by Bob Lupton We moved easily back and forth across the border – Americans with passports can do this. Palestinian guards waved us through the West Bank check points without asking for our ID. Armed Israeli border patrol, however, were much more cautious about our re-entry back through the dividing walls into Israel. Tensions were noticeably high among residents on both sides of the concrete border barriers but were significantly elevated in Jerusalem where Jews and Arabs walked the same streets. Sporadic outbreaks were quickly quelled by highly visible military patrols. This was the anniversary of Israel’s independence and Palestine’s occupation – a day of both proud celebration and bitter resentment.
Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu was in Washington meeting with President Obama. He would be given generous standing ovations by Congress. In Israel, every word was being scrupulously weighed. Does he really want peace between the Israelis and Palestinians? And if so, at what price?
Obama suggests returning to the pre-1967 war borders as a starting place for negotiations. Netanyahu ignores the idea, emphasizing the importance of securing Israel’s borders against unpredictable if not overtly hostile neighbors. Obama insists that seizing Palestinian lands for Jewish settlements is unacceptable. Netanyahu agrees in principle to return “some” unspecified land for the sake of peace, demonstrating his willingness to engage in reasonable negotiations. Netanyahu affirms that Israel will be first in line to welcome a Palestine state into the family of nations as soon as Palestine accepts a reasonable agreement and terminates its relationship with Hamas terrorists. Congress cheers.
But no one back in Israel is cheering. Israeli settlers who have braved rocket fire from Hamas radicals have no intention of yielding ground to an enemy bent on Israel’s destruction. West Bank Palestinians know that Israel will never part with valuable settlement land that contains the lion’s share of precious water supply. “We can never give up our ability to secure our borders,” one Jewish religious leader tells us, meaning that the military occupation of the Jordan River valley must remain. “Netanyahu does not want peace,” declares a respected Palestinian leader. “This is only rhetoric to please American ears.”
And so the conflict goes. The children of Abraham continue their contentious struggle over an inheritance both claim to be theirs. The animosity has persisted for millennia, ever since Ishmael poked fun at his younger half-brother Isaac and got himself and his mother banished to the desert. And there appears to be no end in sight. At present, spunky Israel has the upper hand – a formidable military force and the solid backing of the United States. But the Palestinians are gaining political ground – human rights advocates champion their cause and the sympathies of the Muslim world lean their way. It is not hard to imagine a clash of seismic proportions, especially if the surrounding Arab nations develop nuclear arsenals. An eruption so religiously charged, so ethnically hot-blooded, so economically strategic, has the potential to make plausible the ancient prophesy predicting the battle to end all battles being waged in this land.
Is peace in the Middle East even remotely possible? Every U.S. president in recent memory has hoped so. Yet none has succeeded in brokering a lasting agreement. “Men cry ‘peace, peace,’ but there is no peace.” Strange, isn’t it, that the Prince of Peace should enter human history in the very midst of middle-eastern strife, in an occupied, tension-filled land. He spoke of a time when peace would reign, when men would make war no more. He spoke of a Kingdom where greatness would be measured by servant-hood, not domination, where sharing was preferred above possessing. How far this Kingdom must have seemed from the volatility of occupied Israel! How far it seems from the tensions in present day Jerusalem streets!
Yet, running silently beneath the boisterous bickering and political posturing flows a current of civility – no…. more than civility, more like respect and thoughtful consideration. Palestinian Christians, stripped of their homeland and segregated as second class citizens, meet quietly in desert places with their Israeli brothers and sisters to pray and work at reconciliation. Jewish believers, living in fear of missile attacks, join with Palestinians to worship and seek means for fair and equitable treatment for all. Courageous souls, Jewish, Christian and Islamic, risk the wrath of their communities as they urge their leaders to choose forgiveness and reconciliation over revenge and retaliation. If you listen carefully, you can detect the presence of Shalom, not yet prevailing, yet persistently present, whispering the hopeful message that peace – lasting peace – will indeed come. In the fullness of time.