“A country is not only what it does, it is also what it tolerates.”
–graffiti on security wall, Bethlehem
It is part of the genius of Sabeel that each international solidarity conference opens with a worship service at the peace plaza built by the Wi’am Center close to the Bethlehem checkpoint. As Wi’am founder and Palestinian apostle of nonviolence Zoughbi Zoughbi points out, from this vantage one sees clearly the “unholy trinity” of the occupation:
The park faces the security wall, which is poignant in itself, towering over the landscape, but which also hosts a kaleidoscope of the graffiti of resistance (my favorite this time is the above quote from Kurt Tucholsky, the German Jewish journalist and satirist who wrote under the rising Hitler regime in 1933).
To the northwest an Israeli settlements looms on a hilltop, the ubiquitous reminder of the bitter injustice of the occupation: it is not enough that Palestinian towns are walled in; their land is also confiscated for these booming, insular and illegal Israeli fortress-suburbs (more than 500,000 Israelis now inhabit settlements in the West Bank).
Closer in one sees the tenements of Aida refugee camp, where thousands of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars and their descendants live in poverty and seemingly permanent homeless/statelessness.
Photo above: A Palestinian near the Israeli barrier in the Aida refugee camp in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, 9/9/09, by Darren Whiteside. For more, read on!
For visitors encountering these realities for the first time, the inevitable emotion is one of incredulity and anger. Yet as Zoughbi reminds us, “victimhood is suicidal, and blaming is toxic”; the Wi’am Center thus focuses on building Palestinian identity, nonviolent resistance, and celebrating life in the teeth of the occupation.
“Kom och Se” is the slogan of the gathering of 100 Swedish church leaders this week—“Come and See.” And there is simply no better way to begin to understand the Israeli/Palestinian conundrum, what Ray Dolphin of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs called “the most politicized conflict in the world.” Amidst the din of ideological posturing and media disinformation, only a human engagement with the human realities on the ground behind these walls can get at the terrible truths of what is happening here.
Even the excellent presentations that characterize Sabeel conferences—in this case, concerning international humanitarian law; the geopolitics of the balkanization of Palestine under the occupation; Christian Zionism; and Palestinian liberation theology—cannot rival the impact made by visits to refugee camps, destroyed Palestinian homes, or popular Christian organizations trying to work constructively in the face of dispossession. That is the great value of these solidarity visits.
We have all seen images of Jews coming to Jerusalem from around the world on pilgrimage to pray at the Wailing Wall. For Christians from abroad who are committed to Palestinian self-determination, prayers for peace and justice at Wi’am’s Peace Park is a somewhat ironic counterpoint. “People built these walls,” said Jean Zaru, the amazing Palestinian Quaker peace educator who preached at the opening worship service, “and people can tear them down. But we must reach deep inside ourselves to understand and to undermine their rationale.”