Porter: Ten Days on the West Bank: A Christmas Hope for Peace

BEIT SAHOUR, WEST BANK, Palestine—I recently returned from the West Bank, a term that Israeli radical settlers don’t like. They prefer Judea and Samaria. And Palestinians don’t like the term either. They prefer Palestine. Welcome to the Middle East.

I stayed with the Nimeer and Shama Rishmawi family in this predominantly Christian village. Both Beit Sahour (Canaanite for “magic,” I am told) and Beit Jala are Christian towns. They are just outside Bethlehem, or Beit Lechem, “House of Bread” in Hebrew. However, Bethlehem, which was once 90 percent Christian, is now only two percent Christian.

I asked my hosts where they all went, and they replied that most of the Beit Sahorians had moved to America, to Saginaw and Flint, Mich. Thousands of Christian Palestinians live there quietly, under the radar. In general, sadly, Christians—in this case, Orthodox Christians such as the Rishmawi’s—are dwindling in number, not only in Palestine/West Bank but in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon—in fact, throughout the Middle East.

However, this was Christmas time and the Rishmawi’s, who number as many as 800 in the town and throughout the West Bank, were celebrating the pre-Christmas season. One of Nimeer (Arabic for “tiger”) Rishmawi’s brothers owns a Christmas shop in Beit Sahour, next door to his house. Plastic Santas 10 feet high are out front; tree decorations and toys of all kinds line the store shelves. I bought three red and gold Santa hats. I love Christmas and I’m not even Christian.

Nimeer and Shama Rishmawi live in a large stone (what some call “Jerusalem stone”) home, filled with three generations, their son George and his wife Fida (“sacrifice” in Arabic) and their two lovely children, Bisan and Basin.

Their family goes back hundreds of years, back to the time of Jesus Christ who roamed these fields and valleys. Shama was an excellent cook and I will miss her cooking and her family very much. Palestinian hospitality is without equal.

While on the West Bank, I acted as a Palestinian and was treated as a Palestinian until I flashed my American passport. I stood in line at some dozen checkpoints, whether between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Ramallah and Jerusalem, and other points in between. Sometimes, the lines moved quickly; other times, there were delays, especially during the four-day Muslim feast of El-Eid (a festival based on Abraham’s attempt at sacrificing Isaac; in the Muslim version, Ishmael replaces Isaac). Young kids were not used to the security searches and did not take off their clothes or bags or belts fast enough. Frustrating, but it gave me time to talk to Palestinians.

The checkpoints are like airport security, but more intense. For example, Israel has on record every single Palestinian citizen, and they must place their palms down on a pad for their picture and background to show up. If it doesn’t show up, you don’t go through. Unless you have a pretty good excuse, or the soldier is tolerant that day, and the checkpoints are not manned by Andy Frain guards but by young 18-20 year-old soldiers, both male and female.

Palestinians also need a special pass to get to the Jewish side. One of my hosts, Eyad Burnat, was not able to get a pass to Jerusalem, which means he cannot get an exit visa to America to speak because the US consulate is only in Jerusalem. A catch-22. Can’t get to Jerusalem, so can’t go to America.

Nimeer had to go to a hospital in Jerusalem, but could only get a one-day pass. Shama has not visited Jerusalem in years, yet she is only a 20-minute ride away.

There are worse indignities. I visited the town of Bi’lin, west of Ramallah. Every Friday there is a non-violent demonstration at a fence that intrudes on Palestinian farm land and olive groves. Demonstrators include not only Bi’lin residents but many “internationals,” people from England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Greece, and even a few Americans and Israelis. I was a rarity—an older American Jewish leader. Few had ever seen one. I was so rare, in fact, that I was interviewed by Iranian TV, Palestinian TV, French media, and Irish media.

True, at times some kids throw rocks over the fence. There is, however, no way to throw the rocks directly at soldiers; they are lobbed over but the soldiers easily avoid them, plus they have large shields to protect themselves. It’s also true that some demonstrators have tried to pry open the gate that divides the fence (and this is a fence, by the way, not the infamous wall, just a wire fence). Yet, soldiers have lobbed many volleys of tear gas, percussion bombs, and even rubber-coated bullets. Some demonstrators have died. No soldier has ever died in Bi’ilin. There are also raids; I didn’t witness one while I stayed in Bi’lin, but about a month later, five jeeps filled with 30 soldiers and border police came into town to harass the “internationals,” hustling them outside in the rain at night, checking their passports, and invading their living space. No reason. Just harassment since the Israelis are not happy with the Bi’lin website and publicity that the “internationals” bring to the “fence.” It’s bad public relations for Israel.

I talked to numerous Palestinians and felt neither fear nor intimidation, and they all asked me to take a “message to Obama.” Both Muslims and Christians alike have this almost mystical belief that I could bring a message to him, a message of peace and justice in this holiday season. I told them I knew Senator John Kerry, and I would bring that message to him and via him to Obama and Hilary Clinton. They trust that I will.

What do they want? First, recognition of a Palestinian state for them alongside a Jewish state for the Jews; a reduction of the checkpoints; more easily obtained exit visas and passes to other parts of the region; less arbitrary searches and seizures; more water; but mostly more respect and dignity.

They blessed me and thanked me and told me that maybe only the Messiah can bring peace to this troubled region. Is Obama their “messiah”? I certainly hope so.

Jack Nusan Porter is a sociologist and social activist and a former rabbi. His latest book is The Genocidal Mind. He can be reached by emailing jacknusan@earthlink.net.

Jack Porter
Jack Nusan Porter is on the executive board of the International Association of Genocide Scholars and a Newton-based author of The Genocidal Mind and Genocide and Human Rights: A Global Anthology.

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