holy land

Remember the Palestinians

Deal W. Hudson
Published May 3, 2010

The Holy Land is a place of stories. Everyone has a story about Israel and the occupied territory called Palestine by those who live there. Many of the events are drenched in blood – often that of relatives present or past – which is why, when story is pitted against story, death against death, little progress is ever made.

Even visitors have their stories – not about death but about their encounters with Palestinians and Israelis, who sadly become the occupied and the occupier when you arrive there. For the past 43 years, Israel has exercised a military occupation over much of what we call the Holy Land. When visitors take the time to learn about the lives on both sides of the walls, barriers, fences, roads, and settlements that now separate the peoples, their stories will change – just as mine did.

Like most Americans, when I went to the Holy Land for the first time in 2004, I considered Israel our best friend, ally, and the only democratic nation in the Middle East. And, as a Christian, I’ve always felt a special affinity with the Jews; the horrors of the Holocaust were enough for me to justify the re-founding of the nation of Israel after World War II.

I still believe all these things, but without the naïveté that tells the story as if it were the ‘good guys versus bad guys.’ There are no white hats here, except for those mostly unknown individuals on both sides who refuse to yield to the hate that pits “Arab” vs. “Jew.”

I’ve been to the Holy Land four times in the past six years. I’m certainly no expert, though much of my time there was spent talking to those who were, including Israeli generals, journalists, rabbis, activists, and members of the government. On the Palestinian side, I’ve met with the present president and prime minister, members of the Palestinian administration, mayors of towns on the West Bank, priests, and activists. I’ve also had the privilege each visit of meeting with the patriarch, the papal nuncio, and the head of the Franciscan Custos. (On two of my trips, I was also blessed to have the late Robert Novak and his wife Geraldine in my small group.)

Most Americans know very little about Israel, apart from the typical boosterism they read and hear in the media, and those who go on tours are usually kept away from the occupied territory. Thus, the average American knows even less about life among the Christians and Muslims in the occupied territory called Palestine, a land encompassing places like West Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron, Nablus, Ramallah, and, of course, the rubble-strewn Gaza strip.

Israel has occupied this territory since the Six-Day War in 1967. It withdrew from the Sinai in 1982 as part of the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt, and technically withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but it remains the de facto occupying power by virtue of its military lockdown of Gaza’s borders. A limited degree of rule was granted to the Palestinian National Authority over the occupied territories in 1994 by the Oslo Accords.

As I consider how my attitude toward the Israel-Palestine conflict changed, the reasons all arise from the fact that Palestinian lives and property are completely subject to the designs of the Israeli government and the force of the Israeli military. There is no rule of law in the occupied territory – men and women are taken into custody in the middle of the night, houses and land are confiscated, centuries-old olive groves are cut to the ground.

Slowly, little by little, the fabric of life – knit over centuries in these cities and villages – is being torn apart. When they’re old enough, the children leave for other parts of the world, and their parents don’t blame them. Business and agriculture suffer, especially as the water resources are gobbled up by the burgeoning Israeli settlements, and the freedom of movement is increasingly restricted.

During Holy Week in 2004, I saw how the Israeli tractors dug huge trenches along the Mount of Olives to build their “safety fence.” The fact that this property belonged to convents, monasteries, and Catholic schools didn’t matter – one sister who objected to the unannounced early morning digging on convent property was told to “get back inside” with a gun pointed in her face.

If any kind of solution is to be found, Israel must respect all people’s rights, including Christians, Muslims, and Jews. This is no zero-sum game; there will be two winners or two losers.

The respect for rights needs to be observed even in the face of danger, such as the rocket bombings of Sderot that led to Israel launching daily bombing attacks on Gaza from December 27, 2009, to January 18. Yes, the citizens of Sderot had every right to be protected, but at the cost of 762 Palestinian non-combatants’ lives, including over 300 children? This was the nadir of the United States’ hands-off attitude toward Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Israel has legitimate security interests – the wave of suicide bombings that led to the 2002 Intifada fundamentally changed the relationship with Palestine. But some of Israel’s “security” initiatives – like the barrier around Bethlehem – seem to be more about stealing land for settlements.

