LETTER FROM BETHLEHEM:

THE 31/12 JUSTICE AND PEACE MARCH

By Toine van Teeffelen

The march begins as a relaxed gathering in front of Nissan’s restaurant in Bethlehem. In fact, it never lost its strangely joyful, optimistic, and colorful character. Strange, because the circumstances in the Palestinian territories are so desparate. Many marchers wear caps in green, yellow and black on which are written the demonstration’s main demands “Open Jerusalem” and “End occupation.”  Hundreds of olive branches, large and small, point into the air. A thousand colorful balloons float over the marchers’ heads. Many hundreds of wishes are attached to them, sent to Bethlehem by members of Pax Christi International and others. (Some of them had already been read and attached to a Christmas tree during an earlier ceremony at Shepherd Fields led by the Latin Patriarch). There are banners, with phrases such as “Free Palestine,” “Peace is the Fruit of Justice,” and “Now and NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM,” the traditional Jewish cry of longing that has gained such a sense of urgency for present-day Palestinians.

When people start to walk the number swells to over 3000. (As 1500 caps have been distributed, it is possible to make a reasonable estimate). A group of community leaders, authorities and representatives of NGOs walk in the heart of the march. They include the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, president of Pax Christi International, several bishops from different denominations, the Mufti from Bethlehem, the governor and mayor of Bethlehem, two members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and the Minister within the Palestinian Authority for Christian Affairs. There are also members of political factions. And of course many Palestinians, primarily from Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, who form the backbone of the demonstration. Some villagers have come too, although it is very difficult, if at all possible, to nowadays travel between the villages around Bethlehem and the town itself. Among the internationals are Nobel Peace Price winner Mauread Maquire from Northern Ireland, and Luisa Morgantini, the indomitable Italian Europarlamantarian who since many years stands at the front of solidarity activities in support of a peaceful co-existence of Palestine and Israel. Around them, many hundreds from Italy, France, Belgium and other countries, as well as nuns, priests, and a Buddhist. When ribbons are distributed with a sign on it of “international observer,” a few internationals decline the offer arguing that they wish not to be observers but participants. Bethlehem scouts are present, not in their uniform but with just their yellow tie around the neck. In fact, young and old are present, and, somewhat remarkable for present-day demonstrations in Palestine, many women, too. Women do often not participate in present-day demonstrations due to a feeling that their safety would not be guaranteed in case of a confrontation with soldiers. The presence of the internationals – who joined several other Palestinian demonstrations and activities in the month of December – as well as the religious leaders provides at least some protection. Divided into national groups who walk in front, besides or at the rear of the march, the internationals join hands as soon as we reach the soldiers. Doing so, they form a large protective circle around the Palestinians. We notice the absence of people some of whom apparently do not anymore believe in demonstrations or who are desparate, which is a quite common and understandable feeling among people here. After so many years not being able to enter Jerusalem, what difference could one march make?

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Near the Caritas hospital, the march is stopped by a cordon of soldiers. Although we are clearly inside Bethlehem town, the march reaches area C near Rachel’s Tomb, controlled by the Israeli army. A negotiating delegation talks with the commander and consults with the decision-making group consisting of the Patriarch, the Mufti, and other authorities. Father Raed Abusahlia, the chancellor of the Patriarch, speaks to the crowd out of the loudspeaker car, repeatedly emphasizing the need to leave space, not to push oneself through the cordon, and to keep the demonstration non-violent. Some internationals would wish to pressure themselves through the cordon, but comply to the appeal not to do so. From atop of the side walls rows of cameramen and photographers watch the soldiers who look relaxed but somehow unaccustomed to be watched from above (usually Israeli soldiers occupy the higher places). Later on I watch on local TV a girl painting an Israeli armored vehicle with the colors of the Palestinian flag. People sing the slow refrains of “We Shall Overcome.” It is a strange and striking contrast, persons with balloons and olive branches standing in front of soldiers and military cars. Initially the commander proposes to allow a small group to pass through to the checkpoint for making prayers, a proposal which is refused by the demonstrators. However, after a while all marchers are finally allowed to proceed to the checkpoint, over a kilometer further north.

A hundred meter before the main checkpoint the crowd is stopped once again, and “negotiations” re-start. The organizers had informed the police in Jerusalem and the army about the demonstration but had not asked for a permit. (They did so out of principle, as the march is not conducted in Israeli, but in occupied territory). Then the final decision of the army: The marchers are not allowed to enter Jerusalem. In front of the checkpoint and the soldiers, a prayer service is held. Prayer and religious songs as resistance. Some soldiers receive an olive branch from a Palestinian child. A Franciscan friar gives a candle of peace to the soldiers. The patriarch and bishops conduct prayers, in Arabic and English, quoting the well-known phrase from the Old Testament about the transformation of swords into ploughshares… Afterwards, some of the international wishes are read and the balloons lifted into the air, as a collective New Year’s wish. Palestinian boys from the neighborhood offer a cup of tea. An Israeli soldier is filming the march from above a jeep. I see that some of the Palestinian demonstrators are leaving. Perhaps the time-length of the march (over three hours) takes its toll or some are concerned about being filmed.

