Searching for peace…

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On a warm spring morning in the midst of a bustling outdoor market on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, a young Palestinian woman quietly joined 30 people in a queue waiting for the No. 6 bus–and then blew herself up, killing six others and injuring more than 80, Jews and Arabs alike, many severely.

It was the 110th suicide bombing (or homicide bombing, as the White House is now calling them) in the last 18 months. It will not be the last. The question is, how many more will there be before peace is secured in this country that is the birthplace of the prince of Peace?

The latest chapter in Israel’s turbulent history is written in the blood of Jews and Arabs–young and old, rich and poor–people who claim to want to live in peace. The price it extracts, in terms of human suffering and the ability to compromise enough to satisfy the barest of non-negotiable demands, seems to be greater than either government can afford.

 

Nigel Cross

The fighting has hardly stopped since October 2000, with more than 1,200 Palestinians killed, 14,000 wounded and 5,000 homes and businesses destroyed. More than 400 Israelis have been killed, 500 injured and 20 structures destroyed or damaged.

Impact on Israel

 

While the headlines–and the news cameras–are locked on the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza, and the Golan Heights, the devastation is felt throughout Israel. For months this holy land, the destination of Christian and Jewish travelers from around the world, has been virtually devoid of pilgrims. And the economic fallout for Jews and Arabs appears to be almost as deadly as the bullets and bombs.

On a recent trip to Israel–a press trip sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism–I had the opportunity to observe first hand the impact the intifada is having throughout the country. We were there as the U.S. was attempting to jump-start peace efforts once again, and for the eight days we toured the country, from Banias (Caesarea Philippi), just below the borders of Lebanon and Syria in the north to Beersheba in the south (at the top of the Negev), not a single terrorist bombing took place.

The last few days of our trip were spent in Jerusalem, where our hotel was in sight of the Old City walls. Vice President Dick Cheney stayed at the historic King David down the street; 70 members of the press corps were lodged at our hotel, as were numbers of government support staff. Security was high; guards checked our purses, bags, and briefcases as we entered, and patrolled the lobby. It felt safe there.

Quiet countryside

Away from the city, with its proximity to the West Bank, it was a different world–calm, peaceful, bucolic, changeless. The atmosphere was remarkably the same in the Galilee, for example, as it had been on previous trips to the Holy Land. The mystery and magic of this ancient and incredible place still spoke to my soul.

Yet, at the archaeological and religious sites I soon noticed a significant difference: now, there were no tourists, no rows of pilgrimage busses in parking lots…not a single line to stand in anywhere.

That observation was affirmed by Tsion Ben-David, director of North America operations for the Israel Ministry of Tourism, who remarked that hotel occupancy is at 27 percent in Jerusalem. He is quick to note that tourists have never been targeted for attacks in this country (its #1 industry is tourism) and that Americans account for the largest number of repeat visitors–48%. “Of every 10 who come, almost five will return. Our challenge is getting you here for the first time!” he said. While in 2000 tourism generated $4 billion, that number is far less in recent years. “More than 120,000 families make their living from tourism–40,000 are out of work now,” he stated.

The toll on lives, emotions and livelihoods is marked, and the simplest daily task is not to be taken for granted. On Mt. Tabor, forever linked to Deborah, the judge, in Judges 4 and a possible site of the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-13), our guide used her cell phone to call ahead for lunch arrangements. “These days, you never know who is still in business,” she said with a smile and a shrug.

Yehuda Smadar, who owns seven wooden pleasure boats that operate on the Sea of Galilee, counts himself lucky to still be in business. In 2000, his Holyland Sailing L.T.D. had 385,000 passengers. That number dropped last year to 85,000. “We always hope things will change,” he says. This year, however, it has not been any better–now, only two of his boats are in use.

Hope and optimism

Yet, there is always hope, and an inherent optimism seems to run through the psyche of this people.

