Holy Land journey: A creative initiative; the sadness of Hebron

By Bishop Gerald Kicanas
One in a series

DAY NINE: Jan. 13, 2010

JERUSALEM — Two experiences highlighted our gatherings today. The first was an opportunity to spend some time with the Maronite archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land, Archbishop Paul N. Sayah. Our conversations covered a wide range of important issues.

One of the valuable and creative initiatives he has taken was a program entitled “Encounter” which he organized with a team of associates that included a rabbi, an Anglican priest and a group of lay people. They invited Jewish, Christian, and Muslim young people to come together both here and in England to dialogue with one another in order to break down stereotypes and come to know one another as people.

Archbishop Sayah cited a study done by the University of Haifa which looked at attitudes of Israeli young people toward Palestinians. The results were striking, although not unexpected. The young people saw Palestinians as threatening and unlikeable. Were one to ask the same questions of Palestinian young people, the answers would probably be quite similar.

These stereotypes only further divide these two peoples and make it so difficult to reconcile. Programs like Encounter can make a world of difference. Some of the young people’s comments after their extensive dialogues and opportunities to participate in conflict management experiences proved that attitudes can change by engagement.

Archbishop Sayah has much wisdom to share about the experiences in the countries where he serves. I learned much. And he treated us to a fabulous Lebanese meal that made us wonder whether we would ever eat again.

* * *

The afternoon was spent in Hebron. This proved to be the most difficult experience of the trip. I remember visiting Hebron many years ago. My recollection was that of a bustling city. I remember the crowds of people around the tombs of the patriarchs which is so central to this town. The city pulsated with life. Stores flourished with business.

Now the central areas of Hebron are like a ghost town. The shops are all closed and shuttered, the streets abandoned. On the walls of the stores are written in Hebrew harsh words toward Arabs. Soldiers with automatic rifles and local Israeli police are everywhere in the section titled H2, where around 35,000 Palestinians live amid four small settlements within Hebron and one on the outskirts. There is one army solder for each settler, about 750 in the town.

The only vehicles we saw in the center of town were military vehicles often accompanying a settler’s car.

An Israeli policeman stops a tour group, including Bishop Kicanas, center, on a street in the West Bank city of Hebron Jan. 13. Bishop Kicanas was visiting Hebron with members of B'Tselem, a human rights organization operating in Israel and the West Bank. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

While we were walking through this abandoned section, an officer told us we could not be here because we were more than 10 people. We were 11. Our guide asked, “Why?” We were told that is the law. Our guide, who knew the law, questioned the officer further. “It is not against the law, we can be here. We are just walking.”  An argument in Hebrew ensued but in the end, without any reason, we were told to move on. It is frustrating when an authority can make up a law to suit their needs.

The history of Hebron includes tragedies wrought upon the Jews by Arabs and vice versa. Many have suffered on both sides and now a strong military presence separates the two peoples. In some areas of the H2 sector Palestinians are not able to drive but only walk. On other streets they are able to do neither even though they may live along the street.

We visited a Palestinian family that experienced stone throwing as well as an individual settler firing his gun at them. The settlement from which they came is located just above the Palestinian family’s home. This conflict situation was videotaped by a Palestinian. The tape made clear what had happened and who was at fault. Had there been no video of the conflict, the Palestinians could have been blamed.

Such videos of incidences of human rights violations are being taken by a number of trained Palestinians in order to make clear what has taken place and who is at fault. This protects Palestinians who can be blamed for instigating the situation. This video program developed by a Jewish human rights group might help others to learn about the difficult and frightening situation faced by Palestinians, at times, in Hebron.

Bishop Kicanas looks at a camera with a Palestinian boy in the West Bank city of Hebron Jan. 13. Shops on the street had been closed by order of the Israeli military. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

Clearly there are no winners in this situation. Jews have suffered. Palestinians have suffered. Jews feel threatened. Palestinians feel threatened. Jews strike out at Palestinians and Palestinians strike out at Israelis. But all the force in the world will not lead to peace and reconciliation.

For many years Hebron was a model community where Jews and Arabs lived alongside of one another, shared their community together and benefited by one another’s presence. Many Jews fled after the first massacre by Arabs many years ago. The settlers want to recover their lost lands. More recently a number of Arabs were massacred by a Jew. Since then harsh measures have been put in place against Palestinians because the Israelis feared that there would be revenge by the Arabs.

Now the city of Hebron is like a ghost town, a town under siege. The tragedy of the situation torments you. There must be another way for human beings, people of faith as Jews and Muslims can live together.

When we were in the tomb of the patriarchs we saw a number of Jews in prayer while at the same time we could hear the imam announcing the call to prayer. These peoples are peoples of faith. That faith can lead them to reconciliation. That needs to be our prayer. That certainly is our hope.

Bishop Kicanas, of Tucson, Ariz., vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, visited Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories to attend an international meeting of bishops in support of the church in the Holy Land. He was a guest blogger for us during the trip.

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