The fact is, there will be no peace in the Holy Land until the occupation ends. The chances of this have gotten worse rather than better since my first visit. Not only are Israel and Palestine at an impasse, they are approaching another boiling point.

Many Israelis believe it’s in their best interest to seek a two-state solution and end the occupation, and many Palestinians know that further radicalization of Islam will only ensure the occupation will last for years to come. Therein lies the only hope the region really has – that new leadership will emerge on both sides, tired of the conflict and ready to put aside old stories of violence and loss in favor of something new.

Give the Two-State Solution Another Look

Deal Hudson
Published August 30, 2010

Direct peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine will resume on September 2 in Washington, D.C. The announcement of the talks has been greeted with a polite but skeptical nod from the media and a rolling of the eyes from experts in the realpolitik of international affairs.

The assumption behind these dismissals is that peace talks have become ritualized face-saving gestures for all parties concerned – Israel, Palestine, and the United States – but serve as no more than a way of maintaining the status quo in the Middle East.

No doubt that all three countries have political factions that would strongly oppose any agreement containing concessions that, in their eyes, gave away too much or too little in land, water, or political autonomy.

In other words, the received wisdom on the state of play between Israel and Palestine is that a standoff exists, and the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is going to continue far into the future. The standoff suits not only Israel and Palestine but the other Muslim countries of the Middle East who, for reasons of their own self-interest, have distanced themselves from the Palestinians.

The facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are easily arranged to fit this scenario: Too much history, and too much blood, creating too many ideologically aligned factions always ready to fight rather than seek a solution through compromise.

During time spent in the region over the past six years, I’ve met enough people of goodwill, on both sides, to have some hope that the political deadlock will one day be broken, a two-state solution will be found, and both Israelis and Palestinians will be freed from the militarized, interlocking existence they have been living since 1967.

Israelis are increasingly concerned about the impact on their national character of maintaining the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Generations of Israeli men and women have fulfilled their required military service at checkpoints, security barriers, and through the various uprisings (intifadas). Israelis are asking whether this service is coarsening their moral outlook, encouraging an oppressor mentality. The bombardment and invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008 cost Israel’s international standing dearly. Zionist immigration has been steadily dropping since 2000 – perhaps due to the perception by the world’s Jews that Israel has been made a less than desirable place to live.

Palestinians, especially those in walled cities like Bethlehem, have children who have never seen the Mediterranean Sea that lies only a few miles to the east. Unable to secure travel visas, they have lost touch with relatives who live only a few miles away, on the other side of the local barrier and checkpoint. The economy has become increasingly dependent on foreign aid, since business can hardly prosper where every road is blocked with a checkpoint that may or may not be open when you get there, and if you can obtain a visa.

Palestinian young people, especially those who travel abroad for college, are choosing to live elsewhere. The decline in the Christian presence on the West Bank has much less to do with Muslim hostility than loss of economic opportunity.

In a meeting with a retired Israeli general a few weeks ago in Tel Aviv, I asked him whether a two-state solution was still possible, given the fact that Israel would lose its military presence in a land where terrorists have vowed its destruction. His answered surprised me, along with all those in the room: “The time will never be perfect for negotiations, so we must do something now, and figure out how to make it work.”

The general’s attitude is echoed by many of the leaders I’ve talked to in recent years from both Israel and Palestine. But this leadership will have to figure out a way to control or neutralize their countrymen who would rather take up arms than give up any land or settlements. However, there are also many who simply want to end the madness.

