A Very Complicated Relationship

‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.

I am sitting in the shadow of the Church of the Nativity – the oldest church in Christendom. Ir reminds me that we have been thinking about the parables and the other writings for much longer than I sometimes recognize.

The parable of the prodigal son or jealous brother or loving father is one of the favourites in all of the Gospel’s. It is a story with complex emotions and relationships. It also ends with one of the most famous lines in all of our hymns, “was lost and is found.” I love the story, I love the characters, I’m just not sure if I understand it in the context of the reality I faced this week.

Last week was filled with scenes of confrontation and clashes. This week, I have witnessed two very different scenes that have ripped at my heart not because of violence but long term consequences.

On Wednesday we went to the village of Nahhalin and met with Raba Fanoon a member of an extended family who had 80 Olive trees destroyed the night before. The devastation was written all over his face and slumped shoulders.

Forty households in the Fanoon family use this Olive grove as a primary source of money. The loss of these 80 trees means a 25,000 shekel decline in their income for this year and the foreseeable future. They lost 40 percent of their trees and these were the most mature, the ones that would produce the greatest revenue. It will take 5-15 years to bring new trees into production.

Raba said to us, “Imagine that you have bought a flower to plant in your home and you come home to find it dead and you feel sad. Now imagine what it is like for me and my family who have lost 80 trees.”

The Olive grove is in a remote area with two Israeli settlements to the East and West. As we surveyed the damage a settler from the eastern community watched us from the safety of his truck a few hundred yards away. As we started to leave – he left also. Was he or someone from his settlement responsible? We will probably never know. What is known is that the settlement regularly diverts it’s sewage into Nahhalin’s drinking water supply.

On Thursday one of my colleagues and I went to the Bethlehem checkpoint as we usually do just before 4 AM to count the 4-5,000 who pass through each morning before 7:00. It was more quiet than usual in the earlier morning. The breeze though cool was not cold. All seemed well.
I noticed the soldier who would control the line when she arrived at the booth. Her task is to ensure that those entering Israel have documents with them. Usually, the soldier just takes a quick glimpse as the person is heading toward the metal detector line. As she began to let people through I quickly realized that the pleasant morning was over for she started checking documents more fully than usual. The line started to back up. Someone tried to jump the queue. She called the violator back, seised his documents and made him wait for another officer to come to deal with him. Then she made everybody wait. The back log began to build quickly because of the delay. The delay resulted in more and more people attempting to jump the line so they could make it to work on time. Every time she caught someone trying to sneak ahead she would shut down the turnstile and make everybody wait.

Quickly, the line began to jam and there was a great deal of pushing and shoving. Instead of the 600-850 who would normally pass between 5:00-5:30 only 288 made it through. Before I left my post at 5:30 I had called the “Humanitarian Hotline” three times to complain about excessive delays.

At 5:30 when I was relieved as is normal the line up extended well beyond the bottom of the cage that Palestinians are forced to line up in. Instead of a line of 500 it must have been 1,000 and it was building quickly. There were probably a couple of hundred others just watching and waiting for the craziness to settle down.

I tried to force my way out at the bottom but the crowd trying to push it’s way into the line was to much. Even at 6″3″ (190 cm.) and 220 lbs. (100 kg.) I couldn’t make my way through. It took 20 minutes before the line cleared enough for me to be able to push my way out. Meanwhile, between 5:30 – 6:00 the line in the cage didn’t really move.

There were several crushes and surges. In many ways, I was reminded of a rugby scrum. Except, instead of moving the ball to gain a slight advantage the surge pushed some people further into the line. All were hoping for an end to the hell and the humiliation they were facing in the cage they were trapped in.

People in the line were yelling at me to do something. I had already called the “Humanitarian Line” six times with no effect. I was frustrated, angry and worried about the older and smaller men who were innocent victims. This scene was being played out because of one soldiers self righteous exercise of power, control and dominance over thousands of people who were mere toys in her cruel game.

