The National Catholic Review
A witness to the slow death of a people
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For 33 days in September/ October 2006, I lived behind the security wall in Bethany, a small village in the West Bank just a few miles from the Old City on the edge of the expanded municipal border of Jerusalem. Al-Azariya is its Arab name. It was the home of Mary, Martha and their brother, Lazarus, whom Jesus released from the bondage of death. After calling Lazarus from the tomb, Jesus instructed the bystanders: Unbind him, and let him go. Today I feel called to witness to the slow death that is coming upon the Palestinian people. I want to help unbind the people of Al-Azariya and the entire Palestinian community from the great wall that is choking their land and their lives.

From the window of my room, I watched as a 30-foot high barrier wall was erected around me. My daily alarm clock was the sound of Israeli bulldozers, cranes, trucks and pile drivers competing with the call to prayer from surrounding mosques. I saw the grove of ancient olive trees and the garden crushed by the heavy equipment. Old stone walls marking the property line were smashed. Armed soldiers slept on the floodlit property at night. During the day they briskly patrolled the grounds to prevent anyone from skirting the checkpoint. Occasionally I heard gunshots or caught the odor of tear gas as the soldiers stopped trespassers.

A temporary checkpoint made of tall slabs of concrete and razor wire blocked access to the street leading to Jericho Road and into Jerusalem. At least three young Israeli soldiers armed with M-16 weapons guarded a narrow, two-foot break in the wall. In order to pass, one had to show an I.D. card or a passport, which was carefully examined by one or more of the guards.

For several days after I arrived I was unable to leave the property. It seemed that the soldiers could not distinguish between a 75-year-old female tourist with a U.S. passport and a potential terrorist. Even after I obtained a letter written in Hebrew from a colonel in the tourist bureau attesting to my status, the soldiers might decide to prevent me from passing. Once when I returned on foot, I was refused entry and instructed to go to the official checkpoint several miles away. Only after standing my ground for some time was I finally permitted to enter.

On another occasion, a group of Palestinians was seated on the ground at the base of the wall, having been refused passage. As I was about to walk through the checkpoint, the Palestinians loudly protested that Americans could enter, but they, native landowners, could not. They wanted their message to be told to our president and the American people. I was embarrassed that I was privileged and that their human rights were being denied.

One Friday morning during Ramadan I saw several older women dressed in head scarves and hijabs and well-groomed men in suits engaged in lively conversation with the soldiers, indicating that they wished to attend noon prayers at the Al Aqsa Mosque, a tradition for many Muslims during the festival time. Ultimately they were turned away. Daily I saw many other men and women who were denied passage.

Several buildings near the checkpoint housed small businesses that were cut off from customers in East Jerusalem and beyond. What effect will the dividing wall have on the ability of these men to provide for their families? Down the street, in a Catholic home for the aged, the frail elderly are isolated from relatives and friends on the other side of the segregation wall. What pain and sadness this causes in a culture where the extended family is the center of life.

Uniformed young children with their backpacks were allowed through the checkpoint to catch a school bus and happily returned through the narrow entry in the afternoon to be met by their mothers or fathers. When the wall is completed, the children will have to transfer to poorer schools behind the wall. For families fortunate enough to own a car, it may be possible for parents to drive to the new checkpoint and hope that they will be allowed to pass. The barrier wall will restrict not only students but also teachers. Even now churches, schools and hospitals are being cut off from those they formerly served.

The wall separates people from relatives, property, schools, holy sites and worship communities, hospitals and clinics, businesses, places of employment and even cemeteries. The arbitrariness regarding who is allowed through checkpoints breeds insecurity, fear and anger. Even persons with proper I.D. cards may be detained. Long lines, hours of waiting in the sun and the demeaning behavior of soldiers stirs up feelings of anger and resentment. I watched a small boy at the checkpoint as his father was questioned and searched. I wondered what that child would remember of the experience. Will he grow up hating those who abused his father? How does a parent maintain dignity and authority in the family when children daily see that parent humiliated? Will resentment one day explode into aggression? We already witness some of that behavior.

Jesus called the dead and walled-in Lazarus by name, called him to life and to freedom. The bystanders were not without a task. Jesus commanded them, Unbind him. We are those bystanders today as we watch the living death of the Palestinians. How can we follow the command of Jesus to unbind the Palestinians from this dividing wall that is slowly choking the people?

First, we can pray for justice and peace among the Israelis and Palestinians, so that no one will be deprived of basic human rights. No need to tell God how to accomplish this; just pray. Second, we can learn the facts about Palestinian life in Israel and the West Bank, and be skeptical about information in the media. Delve below the surface of the reports, research other sources such as The Electronic Intifada (www.electronicintifada.net), which publishes news, commentary and analysis from a Palestinian perspective; Americans for Peace Now (www.peacenow.org), a leading advocate for peace in the Middle East; and Churches for Middle East Peace (www.cmep.org), a coalition of 21 public policy offices of national churches and agenciesOrthodox, Protestant and Catholic. Finally, we can tell others what we have learned, speaking without bitterness, anger or harsh words to family, friends and especially those who represent us in government. We cannot remain silent and unmoved. We must follow Jesus command and begin to unbind Lazarusour Palestinian sisters and brothers.

Maria Leonard is a former editor at Liturgy Training Publications in Chicago.

Comments

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BARBARA BLESSE OP | 6/25/2007 - 3:19pm
Maria, Thanks so much for sharing your personal experience in order to raise awareness of the situation in the West Bank. Your article is poignant! I especially appreciated the practical suggestions you make about how we might respond. Gratefully, Barbara Blesse, OP
Rita Erickson | 6/23/2007 - 12:02pm
Thank you Maria for telling the truth through your experiences in Palestine/Israel. I for one will follow your suggestion and leadership to take my faith and the injustices I have witnessed into my community and stand up for human and civil liberties. I am sick that our media and government continue to demonize the democratically elected party of Hamas. I wish more people understood that the ideas that the political arm of Hamas stands for are political as well as peaceful. It is only because of the environment created by Israel and supported by the US that they are forced to revert to violence. The cycle of violence will end when we allow the desires of the people on the ground to be heard. They cannot be silenced for ever. Rita Erickson PS I wear the necklace, that you gave me, which represents all three western faiths regularly.
Bill Petro | 6/23/2007 - 10:30am
I have seen the security wall a few weeks ago while on a bible study tour with CTU. I am especially grateful for Maria Leonard's article as it paints human faces from whom cries of justice will call to us as long as the wall exists. The Israelis have done more to proclaim their terrible injustices than the world media has done.
muhammad ajaz | 6/22/2007 - 9:11pm
Maria: What an excellent description of the terror and anguish that hate can cause. Thank you for sharing your experience. Jean
Gerardine Luongo Ranft | 6/22/2007 - 1:03pm
Thank you for your article on Palestine. Americans of all stripes, but especially Christians, must become better educated on the dire circumstances of the Palestinian people. We (Americans) function under the false pretense that to be supportive of Palestinians is anti-semetic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Heading our call to social justice is a call to serve all...not some. Helping the Palestinians aquire basic human rights will only advance peace among all semitic peoples. We have failed the middle east with our years of myopic support of Israel at the sake of others who share the right to life in that land. Our Church and our Country both are guilty of abandoning Palestinians in an effort to protect Israel.

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