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After a while, the march reaches its conclusion and Palestinian marchers go back to Bethlehem. The religious authorities from Jerusalem go back to Jerusalem to join the second half of the march. What do the internationals do? It is an emotional dilemma. Do they “break ranks” with the Bethlehemites by trespassing the checkpoint with the help of the international passports their co-demonstrators do not have? Most do, because their presence is needed for the march down in the Old City. At the Freres School’s courtyard just inside the New Gate several hundreds of protesters are waiting, including members from the Israeli peace movement. In front of the march walk religious leaders as well as Sari Nusseibeh, responsible for Jerusalem Affairs within the PNA, and Uri Avnery, veteran leader of Gush Shalom [Bloc of Peace]. Previously, the heads of the churches in Jerusalem had jointly stated their support for the march. After a walk through the narrow and picturesque streets of the Old City, the group arrives at the courtyard of St Anne. There a quiet ceremony takes place, during which among other things a well-known peace poem of Faisal Husseini, the late leader of Palestinian Jerusalem, is recited by his daughter. Israeli and Palestinian demonstrators mingle, a rarity these days. On the order of the Israeli police, the planned human ring around the old city is cancelled.

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The organizers are satisfied with the publicity of the march. There is international coverage by a number of European TV stations, including BBC, RAI and Swiss TV, and probably others, and CNN. There are photos in the The Jerusalem Post, the Israeli mass-based Maariv paper, and an item on the Arabic language Israeli TV news. A great many Arab stations are present (Al-Jazira, Lebanese TV, Yemen TV, etc.), and of course much local Palestinian TV. But apart from the publicity and at least as importantly, the people and organizations here have won more capacity and trust to set up and join such marches which voice the clear demand for a real peace in support of international law and human rights. Local NGOs, religious leaders, authorities, political groups, the local Palestinian population, as well as peace-minded Israelis have demonstrated that, despite enormous pressure, they are willing and able to join hand in hand for a march which gives hope for the future. It is a much needed beginning, a new beginning for more activities to come.

 Acknowledgement

An appeal to the march was sent out by Christian leaders, including the heads of the local churches, Islamic leaders, the national and municipal authorities, the leaders of refugee communities in the Bethlehem area, and the Grassroots International Protection of the Palestinian People (GIPP, a coalition of over 90 Palestinian NGOs and church-related institutions). The local organization was conducted by the Arab Educational Institute, the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement between Peoples, GIPP, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Conflict Resolution Center Wi’am, the Bethlehem Scouts Movement, and the Arab Orthodox Society.
 

Special thanks go in the first place to the many international groups who came over from various European countries to join in a series of December activities; to the governor of Bethlehem district and the mayor of Bethlehem, who made special efforts to recruit organizations and people, to CORDAID, the Dutch development organization which promptly and generously offered support to cover the costs of the march’s logistics and materials, to Pax Christi International for collecting wishes from all around the world, to the many individual wish makers, to the United Civilians for Peace for participating in the preparations as an observer, and to IKV (Interchurch Peace Council) for raising publicity to the march.

 
IN SPITE OF ALL, A JUBILANT MOOD OF RECONCILIATION
[The following report was written by Beate Zilversmidt]
Dec. 31, 2001
 

While waiting in the yard of the "Freres School" near to the Old City's New Gate, Palestinians, foreigners and Israelis were developing vivid mutual conversations. It was one of those pleasant, sunny December days. The waiting was for the group from Bethlehem.

Already on the way from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem we had heard on the radio that the army prevented thousands of Palestinians from passing the roadblock on the way from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Gush Shalom had hired a bus for the Tel-Avivians, and called upon the Jerusalemites, to attend the "Peace Circle around the Old City" - so carefully planned by a Palestinian coalition, including high-ranking Muslim and Christian bodies and representatives of the Palestinian parliament, and to which Israeli peace activists were specifically invited.

We had known from the start that it wasn't very likely that the army would let thousands of demonstrators walk from Bethlehem through the checkpoint to Jerusalem - to join us and make hand in hand a "Peace Circle around the Old City." A joint action of this kind had not taken place for months. The months of violence and contra-violence, revenge and revenge-upon-revenge, had created a new distance. With the army not only barring Palestinians at roadblocks but also prohibiting Israelis from paying them solidarity visits, the only ones who were going between were the foreigners, the hundreds who came especially in the December month as "international monitors from below."

