JERUSALEM and the WEST BANK-Atop Mt. Zion sits the Cenacle, considered by historians the likely setting of the Last Supper. High tourist season in Jerusalem arrives a few weeks before Easter, so on a recent weekday the main floor (cena means dinner) was filled to capacity: Roman Catholics from the Philippines prayed and sang together in one corner; Italians listened to a tour guide in another; Russian Orthodox nearby studied the Armenian capitals that top columns in the Crusader-era vault; and a group of evangelicals from Alaska waited their turn outside in midday sun. From the Jewish school at the site came the sounds of male prayer chanting.
A synagogue was here long before the apostles reportedly established it as a place of worship following Jesus' death and resurrection. It was destroyed by Persians in 614, rebuilt, destroyed by Muslims in 1009, regained by Crusaders in 1099, who built the basilica that partially survives today. The Franciscans took it over until another Muslim invasion-when it was transformed into a mosque and closed to Christians until the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Since the Six Day War in 1967, the Diaspora Yeshiva has run the compound.
The Cenacle is hardly unique: Most sites in tourist brochures of "the Holy Land" are layered with competing religious significance and conflicting historiography. Holiday or no, it's tough for tourists to escape the political implications of these controversies-fallout that feeds the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wider conflict between the Arab world and the West.
"Holy places have become the symbol of the conflict," said Yitzhak Reiter, professor of Middle East politics and Islamic studies at Hebrew University. "Every space where someone can find some holy connection becomes part of the conflict."
The phenomenon isn't new. A stone doorway leading into the Cenacle's basilica has a chink for the mezuzah, the Hebrew scripture traditionally tucked into doorposts. The mezuzah is gone, and next to it some long-dead graffiti artist has chiseled "Allah" in Arabic. For the last 10 years, Israel and the Vatican have been in negotiations over ceding control to Rome.
Age-old disputes morphed into what some called an international crisis during Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Jerusalem last month.
The flashpoint was 1,600 new housing units that Israel announced March 10 it planned to build in East Jerusalem. But they are only part of a larger tableau. Arab residents are locked in legal and other battles with Israelis over contested sites around Jerusalem. City fathers are wrestling over approximately 88 Arab homes planned for demolition near excavations for the City of David. In Sheikh Jarrah, another contested area of mostly Arab housing, 3,000 Arab and Jewish residents turned out to protest planned evictions two days before Biden's arrival.
Israelis, for their part, say that illegal building in the Arab areas of Jerusalem has reached a crisis point: Unlicensed units now number 1,000 per year, according to Justus Reid Weiner of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The mostly Palestinian and Arab residents of East Jerusalem say they are discriminated against in the issuing of building permits, while 650 housing units in the city have been demolished since 2000 to make way for Israeli projects, according to the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem.
The backdrop-sparking almost daily confrontation between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli police-is the failure to resolve internal borders between Israeli and Palestinian areas. The 1993 Oslo Accords granted limited self-rule to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Gaza, but further talks have stalled. Controversial building projects by both sides threaten the ability to finalize the agreed-upon two-state solution. And whether Jerusalem is to remain a unified city under Israeli or international control, or a divided city that is capital to both Israel and the state of Palestine is a question both sides say is being determined by "creating facts on the ground"-staking claims via building and development.
Reiter calls the unrest a "cold intifada"-reminiscent of previous Palestinian uprisings that led to massive violence and Israeli counterattacks. The "low-scale violence" of recent weeks, he said, isn't going away because Palestinians believe Israel wants to "Judaize" Arab portions of Jerusalem-and the West Bank-in the absence of a negotiated solution on who controls what.
Last month U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, head of Central Command, sounded a similar alarm. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he listed the conflict first in a list of "major drivers of instability" in the region, warning that it "foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel" and "limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples [in the region]."
It's also costing American taxpayers a lot of money. Since 1971 U.S. aid to Israel has averaged $2.6 billion a year. Now the United States through USAID provides $800 million a year in development aid to the West Bank and Gaza-more than USAID provides anywhere else in the world except Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Israeli security interests featured prominently at last week's American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention in Washington. But what about the interests of the region's 2.5 million Palestinians-including approximately 60,000 who identify themselves as Christians-who also have a stake in the peace process?
