Visiting the Palestinians
travelreport with pictures
(English translation by Jobbine Staal)

Dutch version


with English and Dutch subtitles

1. Jeruzalem - Abu Dis - Bethlehem
2. Jericho - Ramallah
3. Abud - Nazareth - Tiberias

Between 2 and 10 November 2006, I visited the Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories of the West Bank as participant of a traveling conference.
What does the word 'Palestinians' mean to the average Dutchman? Terrorism, Muslims, Hamas, PLO and corrupt politicians like Arafat. These associations are understandable, but they do not give us a proper image of 'the Palestinians'.

Who are the Palestinians? Originally, they are the mainly Arab inhabitants of Palestine, the Holy Land, before the state of Israel was founded there in 1948, and their offspring.
After a long history of anti-Semitism and finally the holocaust in Europe, the state of Israel was declared in 1948. Long before, many Jews had migrated to Palestine, many of them driven by Zionistic ideals. But the Hitler-regime caused the migration of a much larger group of Jews, who only saw one place where they could live in safety: a new state of Israel in old Palestine. This is how the Palestinians became the victims of a colonization process which was mainly caused by the persecution of the Jews in Europe.
When the state of Israel was founded, not only the part of Palestine that was assigned by the UN (see map), was occupied, but other parts as well. Around 750.000 Palestinians then fled the violence of the Israeli army, a number which would later grow to around one million (see map). A large number of these refugees and their children still live in refugee camps in Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza (see map). Many others have settled down ‘normally' in the remaining Palestinian areas or have emigrated.

In 1967 Israel conquered the Palestinian areas of Gaza and the West Bank, which had been free up to then (see map). Contrary to various UN resolutions these areas are still occupied by Israel. What's more, little by little they are being taken over by means of a large number of Jewish settlements: new villages and cities where only Jews are allowed to live (see recent report by Peace Now). Moreover, a vast and still growing road system which is only available to Jews and tourists has been built (read more; Traveling limitations and ID card, and Checkpoints).

The wall
Israel has been building a long and high wall around Palestinian areas on the West Bank since 2002. This wall does not follow the so-called 'green line', the official border between the state of Israel and the Palestinian areas, but penetrates deeply into Palestinian areas, in order to involve as many illegal Jewish settlements in Israeli territory as possible. The wall is obviously not just being built for protection, but also to expand Israeli territory (see pdf-map).
The consequence is that not just Israeli and Palestinians are being separated, but Palestinians from Palestinians as well. They are hardly able to visit each other, sometimes not at all.
Moreover, many Palestinian farmers lose access to their olive tree orchards, if they haven't been destroyed yet. The result is that many families are left without an income (see: Plant an olive tree).
All measures of the occupation combined mean that many Palestinians are locked inside their cities and villages, because they hardly have the opportunity to travel, while their economic situation is getting worse every day.

Many westerners do not know that 2% of the Palestinian population is Christian. This percentage used to be higher, but their hopeless situation causes the emigration of Palestinian Christians to continue. Like the Muslims, they speak, believe and pray in the Arabic language. We have had many meetings with Palestinian Christians, who ensured us they feel very much part of the Arabic Palestinian culture, and do not want to be played off against Muslims. Their biggest problem isn't the tension (which is sometimes present) between Muslims and Christians, but the occupation and discrimination by Israel. The Palestinian Christians are well aware of the fact they are living in the country of Jesus, and that they are direct descendants of the first Christian families in Palestine. This awareness means a strong connection to Jesus, to their Palestinian-Christian ancestors, 'the holy land' they live in and the sacred places which are preserved and looked after by the Franciscans. They realize this country is of great importance to Jews, Christians and Muslims all over the world. It is therefore hard for them to understand why the church and the world are forgetting about them, as Christian minority.

After a week of many fascinating meetings with Palestinians in Israel as well as the occupied territories of the West Bank, the only possible conclusion is that the Israeli government is following a hard policy of discrimination and apartheid against them. One of the people in our company was Edwin Makue, the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches. He told us he considered the apartheid on the West Bank worse than the former situation in his own country, “because we were able to see a solution, but I cannot see one here yet”.

Occupation and violence
In the Netherlands, Palestinians are mainly known for terrorist attacks. Many Palestinians dissent from these attacks, especially when they hit civilian targets. The Christian churches in Israel and Palestine fundamentally reject any form of violence and exert themselves for a peace process without violence.
However, after having seen and felt the impact of the oppression of the Palestinians in Gaza and on the West Bank, we were actually amazed there isn't more violence. It is understandable that youngsters throw rocks at Israeli soldiers. In the Netherlands, such youngsters are, for example after a football match, kept in check by means of tear gas and rubber bullets. In Palestinian areas they are frequently shot, also during our visit.

