First-Hand Look at Israeli Conflict: Church Leaders Visit Middle East

Article excerpt

It is a sad, sad country.

Telmor Sartison, Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada

Jerusalem

In Gaza and the suburbs of Jerusalem children are dying, victims of bombs and their parents' war.

Even more obscene than the death of a four-month-old girl by Israeli shelling or the deaths, in retaliation, of two 14-year-old boys by stoning at the hands of Palestinians, is the debate that rages afterwards about who was to blame.

And even more obscene than that, is the posturing that emerges for political profit after the deaths of children.

This is Israel, the Holy Land.

Here, Israelis and Palestinians are locked, in the words of Michael Bell, the Canadian ambassador to Tel Aviv, "in a deadly embrace which neither side can get out of. Each is tied to the myths it has of the other."

Never, in the 53-year history of Israel, have members of the Palestinian minority been so without hope. Never have they been so angry. With Israeli bombs going off within earshot of downtown Jerusalem, never has a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed so impossibly distant.

In a five-day visit to Israel that included tours of some of the hottest spots, a delegation of Canadian church leaders experienced that hopelessness firsthand in meeting after meeting with palestinian groups. The visit was organized after Canadian church leaders found themselves in disagreement over a statement they drafted in response to the conflict. They decided that before attempting to say any more, as many of them as possible should visit Israel and learn about the situation first-hand.

Amid the daily escalating violence of the second intifada (uprising) in 15 years, the church leaders, including Archbishop Michael Peers, the Canadian Anglican primate, heard predictions of a looming bloodbath that has the potential of turning an appalling situation into something unthinkable.

The delegation also included Marion Pardy, moderator of the United Church, Bishop Telmor Sartison of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, and Marjorie Ross of the Presbyterian Church.

The group heard the situation likened to Rwanda, to South Africa in its darkest hour and to a second holocaust.

In the process of visiting places and people, the Canadians were exposed to hectoring insults and spit from a Jewish settler in the West Bank city of Hebron, to a fiery Palestinian street demonstration in Gaza, to surveillance by Israeli tanks, and twice they had to flee communities they were about to visit after warnings of imminent Israeli bombardment.

What emerged from tours of West Bank areas and Gaza was a profound sense of anger and an inexpressible hopelessness felt by the Palestinian minority, which, since the second intifada began in September, has been subjected to random attacks by Israelis using artillery, tanks, machine-guns and helicopters.

Scores of Palestinians, including many children and young people, have been killed, maimed or injured. The Israeli death toll is much lower.

In the cities, photographs of the youngest, most pathetic victims of shelling, adorn the walls of buildings and become rallying cries for still more protests which breed still more violence.

Of more than a dozen people interviewed during a five-day visit by the Canadians, virtually none expressed any hope for improvement. Many predicted the situation would deteriorate even more.

Many also predicted that if the violence reached Jerusalem, there would be a bloodbath the scale of which can scarcely be imagined. Already, Bethlehem and surrounding communities such as Beit Jala, a stone's thrown from the Holy City, come under virtually daily shelling by Israelis.

The current intifada demonstrates two truths, said Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi, a Palestinian elder statesman who now chairs the Red Crescent Society in Gaza. …