During frenetic phone consultations it became clear that only the internationals and a VIP Palestinian delegation would be able to pass the Bethlehem roadblock to join us, and that the two thousand Palestinians whose way was blocked had started their midday prayers near the roadblock - a form of protest and also a wise way to diffuse tensions...

So, we started to march through the many colourfull alleys winding through the Old City not thousands, but hundreds, carrying the slogans 'Open Jerusalem' and 'Stop Occupation'. A French cohort started chanting "Free, Free, Free Palestine!" / "Free, Free, Free Palestine!" and "Stop, Stop, Stop Occupation!". Our "Shalom Ken, Kibush Lo' - rather downtrodden for Israeli ears - was immediately integrated. ("What does it mean?" "Peace Yes - Occupation No!"). The merchants came out of their shops to look at this unusual parade.
 

We went through the Via Dolorosa, an unusual pilgrimage of believers, and seculars from many nationalities - in the front row Sari Nusseibeh, Father William Shomali and Uri Avnery. Then we entered the beautiful open space behind St. Anne's Church and all the time there continued to stream in more
people, among them the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabahh, Lutheran Bishof Munib Younan and Anglican Bishof Riah Abu el-Asal, as well as Louisa Morgantini, the devoted member of the European Parliament who brought with her 160 Italian voluntary peace keepers. (Nobel Laureate Mairead Maquire of Northern-Ireland should have been there too, but decided to stay in Bethlehem with those who were not allowed through.)

The ceremony which ensued there, today in that oasis in the middle of this most contested place, the Old City of Jerusalem, was a unique experience for those present.
The 2000 year old Sermon on the Mount, which was read in Arabic and English turned out to apply well to the present situation.
The very moving prayer written by the late Faysal Al-Husseini ten years ago was read in Arabic by Sari Nusseibeh, in a voice deep with restrained emotion, and in English by Fadwa Husseini - Feisal's daughter.*
Michel Sabahh, the Latin Patriarch called for recognizing that occupation is the root cause of hatred and bloodshed: "There can be no peace and security for Israelis without peace and security for Palestinians; there can be no peace on destroyed homes; there can be no peace with assassinations. But, we Palestinians will also not have peace if we take retribution of the same kind. As Mahatma Gandhi said, surrendering to evil is losing one's humanity but resisting evil with evil methods is worse than that."
 
 

Then came Uri Avnery: "You Palestinians are undergoing terrible times of increasing oppression. We think of you and feel with you day and night.  In these times of bloodshed it is easy to despair but we must not lose hope. Peace is not made by politicians. Peace is not made by the men of war, but
by the people who seek it. We have come here as the true Israeli patriots, carriers of the Jewish tradition which says: 'Justice, justice shallt thou pursue', and 'Seek peace and pursue it.' In the end the two peoples shall win, the two peoples shall live together in peace. There is no other way. The day will  come, and may come sooner than you think when we gather again at this church but then it will be in East Jerusalem, capital of Palestine."

After these words the music started - interrupted for a few words in Arabic delivered by the Iraqi-born Meretz activist Latif Dori, as well as the Jewish Saturday prayer "Shalom Aleichem Malachey Hashalom" (Peace unto you, Angels of Peace) whose melody was perfectly captured by Reuven  Moskovitz on his mouth organ.

Then again the church orchestra, and everybody had gotten into such a jubilant mood of reconciliation that people started spontaneously dancing in big circles, men and women, clerics and activists, young and old. And it was no shame to dance and be united in love and happiness. For a moment we had overcome reality. We went home stronger people.
 
* Prayer of Faysal Al-Husseini

Oh God, the chest is replete with bitterness... do not turn that into spite.
Oh God, the heart is replete with pain... do not turn that into vengeance.
Oh God, the spirit is replete with fear... do not turn that into hatred.
Oh God, my body is weak... do not turn my weakness into despair.
Oh God, I your servant am holding the embers... so help me maintain my steadfastness.
Oh God, faith is love... Oh God, faith is forgiveness... Oh God, faith is conviction...
Oh God, do not put of the flame of faith from my chest.
Oh God, we wanted for the Intifada a white one, so please protect it.
Oh God, we wanted freedom for our people, we did not want slavery to others.
Oh God, we wanted a homeland for our people to gather them, we did not want to destroy states of others, nor demolish their homes.
Oh God, our people are stripped of all things, except their belief in their right.
Oh God, our people are weak except in their faith and in their victory.
Oh God, grant us conviction, mercy and tolerance in our ranks, and not make us war against ourselves.
Oh God, turn the blood that was shed into light that will guide us and strengthen our arms, do not let it turn into fuel of hatred and vengeance.
Oh God, help us over our enemy so that we can help him deal with himself.
Oh God, this is my prayer to you... my invocation, so listen to it and grant us our supplication and guide us to the right path.