Wednesday, July 06, 2011

2011 travel posting - July 6

We spent most of yesterday in the Palestinian Authority. The last time I was here (1994) the PA had not yet been established, and all of the West Bank was still administered by Israel. It seems to me that the establishment of the PA has had both good and bad consequences.

First, we went to Hebron. Hebron is traditionally where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their wives are buried. (Gen. 49.31) The irony is that God promised Abraham land but when he died, the only land that he owned was his burial place. In all likelihood, Hebron is not where the patriarchs are buried, but it is where they are remembered. Nevertheless, the patriarchs are holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, so like so much in this holy land, Hebron is a place of conflict.

Until 1948, Jews and Muslims could both come and pray at the tomb of the patriarchs in Hebron. After the establishment of Israel, Hebron was in Jordan, and Jews were barred from praying there. Then when Israel took the West Bank in 1967, both Jews and Muslims could again pray there, but there was a great deal of tension. Then in February, 1994, an Israel settler, fired on Muslims praying at the tombs of the patriarchs, killing 29 of them. Since then, the Israeli government has rigidly separated the places where Jews and Muslims pray.

Complicating matters further, a few hundred Israelis have moved into Hebron, forcing the Israeli government to sent in troops to protect them and to build streets on which they alone can travel.

Yesterday, we went to both the Jewish and Muslim sides of the tomb of the patriarchs. I have to say that the Muslim side felt more welcoming. It is open and spacious, covered in beautiful carpets. Out of respect for Muslim tradition, we removed our shoes. A group of Muslim school girls were there, giggling and being silly the way every little girl of that age behaves. They wanted us to take their picture, and we obliged. They tried out their English and we tried out our 2 or 3 Arabic words.

After the tomb of the patriarchs, we walked through the market or suq. Sadly, many shops are closed. One shopkeeper told us that the Palestinian Authority pays them $300 a month just to keep the stores open. We walked up a steep stairway to the roof of a building. The family that lives there told us that Jewish settlers had tried to buy their house, but they refused, and subsequently have been harrassed.

We happily left Hebron and drove to Bethlehem where we met with Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor, who is building an impressive school and social service center. He was very pessimistic about the future but said that he had hope. He cited the famous story about Martin Luther. Luther said that if he knew that the world would end tomorrow, he would plant a tree today. That's the kind of hope that Pastor Raheb has. His school teaches music, visual arts, and even filmmaking. He has sports teams for girls on which Muslim and Christian girls play together.

Raheb said that he has an alternative version of the 2 state solution: put Shas (an Israeli right wing party) and Hamas (the Palestinian extremist party) in one state and all the moderate Israelis and Palestinians in the other state. We thought that was a great idea.

Jonathan, however, was critical of the way Raheb described the situation. Raheb said that the Israelis had walked out of negotiations and were establishing a kind of apartheid. Jonathan said that was not true, and I have to agree with him. On the other hand, I do believe that whatever Netanyahu believes in his heart, the ultra conservatives in his coalition will not let allow the Palestinians to establish a state.

Finally, we went to Ramallah, the "capital" of the Palestinian Authority. We saw the tomb of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian parliament building. Our impression of Ramallah was very positive. It seems reasonably affluent and full of life. The streets were crowded with people and cars. There were many women whose heads were covered, but just as many whose heads were uncovered. So far, Ramallah looks like a modern secular Arab city. May it remain so.