The situation and the violence of the Palestinians can only be understood from the hard fact that the Palestinian areas, against all international agreements, are violently being occupied and expropriated by Israel. We can only dissent from Palestinian violence (especially against civilian targets) if we truly try to understand what such an occupation means.

I traveled through Israel and Palestine as a participant in a conference organized by Sabeel, an organization of Palestinian Christians led by Canon Naim Ateek and which has Archbishop Desmond Tutu as patron. Sabeel wants to reinforce the faith and the mutual bond of Palestinian Christians and take this as a starting-point for the liberation of the Palestinians. Sabeel also has different programs, for example every second year an international conference, to ask for international attention for the Palestinians and Palestinian Christians in particular.

The conference, faith and politics
I took part – with seven other people from the Netherlands – in the international conference of 2006, which lasted for a week and was held on different locations in Israel and the Palestinian areas: Jerusalem, Jericho, Ramallah and Nazareth. From there, we also visited some villages in smaller groups. The conference was held for about 200 foreign participants from 29 countries and a varying number of people from Palestinian areas.
It was inspiring to experience how the readings, discussions and excursions, which always had political aspects, were inspired by the common Christian faith. A number of days during the conference were opened with beautiful bible studies and we frequently sang and prayed together. This was all authentically involved in the program and it offered us a basis from which sometimes sharp political viewpoints were expressed.

Naim Ateek
The director of Sabeel, Canon Naim Ateek, is a born leader and good theologian. In 1948, when he was 11 years old, Israelis forced him and his family to leave their home. When the Ateek family returned to their old village of Beth Shean ten years later, a Jewish family was living in their house. When they asked if they could have a look in their old home, they were told: “This isn't your house, it is ours”.
Ateek has published a book about his experiences and his theological and political insights:Justice, and only Justice; a Palestinian Theology of Liberation, which was later translated into Dutch: Recht en gerechtigheid. Een Palestijnse bevrijdingstheologie (Meinema, ‘s Gravenhage 1990).
Read Ateek's contributions to the conference and also his article about Suicide Bombers.

How shall I tell?
During and after the conference I have often thought: 'How can I tell people at home about this, without being accused of anti-Semitism?' I am not an anti-Semite, I love the Jewish tradition and I have studied it intensely.
The Jewish peoples have a right to their own safe state in what was formerly called 'Palestine'. But this state should not and cannot be built on a basis of severe injustice and cannot put all UN resolutions aside. Like every other country in the world, Israel should be expected to respect the international justice system.
This justice system is being violated in Israel, because the Arabic inhabitants are being treated like second-rate citizens. In the Palestinian areas the occupation is ruthless, which inevitably keeps causing counter-violence from the Palestinian side. If this violence hits Jewish civilians, we should unconditionally dissent from it, just like our Palestinian fellow Christians do. But this rejection is hypocritical if we do not stand up for the fate of Palestinians more clearly.

Our own churches
Almost every Dutch church is one-sidedly pro-Israel, has very little eye for the fate of the Palestinians and pays very little attention to the Palestinian Christians. This is also true for my own church: the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PCN). I was glad to see a PCN-delegation of the classis Alkmaar and the Provincial Service Centre of Noord Holland at the Sabeel conference. But wouldn't it have been better – taking the seriousness of the situation into account – to send a representative of our synod, of the National Service Centre, or someone from the national Committee Church and Israel? It is stated in the PCN-church order that we are 'unrelinquishably' connected to the Jewish people. Doesn't this solidarity also count for the Palestinians with whom we are united through the name of Christ?

Earlier, Kerkinactie (Church in Action) has pleaded for a selective economic boycott as a means against the oppression of Palestinians. Has this plan been realised already? It is about time our PCN shows itself, because of its connection to both sides, from a more critical point of view against Israel, and dedicates itself more clearly to the improvement of the fate of the Palestinians. We can show our solidarity with the Jewish people, for example by listening well to Jewish peace organizations like B'tselem and in the Netherlands Een Ander joods geluid, which are trying to find a way to establish righteous peace with the Palestinians.

Anyone who wants to know more about what is really happening in Israel and the Palestinian areas can subscribe to the magazine De Brug by SIVMO, or to the Werkgroep Keerpunt's newsletter.

Conference Statement
Shortly after the conference, Sabeel has issued a final statement, which can be read here: