*Please note that this Learning Tour to Palestine and Israel took place in November 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic became a worldwide threat. This first-person reflection was written by Betty Enns in April 2020, who lives in Winkler, MB.
On the tenth day of my trip to Israel and Palestine last November, I found myself standing in the Garden of Gethsemane. I had a panoramic view of Old City, which is divided into four quarters: the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter and the Muslim Quarter. The Israeli police and military that were present in all four quarters seemed to justify the fear of other cultural groups.
Looking across the valley, I could see the walled off Old City of Jerusalem. Nestling against its wall near the Mount of Olives lay thousands of beautifully crafted limestone coffins encasing bodies of those rich enough to afford such an expensive burial. Today, certain plots in this location reportedly sell for thousands of dollars or more.
Laying in the shadows further down the valley, separated from the rich graves by a second limestone wall, were the graves of the poor. These graves were marked with roughly hewn flat slabs of rock, haphazardly placed. In that moment, it felt to me like these divided stones represented ignorance, injustice, religion, racism, power, and wealth. I couldn’t see love, humility, mercy, justice, or loving God and your neighbour in these graves.
Joanna Hiebert Bergen, former MCC representative for Palestine and Israel and current MCC Manitoba program director sent me information on this MCC learning tour to Israel and Palestine 10 months ago. At that time, I had little idea the effect these experiences would have on me or the sights like these that lay in store for me. However, I suspected that under Joanna’s guidance, this tour would continue to impact me long after the 13 days I spent on site ended. And I was right.
"But in the midst of this devastation, there was an olive tree bearing fruit and cacti growing. These plants spoke of hope. They spoke to the resilience of what the Palestinian peace and reconciliation groups, and the Christian churches, were striving for." - Betty Enns
Even now that the sights and experiences of my journey are only in my memories, when I recall them, they still assail my spirit. I remember the conversation between two men planning to establish a business on Palestinian lands stolen by the Israeli, lands declared as ‘illegal settlements’ by the United Nations; I remember the hissing and gesticulating of two young boys, five or six years old, who were expressing their dislike of our presence; I remember the gut-wrenching stories of oppression, stories told by those who are now involved in peace and reconciliation efforts; I remember the wall in the Aida refugee camp naming the hundreds of Palestinian children killed during an Israeli massacre in July 2014; and I remember the graves of the rich and the poor outside the Old City.
One of the sites etched in my memory is the commemorative limestone wall at Ayalon-Canada Park, which sits between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These walls are engraved with Canadian and American donors’ names by the thousands; names of donors who funded the construction of the national park, many unaware of the type of activities they were contributing to. This included the Israeli government's ongoing demolition of Palestinian homes and villages and the erection of 700 kilometers of 26-feet-high concrete walls and fences, some of which are electric. When I remember this site, a cry of Lord have mercy! is the only way I can bring a measure of relief to my distressed soul.
But there was hope on my trip as well. Beyond this commemorative wall lay the Emmaus road and what once was the town of Emmaus. The tall grass and overgrown rubble of the homes destroyed by Israeli demolition crews, are tombs of Palestinians, locals have said, who refused to leave their home and village. But in the midst of this devastation, there was an olive tree bearing fruit and cacti growing. These plants spoke of hope. They spoke to the resilience of what the Palestinian peace and reconciliation groups, the Christian churches, and Israeli peacemaking organizations, like Zochrot, an MCC partner are striving for. They grew against all odds; grew despite the Israeli government’s policies of deprivation which are creating more and more refugees who struggle to survive in their own land. All keep on labouring in the hope that one day God will bring about human rights for all and peace they long for.
The new growth in the middle of the rubble along Emmaus Road also reminded me of the resiliency and beautiful spirit of the Palestinian people, working for peace and reconciliation: advocating the government, working in refugee camps, running a women’s co-operative, fighting in court to retain the legal right to their land and replanting olive groves destroyed by the military.
When I recall my MCC trip, I am filled with heartbreak but also with hope—a hope inspired by the Palestinian people—that one day, peace will come.