My Bethlehem hotel room looks out across a valley to an Israeli settlement. Or does the settlement look out over the Palestinian town of Bethlehem? Some of my Pax Christi colleagues can remember when the hill was covered with trees. Now it is, according to Israelis, a de facto suburb of its capital, Jerusalem, and reserved for Israeli settlers only. However, for Palestinians and much of the world Har Homar is an illegal settlement built from the late 1990s on territory annexed during the 1967 war. Sandwiched between Bethlehem and the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, the hilltop has been transformed into a self-contained area for around 25,000 people, with five elementary schools, three medical centers, and a dozen kindergartens.
This is not the only Israeli settlement in the West Bank which defies international law. In fact there are at least 138 of them. Israeli troops occupied the West Bank during the Six-Day War in June 1967 and they are still here, although some 80 percent of the territory's population is comprised of Palestinian Arabs.
Today our small Pax Christi UK group and some international friends travelled to Hebron, 19 miles south of Jerusalem, to see the impact of settler activity. We went via the Road of the Patriarchs, which links Jerusalem and Hebron. Israeli settlements were everywhere, to the right and left. In Hebron the tensions were palpable. The settlements are located in the middle of the city's centre and there are few other places where Palestinians and settlers are living so close to each other. Because of the proximity, tensions frequently arise between the two sides. Hebron, therefore, is often said to represent a microcosm of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
We walked through the old Palestinian City and market, characterised by narrow, winding streets, flat-roofed stone houses, and old bazaars. Above the market was a grate and netting, full of rubbish which had been thrown down by settlers. Many streets and alleys were closed off by razor wire and Israeli soldiers kept watch. At one street corner four Israeli soldiers carrying machine guns came in our direction and appeared to turn into a house at random. We then saw them take up positions on the roof. At the other side of the market two ecumenical accompaniers met us and took us through a checkpoint to the settler side. Our Palestinian guide for the day could not pass this checkpoint. As for us, the armed soldiers checked all of our passports. Here settlers walking around were armed too. Only settlers can drive cars, and one driver shouted "Anti-Semites" out of the car window at us. We saw where settler youth had sabotaged water pipes serving Palestinian homes. The two young ecumenical accompaniers from Norway and the Philippines showed us the Palestinian primary school where they accompany children to and from their lessons each day to ensure their safety.
Are there Israeli voices challenging the Israeli occupation of the West Bank? Indeed there are, and their mission is fraught with harassment. We met some of their representatives a few days ago in Jerusalem: Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions is a Jew dedicated to stopping demolition of Palestinian homes and ending the occupation; Tamar Lehahn of Women in Black explained how Israeli women have responded to what they consider serious violations of human rights by Israeli soldiers in the Occupied Territories with a vigil every Friday in central Jerusalem, wearing black clothing in mourning for all victims of the conflict; Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann of Rabbis for Human Rights spoke of advocacy for Palestinian farmers to have access to land, and educational work on peacemaking with young Israelis, along with other social justice work.
Jeff Halper was critical that 85% of Israeli tourism is Christian, but groups coming to the Holy Land rarely engage with Palestinians, some of whom are Christian. He called on Churches internationally to raise a moral voice against the occupation of the West Bank. And there are many other similar voices. What about the courageous young citizens of Israel who refuse to serve in the Israel Defense Forces or disobey orders on the grounds of pacifism, antimilitarism, religious philosophy or political disagreement with Israeli policy such as the occupation of the Palestinian territories. How insightful of Pax Christi to be in contact with such inspirational individuals and groups.
In Hebron, we entered the mosque in the Old City to visit the traditional burial site of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs within the Cave of the Patriarchs. These include Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Leah, and Jacob. Even more exciting to me, we travelled a few miles up the road afterwards to visit the site of the Oak of Mamre where Abraham and Sarah offered hospitality to three strangers, only to realise later that they were angels. This story about welcoming strangers is popular with Justice and Peace people working with refugees and in situations of conflict. The guardian of the Mamre site offered us acorns from the tree! But perhaps seeds of peace can be sown in other ways too. In the Russian Orthodox church near the tree our little group prayed for the success of peace initiatives in the region and in our world, and we offered our personal support to them.
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