This is part 2 of a series on rethinking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a Christian, inspired by the most recent assault on Gaza. Part 1 can be read here.
When I was a kid, I had a t-shirt with a picture of Snoopy carrying an Israeli flag, trailed by Woodstock marching with an American flag. The caption below read, “America is right behind you.”
So yeah, I guess you could say I was pro-Israel. After all, how could you be an evangelical and not be a supporter of the Israeli state?
The dominant narrative of the American evangelical subculture says the Holy Land belongs to Israel alone. It’s an everlasting inheritance rooted in an irrevocable, unchanging covenant with God himself. (More on that in another post perhaps.)
The establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 is looked on not just as an important event in the life of the Jewish people, but as nothing less than the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, inaugurating the beginning of the end times.
Israel’s defense, then, is America’s sacred responsibility, our first and greatest foreign policy commitment. (That was something both candidates in the recent presidential campaign actually agreed on.) As such, no criticism of Israel will be brooked. Palestinians are, at best, squatters with no rightful claim to the land — and at worst, terrorists who would ignite a second Holocaust, given the chance.
Add to the mix our present-day worries about “radical Islam” and our tendency to paint all Arabs with the same brush, and it becomes far too easy for us to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in simple terms of good guys vs. bad guys. Christians and Jews together on one side, presumably, and Palestinian Islamists on the other.
That is, until cracks begin to appear in the façade we’ve created to help ourselves sleep at night.
Like the fact that many of those working hardest for peace among Jews and Palestinians are members of the Jewish community. Organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace belie the supposition, popular in evangelical circles, that Jews and Palestinians are destined to be forever at war.
Or the fact that not all Palestinians fit the radical-jihadist-with-a-bomb-strapped-to-his-chest caricature. Not by a long shot. Not only are most Palestinians nonviolent (whatever their religion); many happen to be Christian. My spiritual brothers and sisters, united by a common faith.
For some reason, in my church we never talked about Palestinian Christians. Oh, we discussed at length the persecution of Christians in other part of the world, but never the suffering of our fellow believers in Palestine. We were oblivious to their existence.
For me, that changed four years ago, during what until this month had been the last major assault on the Gaza Strip. One of my colleagues at the time was a Palestinian Christian who grew up in the West Bank and later moved to America.
One day, she told me about her experience in the West Bank.
She and her family had no freedom of movement, thanks to the 430-mile barrier the Israeli government began building in the mid-1990s. The barrier is rationalized as keeping would-be suicide bombers out of Israel. Yet it doesn’t just separate Israel from the West Bank; it cuts into the West Bank at several points, isolating Palestinian villages from each other.
For my colleague, this meant being cut off from her family in the next village over. Going to church meant risking arrest because there were just too many checkpoints. She wasn’t just deprived of her freedom of movement; she was deprived of her freedom to worship.
Freedom of movement is considered a fundamental human right, as is the freedom to worship. Both are enshrined in our Constitution. If these violations happened anywhere else, we would protest that freedom itself was under attack. We would call it persecution.
My colleague also described the experience of Palestinian children who have to walk past Israeli settlements on their way to and from school, subjected to taunts and physical violence from other children who’ve been taught by their parents to hate the Palestinians. Imagine if this were your daughter’s walk to school:
My colleague told me of Palestinian friends — particularly in East Jerusalem — whose homes were demolished by the Israeli government, usually on the pretext of not having the proper permits. (Never mind the homes and their occupants have been there for years.) In many cases, families have just minutes to gather what belongings they can carry before the bulldozers close in. They have no recourse, no due process.
Finally, my colleague revealed that she had no idea whether she’d ever get to see her family again. You see, if you’re Palestinian and you leave your homeland, the Israeli government (which controls who comes and goes in the West Bank) may not let you back in. Consider this example, reported in the Baltimore Sun a few years ago:
Abdelhakeem Itayem, a Palestinian with American citizenship, was counting on a simple overnight stay when he traveled from the West Bank to Jordan on a business trip. Six months later, he is still there, trapped in bureaucratic limbo.
Itayem, 41, said the long delay has kept him away from his wife, Lisa, and their seven children, who remain in the family’s home near Ramallah. It has also cost him his job as a manager for a Palestinian distributor of foreign consumer goods. “It’s breaking my heart,” he said.
Activists say scores of Palestinians who carry foreign passports, mostly American, have been denied entry this year after Israel moved to close a loophole that once allowed residents to enter repeatedly on renewable Israeli tourist visas.
