Peace and Security


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Peace and Security

Spending a Day in Gaza

In light of repeated terrorist attacks in Israel and Palestine, well-intentioned relatives, friends, and State Department had cautioned interfaith peace activists against undertaking a peace mission to Israel in early 2004, let alone entering Gaza. But where are peacebuilders, both men and women, needed if not in the vortex of conflict? Where are the parents’ hearts drawn, if not to the children who suffer the most? How can God pour out His love, except through those willing to serve as His voice, hands, and feet?

Only those who really felt called to go went on the bus to Gaza that day, April 3. It was an optional side trip while rest of participants in the Middle East Peace Initiative trip did some sightseeing. Many of those heading for Gaza mentioned having some premonition about the day and had said goodbye to their loved ones in some way before leaving home.

Twenty-three American Christians, Jews, and Muslims set out from Jerusalem through the rugged hills terraced with olive trees to the farmlands and towns of the coastal plain. Rice fields and palm trees lined the highway, and cypress trees accented the red tile roofs in the Israeli towns. As we turned south, we saw sand dunes and scrub brush with prickly-pear cactuses.

We drove over a culvert with a trickle of water into a vast parking lot with a handful of vehicles. Beyond the concrete barriers, we could see factory buildings. At the blue and white painted checkpoint, we turned in our documents and took seats. One by one, as our names were called we walked to the window to show our best smile of good will to the guard, who compared our faces with the passport likeness.

We crossed the line of life and death at Erez, the checkpoint linking the northern edge of the Gaza Strip with Israel. Six Palestinians died there a month earlier. Two weeks after our visit, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed himself there, along with an Israeli soldier.

Passing through narrow revolving gates reeking of urine, we walked down a 800-meter concrete corridor with a metal roof into the Palestinian territory of Gaza. Our bus and escorts awaited us in the otherwise empty parking lot.

We headed south on the main thoroughfare, the Street of Unity, to the heart of Gaza. To the east are olive orchards, vegetable fields, and orange groves with nearby juice processing plants. To the west are new gray buildings two or three stories high, with commercial stalls on the ground level and balconied apartments on the upper levels. In the courtyards are rose of Sharon bushes, mimosas, olive trees and palms. Round or flattened arches top the windows and doorways. Sandbags are stacked in courtyards, and rugs hang over balcony railings. Rooftops support small satellite dishes and water tanks. At major intersections, horizontal bands of colored tiles adorn the rounded faces of business buildings. There were not many cars or pedestrians moving along the streets. In the heart of Gaza City is a parliament building, convention center, and mosque.

While many Palestinian families have lived in Gaza for hundreds of years, nearly half of its 1.5 million people live in eight refugee camps formed during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Protected by high walls, 19 Israeli settlements occupied half the territory. Checkpoints within the Gaza Strip restrict the movement of Palestinians.

Our visit was coordinated with the chairman of the Palestinian National Association for Youth in Gaza. He was waiting at the Al Quds International Hotel overlooking the Mediterranean shore in Gaza City, along with representatives of many sectors of the Palestinian community. The dark wood paneled banquet hall had arabesque decorations.

The Gaza representative of the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace welcomed us. "Children have a basic right to live in peace,” he said. “All religions call for peace, equality and respect for each other, without destroying lives. We invite others to join us to ensure that the children of the future will enjoy peace and not war."

We came to pray together and ask God’s blessings for Gaza and learn how we as religious leaders from around the world can help," explained Rev. Michael Jenkins, co-chair of the Middle East Peace Initiative. "The fundamental principle is belief in humankind as one family under God."

A religious scholar from New York looked at the schoolgirls and felt as if they were his daughters. "I want to thank every mother and father and every son and daughter for living with dignity, honor and hard work," he added. "Religious leaders can help break the spirit of enmity."

Each of our group had something unique to offer. A Native American placed a necklace of wolf bones, which conveys special blessings for spiritual and physical protection. A Catholic priest sang a song of peace.

We heard from a Palestinian leader who had spent 23 years in Israeli jails and had a personal encounter with God there. "We are the trustees of the road to peace. In spite of all difficulties, we are determined that we should have peace. This does not mean neglecting the rights of people living on the land — Jews, Christians and Muslims. Great pain experienced during delivery concludes in new birth. Our delivery is very painful because we strive to deliver great peace."

