Since the crisis in Gaza began, I have been thinking about writing a response. For some reason, the conflict in the Middle East hits a very sensitive spot in my heart. I have been somewhat depressed about the situation for days now, and am still working on a written piece.
In the meantime, however, I have become friends with a United Methodist mission intern who is currently living in Bethlehem. John Daniel Gore works at Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center. He tweets at @xavier_phoenix, and blogs at Reverse Exiled on WordPress.com. He agreed to write about his experience of the Gaza bombing. I am grateful for his voice, and I urge you all to keep him in your prayers.
I have been hovering over Gaza coverage all day, hoping to find my starting point. Now that Israel has targeted journalists for the second time, and rumors of a Gazan hospital director’s assassination are filtering through social media, it is high time that I begin writing. When the conflict escalated, I was visiting EAPPI workers in the remote village of Yanoun. These internationals from places like Sweden, Brazil, and the Philippines maintain presence in Yanoun to protect it from the nearby illegal (but IOF protected) settlement. We made a short trip into the Jordan valley to take statements from ranchers whose tents had been demolished for a ‘firing zone’. Strange how the occupying Israeli army put it in a populated part of the West Bank? To me, it is not: displacement tactics for systemic land-theft.
I needed Yanoun’s fresh air and rugged terrain more than I knew. I started volunteering with Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center on behalf of the United Methodist Church in August of 2011. I spend every working day next to the section of annexation wall that severed the Jerusalem-Hebron road, killing commerce between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. I have stood on the roof-top while my co-worker explained how his grandparents’ land was taken without restitution and I was with him in Hebron to see the garbage that radical settlers throw at Arab shopkeepers.
I write, copy-edit, take photos, and read articles in anticipation of questions coming from my small group of supporters. I have counted myself as ‘too privileged’ and ‘too safe’; while workers are denied permits to work in Jerusalem, I can use my US passport –though we are all herded through the same dehumanizing machinery at the illegal check-points. While farmers rush for the fields and springs that rightfully belong to them in places like Ni’ilin and Nebi Saleh, I know I represent a partner organization. I have to maintain my visa status: I’m officially not in Bethlehem, let alone charging IOF soldiers.
Yet I am in Bethlehem because I did, indeed, rub against these insane frameworks. After six months here, I spent three months in exile awaiting the mere promise of a return visa. I watched online from a shabby hotel in Jordan while the General Conference of my own church failed to divest from companies that profit from the occupation I fight. It gave me flashbacks to the day, a year before, when I stood before the West Michigan Annual Conference and explained how I knew a young missionary in East Jerusalem and he had seen, clearly, that these displacement practices were wrong. In return, some conference delegates hit me with a barrage of misinformation that had little to do with suffering Jerusalemites and everything to do with orientalist myths from mainstream media outlets.
Furthermore, I forgave them and asked God to give me a firsthand witness. God gave me a powerful witness during my return trip, when the Israeli bureaucracy promised the visa at the Sheikh Hussein bridge—then at the Amman embassy! —then stalled, anyway. On my maverick run to the bridge I was profiled for having a large bag, strip-searched, then intermittently questioned for six and a half hours. They gave me a short visa but my contacts helped me get a long extension. Here I am, five months later, still incredulous at the Israeli government.
I obviously stand with the out-gunned resistance in Gaza, which raises legitimate questions. In the US media, Hamas is cast as tantamount to Al-Queda, not the conservative Islamist movement which was democratically elected (sorry, Fatah) by a people who want leadership that will challenge their oppressors. At home, I would not vote for Hamas any more than the ‘Tea-Party’ but Gaza has been slowly starving under Israel’s blockade. A Bethlehemite remarked to me that he was behind “anyone who fights for my country of Palestine – Fatah, Hamas, Christian, Muslim: it does not matter.”