The policy has created a quandary for the Palestinian Americans who remain: If they leave to get a new three-month stamp, they might not be allowed back. If they stay, their current Israeli visas will expire. Many say their past applications for formal residency in the Palestinian territories were rejected by Israel or never acted upon.
These and other tactics are part of a concerted effort to make life as unbearable as possible for the Palestinians. Then, when they leave, the Israeli government locks the door behind them.
Similar measures have been taken against people in Gaza, arguably the world’s largest refugee camp. Israel controls everything that goes in and out of that tiny, arid strip of land; Gaza’s fishermen can’t even fish their own waters on the Mediterranean coast without fear of being shelled by Israeli warships. In 2006, one advisor to the Israeli prime minister revealed that his country was deliberately trying to impoverish the people of Gaza. “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet,” he said, “but not to make them die of hunger.”
Imagine if a vastly superior military power had brought you and your community to the brink of starvation in order to teach you a lesson. How would you feel? How would you react? Would you be tempted to fight back?
And even if you believe modern-day Israel is one and the same with the Israel of the Bible …
Even if you believe the biblical covenant that promised the land to ancient Israel is somehow still in force today…
Even if you think Palestinians are outsiders with no rightful claim to the land (despite the fact they’ve been living there for hundreds of years)…
If that’s how you rationalize what’s going on in Palestine today, then surely you accept that Israel is duty-bound to follow the whole covenant, not just the part that supposedly gives them the land?
So what about Leviticus 19?
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
What about Deuteronomy 10?
You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
Ancient Israel knew what it felt like to be a refugee population at the mercy of a far more powerful nation. They were told by their God never to forget — and never to repeat — the hostility which they experienced at the hands of the Egyptians.
So can it be said the Israeli government truly loves the Palestinians in their midst? Can they claim to have treated the Palestinians as they treat their own? Or have they already forgotten what it feels like to be a refugee?
Because if they have forgotten, then they have broken the very covenant that promised the land to their ancestors.
11 thoughts on “A Palestinian Christian’s view of the occupation”
During the recent fighting, I was struck by the fact that the media would obsess over every possible instance of the Israeli military *accidentally* killing some civilians, while expressing almost no outrage over the fact that Hamas was actually TRYING to kill civilians. It’s like the media believed that Israel was a civilized nation, so it was fine to criticize them when they weren’t acting the way we thought proper – but the Palestinians, you know, we can’t really expect reasonable behavior from them, so they can do whatever they want.
I say that because – has Israel sometimes treated the Palestinians in ways we think too extreme? Probably, but let’s not forget that the territories are filled with people trying to kill them! That’s where our focus should be. If someone’s home has been robbed 10 times in the last month, you don’t complain that they’ve barricaded their door and won’t allow visitors, even if you’re stuck outside. Do away with that problem and I’m quite sure they’d start treating the Palestinians more hospitably. As long as Israeli buses are exploding and rockets are falling on Israeli homes, I’m not going to blame them for being a little extreme in defending themselves. For every article we write complaining about Israel we should write ten about the hate and evil promoted a few miles to their west.
In other words, to summarize – complaints like these would be one thing if there wasn’t a war going on. But there is. And when the guilty and innocent live side-by-side, it’s a bit difficult to bottle up the one without affecting the other.
longerthoughts-This is not a war where two sides of moderately equivalent armies face off, it is a military, economic, and psychological occupation whose purpose is to completely break the will of the people in the occupied territories. The rockets are a reminder to Israel and the rest of the “civilized” world that the Palestinian people still do exist despite the best efforts at genocide by the Israeli government and its military, heavily funded by U.S. taxpayers.
As you yourself said – the Israeli army is immensely powerful. If they really were set on genocide, the genocide would already be over. In fact, as a nation that could stop the rockets raining down on their cities in a week if they so chose, they have shown remarkable restraint. The real genocidal wishes are on the other side (http://www.jihadwatch.org/2011/01/hamas-imam-please-allah-kill-all-the-jews.html).
David, the reason the Israeli government hasn’t engaged in a more egregious form of ethnic cleansing (I would argue some of their tactics constitute a “softened” form of ethnic cleansing) is that they know they’d never get away with it. The international condemnation would be such that even America would be forced to cancel its $3-billion-a-year welfare check to the Israeli military. The condemnation within Israel would be great as well, thanks to a great many Israeli citizens who already object to their government’s treatment of the Palestinians. So I’m afraid I don’t give the Israeli gov’t any “moral high ground” points for not slaughtering more Palestinians than they have.
