The Palestinian people opened their arms on June 20 to a group of North American religion and tourism journalists in the hope that more press exposure could raise the octane of the tourism trade which, in turn, could pull in its draft the whole fledgling economy. This editor accepted the invitation of the USAID (see p. 10) to participate in the tour.
It was a great place to visit.
Not that this was my first time there. I’d already toured Israel twice under the leadership of a Jewish tour guide. After the second tour, I lingered three weeks on my own, driving a rental car all the way from Haifa to Eilat and back.
But this trip was aiming to showcase the special gifts that the Palestinian West Bank has to offer. Not just the obvious: Bethlehem and Jericho. But other experiences: to drink from Jacob’s well; to chat with one of the few remaining, pure-blooded Samaritans; to walk amid the ruins of Sebastia, where John the Baptist was buried; to visit in Hebron the traditional tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Jacob (Rachel’s tomb is on Israeli land in Bethlehem).
The trip also showcased the culinary skills of Middle Eastern chefs. We ate like queens and kings.
The spirit of calm was ubiquitous: no anxiety walking the streets by day or night. The crime rate is exceedingly low.
However, those other visitors who have come and stayed – the Jewish settlers – do create consternation. Up the slope from the old Palestinian cities and villages stand brand new hilltop settlements filled with immigrant Jews. Most visually startling are the settlements encroaching upon the Shepherds’ Fields just outside Bethlehem, the pristine beauty stripped away.
I don’t presume to know the intentions of the settlers, but the Palestinians perceive a strategy afoot to drive them out. They hear that the settlers earn 26 times as much income. They hear that they use 48 times as much water. Roads everyone used to travel are now reserved only for settlers’ use; the Palestinians have to maneuver rutted back roads. Cities Palestinians used to visit freely have been closed to them. Schools they once attended now exclude them. Relatives living just a stone’s throw away they can no longer see. Their unemployment levels – as high as 50% – have spiked the misery quotient.
Why have Palestinian Christians left Bethlehem and other towns in droves? Not because of difficulty getting along with their Muslim neighbors. They simply have moved to places where they can find work, enjoy access to basic staples, and move about freely.
Where’s the hope for the Palestinians?
Most on the West Bank are now broadcasting that violence is not an option. But subservience to Israel’s policies isn’t either. Appeasement has already allowed one Holocaust in the past century. The only alternative some Palestinians see is the Mandela model: naming their plight as another apartheid, urging organizations and nations to boycott, divest, and sanction the Israeli government, and thereby forcing the Knesset to change its ways.
Will that work? Jews have far more friends and, after the Holocaust, far more supporters and sympathizers around the world than the white South Africans — against whom the beleaguered black South Africans faced off — ever could have mustered. Also, a core demand of the Palestinians is the right of return. Most Americans are living in “illegal settlements” on the land our forebears seized from the natives here; will we endorse the Palestinian demand, while knowing that we’re enjoying the spoils of past conquests?
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salim Fayyad has determined to build a society that can stand on its own via strengthening the rule of law, eliminating nepotism and prosecuting corruption, establishing democratic governance, and developing products and services others will patronize — like tourism.
Toward that end there’s one thing we Presbyterians can do: book flights and hotels, and schedule a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It’s a great place to visit.