Imagine Living in a Country...

May 24th


by Suzanne Gross, NEM Interim Worker


Imagine living in a country where at any given moment, you could drive an hour in any direction and experience a whole different landscape, culture, and social/political context.  That was my experience, along with my husband, during our recent 14 days* in Palestine Israel – a small country with contrasts on so many levels.  Below are some of the contrasts I experienced.

I started out in the dry and rocky South Hebron Hills – home to pastoral Bedouin and Palestinian communities.   The villages I lived among for three days seemed temporary – largely because the residents live in fear that their homes will be demolished by the Israeli occupation forces at any moment.  When that happens, they rebuild, only to have their homes demolished again.  This practice became official and entrenched on May 5, 2022 when the Supreme Court of Israel declared that the Israeli military had the right to displace over 1,300 Palestinians in order to clear the land for a military firing zone.  Jewish settlements living within the zone are, however, not impacted by this decree – they are free to remain on the land they have settled illegally – land that is in the Occupied West Bank, belonging to Palestinians for many generations.

The Galilee, 1.5 hours to the north, on the other hand, was lush with trees and patchwork farm land.  The sea of Galilee provided the region with delicious fresh-water fish. This area has a demographic reflecting 50% Arabs (both Christian and Muslim Palestinian Arabs) and 50% Jews. Although communities are culturally one demographic or the other, there was visible intermingling in areas of commerce and education. I stayed in a planned Jewish community on a hilltop – an effort by the Israeli government to ensure that the Jewish presence is at least if not more than 50%. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Arab communities are thriving. Our Jewish hosts speak of an open-mindedness in this region for inter-cultural and inter-faith cooperation. Is there a connection between this spirit today and the spirit that shaped Jesus and his disciples 2000 years ago? The stress of violence and dispossession in areas just an hour and half away seemed a million miles away.

The Mediterranean coast is yet another landscape in the area. The coast includes Roman ruins in the town of Caesarea, where the apostle Paul spent 2 years in prison or house arrest. Present-day Israeli coastal communities sport modern villas and golf courses for the wealthy.

Both the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean seas remain unchanged over the past two millennia. The thistles and caves and rocks also reflect a timelessness to place. I experienced a sense of great peace looking out over the Sea of Galilee from the perspective of the ruins of Capernaum, seeing the hills in the distance. This is a view that hasn’t changed since the time of Jesus and his disciples. The Palestinian village that grew up over time in the Capernaum area was ethnically cleansed of Palestinians and demolished in the 1948 war. There is no acknowledgement of this among the documented ruins that tourists visit by the busload.

Bethlehem and Nazareth are both tourist spots for Christian pilgrims. Both also have a vibrant Christian Palestinian presence offering training and programming to speak into the ongoing violence of the occupation. This violence affects Arabs throughout Israel, but is most pronounced in the Occupied territories as people experience the daily reality of checkpoints, and arbitrary permit revocation, settler and military violence, and night-time raids. The trauma of this stress is palpable in the Occupied territories.

As a tourist, I paid attention to how history is documented. Caesarea has a coastal open-air museum that attracts both Palestinian Arab and Jewish Israelis to walk among Roman and early Byzantine ruins.  This is where King Herod had his seaside palace. The nearby golf course is built on top of a Palestinian village destroyed in the 1948 catastrophe or Naqba. There is no acknowledgement of this past layer of recent history.

In the city of Tiberias in the Galilee, one finds the Church of St Peter built during the early time of the crusades, and marked with a small sign. A few blocks away is a Mosque that clearly used to be the centre of a vibrant Palestinian Muslim community. It stands in disrepair, with a padlock on the front gate. There is a small stone with a few words in Hebrew seemingly about the “Tiberias Trail,” but no information about the Mosque. Indeed, the Palestinians living in Tiberias were all forced to leave in 1948. A few blocks in another direction, one finds the tombs of four famous Jewish Rabbis from late antiquity and the medieval era. This monument is well-marked with information in both Hebrew and English explaining the significance of the place. 

This experience is illustrative of how the Christian and Muslim Palestinian histories are integrated into a general national identity. They are in fact, at best completely separated, and in many cases entirely erased.      

The final contrast has to do with how people imagine a “solution” to the socio-political problems in this small parcel of land. It is pretty clear to all with a conscience that home demolitions, night-time raids, settler violence unchecked by the military, and the dehumanizing experience of checkpoints needs to stop.  If that happened, there would be breathing room to start imagining a solution. Meanwhile, some are weighing in on possible solutions. One idea is to create a single democratic state where all residents become citizens and enjoy the same rights.  Others say that this solution might create a civil war, and that the two-state solution is still the best option. Leadership among the Palestinians – a leadership that can bring the needs of the Bedouins, the pastoral villagers, the larger towns people, Muslims, Christians together with one plan is challenging! In the absence of cessation to the violence, the vacuum is filled by extremists who seem to be planning for accelerated displacement of Palestinians. This small spot in our large world needs our daily prayers to help imagine a peace that works for all in the region.   


*My husband, Robert Kirchner, volunteered with Centre for Jewish Nonviolence for 3 months, living among three villages in the South Hebron Hills to accompany shepherds and children to ensure their safety in the face of settler and military violence. I joined him for his last few days, which we then extended into some additional travel.