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  • From Grotto to Ghetto:Holy Land Diary, November 2006
  • Mary Grey

Tel Aviv, 3 November 2006

What struck me most of all, on leaving the airport, were the barren, rocky hills, with forlorn –looking olive trees on the terraces. This was land that had been worked-on for 10,000 years now rendered un-fertile, un-workable, because the people who carefully tended the terraces had been evicted. It was a grim introduction to the biennial conference of Sabeel, the theme of which was 'The Forgotten Faithful', referring to the Christians of Palestine, tragically diminishing in number through emigration and the hardship of Israeli occupation. Sabeel was founded in 1989 by Canon Naim Ateek, an Anglican priest from Galilee, whose family were evicted from Beisan in 1948. Located 21.7 miles south of lake Tiberius, in 1948 the Palestinian town of Beisan had 5,180 Palestinian Arabs and 20 Jews. The town was occupied in the spring of 1948 by Jewish forces and all Palestinians were evicted and the town partially blown up. It was rebuilt as an exclusively Jewish city called Bet Shean. Sabeel exists for the liberation of Palestinian Christians and is an Arabic word for 'the way' or 'living spring'. Sabeel adopts a non-violent approach to peace, and wants to be in dialogue with both Judaism and Islam, in a shared quest for justice and peace.

East Jerusalem, 3 November

As this was to be a roving Conference – of about 300 people plus Sabeel staff and volunteers – only one day was spent in Jerusalem itself. It was a tough day for many of us, both physically, (sleep-deprived and jet-lagged!) and emotionally, as the day-to-day realities and hardships of the Palestinian [End Page 1] people were made clear to us by patriarchs, bishops and other Church representatives. Two facts stood out for me: the number of speakers who spoke of how Christians lived in harmony with Muslims – 'We are Palestinian first, and Christian or Muslim second', they all said. Secondly the question of 'Where do we look for hope?' was central. For example, we were welcomed by Jean Zaru, a Quaker peace activist and theologian from Ramallah whom I had known for many years, and her cry was: 'How do we bear the pain? Where do we look for hope and continue to fan the embers of life?'

Bethlehem: From Grotto to Ghetto, 4 November

It was a bright sunny morning the following day when we set off for the West Bank of Palestine, apprehensive of what we might see, after such a solemn introduction the previous day. We arrived at the University of Bethlehem for a day focussing on the realities of the 'little town' today. A highlight for many participants was to be a visit to the Church of the Nativity during the lunch hour break, the sacred site, where, (it is presumed), the Christ Child was born.

To our surprise and dismay, after an initial welcome from the vice-chancellor, Brother Daniel Casey, (a De La Salle brother), Canon Naim Ateek then announced that this visit would not be possible: the Israeli army, with 40 tanks, had made an unexpected incursion into Bethlehem, surrounded an area and started to destroy a house which was home to six or eight families. The soldiers shot dead two young men from the Hassan and 'Obayat families and injured a few more, including an elderly woman of 86 who is now brain-damaged. The people of Bethlehem were angry and upset, and the mourning would be just beginning. There had been no provocation for the incident. Nor did this incident reach the outside press – but the details were made very clear by the Mayor of Bethlehem, who addressed us later in the afternoon.

This was our introduction to Bethlehem, this most sacred place for Christians housing 22 churches – where the Word became flesh, but now in reality a great prison in the West Bank. To begin with, the historic entrance road to Bethlehem, where Joseph and Mary would have travelled, passes by Rachel's tomb, a holy site for both Jews and Christians. This is now blocked off for the Christians of Bethlehem as...