Rabbi Maya Leibovich was ordained in 1993, the first “sabra” or native-born Israeli woman to be ordained as a rabbi in Israel; she is hopeful that women will help to bring about peace and reform in her country. “Women will carry the next revolution, it is even touching ultra-orthodox women. I hope it will change the face of Israel into a more pluralistic, peaceful society.”

A child of Holocaust survivors who grew up with few religious ties, this 54-year-old wife and mother now heads a congregation of 180 families. The synagogue, she notes, is the place to go in times of strife, and these days, much of her counseling is related to the intifada. “These days, there is more worry and tension in lives. You don’t let your kids go places that would have been ok to go to in the past. Terrorists are looking for crowded places, aiming at the youth.”

She notes, “There seems to be no real wish by politicians on either side to reach an agreement. Life is being terrorized on both sides.” No land, to her, is worth the bloodshed. “I don’t talk politics in the synagogue. Many things are a source of hope. Within both Israel and Palestine there are people who want peace….in times like this people need to pray, but most people don’t know how to.”

Looking at the single group of tourists seated nearby in the restaurant, she added, “These days, every tourist is a hero.”

 

Nigel Cross

A Franciscan monk sweeps the walk in front of the Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor.


Moral courage needed

There are few tourists eating lunch outside the Fountain Grill, a falafel stand in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and a fixture in the neighborhood for 18 years. Subhi Abu-Hallaweh, who owns the Grill, admits, “Everyone is suffering in Israel–Christians, Jews and Arabs.” For him, it’s meant a loss of some 150,000 shekels in revenue in the past year and the terminating of three of his four employees. Shuttered storefronts surround his outdoor lunch tables–apparently the other merchants have closed shop for a while.

“We hope something will happen to stop the intifada and we’ll have peace in all of Israel. Both nations need moral courage, especially the leaders, to decide what’s the right thing for all.”

How do you live in a war zone?

Author and licensed tour guide Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, a native of New Jersey, has lived in Israel since 1969. Married to an Israeli war veteran who was wounded in 1973, she is the mother of two teenage daughters, one of whom just started her service in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

We had just passed through a military checkpoint on the road that took us from Jerusalem to Masada; after a number of days of seeing school children on field trips with armed escorts and noticing security measures throughout Jerusalem, I finally asked Miriam, our tour guide, “How do you live here, with the suicide bombings, the sudden death–the turmoil?”

She thought for a minute, and then said balance was the key. “Going about your business is an important aspect of keeping your balance. You hear the news, see the pictures, and wonder ‘Who do I know there [site of an attack]?’ If you don’t know anyone, you put it aside. But that’s getting harder and harder to do–Israel is a small country.

“If you’re religious, you say it’s fate: it will or won’t happen to you or a loved one for reasons not clear to you; it’s God’s will. Faith is a source of strength.”

Youth, she said, get together to talk and read the Psalms and support each other. Her HMO recently started a crisis hotline for people to call after an attack occurs–and received 700 calls the first day.

In its March 25, 2002 issue The Jerusalem Report (www.jrep.com) had as its cover story “Living in the Shadow of Death,” where it stated: “Non-stop terrorism induces a sense of helplessness. Trying to resist that, Israelis are clinging to the motions of daily life, relying on caution, humor, spirituality and fatalism in order to survive.”

That relentless terrorism may be creating a society, wrote the article’s author Yossi Klein Halevi, in the early stages of shell shock. “It’s no longer possible to mourn the dead, because within a few hours there are more dead,” said Avi Bleich, head of Tel Aviv University’s Psychiatry Department. “People can’t cope with the intensity of mourning. And so people enclose themselves within their immediate circle, in the family, and become more and more mechanistic.”

How will it end? Halevi writes, “Few Israelis believe any longer in either a political or military solution: At most, the conflict can be managed, not resolved…Even the [political] left, which in recent weeks has made something of a comeback, now proposes unilateral withdrawal from the territories, or ‘separation’–tacit admission that a deal with Arafat is impossible.”

And so, we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, for Israel, and for Jew and Arab–and Christian–alike.

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