Today, I attended a protest mass at Cremisan. This is an orchard owned by the Roman Catholic’s. It is under threat of being carved up so more of the Israeli wall can be built. The case has been heard and the verdict is pending. Most seem to feel that the verdict will side with the church and that parcel of land will be untouched. Because the decision will go against the Israeli government it is expected that it will not be released in the near term.

The priest began by welcoming Hans-Eric Norden a Lutheran Bishop from Sweden. Hans-Eric made a few brief remarks. He reminded us that Lent is a time to consider peace and justice. It is also a time for reconciliation and rebuilding relationships with one another and with the creation.

My mind leapt to images of the week. The Church of the Nativity that has stood for over 1600 years and witnessed new understandings and renewed relationships. Raba standing next to us as we were leaving and inviting us to return next week because he and his family will start planting new trees. I thought of a soldier this morning (Friday) smiling and laughing as a young Palestinian girl went skipping and dancing down the hall toward the exit for the check point. A Lutheran bishop and a Catholic priest offering each other words of support and encouragement in their respective struggles to help find peace and reconciliation for a Holy Land devastated by the abuse and misuse of power.

It seems complicated in this land. The path to confession, reconciliation and the recognition of our common and shared humanity has many twists and turns. Jealousy and greed will need to be set aside. Some new way will need to be found. The way forward will have to be rooted in grace and the willingness to work together. Truth telling will need to occur and confessions will need to be offered. Many crosses will have to be carried but more important they will have to be shared. God longs for peace and reconciliation for – for you, for me, for the people of Palestine and Israel.

May peace prevail upon the Earth!

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About Steve Berube

I am a team minister at St. Paul's United Church in Riverview, NB, Canada. I served as a human rights observer in Bethlehem while on sabbatical in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) of the World Council of Churches.
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8 Responses to A Very Complicated Relationship

  1. Jack Spencer says:

    Thanks Steve. I used your February blogs for a program as Kensington United last night. Blessings on your ministry in Bethlehem

  2. Doug MacEachern says:

    great and passionate writing Steve –thank you

  3. Carol Steel says:

    I feel the pain behind your words, indeed behind all you have written so far. The truth of the stories you share is shadowed with the pain, the injustice, the bullying…yet, it is the truth and the reality of the life there. Have courage, be steadfast, be true to yourself. May you find ways to balance the harsh realities with moments of hope and joy. May you stay well and safe.

  4. 4justpeace says:

    Hi Steve … Thanks for blogging. I have appreciated your reflections. I can picture the places and the people, and I miss all of my friends in Bethlehem. Please say hello everyone, especially Ameen, Abu Iyad, and Louie. Are “my cats” still around? Is anyone feeding them? I’m not sure if you knew that I found them in the yard as tiny kittens and took them on as my charge! Susi took over after I left… Thank you for your witness! Dawn

    • Steve Berube says:

      Hi Dawn. There is important info re the cats! They have been named: Abu Tom and Cleocata. Cleocata is due to have a litter soon. We are on midterm next week so George will feed them. Gotta run to CP. I will pass on your best to the list.

  5. shirley k says:

    Hi Steve, I heard the story of the Olive tree destruction on CBC and wondered if you were in the vacinity. Such senseless and punitive acts on your neighbor. We are thinking of you in the midst of the insanity. Take care always.. Its difficult work that you are doing but a beacon of hope to those who suffer humiliation and despair everyday. Shirley k.

    • Steve Berube says:

      Hi Shirley,
      Actually we were the only international group to visit the site. Speaking with some of the other groups tonight Nahhalin was not the only village to experience this type of violence this past week. It is a fairly common strategy on the part of settlers to breed a sense of powerlessness and helplessness. Yet in spite of the situation on the ground the Palestinians continue on. I will go back and talk further with the Fanoon family as will at least one other collaegue.

  6. Ron & Liz Hamilton says:

    Hi Steve, It’s great to be able to be in contact with you. We look forward to reading your blog as we also look forward to your return. We keep you in our thoughts and prayers.
    Take care, Ron & Liz

    P.S. I need a few of your prayers as our team is in last place and we are finished for the year on April 26th. Thank you in advance, Ron

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