A delegation of BPFNA members and friends participated in a Friendship Tour to the Holy Land February 16 through March 2, 2009. BPFNA board member Barb Taft led the delegation and shared the group's experiences and her own reflections in these reports....
February 19, 2009
This is just a bit of what we've been doing as the Baptist Peace Fellowship Friendship Tour to the Holy Land has gotten under way. We finally came together as a group in Beirut, Lebanon, on Monday night.
How can I describe to you what we saw yesterday? We spent part of the day visiting in refugee camps. We had hoped to visit in Ain al-Helweh, the largest camp in Lebanon, but there was an incident in the morning (a couple of grenades exploded in the camp) and it became impossible to get a group of 15 people in through the tightened security. We also intended to go into Shatilla Camp, which we were able to do, with the accompaniment of an UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the group that cares for Palestinian refugees) staff member.
Our first stop was the memorial to the 1982 massacres in Sabra and Shatilla. We walked into the park-like setting, which featured large signs with photos from the massacres. We learned that the park contains the mass graves of over 800 people. No one knows for sure how many corpses were buried there, as the so-called Christian forces who did the killings and the Israeli soldiers who were guarding the perimeter of the camps--to prevent anyone from entering or exiting during the massacres--prevented anyone from going in for over a week. The bodies were quite decomposed and had a horrible stench by then, so they were gathered by bull-dozer and poured into the ground. Some could not be distinguished from others. In one corner are the graves of 46 extended family members of one family.
We proceeded through the narrow, dirty streets of the camp, stopped at a "martyr's memorial" in an old mosque, and were then invited to visit a family. The mother in this family is one of the women whose embroidery we sold at our Ten Thousand Villages sale last year. As a result of injuries in the 1982 massacre, she is an amputee. Her husband lost his sight then, totally. They live up two flights of stairs in a tiny camp apartment. Their 11 year old daughter has a heart condition. Their youngest daughter wants to be a doctor, but they can't even afford medical care for themselves, so how can she manage to get the needed education? I noted that the first flight of stairs to their apartment had no railing. While we were there, one of many brief power outages occurred. Lebanon is suffering, and the Palestinians there are doubly suffering. Their unemployment rate is unimaginable, and their poverty is dire.
We contrast this all with the fact that we were delayed at the airport by two hours while authorities decided whether to admit us, since they had learned we plan to go into Israel this next week. Once we got in, the hotel had held our dinner for us, we had nice warm rooms, and we had a comfortable bus to take us up to see the cedars of Lebanon in a small snowstorm and to have a wonderful lunch not far from Khalil Gibran's hometown, which was our agenda for our first day in Lebanon. It makes us realize how we live our lives in a position of privilege.
We crossed through Syria this morning and had yet another delay at the Jordanian border while the guards inspected our Lebanese bus three times. But we arrived barely in time to visit the ruins at Jerash before they closed. Then we got to our hotel in time for a delightful dinner. Tomorrow, we will visit Baqaa refugee camp, where we expect to be hosted by the mufti (head man) of the camp. He said he would bring in a few of the old men who were refugees in 1948 and have not been allowed to go home since. I'll tell you more in the next report.
Please continue to think of us, pray for us, and send us your encouragement. We will cross into the West Bank and Israel on Saturday morning.
February 27, 2009
Stones. Walls. Checkpoints. Living stones. These are the topics I'm going to talk about in this week's update.
First, the stones. They're everywhere. Large and small stones that make rough walking paths. Stones that are used to separate one orchard from another or to build terraces. Stones that are strewn all over the ground in the midst of farmers' fields, making walking more difficult. This is the land known as both Israel and Palestine.
Walls: Although fences may make good neighbors, walls rarely do. We have gone to several parts of the so-called Separation Wall that Israel has built. In some places, it cuts through the middle of an Arab village, while in others it winds around several houses, cutting them off from not only from their fields, the family, their schools, hospital care, etc., but from contact with neighbors or relatives only a block away. It also, along with the Jews-only roads that connect the series of illegal Israeli settlements to one another, causes Arabs to have to travel miles out of their way in order to go anywhere. In Hebron, which we visited last week, people who want to bury their dead have to travel several miles to reach the cemetary which is only a few feet on the other side of the wall.
Checkpoints: We travelled north from the Bethlehem region twice over the last couple of days, to visit several groups in Ramallah one day and to head north to Jenin and Nablus the next, eventually crossing into Israel. We encountered several checkpoints each day. It took us two hours to make the normally half-hour journey of about 20 miles to Ramallah, and four hours to make the usual two-hour trip to Jenin. When we wanted to visit the Samaritans in Nablus, we were delayed by an Israeli checkpoint for an hour, until the son of the Samaritan patriarch, himself a leader of the sect, came to instruct the soldiers that we were his special guests and were to be admitted.