From "the land where the angels sang the song of peace in Bethlehem," an Orthodox Christian priest offered greetings and urged that Jerusalem be protected as a holy city so people of all religions can worship in peace.

The word Gaza reminded one American of gauze, which protects wounds while they heal. "In the scriptures it is written that in order to attain peace we must all come together in unity," she said. "With gauze you can heal the land.”

A Palestinian imam spoke: "My dear brothers, God sends prophets to give glad tidings and also warnings. The Prophet Muhammad says that all prophets are brothers with the mission to guide people in the path or righteousness. You are all descended from Adam. Muslims believe in all the messages from heaven. We believe all people are equal like the teeth of a comb." He quoted the sura from the Qur’an, "There should be no compulsion in religion" and told about how a Muslim judge once ruled in favor of a Jewish man who was so moved that he converted to Islam.

Representatives of a Gaza women’s organization pleaded for help for mothers and children who are suffering because of the occupation and the restrictions. A Palestinian policewomen showed photos of Israeli war prisoners whom she had cared for in South Lebanon. After their release, they wanted to meet with her to express their gratitude.

A buffet lunch was served, and people clustered to continue animated discussion. I remembered the Christian and Muslim Palestinian students at my college in Virginia who always ate together in the dining hall amid vigorous discussions of politics. Not a day passed without them voicing the hope of returning together in peace to their homeland. With these memories, the hotel dining room was a familiar environment.

Several of the speeches made by Palestinians contained typical litanies of their suffering, accusations against Israel, and complaints about the United States for supplying the weapons being used against the Palestinians. It was very painful to listen to this. However, no matter how painful, the challenge for people of faith is to help others reach the point where they can begin to take responsibility for their behavior.

There was a lot of information and emotions to digest.

Afterwards, an American Jew said, "We are sensitive to their sufferings. We sympathize with them. Both sides have to change to the point where they can recognize their own responsibility. God loves them both and we love them both.” He felt an unexpected and mysterious joy pervading the conference room, softening the rough edges. “I felt God weeping with love over the suffering people of Palestine,” he said. “I can no longer hate them. I only have compassion for them and wish them all success."

Returning to Erez, our escorts left us in the still-vacant parking lot. The parting words of our Palestinian interpreter, a 21-year-old university student, were: "We fight not for death but for life, because we love life."

We learned that Israel had closed her borders and we had to wait inside the bus. An impromptu songfest started. We didn't know when we would be able to return to Jerusalem. The chorus of one beloved song was:

Sweet Holy Spirit, sweet spirit of love,
Stay right here with us, filling us with Your love.
And for these blessings, we lift our hearts in praise.
Without a doubt we'll know that we have been revived,
When we shall leave this place.

In an impromptu liturgical dance, I bent down to the floor, collecting the sorrow, sin, and death of this world with my hands to raise up to heaven, and then gathering the glory of heaven to bring down to earth. Each circuit of my arms seemed to diminish the domain of death and expand the realm of grace. In recent days other people had transformative prayer experiences in conventional places such as the Upper Room, the Western Wall, and Dome of the Rock. On that day, the spirit of God, the Shekinah, enveloped a bus waiting at a checkpoint.

The Palestinian border guards drew closer to listen to the music. Around dusk, we were allowed to leave the bus, proceed through the Palestinian checkpoint, and cross to the Israeli side. In the eaves of the transit corridor, sparrows twittered and fluttered, freely offering their own anthems to the Creator.

Lined up between metal rails on the Israeli side and watched over by soldiers with index fingers on their triggers, we kept on singing. The momentum couldn't be stopped. One young guard came over with a request for a favorite song. His warm smile contrasted with the expressions of some of the others.

Blacks and whites, Baptists and Catholics, Muslims and Jews, altos and tenors, we joined our voices in uplifting songs. Someone set a cadence: "Truth is marching, truth is marching, truth is marching," took up the prophetic words, "Mine eyes have seen the glory," and lifted the hallelujahs through the barbed wire unto the spangled heavens.

For photos of Middle East Peace Initiative programs during 2004, click here.

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