I still feel like a cloud of something like depression has been following me around here. It is ridiculous and hard to explain when I consider my position in comparison to the Palestinian people and some of my friends and home who are really hurting. Nevertheless it's hard to shake.
I knew the things I would see and hear here would be different but they are opposite extremes. From falling in love with Jerusalem and Israel to seeing what they are doing here. From being told to be a Christian is to be a Zionist to being told you can't be a Christian and a Zionist. I came here with a viewpoint and after much thought and processing it changed completely. Now it's changing again and it's too much to take in.
So much to say and so little time but here goes.....
Passing the checkpoint from Israel to Palestine is moving from a Western country to a third world country. You can read the history on Wilkipedia or something and work out the theology and politics for yourself. I'll talk about what I see.
Israel has only existed since 1948 when the UN decided to set up a Jewish state. It was formerly Palestine and those who lived in villages there were forced out and their houses destroyed. Now 6 million refugees live in refugee camps in Gaza, West Bank and othe Arab nations.
The occupation has been brutal beyond words. We have heard stories that aren't propoganda or rumours but real life people who are suffering.
This will become the centrepiece of my trip. The israelis say it is for security and point to the fact that attacks have become less since it was erected. Palestinians point to the fact that it is not built on the UN green lines that divide Israel and the West Bank but rather miles outside, stealing land and freedom from the people here. Bethlehem is basically like a large cage that Palestinians cannot travel beyond.
Elias is an amazing Palestinian Christian who is rapidly becoming a good friend. The wall was built right beside his house removing the land his family owned. He watched during the last intifada as kids threw stones and soldiers and the soldiers shot back and killed them. I'm not taking sides here but it really pissed me off yesterday as we all went to Jerusalem and he couldn't come. Palestinians are not allowed into Israel without special permission. It is only 15 minutes from his house. A crowd of random foreigners can roam this land freely but the Elias, a Christian who traces his ancestors for 500 years in this country cannot move past the wall 100 yards from his house.
We visited Camp Lajee on the first day, home to 4500 people. These people were forced to leave their villages and come here. When they came they had some land around but now the wall is built there is zero space for them to move or for kids to play. This is to create space for Jewish settlements in the area (more about these later). If the wall is just for security why not build it aroung the settlement rather and let the people in the camp keep their land?
Today we were at Dheisheh refugee camp. 11,000 people live here in an area of 500 m square. The main problems are water and electricity which are controlled by the Israeli state. In the winter they run out of electricity and are cold. In the summer they don't have enough water to supply basic needs. The people are hungry and impoverished. They go to school and university but there are no jobs because the economy here is so bad and they have no land. Unemployment in Palestine is 75 per cent.
Even in our accomadation we have to be carefull water becuase when the tank runs out it only gets filled when the Israeli state decide to fill it. This means rationing of toileting and showering for us....beautiful! It's ok for 2 weeks, this is life for those in Bethlehem.
ChristiansI was told that Christians here were being persecuted but this is simply untrue. We went to Bethlehem Bible College and met the man who trains pastors in the West Bank. It is opposite a 100% muslim refugee camp and they have no problem. Elias' mother runs a Christian bookshop beside the Fatah/PLO office and there is no issue. The people live in harmony so far.
There are 600 Christian organisations or 'missions' working in Israel. That's great but in the West Bank there are only 4 including YWAM seeking to share God's love with the poor and downtrodden here. 20% of Bethlehem are Christian, mainly Greek orthodox or Catholic. There less than 1000 'evangelicals'. It is so difficult for them.
The people here are amazingly warm and welcoming considering what they have been through. An example is in 2002 during the Second Intifada. There was a 40 day curfew imposed on Elias and all of Bethlehem. The people had no food and water. If they came out they got shot. I spoke to one guy whose brother stepped out to play and got shot in the head and killed. Another who opened the window and got shot.
I spoke to another guy whose father was 70 year old and decided to go get some food thinking the soldiers wouldn't touch him. He got 73 bullets in his back. Can you understand why these people may be angry?
We met a guy who is not a terrorist though I'm pretty sure has fought against the Israeli army. It was uncomfortable to hear his story. I'd been told in Israel that all Palestinians wanted the Jews out and Palestine restored. This guy said all they want is one state where Muslims, Jews and Christians can live together freely and equally. He said that no-one wants to be a fighter. No-one chooses to die or to kill. But they are living in inhumane conditions. He looked at us and said he wanted to be like us- to travel, to have his own house, to have a job, to have a girlfirend. I'll never condone violence but I shed a tear as he spoke.
I have so much more to say about what I have learned on both sides. I have been given a unique opportunity to see both and feel the pain on both sides. I have to go now but hopefully will get a chance to write more. In Israel they told me I have to stand for Israel and go home and tell the people and my church about their plight. Here they tell me there's no point in being here unless I can tell people at home about the situation in Palestine. So what do I bring home? There's no middle ground and seemingly no hope.
I hope it becomes clearer, my mind is still open.