Both sides have agreed to a one-year deadline to resolve the basic issues in the way of an agreement. The issues are many, but the most contentious include the drawing of borders, the status of Jerusalem, the Palestine military, the Jewish settlers – now numbering 500,000 on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem – and the “right of return.” The last of these, I am told, could be the deal-breaker, but a modest compromise solution has been floated that might satisfy both President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu (but could cause them both complications at home).

It’s been widely reported that the United States used its muscle bringing about these talks and marked “a rare success for U.S. diplomacy in the region.” The presence of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, and King Abdullah of Jordan, also invited to the talks, will provide the opportunity to gather much-needed regional support for any progress made during initial negotiations.

There are many wild cards that could end the negotiations abruptly, not the least of which is a newly nuclearized Iran. Thus far, Israel has not sent its air force – perhaps the best in the world – to take out Iran’s nuclear reactor, as many expected. Perhaps this is a sign that Netanyahu is willing to give the peace talks a chance. Abbas, it can be hoped, appreciates Israel’s restraint and will arrive on September 2 determined to take advantage of what may be the last chance for a Palestinian state.

Why the Pope Should Visit Gaza

Deal W. Hudson
Published April 13, 2009

In interviews conducted with over twenty Palestinian Christian leaders last week, I was surprised to discover no enthusiasm whatsoever for the upcoming papal visit. “The pope’s visit here will only legitimize the recent Israeli operation in Gaza and the intentions of the right-wing government elected in February,” the professor explained.

Palestinian Christians have expressed their concerns directly to Benedict. In a little-noticed letter of February 20, 40 members of the Christian community in the Holy Land told the pope his visit would only serve to endorse Israeli government policies, “leading to more cooperation from the United States and Europe.”

Nidal Abu Zuluf is associate director of the YMCA in Bethlehem and coordinates a network of Christian organizations. As he gave me a copy of the letter, he asked, “Why now? It’s a bad time for the pope to come, and there is no clear message, unless he goes to Gaza.”

From what I saw and heard there, adding Gaza to the papal visit to the Holy Land would indeed send a message to all concerned, including Hamas, which some Christians fear was strengthened by the three-week Israeli offensive. Benedict could visit Holy Family Parish in Gaza City, where Msgr. Manuel Musallam and his parishioners lived through the bombing that began on December 28 and the ground invasion a week later on January 3, 2009. Monsignor Musallam and his parish minister to the 200 Catholics remaining in Gaza (there are approximately another 3,000 Christians, most of whom are Greek Orthodox).

Unfortunately, the itinerary of the trip, set for May 8-13, does not include Gaza — it basically repeats the schedule of Pope John Paul II from March 2000. Benedict arrives in Amman, Jordan, before visiting Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. The problem, according to Abu Zuluf, is that the Holy Land is a “very different place” than it was in 2000. Ever since the uprising (Second Intifada) that followed the visit of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000, the West Bank has been in a state of lock-down enforced by hundreds of miles of security walls, checkpoints, settlements, settler roads, and harsh restrictions on freedom of movement.
Palestinian Christians have virtually no access to the holy sites in East Jerusalem, Galilee, and Nazareth. Abu Zuluf, a native of Bethlehem, has not been able to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem since 1993, even though it is just a few miles away. Sadly, his situation is typical for Christians in Bethlehem and the adjacent, largely Christian cities of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.

According to Br. Jack Curran, vice president for development of Bethlehem University, students in religion classes are routinely denied permits to travel out of the city. Even worse, he told me, “We can’t get permission from Israel for any students to attend the university from Gaza.” In spite of the government obstacles, Bethlehem University has mounted a new effort to engage students from Gaza. Brother Curran told me, “The university needs help from American Catholics both politically, to get Israeli permission for these young people to come to Bethlehem, and financially, to support their living and educational costs.”

The Christians living in the Holy Land will view Benedict’s visit through the lens of the recent Israeli offensive, which left 1,417 dead in Gaza, including 313 children. With the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, Christians in Bethlehem expressed fear that their city could become another Gaza. “We already live surrounded by walls and checkpoints. Why shouldn’t we think that what happened in Gaza could happen to us?” said a young woman in her mid-20s, who comes from one of the oldest and most prominent Christian families in Bethlehem.

