reminder of the tight Israeli control over the lives of the citizens there. Inside Jerusalem, for Rabbi Ed Rettig, assistant director of the American Jewish Committee, the wall stands as a very personal line of protection for his family. “You want to tell me the wall is illegal and immoral when it saved my kid’s life?” he asked pointedly.

So while the glimmers flicker now and then into the world’s consciousness, it will be the small steps toward closing the perception gap that help keep them glowing.

It could be a step like the joint Israeli-Palestinian radio station of former Israeli Knesset member Mossi Raz that, as he says, “talks to Israelis about the Palestinian suffering in Hebrew and talks to the Palestinians about Israeli suffering in Arabic.”

It could be events like the candlelight march that Rev. Mitri Raheb led through the streets of Bethlehem as people from 23 nations joined citizens and the mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarsch, in solidarity at the beginning of a week praying for justice and peace. Or like the memorial gathering in Tel Aviv at the end of the same week for slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which stoked new hopes for peace among Israelis.

Terrorism, occupation, fear, and mistrust all abound in this region, and a result has been the death in the past five years of more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,700 Palestinians. That’s why the kindling of hope is so vital on every level.

Phil Haslanger is managing editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, and was part of a United Church of Christ delegation to the November peace conference at the International Center of Bethlehem.

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