PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 6

Our day began venturing into the West Bank.

I am slowly beginning to understand the wall in the West Bank. It is not like the Berlin Wall or the wall some people think is a good idea on our borders, but rather a wall that separates Palestinian from Palestinian.

It was created because each of the areas in the West Bank have different entities controlling them, and the area that is controlled by the Israeli Army has a wall they put up to make the Palestinians pass through it if they wish to leave the West Bank. The wall is not where the legal boundaries of Palestinian Territory is — it encroaches on their territory as a way to establish “facts on the ground” that Israel has more territory than it actually does.

We ventured into the West Bank in the morning so our wait was shorter — largely because most people leave the West Bank in the morning to go to Jerusalem to work. Although they are only 15 minutes away, it can take well over two hours to go through the checkpoint, sometimes longer, and they can be denied entry randomly if they are residents of Israel, and if they are residents only of the West Bank areas that are under Palestinian control, they cannot enter Jerusalem without a permit.

As we entered, there was a sign that said, “This road leads to Area A, under the Palestinian Authority. The entrance for Israeli Citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and against Israeli law.” This creates a separation between Palestinians and Israelis and causes a sense of fear to exist. By keeping the two groups separate, a greater feeling of tribalism develops. Peace can only exist without walls between people. Figuratively and literally.

Besides the sense of fear created by the wall, the inconvenience is horrible and the indignities that the Palestinians suffer are harsh. Also, anyone who lives in the West Bank cannot drive in Jerusalem unless they have a special permit. The reason given is fear of car bombs. However, only 100 cars have permits to drive in Jerusalem for 3.5 million people. That seems like hitting a mosquito with a battering ram.

Right after the wall is an area that is essentially “no man’s land,” where people who are legal residents of Israel who can’t afford to live in Jerusalem live, families where one spouse is a resident of the West Bank and the other a resident of Jerusalem, and criminals, because there are no police. It is legal area is controlled by Palestine, but because of the placement of the wall, no one has any control. It is the dark underbelly of what ethnic cleansing looks like.

We went from this place of despair to a place of hope — the Evangelical Lutheran School of Hope. And hope did dwell there. The beauty of the students — who energetically shared with us the mission of the school, which is to promote values of tolerance, reconciliation, acceptance and sustainability — was astounding.

We were given a tour by a number of vibrant students who shared in perfect English their enthusiasm for a school that was focused on holistic learning by engaging students in discussion and leadership development, rather than learning by rote.

The school does not discriminate. Twenty-one percent were Christians and 79 Muslim, 64 percent male and 36 percent female. This kind of learning environment promotes their vision of creating leaders for Palestine. As one student said, “Our approach is that the teachers want what the students can offer. We don’t want good or excellent, we want the best. Great things have small beginnings and this school wants us to grow to be the person we want to be. Great schools make a difference in the world and we want to make a difference.”

For me, the visit was summed up when I spoke to a lovely 11th-grader and asked her if she thought about university. She said, “A bit. But mostly I have joy for today.”

I left that place filled with joy — and committed to share the mission of the Evangelical Lutheran School of Hope. If you ever feel compelled to support a school that is making a difference in a profound way, I encourage you to consider this school.

From there, we traveled to see the Taybeh Brewery, the first microbrewery in Palestine. It was established in 1994, when there was hope following the Oslo Accord for an independent Palestine.

Run by Christians, the woman who showed us around had returned with her family from Boston to make a difference in her native country — providing jobs and industry for Palestine.

She shared how hard it is to make a living because of the restrictions placed on them. It should take 20 minutes to get a shipment to Jerusalem, but because of the wall, it takes a full day. The port from which they ship is two hours away, but it takes three days because of the wall and the rules imposed on them. And it costs twice as much to get it to the port as it does to ship it to Italy. All of this delay is just because they have “Palestinian” on their ID cards.

The intent of the wall is to divide Palestine so that none of the areas are connected, making it impossible for them to become a state, and to choke off the opportunities for advancement and quality of life. These are not the goals of the average Israeli, who doesn’t take notice of Palestine because they are shielded from it, but rather the realities of what the government has done by imposing arbitrary walls and stringent restrictions.