Palestinian Christians will be deeply disappointed and demoralized if Benedict simply repeats the itinerary of John Paul II. Imagine the power of the Holy Father speaking from a Catholic parish in the midst of the devastation of Gaza. Benedict could not only speak to the issue of the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but could also issue an invitation to Catholics around the world to follow his example and visit the Holy Land.

A significant and lasting increase in Catholic pilgrims would provide financial help for both Israel and Palestine, moral support for Palestinian Christians, and an opportunity for Catholics to see the situation on the ground for themselves. The Palestinian Christian community is on life support, and the pope cannot ignore it.

Why Christians Are Leaving the Holy Land

Deal W. Hudson
Published April 28, 2008

Catholics in the United States have been slow to grasp the problems facing Christians living in the Holy Land. Many Catholics don’t even know they are there, or that they are Arab Christians. Most Americans equate Arabs with Muslims, in spite of the fact that Arabs were Christians long before they were Muslims.

Arab Christian communities have existed in the Middle East since the second century a.d. and perhaps earlier. These were Christians whose language was Arabic and who would leave a vast and rich literature of Christian thought and spirituality in their native language. Before the rise of Mohammed in the seventh century, Arab Christians constituted 95 percent of the population in West Asia and Egypt, numbering more than 15 million (9.1 million in Iraq, 4 million in Syria, and 2.5 million in Egypt).
But in Palestine today, the Arab Christian communities are slowly dwindling. The land of Jesus Christ and His first Church are in danger of becoming merely a tourist attraction for visiting Christians from other parts of the world.

According to Bernard Sabella, former professor of sociology at Bethlehem University, there are about 38,000 Christians remaining in the West Bank and Gaza. “The official number,” he told me in an interview, “always stays at 50,000, but there are nowhere near that many today.”

Sabella, who was born in Bethlehem in 1945, is an elected member of the Palestinian legislature. Six seats in the legislature, he explained, are set aside for Christians to represent the Christian population of Palestine. These seats are apportioned according to the percentage of the Christian population, which is actually much lower (1.2 percent) than the number of seats allotted. “This is another reason to keep the number artificially high,” Sabella said.

I asked Sabella if Muslim extremism is the reason for the decline in Christian presence. “No,” he told me, “Christians and Muslims have gotten along very well in the region until recent years.” I challenged him with the widely reported story of the Christian book seller, Rami Ayyad, slain in Gaza last October by Muslim extremists.
“Christians and Muslims have maintained good relations because we have an understanding not to proselytize each other. Ayyad had been kidnapped and warned not to proselytize, but he was part of an evangelical group from Bethlehem taking aid to Gaza and talking about Jesus Christ. It was too much, especially for the new extremists.”

When I pointed out that this story does provide evidence for a growing Muslim threat, Sabella agreed, but insisted it’s a recent phenomenon. “To understand the problem you have to go back to 1948, to the creation of Israel. Out of the 726,000 Palestinian refugees there were nearly 60,000 Christians, or 35 percent of all the Christians in Palestine.”

Everything that has happened to Christians in the Holy Land must be understood, Sabella argued, as the response of Christian communities to the creation of Israel and the series of wars following, especially the 1967 war ending in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. That occupation just passed its 40th anniversary, the longest in modern history. The description of an “Israeli occupation” is strongly disputed. During his January 2008 trip to Israel and the West Bank, however, President Bush called for an end to “the occupation that began in 1967.”

The reasons for the ongoing departure of Christians from the Holy Land are summarized by Sabella:

1) lack of an economic and cultural future under Israeli occupation; 2) increased security measures since the 2nd Intifada starting in 2000 — the security wall, more Jewish settlements and Israeli-citizen-only roads in the West Bank; and 3) the lure of joining already-departed family members in other countries such as Brazil, Canada, and the United States.