I am in a sticky spot, as a staunch pacifist, because I condemn all killings on both sides but as a tactician—the chess-player inside of me— I think that Hamas has to keep resisting the blockade or Netanyahu’s Likud-party government will score the political points they wanted all along. The Israeli government imprisons Palestinians with concrete and bullets but they imprison their own people with fear and hateful thinking. When the regime could not win their stand-off with Iran, they chose Gaza as their ticket booster, rousing Hamas with ‘targeted assassinations’ that amounted to youth killed by drones. Once Ahmed al-Jabari started to negotiate with Egyptian mediators for a long-term solution they blew him to pieces and ignited the asymmetrical conflict that has kept my eyes glued to screens for days. Approval ratings have gone up for the Likud regime. Meanwhile, pro-Gaza protests are erupting across the world. The battle is sure to be lost but the public-relations war continues: we #protestforGaza
The details of this story can be stitched together from alternative media outlets across the internet because mainstream Western media has yet to soul-search. We as Christians, Muslims, and Jews will have to search our souls first in order to guide them. I am talking not only to my family but to my neighbors: the Muslims who shake my hand on the street and the brave band of Jews who denounce this occupation and will not allow their faith tradition to be used as a shield for land-theft and racist violence. This ‘Israel’ experiment has proven, once and for all, that no one can build a society made of people ‘just like them’. In fact, it was Europe’s experiment with the same that drilled the deep well of cruelty from which this Zionist regime draws its poison. It pains me to hear from friends in Eastern Europe that this xenophobia still exists.
Someday, I want to discuss with my Jewish and Muslim brothers/sisters about God, Worship, and Existence but that day will not come until we are sitting in the same living room, arguing like family members and eating from the same bowl. Until that day comes, what I believe will not matter as much as what I do for Peace. We need to abandon homogeneity projects and become skilled at being a heterogeneous society.
From here, I could tell you what I think is wrong with a state calling itself “Israel” and hiding behind Old Testament rhetoric mixed with democracy for Jews only. I could speculate about the Middle East political landscape, or talk about Egypt’s role, or suggest Iran might make a power-play. I could make overtures to protestors in Ireland, South Africa, Indonesia and across the world. I might explain Israel’s economic choke-hold over the West Bank, purposely making life sub-standard here. I could especially talk about how Israel shooting journalists and medics is unsurprising to me, given what I see in the West Bank, and slowly deconstruct the propaganda and excuses. I could even suggest deficiencies in Israeli (Western?) culture that cultivate a fear of ‘otherness’ and a fundamental self-absorption (if I felt especially cranky). We could do all of that.
Instead, I want to address Christians and encourage them to get ecumenically involved. I know this might come as a surprise, because it did to me, but the World Council of Churches is already aware of the injustices in Gaza and the rest of Palestine. The EAs are sent by the WCC to uphold principles Jesus taught long ago. Palestine’s Christian leaders united to produce a document called “Kairos Palestine”. It’s my favorite piece of theology, available for free at http://www.kairospalestine.ps/ . Read it. There are a multitude of ways to get educated and get involved today.
As I wrote this piece, I discovered that I did not have so many theological points to make that are not plain. Christians can return to Jesus’s well-worn story of the good Samaritan who helps a man beaten by the side of the road, rather than pretending not to see him (as the priest and Levite did). My boss challenged me to read “Muslim” whenever I saw Samaritan in order to understand who my neighbor is, how he/she might be different, and how to love them. When lawyers inquired of Jesus what the most important commandment was, he said that all the law and prophets hinged upon loving God with our entire being and loving our neighbor like our own body. Without that foundation, all the other instructions in the law ceased to help — even became a curse to humanity.
In closing, I want to share a story. When my boss, Zoughbi Zoughbi, had a short permit we spoke to a group of Methodists in a West Jerusalem hotel. Someone had recruited “balance” for us in the form of a Messianic Jew. Messianic Jews are not a homogenous group. Some helped get supplies into Bethlehem during a siege but others are like this gentleman. Briefly, he was less than gracious: he took a cheap-shot at Zoughbi for telling a story about his daughter; she demanded chocolate from her cousin after he yelled at her (during the siege of Bethlehem, in fact); it was a cute story about restitution, not mere apologies. But this Messianic Jew said, later, that, “Life is about suffering for the Kingdom—not chocolate.” I glanced at Zoughbi and we both shrugged.
After speeches had been delivered, there was a period of question and answer. Someone mentioned they had visited an orphanage and wondered what the speakers would suggest Christians could do to help these children. But again, this Messianic Jew had tied so much of his identity and energy into being a suffering minority, waiting for the second-coming, that he could not help but say, “Warn them of the coming calamities! God will judge them…” etc. I tapped Zoughbi on the arm and asked if I could answer. The text for my answer was Matthew 25:37 — 40:
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show your hospitality? Or Naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’”
Palestinians are in prison: visit them, befriend them, and educate your communities about who they really are. Leave eschatology to God: love your neighbors, now, while they need it most. There are few things sadder than having to apologize for what happened to Indigenous Americans over a century ago. Help now. Find a way. Leave excuses behind.