To understand their situation and perspective, a good place to begin is at the beginning: Bethlehem. Long before it became the birthplace of Jesus, it was where Jacob buried his wife Rachel, the home of Boaz and Ruth, and the birthplace of David. Today the old city is mostly inaccessible to Jews living in Israel. And Christians from Bethlehem, who like to call themselves the descendents of the shepherds keeping watch during Jesus' birth, find it hard if not impossible to travel to Jerusalem-although it's only five miles away.
That's largely because Islamic militants launched attacks from Bethlehem on Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and a nearby Jewish settlement during the second intifada. In 2002 the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade took up positions inside the Church of the Nativity and held it for 39 days. The terrorist group spread fear throughout the city, as attacks on Christians (including rapes of women) rose, and the militants forcibly took over areas of the city once dominated by Christian families.
By 2005 the violence had subsided but Israel did not forget: The military built a concrete security wall that partly surrounds Bethlehem, with one section running directly into town, where a corner observation tower rises only two blocks from the five-star hotel where Biden met with PA president Mahmoud Abbas last month.
The wall is 25 feet high and built of reinforced concrete sections-part of the 440-mile security barrier project Israel has said it will complete this year. Here the wall cuts over 10 miles inside the West Bank, worrying residents that it will become the de facto boundary with Israel should a two-state solution someday be formalized.
"It's the first time in history that Jerusalem and Bethlehem have been segregated," said Jad Isaac, a Palestinian Christian who heads the Applied Research Institute in Beit Sahour, a town next door to Bethlehem. Israelis like to call the security wall a "fence," but in Bethlehem it is a wall-dividing the city from dozens of its own established residential homes and cordoning off Rachel's Tomb from Palestinian residents.
Overall the security wall has reduced suicide bomb attacks against Israel; estimates range anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent. But security for Israelis has come at a high price for Palestinians. Unemployment in Bethlehem shot to over 60 percent following its construction, according to Isaac, and tourism has plummeted. Tour buses from Jerusalem now make day excursions to Bethlehem and discourage visitors from staying overnight in its hotels. Israel has constructed bypass roads on the other side of the wall that further reduce commerce-roads that Palestinian identity card holders are prohibited from entering at checkpoints.
Since the Oslo Accords, Israelis and the 1.5 million Israeli Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship carry blue identity cards. Palestinians carry green identity cards. "I could lose my mobile [phone] and all my money," a businessman in Bethlehem named Elias told me, "but I live in fear of losing my identity card."
The cards allow Palestinians entry into Bethlehem and other parts of the West Bank-but not Jerusalem. Likewise, blue card holders may not enter Bethlehem and other West Bank cities. Anyone is free to apply for a special permit from the Israeli government, but most requests are denied except for humanitarian or medical reasons. Those who receive permits say they may expire in seven days, or six months-making it difficult to plan for business and other travel purposes. Elias partners in an olive wood export business using a U.S. distributor; given the security barriers, it's easier to do business overseas, he said, than to try to build the business within the region.
One of his partners, also a Palestinian identity card holder, is married to an Israeli Arab. Both are Christians. The husband, who like most Palestinian Christians asked not to be named in print, explained to me that because of security restrictions he cannot travel with his wife to Jericho, a city also within the West Bank and about 25 miles away. His wife with her blue card must travel using the Israeli roads west of town and into Jerusalem. He with his green card must use the roads for Palestinians that run east and north out of Bethlehem.
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.
Abusaliah, like many Palestinian Christians I spoke to, is weary of the maneuvering for a two-state solution. "I have another idea: the one-state solution," he said. "Normally we don't have any problem with Jews. We consider them our elder brothers and have our roots in the Old Testament. Our problem is not with Judaism; it is with soldiers and settlers."
He also believes that the importance of the ancient Christian communities in the West Bank is overlooked: "We are a continuation of first century community. We are the descendants of the apostles. Without Christians you have old stones here-museums-but we are living stones."
The divide between Israelis and Palestinians is growing, according to Salim Munayer, a professor and former academic dean at Bethlehem Bible College. Younger generations live in increasingly barricaded communities, walled off from daily contact with one another and more dependent on media and political parties to characterize their differences.
