Breaking Down Barriers: Israel/Palestine
by Linda Bergh

Stretch of the 26 feet high separation barrier in Jerusalem. Photo: Linda Bergh

"Is there anybody out there?" read the graffiti on a section of the 26' high, razor-wire topped separation barrier that stretches along Jerusalem's border. This concrete barrier, proceeding along Jerusalem, around three sides of Bethlehem, and winding southward, symbolizes the many facets of separation and oppression which the Israeli government's Occupation policies have created between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.

In January, 11 Central NY United Methodists joined 45 United Methodists from throughout the US on a journey to Israel/Palestine, seeking to listen, see and learn about the efforts toward peace with justice. Our trip began during the celebration of Armenian Christmas (1/18) and extended through the Palestinian elections (1/25), before our departure on January 27. We stayed in Bethlehem in the West Bank.

Separate but Not Equal
Two peoples want and need a homeland in Israel/Palestine. Viewing the effects of the Occupation and Israeli policies on both peoples creates a sense of urgency for a just solution. Illegal Jewish settlements built on Palestinian land stand on hilltops around East Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Dynamiting for settlements above the village of Wadi Fouqin has caused cracks in the local school building, making Palestinian villagers concerned about the stability of their homes. Sewage systems from the extensive hilltop settlement sometimes break, polluting the fertile farmlands in the valley below. Cutting off of the hilltop for more development is causing erosion and mudslides.

The separation barrier (in places a tall electric fence with security side roads) blocks farmers from their land and water sources, students from schools, workers from jobs, families from relatives - even separating parents from children. The separation barrier was planned to go directly through Al Quds University, but international activist pressure caused Israel to change the route slightly. Similarly, on the Mount of Olives, a Catholic convent for Palestinian Christians was able to convince the Israeli government not to wall them off completely from their congregation. But for the farmers who just want to farm, or people who need to get to an Israeli hospital, the barrier and checkpoints may mean a livelihood or not - or life or death.

For Palestinians to travel anywhere within or outside of the West Bank, they must go through numerous checkpoints. Young Israeli soldiers may decide arbitrarily when or whether to let them pass. Going from Jerusalem into Bethlehem, our tour buses were usually allowed to pass, but near election time we were asked to get off the bus to go through the terminal, a highly technical checkpoint, with screened-in runways and catwalks for military overhead. Several Palestinian men were sitting, waiting to be allowed through. While we made our way through, they were told to wait outside in the cold wind until it was decided if they could pass. They had already been waiting for three hours!

In the Name of Security
Home demolitions, with no regard for a family's needs or for centuries-old deeds of ownership, happen in the name of security. Cave dwellers in the southern hills of Hebron have even had their cave homes smashed. They are not allowed to build homes or re-inhabit their caves, and must have a special permit even to live in tents on their own land. If land is proven uninhabited by way of aerial photographs, the Israeli government may claim it.

Over-zealous, illegal settlers in Palestinian lands commit acts of destruction to pressure Palestinians to leave. We saw fields of olive trees cut down to stumps by settlers just the previous week. These stumps, if they survive, will take years to grow and be fruitful again. Palestinian land is also confiscated for the Israeli-only bypass roads and highways that are inaccessible to Palestinians. These roads effectively allow Israelis to travel through the land without going near Palestinians and ensure that Palestinians must take back roads and roundabout routes in their travels.

"Breaking the Silence"
Israeli Jews also suffer from the effects of the Israeli Occupation of Palestine. For Israeli Jewish young people military service is compulsory, and duty in the West Bank may cause their young minds to be haunted by the dehumanizing acts they are encouraged or ordered to carry out. They may deeply internalize a "we/they" mindset and reliance on power and control.

Some of our group heard a member of "Breaking the Silence" speak about his experience in the Israeli Defense Forces serving in the West Bank. One night during a house search, he realized that he was holding a gun on an older man, a Palestinian father, who had to ask permission to use his own bathroom. As the soldier proceeded to a bedroom and began to dump things out of a child's schoolbag, he glanced over and saw the young boy looking at him. Suddenly he thought, "I'm a monster. I belong to one of the best, most moral armed forces in the world, and my family thinks of me as a good son, but this child sees a monster." He found "telling his story" to be healing for the behavior he had engaged in.

Israeli Jews also suffer as the land they love is polluted, denuded, and stripped of some of its most productive farmlands because of zealous encroachment by illegal Jewish settlers or preparations for the separation barrier. The very steps that have been taken to increase security and decrease fear have led to an increase in fear for Israelis, as the desperation that has worsened for many Palestinians sometimes breaks out in violence.

Breaking Down the Barriers
There are voices speaking for peace and people working for peace in Israel/Palestine. One creative Palestinian teacher of English at a Christian girls' school in Bethlehem had her students keep diaries. The diary entries were during the 2000-2004 years of Israel's invasion and curfew. They were published in the book The Wall Cannot Stop Our Stories. We also heard the "Parent's Circle Family Forum," a group of Jews and Palestinians who have lost family members to violence. Two spoke, one Palestinian, one Jew, to share the value of forsaking a spirit of revenge and adopting a spirit of compassion and understanding.

In the village of Wadi Fouqin, where the anticipated separation barrier will be built near the fertile valley, our Palestinian Muslim guide told of peaceful negotiations with an Israeli village on the other side of the "Green Line" or border. Israeli villagers have offered to negotiate with the Israeli government to alter the path of the separation barrier onto their land to prevent destruction of some of the fertile valley farmland.

Jeff Halper, who directs "The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions", and members of "Rabbis for Human Rights" have stood in front of bulldozers as they came to demolish Palestinian homes. In Haifa, Professor Ilan Pappe told us that he grew up in a typical Jewish home with typical Jewish understandings of his history. It was only when, as a history student, he came across original source documents referring to 1948 that he had a new sense of what had occurred.

Hope for the Future
As our time in Israel/Palestine drew to a close, we saw the pre-election enthusiasm of posters and a campaign truck with loudspeakers passing by with joyful supporters reminding people to vote. After an orderly and democratic election process, we learned that Hamas had won a majority - which seemed to be a surprise, even to Hamas. Their hope appeared to be to work for an open and honest government that would bring good social services to their people. Those who weren't sure about the result adopted a "wait and see, but let's work with them" attitude. The majority of Palestinians had voted for change.

Our group left Israel/Palestine with a request to "tell the story." When we asked where they placed their hope, people replied, "international civil society."


Linda is an active United Methodist layperson and serves as Peace with Justice co-coordinator, along with her husband, Gary, for the North Central NY Conference of the United Methodist Church.