‘Tell people I am not a terrorist’

Recently, I travelled with Christian Aid to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (IOPT). Many Christians dream of travelling to the Holy Land to walk where Jesus walked, and to visit the towns we grew up reading about. This desire is understandable. It is motivated by the hope of gaining a deeper understanding of our faith and its historical origins. But if you travel to IOPT with just those goals in mind, you end up missing so much of what’s really going on. Christian Aid’s September 2021 report on this conflict notes that ‘according to statistics compiled by UNOCHA [United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs], from January 2008 to July 2021, 5,951 Palestinians have been killed, of whom 1,340 were children, 262 Israelis were killed, of whom 21 were children… The evidence is clear, as long as the … current dynamic continues, so too will the cycle of violence and loss of life.’

Focussing on the relentless violence is one obvious way to talk about this region. But I’d rather consider the resilience, kindness, and hope of the Palestinian people.

A Green and Pleasant Land?

On our way to Bethlehem, the group couldn’t help but admire the beautiful scenery and houses on the hills. We were all so excited for our hosts at the YMCA to give us a tour of the land and explain the rich cultural history. Our hosts showed us around the surrounding landscape, even bringing us to one of the local farmer’s fields so we could meet and talk about the rich history of olive tree farming in the area. For these farmers, olive tree farming is an inter-generational connection to the land and community, something that roots them to the land and declares that they belong there. One farmer even said, ‘We raise olive trees as if we raise our children’. However, the farmers whose fields are closest to where Israeli settlers have lived are often under threat. Farmers are regularly dealing with their trees being vandalised and the journey to their fields being disrupted, so they have to carry their tools up on foot. In some cases, bulldozers come through their whole crop to destroy a single shed at the back of the farmer’s field because the government won’t allow them to build (on their own land) a shelter to protect themselves from the sun.

And yet, locals through the Joint Advocacy Initiative (a combination of the YMCA and YWCA) have come together to create ‘The Olive Tree Campaign.’ This encourages people from all over the world to sponsor an olive tree, not because the farmers need the money, but because by sponsoring a tree, you get to follow its growth and learn about the farmer. When The Olive Tree Campaign plants the trees, a plaque is displayed, letting the Israeli settlers know that people from all over the world are invested and rooting for this farmer, their field, and their family. The drive back to the YMCA guest house that evening had us all looking at that view in disappointment. No longer could we admire the houses on the hills, knowing that twenty metres over is a farmer who is being harassed or who had even lost their land because someone had come to settle on it.

Communities of Healing

One of the most poignant examples of Palestinians coming together was the East Jerusalem rehabilitation programme. This programme was established to provide counselling and rehabilitation for children affected by the violence. Many of the leaders of this programme were past beneficiaries, or Palestinians who had been educated abroad and wanted to return home to help give others the opportunities they had. We got to sit down with six boys aged 12-17 who had all been unlawfully arrested by the Israeli army. All of them had been put in jail for a minimum of 6 months, without the option for defence or representation before a court. Most of them had been arrested while at home or their family stall in the market, with no explanation or proof of things they had meant to have done. In spite of all that, the six of them were incredibly friendly and eager to get to know us and share their stories with us. They spoke of how the centre helped catch them up on school that they missed, and one even expressed interest in working in the tech industry.

The EJ- Rehabilitation programme quickly met with these boys when they were released, providing psycho-social counselling and support because they believed in creating change through non-violent means. They know these children had been forced into an experience that could make them lash out in anger, but when given the correct supports, these boys were reminded that despite what has been done to them, they can rise above and continue to build up their community.

Before we left the rehabilitation centre, I asked one of the boys what they wanted us to take away from our conversations with them. One of the 14-year-olds said, ‘Tell people I am not a terrorist’. It is heartbreaking to see that someone so young feels he is already doomed to fail because the world is against him.

We only met with six of the boys that were getting help, but there are many more still in prison or just getting out who feel the same. These are just kids who have been forced to grow up in a world they feel is against them, yet they seem to be able to get to the heart of the issue. Through all the hurt caused on either side, labels are tossed and thrown at each other, dehumanising the people involved and forcing children to believe that the world is against them.

Theology as a Source of Hope

Initially I travelled to IOPT hoping to gain a deeper understanding of my faith. In the end, witnessing the Palestinian people carry out their faith with openness and resilience brought a true insight into how God works.

Organisations like the YMCA and JAI are only the start of how the Palestinian people, or to be more specific, Palestinian Christians, draw on a theology of hope. As the groundbreaking 2009 Kairos document puts it, “our hope remains strong, because it is from God”. It is devastating that while this division is often painted as religious, each community is fighting to worship the one God. On one of our first days, our tour guide in Jerusalem told us that IOPT used to be a place with a “Jewish mind, Christian Heart and Muslim culture”.  Retrieving that insight about God might be an essential element to retrieving friendship where there is presently only enmity.