2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Peace is long overdue, but it won’t happen without a commitment to real dialogue that builds bridges instead of walls. After a 2016 visit to the Holy Land, S+L Producer Sebastian Gomes reflects on his unsettling encounter with reality on the ground.
“Go sit in that room and wait,” the Israeli customs officer told me. I had just arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv with a group of fifty pilgrims that included fifteen of us from Salt + Light.
The officer was calm and casual about sending me to second-level security. “You have a Lebanese stamp in your passport,” he told me, “that’s going to be a problem.” When I asked why, he said, “It just is.”
I told him I was with a group of pilgrims who had come to visit the Christian holy sites, and that they’d be waiting for me. That didn’t seem to concern him. He was still holding my passport. “Can I have my passport back, at least?” I asked. “No, we have to keep it,” he said dismissively.
That troubled me, but I had no choice in the matter. I quickly told one of the other pilgrims in line what was happening then I walked reluctantly to the room.
It looked like a hospital waiting room with about twenty seats along the walls, only eight of them occupied. The other travellers were diverse: I noticed a young Chinese couple and a family speaking Russian. “I’ll just have to wait my turn,” I thought to myself.
One by one the individuals and families were called out of the room by another Israeli customs officer. About forty-five minutes later I was alone in the room.
I couldn’t help but think of the inconvenience I was causing to the rest of our pilgrim group. “Everyone would be through customs by now,” I thought to myself.
I wasn’t alone for long. More travellers began filling the room, about ten in total. Each of us sat patiently reading a book, staring at the floor, sending a text message. And once again, one by one, the other travellers were called out of the room by the officer.
“What’s going on?!” I thought, “Isn’t it my turn? Did they lose my passport? Did I do something wrong?” I had been to Lebanon in 2014 to visit a few charities working with refugees, but it was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing political. I felt anxious.
Almost two hours later my name was called. I was escorted to a private office by a young woman, probably in her late twenties, who calmly but sternly instructed me to answer her questions with the utmost honesty. I became more anxious.
She questioned me for twenty straight minutes: “Who do you know in Lebanon?.. Are you still in touch with anyone from Lebanon?.. If we search your cell phone will we find any Lebanese contacts?.. Where did you go to school?.. What did you study?.. What kind of work do you do?” She made me write down every email address I’d ever had.
When she was satisfied, I was sent back to the original waiting room where I stayed for another twenty minutes. Then, the interrogating officer returned, called my name, handed me my passport and said, “You’re free to go.”
Security in Israel is unremitting. Travelling through Jerusalem and especially going in and out of Bethlehem—which is isolated inside the Palestinian West Bank—Israeli soldiers are everywhere. The imposing wall separating Israel and the Palestinian territory serves as a bleak reminder of the decades-old occupation.
We made it into Bethlehem, as most non-Palestinian visitors do, with relative ease. We were going to Bethlehem University, the only Catholic University in the Holy Land, run by the De La Salle Brothers. It’s a marvelous place; 3,200 Palestinian students, 73% of whom are Muslim mostly from East Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the surrounding villages. It’s a haven of youthful energy and optimism, a beacon of hope amidst the bitter social and political darkness.
We were warmly welcomed to the campus by a few students and staff and shared a meal together. Then we had the opportunity to meet three current students—two young women and a young man—to ask questions and discuss their career aspirations.
All I could think about was my experience a few days earlier at Ben Gurion Airport, and how much worse it must be for these Palestinians to cross Israeli checkpoints. So I decided to ask them. As I recounted my experience, the young man issued an empathetic smirk.
“What’s it like for you?” I asked. He looked at the two young women standing next to him and then back at me. “You had a ‘cute’ experience,” he said almost humorously, and left it at that.
The reality is that many students from Bethlehem, Hebron and the Palestinian villages are never allowed to cross into Israeli territory. The students who live in East Jerusalem undergo a grueling and unpredictable journey through the checkpoints each day. They can be physically or psychologically abused arbitrarily by the Israeli soldiers. A journey of a few kilometers can take many hours and the students are frequently late for class.
“We are very grateful for our education,” said one of the young women, “but we are conscious of the reality around us.”
The young man put it more bluntly, “We know that our dreams end at the wall.”
It was that very same wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem at which Pope Francis spontaneously stopped to pray in May of 2014. Shortly after going to Bethlehem, our group visited with the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal (2008-2016), who gave us a first-hand account of this remarkable moment.