Living Stones: The living stones are what we really came to see. I am looking forward to being home in about 10 days, at which time I will begin to put together presentations during which I can introduce various groups to some of the real human beings we have been meeting and tell you their stories. There is an amazing thread of agreement here from people representing all factions: Peace is essential. It needs to come with justice. And it needs to be negotiated honestly. How these people think peace should look always includes these basics. The way to get there differs somewhat, but only slightly. They are relying on us to tell their stories, to make the stones come alive for you, and to help their dreams to come true. I will send one more report before I get home.
March 5, 2009
The group has headed for home. Three of us who attended the Global Baptist Peace Conference in Rome before going to the Middle East will be heading for Rome to catch our return flights. Since I'll be home in a few days, I will soon be able to fill in the details of the trip. Group members are arranging speaking engagements and we will all be writing more as we process the information we gathered. It won't be an easy task, as we spoke in our 39 meetings with 42 people representing a variety of groups and a variety of opinions. (This does not include the personal contacts we made or our delightful host families in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem).
I appreciate those of you who have been disseminating these reports to your lists. Please continue to tell people what I have passed along to you. Here is the final report from the BPFNA Friendship Tour to the Middle East 2009:
Now that we have completed our visits, we have begun to take account of all we have seen and heard. For a short time, we have also lived some of the events along with the people in this very small region. We have felt the level of distress which remains after the December-January events in Gaza, the pain of trying to get to appointments on time while passing through checkpoints, and the frustration of trying to be heard as those who seek peace, but being marginalized.
We visited in a total of four Palestinian refugee camps. In Lebanon, we visited preschools and the memorial to the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, and in the home of a family that has suffered much over the years. Group members wondered how people can survive in an environment where they are not allowed to work and must rely on subsistence levels of food and health aid provided by the international community. In Jordan, where Palestinians are allowed to work and encouraged to move from the refugee camps, we met with two Mukhtars (head-men) in their respective diwans (meeting houses). One espoused a two-state solution for Palestine, while the other believed that one single state for Israelis and Palestinians would be the solution. Inside the West Bank, we met at the Ibdaa Center in Dheisheh camp, where the work concentrates on youth. Every attempt is made to see that young people choose peaceful expression over the violence that they could so easily slip into, given that there is very little hope. Living so close to their families' homes, yet not being able to go there, creates a level of frustration that is extremely hard to counter.
Home demolitions go on apace, as does the construction of the Separation Wall. Over 1500 people may lose their homes in Silwan, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. We have heard of strikes and demonstrations to protest the proposed home demolitions by Israel, but there has not been any violence, for which we are grateful. In Hebron, we learned that people are forced by the Wall to travel miles out of their way to bury their dead in a cemetery that is only a few yards on the other side of the Wall.
We also met with women from all three Middle East sections of Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, working tirelessly for peace in the region through their respective venues in Lebanon, Palestine and Israel. Since we only met with a few women, the group was gratified by the feminine perspective on what is taking place and what needs to happen to achieve peace and justice.
We visited holy sites such as the Mt. of Olives, the Church of the Nativity, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as the Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa mosque (both incongruously guarded by armed Israeli soldiers), and the Wailing Wall. We also went into the Muslim side of the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, knowing that the Jewish side was separated by a thin partition.
We heard from a representative of Rabbis for Human Rights, as well as a Jewish and a Palestinian man who belong to the Parents' Circle, a group of those who have suffered losses of a first-degree loved one in their families. We heard from Peretz Kidron, one of the founders of Yesh G'Vul, those who refuse service in the Israeli Defense Forces within the territories. They say it's okay to defend Israel, but not to offend others.
We learned about non-violent resistance among the Palestinians and about the brave Israelis who defy their own government to make peace with those who they believe are their cousins, the Arabs. We met with officials of the Palestinian Authority and with the Governor of Jenin region. We learned about the role that water plays in the region, and we also went into an Israeli settlement and had a meeting with one of the settlers. We also met with human rights and civil rights groups and with the American Friends Service Committee representative. On that same day, we met with the group Combatants for Peace, those who had learned through their participation in violence that this sort of behavior will not lead to peace.
We heard personal stories, learning how people had experienced being deprived of their land, their homes, and their rights, and yet resisted it all steadfastly. And we heard encouraging words from those who still believe, despite all of the pain and the animosity, that the people can learn to live together. We witnessed some experiments in living this way, and heard people who many think are enemies call one another friends. We all resonated with Bishop Elias Chakour, a Melkite, who told us that what was needed was for the people to really remember their past, and that they had lived in peace before. That is what we pray for as we return to our homes and look forward to sharing some of our many photos with you, as well as the words that we heard, whether sobering or of hope.