Yassar Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah.
Yassar Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah.

After our tour, we returned to Ramallah to visit the tomb of Yasser Arafat. Our guide said it was rather unusual for a group to do this, and sadly the museum was closed Mondays, but it was a unique opportunity to see the reverence with which he is regarded.

He was an imperfect man, but he clearly loved his people and served them by never leaving them or Palestine. He was faithful to his nation unto death, which most likely was an assassination by poisoning, according to our guide. Never fully proven, he died with uranium in his system — the likely cause of death.

Our next stop was ice cream. It was wonderful — with a unique texture that was taffy-like. Getting to the ice cream shop involved going through Ramallah during rush hour, where our bus driver’s skill astounded me. It was so worth it.

Ramallah is a vibrant, modern city.
Ramallah is a vibrant, modern city.

One thing I noticed in Ramallah. The utilities are controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and so there are lovely trees, no garbage and well-kept boulevards. It was not the squalor we saw in the areas that were controlled by the Jerusalem municipality. When given the ability to marshal their own resources, the Palestinians had a modern city. But they are choked by an inability to move freely or have access to adequate health care.

Our tour concluded with a visit to the Lutheran Church of Hope and a conversation with Pastor Haddad. He shared with us that his church, which started in in 1953, began with 99.9 percent refugees — people who had lost their homes in 1948.

He told us Hope is not merely their name. It is their identity. He said Palestinians love life — they love to party and dance even though they live in suffering and occupation. But they have chosen to live and to live in hope.

Pastor Haddad said that although they live behind a wall, the Palestinians want to live as a witness of hope as a choice and to live as witnesses to the power of resurrection.
Pastor Haddad said that although they live behind a wall, the Palestinians want to live as a witness of hope as a choice and to live as witnesses to the power of resurrection.

Pastor Haddad said they may live behind a wall, but they refuse to live with those walls in their hearts. They want to live as a witness of hope as a choice and to live as witnesses to the power of resurrection even in the midst of conditions that seek to choke them to death.

He said for them it is about the power of choice and by choosing to live in hope the church is about advocacy. The Palestinians are not second-class people, and they do not deserve to be treated as such, so he and the church advocate for full rights for all people.

When I asked him what he would like those who read my blog to know, he said, “First of all, come and visit. Come and see the realities of life on the West Bank and tell others what you see.

A peace pole at the church of Hope.
A peace pole at the church of Hope.

Second, he said we should not be biased. Do not be pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. Instead, be for justice. He said that Palestinians do not have the right to free movement. He does not have the freedom to go and worship where he likes because of walls.

They should have the right to water — to not have it restricted or diverted or limited. Right now, they go 40 to 50 days a year without water in areas controlled by the Israelis, whereas Israelis do not have that happen on such a regular basis.

He wants us to advocate for full rights as a human being and that peace should not include humiliation. Men and women should not be powerless in their own land and all they want is justice and fair treatment. So I share that with you. Advocate for the rights of Palestinians to be treated with dignity and human rights, not as an occupied and controlled people.

Following our dinner (yet another feast), I got a picture of what they went through when soldiers with Uzis boarded our bus and roughly looked at our passports. The woman behind me, who had a visa with the same date as the rest of us, was questioned and told it was out-of-date. This was clearly a power move to make sure we knew who was in control. It was the people with the guns. And we were a group of American tourists.

As I reflect at the close of the day, I am struck by how much I am learning. This is hard to understand and make sense of, and my brain is working overtime to get the pieces to come together.

There are no easy answers or perfect players in this scenario. But there is justice and there is hope. The people I met today have chosen to invest in their homeland and to not let the indignities define them. They have chosen to live in hope and embrace life with joy, even in the face of oppression.

And today, I once again renewed my commitment to chose to advocate for them. I know where Jesus would stand today. There is an old saying that says, whenever you draw a line defining those who are in and those who are out, Jesus always stands with the outcast. Jesus stands on the side of the oppressed. And I stand with Jesus. Peace, not walls.

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