“We may forget the Pope’s speeches, but no one can forget the moment he stopped at the wall to pray.” Twal had hosted Pope Francis in the Holy Land and sat beside him in the pope-mobile when they left Bethlehem. As they approached the wall, Francis tapped the driver on the shoulder and said “stop here.” At the time, the Patriarch didn’t know what the Pope was doing. Francis climbed down, walked to the security wall, touched it, bowed his head and closed his eyes.
“A Muslim in Bethlehem told me afterward, ‘Look, we have many things against the church, but with this gesture of the Pope we have forgiven everything.’” Twal continued, “The Church is for all people, we are for peace… We cannot make peace with walls, with separation, with checkpoints.”
Pope Francis has an innate suspicion of walls. It is not a matter of personal opinion or emphasis; the Pope is suspicious of walls because the concept is categorically opposed to the spirit and logic of the Gospel. In February 2016 when asked about Donald Trump’s proposal to deport millions of illegal Mexican immigrants and build a wall along the southern US border, Francis responded that, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.”
The opposite of a wall builder is a bridge builder; a person who is capable of dialogue with others. “If there is one word that we should never tire of repeating, it is this: dialogue,” the Pope said when he accepted the Charlemagne prize in May 2016. Developing a capacity for dialogue with others leads to “building consensus and agreement while seeking the goal of a just, responsive and inclusive society.” (Evangelii Gaudium
, 239) Walls, in other words, will never be part of the solution; and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no different.
On the same trip I was privileged to meet another former Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, who is himself a Palestinian. Retired since 2008, I asked him what has changed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1987 when he was appointed. “Nothing has changed.” He looked at me in silence for a few moments, as if to let it sink in. “We are always in a situation of conflict, which means political hostility. Palestinians are always under Israeli occupation; the Israelis are always afraid of the Palestinians.”
I thought of the students at Bethlehem University. Is it right for their freedom to be taken, for their hope to be restricted, because of decades of political hostility beyond their control? I asked the Patriarch if there was any hope.
“The Israelis must open their eyes to see what is right and what is wrong for the Palestinians and for themselves, and to settle this problem. It’s not impossible, but you need good will. You need a government who wants to find a solution, but so far we’ve had no Israeli government who wants to have the good will to create a stable, definitive peace.”
I traveled to the Holy Land in February 2016 as a pilgrim to express my solidarity with the Christians there. I went as a Canadian, which politically speaking means ‘a friend of Israel.’ It also means that I am an outsider, a foreigner, someone who is removed from the daily reality. But two unexpected encounters during those days opened my eyes to that reality: first, my encounter with Israeli security at the airport where I was unjustly harassed and contained. Second, my encounter with the Palestinian students at Bethlehem University, where I realized that what happened to me was only a fleeting taste of what the Palestinians endure every day.
The standard narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict leaves an impression on many minds that all things are equal: Palestinian terrorists provoke Israeli backlash which demands high-level security. But the truth is that one side is very much stronger than the other, and the proof is the imposing wall, built by the Israelis, that divides them. In 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that, “The construction of the wall being built by Israel, the occupying Power, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, and its associated regime, are contrary to international law.”
Christians cannot be impartial to such an objective affront to justice. But even justice, should it be imposed, would not be sufficient. Only “a culture which privileges dialogue as a form of encounter” can tear down walls and build bridges of lasting peace, Pope Francis tells us. (Evangelii Gaudium
, 239) Dialogue is choice. It is a choice that transcends military and political power. Every single person, regardless of their state, and in the face of political pressure and grave injustices, can choose to dialogue.
2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. We would do well during this year to keep in mind and heart the invocation for peace and the call to dialogue of Pope Francis:
“Our world is a legacy bequeathed to us from past generations, but it is also on loan to us from our children: our children who are weary, worn out by conflicts and yearning for the dawn of peace, our children who plead with us to tear down the walls of enmity and to set out on the path of dialogue and peace, so that love and friendship will prevail…
Lord, keep alive within us the flame of hope, so that with patience and perseverance we may opt for dialogue and reconciliation. In this way may peace triumph at last, and may the words “division”, “hatred” and “war” be banished from the heart of every man and woman. Lord, defuse the violence of our tongues and our hands. Renew our hearts and minds, so that the word which always brings us together will be “brother”, and our way of life will always be that of: Shalom, Peace, Salaam!”
(Invocation for Peace between Israel and Palestine, Vatican Gardens, June 8th, 2014)
*This article was originally published in the 2016-2017 Salt + Light Magazine
! Order your copy