Growing up in the 1950s south of Tel Aviv, Munayer attended Arab and Christian schools and then went to a Jewish high school. Munayer's family then was Greek Orthodox with little more than historic ties to Christianity. His uncle one day put an ad in the Jerusalem Post for someone "to teach his children the New Testament." Munayer says a Bible teacher responded and "what came together was a mixed group-Greek Orthodox, secular, traditional, and Messianic Jews. Many levels of religious faith and belief. In that context I found Jesus answering questions not only of my identity but the beginning of answers concerning the conflict."
The group helped transform Munayer from "a bitter, angry teenager, knowing the ceiling was very low, and without hope." In 1980 he left Israel for the United States, studying at Fuller Seminary and later at Oxford, but he returned in 1985. In 1990 he founded Musalaha, a nonprofit dedicated to reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
"We started naïvely, passionately, and learning by trials and errors. And by studying other people's experiences, by going to the Bible, and understanding the difficulty of people coming together," said Munayer. One thing he has learned is that conflicts the world describes as "intractable" don't have to be. Take Northern Ireland and Bosnia, two long-running conflicts now largely resolved, which Munayer says have a lot in common with the Middle East. "You have different people living in close proximity, competing for the same resources, and conflict is marked by their identity, with a lot of pain and victimization mentality-what's perceived as zero sum conflict."
But Munayer has lived in Israel and the West Bank long enough to remember it differently: "I grew up with Muslims, I grew up with Jews, we used to play, we used to fight. The communities mixed with each other. It's not happening anymore. Our communities are segregated, not only because people are making choices but because of government programs."
Musalaha emphasizes working with youth to recreate that kind of cultural melting pot, bringing together youth from Messianic Jewish congregations with Arab-Israeli and Palestinian Christians. Joel Goldberg is one such leader, a Messianic Jew who heads a ministry near Tel Aviv-the only youth program among Israel's 150 Messianic congregations. As the ministry has grown, it has embraced Arabic-speaking Israelis, and these in turn have helped connect the youth ministry to Arabic-speaking Christians from the West Bank.
They cannot meet on one another's turf because of the internal restrictions, but working with Munayer, Goldberg has organized meetings overseas. ("To someone from Bethlehem, Cyprus is closer than Jerusalem," said Goldberg.) Now Goldberg and Munayer have found a way to hold the first joint meeting: In June Messianic Jewish youth, Arab-Israeli youth, and Palestinian youth will meet at a boarding school and vocational training center that sits exactly on the border between Israeli and Palestinian territory, not far from Bethlehem. Those with green Palestinian identity cards can enter via a gate on the Palestinian side, while those with blue Israeli IDs will enter via a gate on the Israeli side of the campus.
"I will speak in Hebrew with translation into Arabic. I feel very honored to have this opportunity," said Goldberg. But he doesn't expect miracles: "Physically there is a fence. There is a wall. There is a war between our people. Even the last weeks we see a growing divide among our people. Do I believe the physical walls will be removed? Not soon. But doing what we do changes people's worldview. It changes the way that Jewish youth view Arabs when they join the army, for example. Not just any Arab person is the enemy, but there are those among them who can be the enemy."
Munayer said, "I often feel that I am living inside of two realities-a political reality that is hopeless and a spiritual reality that is not. So which reality do you go with?" He believes that for too long resolution has been focused on the externals-the holy sites around Jerusalem and border disputes-while the internal challenge of winning hearts and minds went neglected. "Here's the place where I am now: God is absorbing evil like a sponge and transforming it for good. A lot of it is hidden but it is happening in people's hearts."
Under a series of agreements signed through 1999, Israel transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA) security and civilian responsibility for many Palestinian-populated areas of the West Bank and Gaza. The current PA government in the West Bank is led by independent Salam Fayyad, the prime minister.
Land area: 8,356 sq miles
Religion: Jewish 76.4%
Arab Christians 1.7%
other Christian 0.4%
GDP: $205.2 billion or $28,400 (2009 est.) per capita
Land area: 2,178 sq miles
Religion: Muslim 75% (predominantly Sunni)
Christian and other 8%
GDP: $12.79 billion or $2,900 (2008 est.) per capita
*note: includes about 187,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, about 20,000 in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and fewer than 177,000 in East Jerusalem
source: CIA World Factbook