Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Message of Hope and Something we can Do - from Pastor Mitri Raheb

One of the people I met in Palestine is the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem. His leadership helps the people of Bethlehem build a city with hope for the future. Today he offers us his perspective on the Israeli attacks on Gaza, as he remembers the attacks by the Israeli military on his own buildings in 2002.

Gaza: A Different Perspective
by Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb
January 12, 2009

Watching the news these days is not an easy task, especially if you switch between Arab channels like Al Jazeera on one hand, and Western channels like Fox on the other. The war on Gaza is portrayed so differently that one sometimes might wonder if these diverse narratives are actually dealing with the same conflict. On one channel, you see images of children slaughtered by Israeli troops and missiles; the other repeats, ad nauseam, the statements issued by the Israeli spokespeople about Israel's right to defend itself.

The most deceiving thing about coverage on both sides, however, is the idea that the more pictures one sees, the more he or she understands what's going on. I believe that the outrageous pictures transmitted are capturing our attention and feelings, yet are preventing us from thinking, analyzing and understanding what is really happening. This war on Gaza, and the sensational, 24-hour media coverage it is getting, has created a storm in the public sphere in order to hide the real intentions of the parties involved. The most important thing, I believe, is not what we are told and shown, but what this war is trying to hide. Here are some of the intentions as I see them:

1) The two-state solution is the intended victim of the war on Gaza.
Although Israel is aiming at destroying Hamas' military capabilities (as primitive as they are), I believe that Israel's real intention is to polish Hamas' political image. This may seem an outlandish contradiction, but let's look at what has been happening. While Israel can't tolerate rockets falling into its territory, it is in its long-term strategic interest to have Hamas control the Gaza Strip. Why? For a simple reason: if Hamas controls Gaza and Fatah controls the West Bank, then the two-state solution is over. Gaza and the West Bank will become two distinct entities governed by two different Palestinian parties with two different regional alignments. And Israel is off the hook. The "Two-State Solution" that the Palestinian negotiators were wishfully thinking to have almost achieved in their negotiations with Israel, and what President Bush had promised to deliver by the end of 2008 and didn't, is what was really targeted in this war and totally destroyed. President Obama will find new realities and challenges on the ground to deal with. A new chapter of managing the conflict will start in the Middle East.

Ed. note: I also observed that the possibility of a two-state solution is being eliminated by the continued building of Israeli settlements throughout Palestinian lands, breaking up any land which could become a Palestinian state.

2) Regional power struggles continue to be played out in Palestine.
The war on Gaza, although purely an Israeli decision, was also triggered also by some regional powers who were backing Hamas. Again we see the same old story played out, of regional wars being fought on Palestinian land, using Palestinian groups and war lords as proxies for different political interests. Without a new regional arrangement, there will be no stability in Palestine or in the region at large.

3) Gaza is the new poster-child for justifying humanitarian aid.
Gaza will now be marketed on a much wider scale as a severe humanitarian crisis. Disempowering aid, handouts and food supplies will start flowing into Gaza like never before. Yet Gaza's problem is, fundamentally, a political one. What the people in Gaza really need is for the occupation to end, for the population to be able to live freely, to export and import, to fish and grow flowers. What Gaza really needs is self-empowerment, a new vision, and the power of a spirit that overcomes the liturgies of death and insists on having life that is worth living; even if outside forces deny them that.

Some might ask: Is this the time for such words? People are struggling for mere survival, and you try to talk about things that might be interesting, but not crucial. I disagree. I still remember the days in 2002 when we experienced in Bethlehem the same kind of bombardment with the same F-16s and Apache helicopters (though on a smaller scale and for a much shorter period), when we saw our city that had just been renovated for the millennium celebrations damaged and destroyed. I know how children in Gaza are now being traumatized, how families are scared to death, not knowing who's next. And yet it was at that time that we wrote: "We will never give up on our town and on the wellness of our community. We will continue to build and rebuild, to train and educate, to empower and to create life in the midst of death. We will continue to call for justice and reconciliation in the midst of rising hate, revenge and retaliation." This was as true then as it is now.

Bright Stars of Bethlehem - Something You Can Do

While the children of Gaza are experiencing the ongoing trauma of being under attack, the children of Bethlehem, watching these images on TV, are reminded of their own experiences of violence and endangerment, calling up their own trauma during the 2002 attack on Bethlehem.

The Bright Stars of Bethlehem is a program begun by Pastor Mitri and the Lutheran Christmas Church, to help the children of Bethlehem cope with their ongoing trauma and the limitations the Israeli occupation and the wall create. The children participate in after-school activities and summer camps, to make their lives as normal as possible under these dehumanizing conditions. To help these children deal with the trauma, the Bright Stars Program has initiated a project to help children explore their thoughts, feelings and fears through visual art, and to send messages of hope to the children in Gaza.

The Bright Stars Program is coordinating with art teachers in schools throughout the West Bank to encourage their students to draw the images that are haunting their minds from the current war on Gaza and from previous experiences of conflict, in hopes that their minds and spirits will find freedom through creative expression. The further goal is for teachers to encourage their students to imagine and portray images of hope and peace, since visualizing things helps them to become reality. All of the artwork from this initiative will be collected and displayed in an exhibition, so that other children, parents, teachers, the media, and through them the outside world, might see the Gaza war through the eyes of children, and what the children hope for in the future instead of conflict.

After the exhibition, the messages and images of hope from the children in the West Bank will be sent to schools in Gaza. Maintaining the connection between the West Bank and Gaza is vital to Palestinian hopes for national unity and identity, and it must be fostered in the minds and hearts of the children of this generation.

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