To wit: https://twitter.com/IDFSpokesperson/status/270851294443491328/photo/1
Ben- Good insights, I too once swallowed the narrative that was spoon fed to me by the media that portrayed Israel as David surrounded by a sea of Philistine Goliath’s. Shoulder fired rockets are stones from a slingshot compared to the military arsenal at Israel’s disposal.
David, I don’t know which media you were watching, but I heard quite a few denunciations of Hamas throughout the conflict. Violence of any kind is inexcusable, as far as I’m concerned. And that includes Hamas firing rockets into Israel. Yet I wonder how I’d feel if my parents had been driven from their ancestral home at gunpoint and my children forced to grow up in what’s effectively an open-air prison.
Characterizing the situation as “the Israeli military *accidentally* killing some civilians” is naïve to the point of absurdity. We’re not just talking about *some* civilian deaths. Over the last several years, the Israelis have killed 100 Palestinians for every 1 Israeli killed. The vast majority of those killed have been noncombatants.
As for the IDF tweet, well…fat lot of good their warnings do when they’re bombing one of the most densely populated corners of the planet. Where are the people of Gaza supposed to go, anyway? They can’t just leave the combat zone; their whole territory is a combat zone. There’s nowhere they can go that’s safe from bombardment. At some point you have to accept that’s a direct result of the Israeli blockade. Israel blames Gazans for not clearing out before the bombs fall, yet they’re the ones who engineered the situation that makes it impossible for them to do so! I believe that’s what you call hypocrisy.
It’s funny how excessive violence on the part of Israeli soldiers get brushed away as nothing more than a few bad apples being maybe “a little extreme,” as you put it. Yet according to you, the Palestinian territories “are filled with people trying to kill” Israelis, as if every Palestinian walks around with a rocket launcher over their shoulder! I don’t think you realize how very far from reality that assumption is. And I don’t think you’ve taken into account decades of systematic oppression and injustice, like the kind I described above — which, let’s not forget, started with 700,000 Palestinians being forcibly evicted from their homes in the 1940s. How would you feel if that had happened to you?
Ben, you realize you’re basically pushing a conspiracy theory here, in which all the efforts Israel makes to avoid killing noncombatants are nothing but cover for slower efforts to accomplish the same? I find that very difficult to believe.
Nor can you just compare body counts. Israel has sophisticated warning and defense system that allow their people to take shelter, and also tries to stop weapons on the way. And their soldiers fight like soldiers traditionally have, in separation from the civilian population. But Hamas blends into that population, has no compunctions about setting up rocket launchers next to playgrounds, and even kills many of their own people directly when their erratic rockets land in their own territories. With that kind of asymmetry in fighting style, it would be surprising indeed if more Israeli noncombatants were dying. But nobody is going to ask Israel to turn off their sirens to make the fight a little fairer. As I said, look at the intentions here – clearly, Israel is trying to minimize civilians deaths, while Hamas tries to maximize them. Pretty clear to me which side deserves the greater condemnation.
And I do feel for the genuinely innocent people caught in the crossfire, but that happens in war. Israel does ship in relief supplies (more cover for ethnic cleansing?), but it’s only sensible for them to worry about weapons coming in too. (We saw some ‘thanks Iran’ billboards go up after the recent fighting.) As our own experience in Afghanistan shows, I don’t think the West has yet figured out how to confront this kind of enemy.
The assessment I’ve given is based on direct, firsthand accounts, as well as facts acknowledged by the overwhelming majority of the international community and corroborated by virtually every NGO and observer group operating in the region. Besides grasping at straws, your labeling it a conspiracy theory sidesteps the real issue.
Israel is not accused of making NO effort to avoid civilian deaths. But they have helped to create an environment where unacceptably high casualties are inevitable. And at times, yes, they have deliberately put civilians in harm’s way. Or have you forgotten that until very recently, BOTH sides were guilty of using human shields? Yes, Hamas bears responsibility too. At the end of the day, both sides are engaged in a futile effort to defeat the other through force, and that will never work. Violence only ever breeds more violence.
Having worked with an NGO operating in the region, I can tell you Israel does the bare minimum to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. By their own admission, Israeli officials have pursued a policy designed to break the spirit of the Palestinian people. You honestly don’t think that has something to do with the recurring cycle of violence? I would encourage you to take a hard look at the root causes of this conflict and consider how they have contributed to the present-day situation.