Salaam alaikum: Seeking Peace in Israel and Palestine

Above, Wallace Cole, a member of the Church of the Brethren’s Mission and Ministry Board, speaks with a young Israeli soldier during the delegation trip to the Middle East (photo by Michael Snarr). Below, Cole with new Palestinian friend Atta Jaber (photo by Rick Polhamus).

Salaam alaikum. In a land where this Arabic greeting means “Peace be with you,” and the Hebrew greeting “Shalom” also means peace, there seem to be a lot of people seeking and few finding this peace.

On Jan. 4 and 5, assembled under the direction of Christian Peacemaker Teams, a diverse delegation gathered in Israel/Palestine. This mix of individuals varied in age between 24 and 70, and ranged from college professors to a plumber, and from one who thought the Bible was a myth and to one who was a biblical literalist. However, we were united by a desire to make a difference.

You likely have read about the demolition of Palestinian homes. And like me you possibly have come to the conclusion that these homes were torn down because the people living in them were terrorists. In reality, a lot of homes have been torn down because they were built without permits. Very few permits are given to Palestinians, even in their own territory, and their population continues to grow. While permits are restricted for Palestinians homes, Jewish settlement homes continue to be built on Palestinian land, with many sitting empty.

A friend I made while there, Atta Jaber, has had two homes removed and the one he is living in has a demolition order on it. His family has lived on the land for over 800 years and they have papers showing ownership from the time when French and British authorities were in control of the area.

As his second home was being destroyed, Atta Jaber was charged with “assault with a child.” He had handed his four-month-old child to the soldier in charge, asking the officer to take his child because he had no home for his son and no way to feed him. As the child was wiggling in the officer’s arms, he hit the officer’s face. Although the charge did not stick, it is still on his son’s record.

A former soldier and a founder of the group “Breaking the Silence” spoke to our delegation, describing the conflict of emotions in an Israeli soldier’s life. He had served in Hebron and told about several situations he had encountered. One was a suspicious package placed next to a wall as his team did their nightly rounds. He said he had three options; one, to shoot into the package to see if it exploded; two, to call for a bomb team to come in, which could take hours; and three, to have a Palestinian go over and pick up the package. The thought that a person’s life was worth no more than a round from an M16 rifle, or the time it would take to have a skilled team come and check out the package, was challenging to me.

A few days later I was talking to a 19-year-old Israeli soldier who was detaining us at a check point. I thought back to the time when I was 19 years old and serving at Fort Jackson. At that age I would not have questioned those in authority, I had the confidence that they would never ask me to do anything wrong or that was not necessary.

As we grow in faith we begin to understand the value God has for human life. His Son suffered and died that we may have life. We also know that when someone’s life is ended here on earth, they will stand in judgment.

I don’t think I’ve ever been anyplace where hospitality is so widespread. At every home we were served tea shortly after arriving, and coffee before we left. Children greeted us on the streets with “Hellooooooo. Welcome.” A young couple riding the bus with us from Bethlehem to Jerusalem invited all 13 of us into their home, after talking with us for just a short time.

Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you took Me in.” I have never invited a group of strangers to my house after meeting them on public transportation. I have a better understanding of what hospitality is after this trip.

As I walked down the Mount of Olives, looking at the Old City of Jerusalem, I thought back to a time when my Savior wept as He made this journey. I let my eyes wander into the valley to my left, and looked at a wall built through it. I was told the wall was built to protect the Israelis from the Palestinians. At places the wall divides families, and in other places it divides individual farms. Whether you are looking at the 1948 or the 1967 agreements on Israel and Palestine, this wall is constructed well to the East of the line. How can something separating Palestinians from Palestinians protect the Israelis?

If we think back over the past 62 years we can recall a lot of terrible thing that have been done by both sides in this conflict, and I wonder how I would feel growing up in that environment. Would I hate other human beings? Would I be so fearful of others that I would throw rocks to keep them away from me? Would I shoot rockets into neighborhoods, or possibly attach an explosive device to my body, killing myself and others? I wonder even now if I will build a wall to protect me from seeing the pain of people Jesus died for.

I wonder, is Jesus weeping over His people today?

— Wallace Cole is a member of the Church of the Brethren’s Mission and Ministry Board. He and his wife, Marty, are managers of Camp Carmel in Linville, N.C., in Southeastern District.

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