Allow me first to introduce myself to you. I am a Palestinian Christian, born and raised in Bethlehem, and the pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church as well as the director of the International Center of Bethlehem. We met two years ago here in Bethlehem, and you may have read my book Bethlehem 2000, presented to you by President Arafat on the occasion of your visit.
Today, I was supposed to arrive to your country together with my wife, who happens to hold a US green card. We were invited by friends and fellow Christians from Florida, Illinois, Kansas and Missouri, who were anticipating our visit as much as we were. They worked very hard for the past three months to organize for me a series of lectures, preaching engagements and important meetings. However, I find myself sitting in my office in Bethlehem today writing you this letter instead.
I know of your commitment to peace in this region. I read your recent proposals, as released. At first, I thought that they were interesting. Then, a second reading showed me how vague they were. But after my experience yesterday, I found that they do not contain the promise of freedom, peace and dignity that they claim. Once we reached our destination, my wife and I submitted our applications and we were told that it is forbidden for Palestinians to leave the country except if they possess foreign passports. We were instructed to come back in three days to see if we can get these permits.
On December 31st, I called the Israeli military authority to inquire if we were granted the permits and was told that my wife did but I was denied. The reason given was that my wife has a green card and I do not. I told them that I have, as a clergyman, a Vatican Passport. The soldier said “Then, you should fill new forms, attach a copy of your passport and apply again.” I did as told.
I drove again to the roadblock to catch a yellow license-plate taxi, but found that there was a small opening in the road that would allow my car through. I decided to take the chance and I drove my own car heading to the settlement. During this 6-mile journey my wife and I were afraid of what might happen to us if a settler decides that our presence on the road is not to his/her liking.
Finally, we reached our destination and got our permits. We returned to the roadblock and tried get in the way we went out, but an Israeli Military vehicle was standing there. He pointed the gun at us and told us to go back to the place we came from. I told my wife not to worry and that we should go to the other roadblocks to see if there were any openings. It was then that we started our Via Dolorosa, traveling from one roadblock to another.
For more than one hour we kept on doing so and I kept thinking about how villagers, commuting to the town every day, suffer as a result of Bethlehem being sealed off. Finally, we found an opening in one of the roadblocks and were able to enter our Little Town of Bethlehem before the soldiers saw us and closed it.
Yesterday, on January 4th, we headed at 9:30 in the morning in a yellow license-plate car to the Ben Gurion airport, which is around 30 miles north west of Bethlehem, to catch our 16:35 flight. The soldiers at the entrance of Bethlehem stopped the car, asked for the permits, checked them and allowed us to go through. We arrived at the airport early and were the first in line. We handed our passports, tickets and permits to the security official, who looked at the permit and then at us and at the permits again.
She told us that our permits are not valid and that we cannot fly. “But, the people who issued them reassured me yesterday on the phone that they are,” I argued. She said that she will check with the airport police, who told her that the permits are invalid.
Being prepared for anything, I had the phone number of the military authorities who issued the permits and I called them. I spoke to the captain, who reassured me that the permits are valid and gave my cellular phone to the security officer to hear it for herself. She sent another officer to the airport police, who returned with the answer NO PALESTINIAN IS ALLOWED TO LEAVE THE COUNTRY. “Let me talk to the police authorities myself” I said. “You should look for them yourself, try the information desk,” was her answer.
In the meantime her boss came and shouted at her for wasting her time talking to us. She left and I started my search for the police, leaving my wife at the counter with the luggage. I was prohibited to get to the airport police, which one can only reach if one has the boarding pass. Finally, I was told to walk to the police headquarters, which is located outside the main building in the airport. Once I got there, they wouldn’t let me in. The woman at the desk dialed a number and handed me the phone. I explained to the policewoman on the other end what went on and her answer was “NO PALESTINIAN IS ALLOWED TO LEAVE THE COUNTRY. These are our instructions”. She refused to take the number of the military authorities to talk to them and insisted that they should talk to her.
I called the military authorities again and asked them to talk to the airport police. He promised to do so. And for the next three hours our Via Dolorosa continued between the Military authorities, airport police and airport security. At 15:35 I called the captain at Gosh Ezion, who told me that he tried his best, but that there are orders, which he cannot overrule and so we cannot travel today, but that I should wait until things calm down.
I asked myself, how can things calm down if they continue treating people like that. What would you do, Mr. President, if you were in my shoes?
I am not talking about the financial loss, the taxis and flight tickets. Neither am I talking about lost time and stress. Rather, I am talking about basic human rights of free movement and of living in dignity. What would you do if you were in my shoes? Many Palestinians, especially Christians, choose the option of immigration. They leave to live in the Promised Land of the USA, thus emptying the Promised Land of Palestine of its resources, potential and promise. Others are radicalized by such treatment. The constant inhuman treatment eliminates their imagination of a better life here and now. If you are treated like they are treated Mr. President, I am sure you will not act differently. But you are never treated like that. In two weeks you will leave office, with or without an agreement. But, we as Palestinians are here to stay. For better or for worse we have to live with whichever agreement brokered by your country. Here, I ask myself, what would I, Mitri Raheb, do if I were in your shoes?
If I were in your shoes I would make sure that the Palestinians will have real sovereignty, and control over their borders, their By-Passless roads, their airspace, so that tomorrow not one single Palestinian would be treated the way I was treated yesterday. I am not talking about luxury, but rather about living without humiliation. If I were in your shoes, I would follow the footprints of Christ and do everything possible to bring justice, healing and hope to the land in which 2000 years ago the Divine gave humanity its new meaning, dignity and promise.