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Israel/Palestine Trip Days 12-15

By: Scott Gilliland

I'm a little late with this final installment, but as the two weeks came to a close, my exhaustion began setting in.  It may have been a good thing to wait, because the last few days have given me a lot to ponder.  We spent these last few days learning about the Palestinian side of the wall, in the West Bank.  The more we've listened and learned, the clearer it becomes that the Palestinian people and their story deserve attention... and not just the attention given on the evening news.

We started Thursday by visiting Diyar Consortium and Dar Al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, both dedicated to empowering students in the arts, despite pushback from the Palestinian government, who for a long time have seen the arts as inconsequential when compared to business and engineering.  Through perseverance, private backing and a recent change of heart from the government, both Diyar and Dar Al-Kalima are succeeding in their mission "To have life and have it abundantly."  As I learned about the students studying film, dance, art and everything in between, I was struck by just how pivotal this school could be to Palestine's future.  As we spoke with film and theatre students, walked the hallways of the school, and even practiced traditional dances with their well-traveled dance troupe, I realized that there is a rich Palestinian culture and artistic voice that does not make it to the front pages of our newspapers.

 I wonder how different our perspectives on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict would be if we heard a Palestinian voice like the one being cultivated at Dar Al-Kalima, a voice that celebrates a lively culture overshadowed by the images of war and political extremists seen in our television screens.  Unlike the Palestinian officials reluctant to support them, Diyar and Dal Al-Kalima will be the key to Palestine being seen in a new light, especially in the parts of the world, like ours, who know them mostly for the acts of Hamas and Yasser Arafat.

We spent Thursday afternoon on a 5 mile hike in the Valley of Elah (of David and Goliath fame).  It was here that we began to understand the history of the land itself for the people living here, and why some hillsides would actually be very important.  The terraced fields spanning miles in every direction represent not just familial history, but current-day livelihoods for the Palestinian peoples.  For a country that has essentially no industry, about a 50% unemployment rate, and almost no natural resources, the little farmable land they have left is extremely valuable to them.  Driving from the Sea of Galilee to the West Bank earlier in the week, it became clear that most of the land given to the Palestinian people by Israel is somewhat the leftovers that have little value in terms of fertility or resources.

We concluded our hike walking through a small Palestinian town where we passed people young and old, all clearly interested in why a random group of tourists happened to be wandering down their streets.  Posters and banners hung on street lamps and building walls honoring the men and women of the town who had died in the conflict.  I couldn't help but wonder their role, whether terrorist or martyr or somewhere in between.  Certainly, the answer to that would depend on whose lens you're looking through.

We ended the day with dinner and sleep, as most of our group was beginning to feel the effects of a non-stop schedule for the past two weeks.

The dome ceiling of the Orthodox Church for the
The next day, we visited the Shepherds' field and their burial place.  I found the cave at the Shepherds' field more interesting than the church itself, because I got to do some amateur spelunking with my Go-Pro.  The Orthodox church where the shepherds are said to be buried was gorgeous.  Those artists know how to paint a room.  I'm just lucky if I don't spill half the paint on the carpet when I'm painting (oh wait, that totally happened this past summer, sorry Raegan!).  We finished our morning going to the "Milk Grotto", AKA "The Holy Church of Mary's Breastmilk."  I cannot make this up.  It was at this point that I thought, "Okay, we're really reaching for holy sites, now, aren't we?"

The inside of the mosque in Hebron, which houses the
tombs for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Leah, and Rebekah.

The rest of our day was free time, which meant some shopping for olive wood gifts and napping.

The next day, Saturday for those of you still reading, we went up the the village of Taybeh, home to some church I don't even remember and Taybeh Brewing Company!  Yay!  Beer at 10:30 a.m.!  Right?...  You drink mimosas at brunch, so don't judge us.

The brewery tour was another "A-ha" moment for me as I learned about the economic difficulties faced by businesses in Palestine.  This brewery, for instance, is unable to export outside of Palestine because shipping costs and other fees are 3-4 times more expensive than they are for Israeli businesses due to the sanctions Israel has placed on Palestine.  Any supplies Taybeh wants to use almost have to come from Israel, because if they want to buy barley from Spain (for instance) Israel will then blacklist Spanish barley as an import.  This allows Israeli sellers to charge virtually any amount for supplies needed by Palestinian companies.  Essentially Israel is able to eliminate economic growth in Palestine by nature of these policies, which then destroys job-growth and feeds that 50% unemployment rate.  I honestly don't understand how Palestine will ever be a viable state if their current economic situation does not change.

The West Bank wall from the Israeli side.  Looks quite nice
from this perspective, doesn't it?
We spent the second half of the day in the Old City, shopping and playing "10 Shekel Challenge," a game I invented for our group (essentially a gift exchange where the spending limit is 10 shekels).  It seemed like a fun idea at the time, but turns out offering people essentially $3 for items that should cost around $30 will get you kicked out of a lot of market shops in Jerusalem.

On Sunday, we went to the Palestinian city of Hebron, a more tense city than Bethlehem, due to the 400 Israeli settlers who occupy the center of the old city there.  In addition to being a city with incredibly small streets, and dead camels hanging in meat shops, it also is home to the tombs of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Jacob, Isaac).

When we came back to Bethlehem near sundown and visited the wall to take photos of the graffiti, which is both profoundly moving and artistically incredible.  Below, you'll find some of the Banksy pieces I was able to photograph while we were in Bethlehem.  If you don't know who Banksy is, Google him/her.  It's kind of like finding fine art in the street, a fun scavenger hunt.

Banksy art on the side of a Car Wash.

Banksy original.  Dr. Elaine Heath will appreciate this one.

My last Banksy.
 While at the wall, some of our group got caught in a little tear gas that had blown with the wind into our direction.  Luckily, only one of our group got direct contact (sorry Andress!), but our guides seemed rather unruffled by the incident.  We asked them why and they said it happens pretty frequently around there, most often due to neighborhood kids throwing rocks at the guard towers and doors.  To get the kids to stop (ages 10-12) the soldiers will fire tear gas and rubber bullets at the kids to make them stop.  Now, I'm not advocating for children throwing rocks, but as a Kids Pastor, I cannot help being upset that tear gassing kids and injuring children with rubber bullets is deemed an appropriate response by the soldier on duty.

Overall, my time in Palestine made me challenge a lot of beliefs about the conflict coming into this trip.  It just resonates differently when you cross the wall and see the barbed wire and guard towers lining the entire border.  That feeling of imprisonment as a community is something I would hope our world, especially the people of Israel, would not want imposed on any people.  Do not get me wrong, my opinion has not changed regarding the extremist groups in Palestine, who continue to use acts of violence as a means of solution, but I also cannot pretend that this story is one-sided.  There is an entire population of Palestinians stuck in political/economical/cultural purgatory as half-way citizens of the world.

And the worst part is I understand the motivations of both the Israeli people and the Palestinians.  I know that Israel exists in part because our world failed to protect the Jewish people in the face of genocide.  I know that security for their country is incredibly important considering the countries who share their borders.  I know that Palestine have not been angels in their fight to achieve statehood.  But there are children being shot with tear gas and rubber bullets.  All the politics, all the opinions, all the complicated layers in this conflict set aside... the fact that Yad Vashem and the West Bank wall both exist in the same country is to me an incredible irony.  I wish I had an answer, I really do.  I'd call up Mr. Kerry and say, "Put me in coach!"  But the reality is, I don't have the faintest idea what to do to solve this.  What I can do is pay attention.  I can read.  I can listen.  I can fight the urge to retrench into apathy.  I've seen the land, I've met her people, and I've heard the stories of pain and sorrow on both sides.  But just like in the Garden, I hear hope as well.  In the halls of Shalom Hartman and on the dance floor of Diyar, there is hope.  And so I'll end this series of blogs with a simple prayer of hope.

God, move in our hearts and in the hearts of the world, so that the walls that divide us--in Israel and Palestine and in all corners of the earth--will come tumbling down.  Make this land and all its people holy once more.  Amen.


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