Cover Story

What do Palestinians want?

"What do Palestinians want?" Continued...

Issue: "O Jerusalem," April 10, 2010

What happens if they try to go together since they can prove they are married, I ask? Unthinkable, he said. He would be arrested for unauthorized entry at any checkpoint, while she could be arrested for smuggling a Palestinian into Israel.

"Like many from this area, I can trace my family from 1563 living on the same piece of land, and I have more Hebrew blood in myself than 95 percent of the Israelis. But still I am treated as a foreigner," said Isaac. "For Israel I don't exist because my family homeland is behind the wall."

The daily restrictions of checkpoints and security barriers help to explain why Christians living in the West Bank grow to identify first with Palestinian Muslims, rather than the U.S.-based Christian groups that support Israel. "For most American Christians," said Elias, "we simply don't exist."

Except during periods of heightened security restrictions, most U.S. citizens may enter and exit the West Bank on a U.S. passport with an Israeli entry stamp," reads the State Department's consular information sheet on visiting the West Bank. (It's more complicated for Palestinian Americans, who even though they hold a U.S. passport are subject to restrictions.)

I took advantage of my Israeli-authorized travel privileges to follow the Palestinian roads from Bethlehem, which wind through the Judean wilderness and along the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. To the west the venerable Jerusalem skyline, its domes and minarets, is plainly visible. But as the road enters East Jerusalem the cityscape disappears behind the security wall, which cuts across the Arab neighborhoods and comes down literally upon the roadbed, leaving no room to walk or pull over by the roadside, as it enters a suburb called al-Zariyyah.

Al-Zariyyah once was called Bethany, the town where Jesus retreated from Jerusalem after His triumphal entry and possibly stayed with Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead, and his sisters Mary and Martha. Jesus also stayed with Simon the leper, according to the Gospel writer Matthew, and at his home Mary anointed Him with an expensive perfumed oil before His crucifixion.

The wall cuts through al-Zariyyah directly behind the cave marked as the tomb of Lazarus, dividing in half the now mostly Muslim city, and its historical Christian churches and sites. To go back and forth to Jerusalem, as Jesus did during Passover, now requires traveling north to the road to Jericho and entering Jerusalem via a checkpoint. It's a question worth pondering: What color identity card would Jesus have?

Further north, the same security barrier has isolated the town of Taibe from Jerusalem-a 100 percent historically Christian area of about 1,300. An outsider is tempted to describe the town as caught between two warring factions, facing economic isolation from Israel-with its gated industrial zones covering the hills around Taibe but no commerce between them-and the aggression of Muslim militants. In 2005 a Muslim mob descended on Taibe, set fire to 166 houses and several businesses, and came through the streets with clubs before Palestinian police dispersed them. The provocation: a relationship between a Muslim woman from a nearby village and a Christian man from Taibe. The woman was allegedly poisoned to death in an "honor killing" carried out by the mob, but there were no deaths among the Christians in Taibe.

But Raed Abusaliah, the town's Catholic priest, says that relations with nearby Muslim communities have eased, and he rejects the "caught" description: "Somehow that comes with the mentality that you are afraid, persecuted, that Christians are leaving or have to leave. People are leaving because of the political instability of the region, the economic instability. Muslims are leaving, too. They all would like to live a normal life. If they have peace in this land they will remain."

Abusaliah acknowledges that the town's population is dropping. He takes it personally when a home goes up for sale, and he tries to talk local families out of leaving. He paces and rocks as he talks, animated and agitated about what's happening to Christians in the West Bank. "The importance of the Christian community does not come from its numbers but from our presence and our service and our witness for Jesus Christ," he said. "But we are here since 2,000 years and will remain. We will not disappear. We will be here until He comes again."

Abusaliah has launched micro­enterprises-an olive press that makes not only oil but soap and candles, and a ceramics factory-to give residents more reasons to stay. These supply olive oil to the Red Cross, along with exports to France and the United States. His church established a home for the elderly, a direct result of the loss of easy access to Jerusalem for medical and other needs, he said.

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