Issue Date: September 24, 2004
By ROSEMARY RADFORD RUETHER
The sufferings of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation can be endlessly described in terms of broad statistics: the numbers of the killed and injured, the number of days under curfew, the difficulties crossing checkpoints to get to jobs, hospitals or school, the numbers of demolished houses, uprooted trees and confiscated land, and finally the wall, which is cutting Palestinians off from land, water and access to basic services, confining them in small ghettos. But it is hard to understand what all this means without seeing and experiencing it for oneself.
I have taken many delegations to Palestine so that people from the West come to understand this directly. Invariably people are stunned by the utter oppressiveness of these policies. Such visits become more difficult, however, as Israelis tell Westerners that they are not allowed to visit the West Bank, even areas near Jerusalem such as Bethlehem, because it is too dangerous. Let me assure anyone interested in such a trip that going to Bethlehem is not dangerous. What it is is a world the Israelis dont want you to see.
Short of a personal visit, perhaps the best way to understand what occupation means for Palestinians is a well-crafted video or book that tells the stories of what everyday life is like under occupation. One such book is the recent volume by Mitri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble. A delegation that I led to Palestine last January was based primarily at and organized by the International Center of Christmas Church in Bethlehem, with many of our sessions led by Pastor Raheb. So I had heard many of the stories and had seen many of the aftereffects of the events described in this book. Yet reading this volume brought this reality back to me with great poignancy.
Bethlehem was under direct siege by Israeli troops for 40 days in spring 2002. Daily curfew continued for four months, confining the 135,000 members of the Bethlehem region to their houses, with brief respites to shop. During the siege, much of the work of the Bethlehem community to refurbish their city for what they hoped would be new tourism in 2000 was destroyed, and Bethlehem itself was made largely inaccessible to the outside world.
This pattern of seeking to cut off Bethlehem and the West Bank as a whole continues and worsens today with the building of the wall, in effect seeking to strangle the communities thus confined to their small areas. The purpose of this isolation has little to do with security, the official rationale. As one Palestinian told us ironically, Terrorists dont go by checkpoints. Rather the goal is ethnic cleansing, making daily life so impossible that more and more Palestinians will give up and leave.
Rahebs ministry includes a quiet but steady effort to defeat this agenda, to help his community, Christian and Muslim, not to lose hope. As he says in the introduction, to tell ones stories by writing such a book is a primary act of nonviolent resistance, the refusal to be silenced. This entails more than simply refusing to give up and leave. It also demands the creative transformation of oppression. It means to refuse to dehumanize those who dehumanize you, to refuse to make Israelis into enemies, to refuse to stop dreaming of living together as friends and neighbors.
During the siege of Bethlehem, the International Center of Christmas Church was itself occupied by 300 Israeli soldiers. They not only used it as a base to besiege the rest of the town, but they also did considerable wanton damage to the facilities, destroying most of the windows and doors, smashing computers, blowing holes in walls and floors. On one occasion 12 soldiers rampaged through Rahebs office. Raheb went in clerical dress to talk to the soldiers. When he told them that he refused to turn them into enemies but wanted to relate to them as neighbors, the commanding officer abruptly told him to shut up. Only the direct intervention of the ambassadors from Sweden and Norway with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon got the soldiers to leave.
As soon as the soldiers left the church property, the people of Christmas Church began picking up the pieces. As an expression of creative transformation of the violence, some of the broken glass and spent bullets they picked up were turned into pieces for mosaics that depicted the occupation. Today the International Center is mostly rebuilt and is expanding into a center of hope for the whole community. The arts, music, theater and computer education allow people not only to express their experience but to communicate with others throughout the Palestinian region and the rest of the world, seeking to overcome the isolation imposed on them.
The stories Raheb tells in this book are not only about the victimization of Palestinians. More important, the stories are about the residents refusal to become victims, their insistence on renewing their capacity to be creative and hopeful human beings, and to reach out to others, most notably to Israelis, to reciprocate. It is a book that urgently needs to be read by those longing for signs of hope in what is surely one of the most troubled places on earth.
Rosemary Reuther is an NCR columnist and the Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.
National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 2004
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