In fact, on my last trip to the Holy Land in March 2004, nearly every family I met had sent their children to colleges in the United States. I was told that most of them, upon graduating, never return home. When I asked the parents if they wanted their children to come back, they would shake their heads and say, “There is nothing for them here.”

The story told by Sabella has been chronicled before, most notably in The Body and the Blood: The Holy Land at the Turn of the Millennium — A Reporter’s Journey by Charles M. Sennott. Sennott was the Middle East bureau chief for the Boston Globe from 1997 to 2001. He witnessed both the Muslim terrorism and the reaction from Israelis that increased the burden on Christians in the West Bank and Gaza already struggling to stay on their ancestral land.

Sennott described Christians as caught in a “cultural no-man’s land” where “the voices of Muslim and Jewish extremism were drowning them out, squeezing them out of the public space.”
Sabella has seen a significant increase in concern expressed about “religious extremism” in his studies of why Palestinians consider emigrating. But, in spite of the rise of “Islamic political ideology, there are still many associations between Muslims and Christians.” These relationships, no doubt, are one of the key factors slowing the growth of extremism among Palestinians.

“Until there is a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Christian presence will continue to weaken,” he said. It’s obvious that the most likely solution — the two-state solution — remains a distant possibility in spite of recent efforts by Sec. Condoleezza Rice and President Bush to encourage further negotiations.

In the meantime, it is hoped that the United States, working with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, can find ways to ease the burden on the remaining Christian communities. Catholics can pray for their Christian brethren in the Holy Land; they can send them support in the form of alms; but there is nothing better than spending some time among them, visiting their restaurants, shops, and homes, hearing their stories, and assuring them you know they are there.

A Common Friend to Both – A Visit with Archbishop Chacour

Deal W. Hudson
Published August 3, 2010

Archbishop Elias Chacour of the Melkite Church in Israel is a remarkable man. Nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, the author of three books on religion, and now in his early 70s, he’s an internationally recognized leader in the effort to find a peaceful solution to the hostilities between Jews and Arabs.

“We don’t need anyone else to become the enemy of the Jews or the Arabs,” he told us. “We need people to become the common friend of both.”

He kindly received our small group at his residence in Haifa and spoke with us for well over an hour. “Why are you here?” he asked with a smile. By the time we’d left, we all had a better idea of how to answer that question.

Chacour was eight years old when the Israeli soldiers entered his Palestinian village in 1948, the year of Israel’s founding. The village of Biram is in the region of Galilee near Nazareth. His father had prepared a banquet for the soldiers – he fed them and they slept in the family’s beds. After enjoying the hospitality, the soldiers ordered everyone to leave the village; their land and homes were being “annexed.”

The residents fled up into the adjacent hills and lived for several weeks until a group of the village fathers ventured back to ask if they could return. The men wouldn’t return for months. Eventually the fathers, including Chacour’s, found their way back to the families living in the hills near their confiscated village. The men had been put into trucks and taken to the other side of the West Bank, dropped off, and told never to return. They walked through Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon to rejoin their families.

The Palestinians took their case to the Israeli Supreme Court, which ruled three times in their favor… only to have the military continue to block their homecoming. Finally, in 1952, they descended the hills to return to their houses, only to watch Israeli bombers level the town in front of their eyes.

“My father told all his children never to hate, never to seek retribution,” the archbishop said, choking back the strong emotions he obviously still felt from that experience so many years ago.

Chacour was the only one of the four sons to become a priest, thus fulfilling his father’s fervent wish. He studied in Paris for six years, returned to Galilee, and became a parish priest in a small village much like the one he was born in. His book Blood Brothers, first published in 1984, brought Chacour into the public eye leading to his appointment as archbishop (archimandrite) in 2001.

Before we left, I asked “Abuna,” as he is also called, if he had a personal message I could record for Catholics in the United States. You will find it here.