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What do Palestinians want?

"What do Palestinians want?" Continued...

Issue: "O Jerusalem," April 10, 2010

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."


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