A view from the West Bank

21 December 2022

By the Revd Jonathan Hustler, Secretary of the Conference


The Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, is the day that the Church remembers the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. Matthew tells the story of the mysterious visitors who alarmed Herod by their unexpected appearance in Jerusalem enquiring about the birth of a ‘child born to be King of the Jews’. Herod consulted his scribes and then sent the Magi to Bethlehem to complete their search.

It is only a short distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, less than five and a half miles, but for many today it can be a tortuous journey. I was privileged to travel in that area in October. Since my last visit to Bethlehem 30 years earlier, much had changed. In 1993 there was fear in the air following the first Intifada, but there was also hope: negotiations were in train and later that year the first of the Oslo Accords would be signed in Washington. The peace process continued, resulting in the creation of the Palestinian Authority and the division of the occupied territories into Areas.

The Oslo Accords expressed a determination to ‘put an end to decades of confrontation and to live in peaceful coexistence, mutual dignity and security.’ Tragically, the process broke down, to all intents and purposes, in 2000, though some of those to whom we spoke in Bethlehem say that the two-state solution (the aim of the Oslo Accords and still, it would seem, the hope of many Palestinians and Israelis) died with the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who was assassinated in 1995). Since then, illegal settlements have proliferated as homes have been built by Israelis on the land of Palestinian communities. Since then, also, a ‘security fence’ or ‘separation wall’ has been constructed inside the West Bank, limiting the movement of Palestinian residents in and out.

From the Palestinian side, the fence is a symbol of oppression with checkpoints that make it difficult for Palestinians to tend their olive trees, to travel from one village in the West Bank to another, or to pass into Israel (often from their homes to their workplaces). The Wall defines life for those who live in the West Bank. As the Palestinian minister and academic Munther Isaac puts it, ‘a lot of who I am today was shaped by walking through checkpoints, waiting for long hours in the sun at checkpoints, or even evading checkpoints!’ That is the reality of travelling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem today.

From the Israeli side, the Wall is ostensibly a protection against terrorism, although, as it not difficult to cross through a gap its value in this respect must be questioned. At various points we saw dire warnings to Israelis that they would not be safe if they crossed into areas administered by the Palestinian Authority. It is difficult for Palestinian citizens of Israel to travel into Bethlehem, yet it is (by order of the Israeli Government) illegal for Israelis to do so; signs warn Israelis that it is unsafe for them to enter the area. This contrasts with the relative freedom of access for Israelis to roads in Area C that covers 65% of the West Bank while, perversely, Palestinian vehicles are excluded from major roads in their own territory. Any visitors making the short journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem soon recognize that those few miles are a symbol of the tragic inability of God’s people to live together.

There is a curious line in Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi. When Herod heard of the Magi’s arrival in Jerusalem and the question that they were asking ‘he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.’ The tragedy of Bethlehem today is a tragedy of fear. 75 years after what Palestinians call the Nakba (catastrophe) when many were displaced as the modern state of Israel was established, Palestinians live in fear that their homes will be bulldozed, that they will be turned away at checkpoints so that they cannot work, or see the land that they farm trashed by settlers. Israelis, who have experienced rocket attacks and suicide bombings, live in fear of those who deny the right of their 75 year-old State  to exist.

The security fence symbolizes that fear. It is now a barrier where fear meets fear and frustration can boil over into violence. As part of our visit in October, we had planned to visit a refugee camp which houses some of those who had to leave their homes in 1947. We were not able to do so because (as happens so often) the tensions rose, there was a demonstration following Friday Prayers, a section of the wall opened, and Israeli soldiers moved to quell young Palestinian stone throwers, with tear gas and stun grenades.

I am sometimes asked why the Methodist Conference has devoted so much time over the last few years to debating memorials about Israel and Palestine when such debates might achieve little more than exposing our own divisions and creating anxiety amongst our Jewish friends. The answer is twofold, I think. Firstly, Bethlehem matters to us, as it does to all Christians. We cannot speak or sing (as we have done over the last few weeks) about the place of Jesus’ birth, still less visit on pilgrimage the Church of the Holy Nativity, and not pay attention to the suffering of those who live where the Holy Family once lived.

The second reason is that the Palestinian Churches are asking for our help. As Christians, we believe that God is on the side of the oppressed. Munther Isaac (again) suggests that the Beatitude for today is ‘Blessed are those behind the Wall’. The Conference in 2021 commended for study the Sabeel Kairos document ‘Cry for Hope’ inviting readers to use discernment with respect to the various aspects of the call. Our Jewish friends remind us that this is a world of competing narratives and that there are dangers in a simplistic approach. That the situation is complex is no reason to ignore those who ask for our support.

The visit to the West Bank in October last year was part of a programme of events to mark the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Methodist Liaison Office in Jerusalem. In the history of the Middle East, 10 years is not a long time and it would be arrogant to pretend that after a week there I have more than an impressionistic understanding of the situation. But I saw enough to know that the situation is fragile, that there is fear on both sides, and that to reflect on the road that the Magi took must become a prayer for peace and a commitment to learn more.