Sharing the Shelling

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Perhaps I should have suspected something would be amiss after dropping off our cook, Issa, early last Saturday afternoon (May 5th) in Bethlehem. We hoped to meet the next day in Al Khader, a suburb of  Bethlehem, where the annual Orthodox feast of Al Khader (St. George) would be celebrated. The feast usually attracts large crowds of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. This would be my first experience of it. I had received an invitation for the celebration many weeks earlier from friends in Beit Jala, and I was looking forward to it. Then Issa pointed to the crowds hurrying through the street. They were streaming toward the funeral services of a Palestinian who had been gunned down assassination-style by the IDF earlier that morning. As I drove toward the checkpoint out of Bethlehem, the traffic coming into town by car and on foot was quite heavy. Yet nothing seemed to jar my consciousness.

I had decided to make a full day of the feast, so early on Sunday I was off to play tennis with the Brothers at Bethlehem University. This would serve as a prelude to meeting the Mukarker family in Beit Jala, who would be my hosts for this feast of Al Khader. A grand liturgy in the Orthodox monastery of St. George was planned, along with a type of street festival that drew together Christian and Muslim Palestinians in a special way. I passed through the checkpoint with relative ease, only to arrive at Bethlehem University to sounds of heavy automatic gunfire? fierce gun battles had erupted from the area of Beit Jala. It was clear that the festivities for Al Khader would have to be cancelled. The Brothers told me that Al Khader had been hit Saturday evening with a heavy tear gas attack. As we talked, there was the added sound of heavy shelling as the Israeli tanks moved into action ? what was their target? These are all residential areas, one of the last few strongholds of Christian Palestinians in the Holy Land. Everything seemed so surreal, like I had walked into the middle of a novel from the ?50?s by Camus or Kafka. There we were on the campus of the University with the shelling going on maybe 2 or 3 miles away, and all of us had friends in that area. The frustration of our being so helpless seemed to gnaw at each of us.

Before leaving the campus I called the Mukarker family to ask their advice about coming. I was relieved they said to come (this is what I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to impose myself on them in any way). As I drove off the University campus the gatekeeper, with cell phone in hand, warned against going to Beit Jala. The hospital was already full of wounded and the firing was especially heavy and on going. Despite the warning, I drove over to Beit Jala without any incident, but when we arrived, it was obvious from Faten Mukarker’s greeting that something was wrong. She had just received word that her cousin’s youngest child, a boy of five who was looked upon as God’s gift, after seven older sisters, had been severely wounded in his arm. He was out walking with his mother when he was struck by shrapnel. They were awaiting further news. We went to the services at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Beit Jala. Faten was informed enroute that the youngster’s arm was almost evered, and now she had to inform her mother who was in the church, not an easy task, since the boy was her favorite. After Mass we visited the basement of the church, there is an ancient cell there where St. Nicholas had reputedly lived, and also the remains of an ancient altar dedicated to St. Nicholas. Then we joined a few of the parishioners for coffee in the social hall across from the church; although most of them had gone directly home because of the shelling. The shelling, however, did not halt this simple gesture of Palestinian hospitality. After the coffee we walked back home. The firing grew heavier (and louder) at times. Monica, the Mukarkers, 10 year old daughter, was visibly frightened, she would jump at the explosive sounds. My heart went out to her; life was not fair in her regard. She showed us her drawings all based on the recent violence. She then drew a special one for me, also based on the fighting, which showed the sun weeping, and a body being carried for burial, and Monica’s face at the window of their home, and she too was weeping. This is clearly what dominates her thinking and that of so many youngsters in Palestinian villages. How to help them? As the shelling grew more intense, We linked our hands in quiet prayer. Then we moved the dinner table a bit further away from the windows lest we or the food get splattered with glass shards, should a shell come too close. (All of this was done in good humor, or at least with as much humor as the tragic situation would allow. Theologically I would argue that humor is a corollary to our faith in the risen Christ, and it was in that spirit that we shared a meal together.)

After lunch we watched more of the TV news which showed Beit Jala live. We could hear the shelling coming from outside as well as from the TV shelling in stereo, if you will! I felt so badly for those targeted by these shells. Faten pointed to several houses severely damaged or burning from the shelling, one was a home finished just 5 months ago, representing the life-savings of a family. There were gruesome news photos also from the hospital in Beit Jala, one corpse with half his head blown away, and a young girl, still in her school uniform who lost her right eye to shrapnel (the number of eye injuries among the Palestinians during this Intifada is enormous). Then there was a gasp when the Mukarkers recognized on TV another relative being wheeled into the hospital among the wounded.

I looked at all of this and listened to the shelling and know that it is Israel that says: “Stop the violence!” as though the Palestinians were the major perpetrators of violence in this tragedy And the world seems to agree with Israel. If the “world” could only spend such a day in Beit Jala! Yes, the violence should be stopped. Yes, the Palestinians can do much more to stop it. And if they would, their case would be immeasurably improved. Yes, it is hard for both sides of the conflict to resist the urge to retaliate. But if the Palestinians could stop the violence and replace it with non-violent protests against the injustices of the occupation, and with the support of a strong contingent of internationals and whatever Israeli activists who could join them, their cause would be greatly enhanced. And if concerned Israelis could broaden their non-violent protests against their government’s abuse of military power in responding to Palestinian actions of a violent nature, perhaps there could be a gradual amalgamation of the forces of non-violence. Is that too much to hope for? There are enough lost lives, and arms, and eyes. Palestinians want to prove to the world the rightness of their cause, and I am convinced that the best way to do this is by non-violent strategies ? not by passively accepting the abuses of the occupation, but by actively demonstrating against them. And Israel wants and deserves security, but security in the Middle East is not going to come through shellings, snipers, rockets and tanks.

Sunday?s Orthodox celebration of Al Khader coincided with our Latin rite’s Sunday of the Good Shepherd. As I celebrated the liturgy back at the Pontifical Biblical Institute Sunday evening, I realized once again how apt it was for the events of the day. Though your people walk in the valley of darkness, no evil should they fear, for they follow in faith the call of the shepherd. There are many valleys of deep darkness through which we must all walk (especially the Christians of this Holy Land). But let us do it fearlessly, for the Lord, our shepherd, is with us, calling us to witness to God’s love and care and compassion in our world here and now. I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.? We are called to bring God’s healing and wholeness to our world, to this Holy Land, and that implies working for peace and reconciliation. And finally today’s readings remind us that the Lamb will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.? Let this be our hope as we continue to walk through the valleys of darkness. 

(Mr. Donald J. Moore is in Pontifical Biblical Institute, Jerusalem, on leave of absence from the Department of Theology, Fordham University)

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