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The plaque hangs on a wall overlooking a quiet street in Nablus’s Old Town. In the midst of beautiful stone walls and archways, it stands as a constant reminder of the violence that once happened on that very spot.
In April of 2002, while the Israeli Defense Forces were cracking down on Palestinian militants throughout the city, an army bulldozer pushed through a nearby house to allow Israeli vehicles to reach an inaccessible street. Eight members of a family living inside, including a pregnant woman and three small children were crushed beneath the collapsing wall. All eight died.
Today, the house has been rebuilt. The street looks the same as before. But the residents of Nablus have not moved on from this tragedy. The plaque seems to call for more than just remembrance of those who were killed. It calls for vengeance:
“MEMORY OF ISRAELI INVASION. THE MASSACRE COMMITTED BY ISRAELI ARMY… NEVER FORGIVE… NEVER FORGET…”
Never forget. Never forgive. A slogan used by Israelis in reference to the Holocaust, now a Palestinian call for retribution…
I was a bit unsettled after returning from my visit to Nablus. As great as it was to meet some wonderful people and see glimmers of hope among the refugees, there were a few moments that I simply couldn’t shake from my mind… moments that reminded me yet again that all is not well in Palestine.
The moments I couldn’t shake (and that once again complicated my understanding of the conflict here) all focused on a central issue: terrorism, and the uncomfortable fact that not all Palestinians think it’s such a bad idea…
As an American, I live in a culture ruled by fear in the wake of September 11. I tend to have strong gut reactions to stories of terrorist attacks. Every time I hear about innocent civilians brutally murdered in a crowded restaurant or on a bus by a suicide bomber, my stomach turns.
How can one human willingly inflict such terror and devastation on another?
Then I look through the list of Palestinian suicide attacks and begin to feel almost numb. So many Israelis have been killed or maimed at the hands of terrorists.
With this in mind, you can imagine my discomfort upon seeing posters throughout Nablus glorifying young fighters holding AK-47s, walking past countless spray-painted logos of militant organizations on the walls of Askar refugee camp and learning that many Palestinians actually support suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.
What am I supposed to do with all of that? How could people that seem so friendly, peaceful and normal be ok with such violence? It just doesn’t add up.
To find an answer to those difficult questions I decided I’d try to understand what this conflict looks like through the eyes of Palestinians. Perhaps a change of perspective, I thought, would help things become clear…
As I asked questions and listened to stories, some aspects of the conflict I hadn’t thought about before began to fall into place.
At the height of the Second Intifada (a Palestinian uprising in the early 2000’s), Israeli forces moved into cities across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Their original goal was to arrest the terrorists that were setting off bombs all over Israel, but the operation quickly escalated into much more.
Nablus was particularly violent during the conflict. Palestinian militants holed themselves up throughout the city, often using the crowded refugee camps for cover. As they were fired on by Israeli soldiers, civilians inevitably got killed.
While walking through Askar camp with Khalil, he showed me a row of graves tucked behind the wall of an elementary school – all innocent people killed by fire directed at militants.
In other incidents throughout the intifada, IDF soldiers fired into crowds of protestors, killing several. Many young Palestinian men were whisked away to Israeli prisons. Missiles from Israeli helicopters killed civilians who made the mistake of walking outside after the military-imposed curfew.
In the years of relative peace since the end of the Second Intifada, there have been invasive raids by Israeli soldiers looking for terrorists, high tension incidents at police checkpoints where innocent Palestinians have been shot, violent clashes between rock-throwing youth and heavily armed Israeli soldiers…
Every single Palestinian has stories of terrible or unjust things that have happened to them at the hands of Israelis. If not them, than a family member. If not a family member, than a friend…
A Narrative of Victimization
Many of these incidents could be seen as unfortunate but inevitable consequences of a region in conflict, but when weaved together by entire communities, they become part of a larger narrative of victimization.
From the point of view of many Palestinians, their community is weak and helpless in the face of a powerful and well-equipped occupying force. Strengthening this idea is the fact that five times more Palestinians have died in the conflict than Israelis.
From this perspective, terrorism is viewed not as murder but as asymmetrical warfare… the weak fighting the strong in the only way they can.
With this as a guiding storyline, it comes as much less of a surprise that extremists would be willing to strap bombs on their bodies to kill innocent Israelis. It no longer shocks me that Palestinians would turn a deaf ear to the suffering of their neighbors.
In an eye-for-an-eye world, many Palestinians see the deaths of innocent Israelis as a small step towards justice: the victimizers for once becoming the victims…
Learning all of this has helped enormously as I’ve tried to come to grips with some of the more difficult moments of my visit to Nablus.
Despite my new understanding, however, I have been led to a simple conclusion. Innocent Palestinians have died. Innocent Israelis have died. Both sides have been greatly wronged in this conflict.
But although each side has powerful and emotional justifications for its violence, one thing is clear: violence will never lead to peace.
In this region so filled with hate, those of us pursuing reconciliation need to look beyond “an-eye-for-an-eye.” We must hold tightly to the true asymmetrical warfare of the kingdom of God: the strong becoming weak, the rich becoming poor, each of us loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.
In a land where people often hold grudges for generations, we need to listen to the advice of a man who once walked this very ground.
Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22)
This is why I am so excited to see the work of Musalaha. Through their tireless efforts at reconciliation they are bravely pursuing a level of forgiveness that can only come through the kingdom of God.
Instead of taking sides or promoting a specific ideology, they are reaching out to Christian Palestinians and Messianic Jews with a simple message: We are called to love one another. Peace must start in our hearts. Let us be reconciled so that the healing of our land can begin.
- Consider supporting the work of Musalaha by helping to cover the cost of an Israeli or Palestinian student going on a “Desert Encounter” where they can begin to experience this reconciliation for the first time. Click here for more information.
- The other day I heard a great line from Dr. Salim J. Munayer, director of Musalaha: “Apathy is the biggest sin of the church… not hatred.” Pray that we would be roused from our apathy regarding these issues!
- Pray for the victims on both sides of the divide. Pray that they would begin to seek forgiveness rather than vengeance. This is the only way true peace will ever come.
About the Author: Barry is the founder and director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.