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Feeling their pain

We live so close to each other and yet we do not feel one another's pain. When a homicide bomber succeeds in killing Israelis in Jerusalem, I can usually hear the sirens of ambulances and emergency vehicles from my apartment in Beit Safafa. I then rush to the TV to watch the horrible details. I do not like what I see or hear but I have a big problem. It is a spiritual one.

My problem is that I do not feel the pain of my Jewish neighbors who lose their lives or are burned, injured or traumatized due to the bombings. It is a real issue for me because as a practicing Christian I am called to love my enemies. I think one way to express that love is to truly share the pain of others when they suffer. When innocent Palestinians get assassinated by Israeli attacks in Gaza, Jenin, Hebron, Bethlehem and elsewhere in the West Bank, my heart goes out in sorrow to them. I wish I had the same compassion for innocent Israelis who are killed or hurt.

My spiritual dilemma is further complicated by the fact that I am a pastor of a Christian congregation in East Jerusalem and thus often preach peace and reconciliation and call on members of my congregation to love their enemies regardless of racial or political realities. I confess it is much easier to speak about forgiveness than to actually forgive and it is much harder to practice love than to preach it. Then I think if I, a Christian pastor, cannot truly love my enemies, what must it be like for the average Palestinian?

I have tried to examine my heart in an attempt to understand why I feel the way I do. Why do I care less when innocent Jews are killed? The answer to this question is not so much found in my heart as it is found in my mind. Although I am religious and care much for my spiritual well-being, I am also rational. Rationality, mingled with a sense of patriotism, overcomes my spiritual motivation and desire to love my enemies. Rationality tells me that for every innocent Israeli killed in these cycles of violence, at least three innocent Palestinians are also annihilated. Rationality tells me that even if the death on both sides of the conflict is numerically equal, the suffering on the Palestinian side far outweighs the suffering of Israelis.

Palestinians cannot order curfews and imprison Israelis in their homes and cities. Palestinians have no power to set up checkpoints on the borders of Israeli cities, Palestinians cannot employ bulldozers to demolish the homes, businesses and farms belonging to those who kill them and steal their land. Rationality tells me that a nation who occupies another deserves the pain resulting from an occupied population.

I cross the Bethlehem checkpoint on a daily basis. My eyes, which are windows to my intellect, see injustice every day. I see the demolished homes, the collapsing economy, the masses under perpetual and suffocating closures and the daily suffering of an entire population. When I look eastward, near the check point, the settlement of Har Homa built on land Israel confiscated from Palestinians after 1967 on what Palestinians call Jabal Abu Ghnaim, stares me in the face. Turning to the west I see the Aida refugee camp, one of three refugee camps in Bethlehem, which is home to Palestinians who were forced to flee their villages in 1948 in what is now called Israel. Then I look straight ahead and I see Rachael's Tomb, a holy place turned into a prison-like fortress. Looking behind me it is impossible to avoid the settlement of Gilo that was also built on Palestinian land Israel annexed after 1967.

The realities I view, along with the stories I hear are imprinted on the walls of my soul and influence my entire person, including my spiritual outlook. Injustice makes me very upset and definitely affects my attitude. Consequently, when pictures of innocent Jews slaughtered by a Palestinian homicide bomber are shown on my TV screen, I rationalize instead of empathize. I continue to blame Sharon or the occupation or the latest Israeli bombing attack that snuffed out the lives of a number of Palestinians.

I long for the day when deep in my heart I can feel the pain of my Jewish neighbors in their time of calamity as much as I feel the utter despair of my people. I long for the day when we on both sides of the political divide can step into each others shoes and understand the anguish and hopelessness that the other side is feeling. Perhaps then we can become better aware of our common humanity, cry together and express forgiveness to the other. Only then perhaps, will we triumph over those on both sides, who thrive on violence, destruction and bloodshed.

Reverend Alex Awad
Bethlehem