As we walked down a street aptly named Apartheid Avenue, I craned my neck to look up at the 6 meter concrete wall crowned in razor wire. This is Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank of Palestine. The wall cuts through the city, running down what was once a vibrant commercial street. Now, it is mostly closed shops, rubble, and a place for the city’s trapped inhabitants to express their feelings of hope through spray paint on a concrete canvas. Their silent cries speak wonders about the capacity of the human spirit to resist:
“Take steps not sides”
“The sun exists for everyone. We are all human, and only love wins”
“We all bleed the same color”
” Nothing Lasts Forever ”
” Peace is Cheaper ”
“Make hummus, not Walls”
This last one makes me giggle. I can imagine my new Palestinian friend Elias painting this one, because he’s so proud of his culture’s cuisine, and he LOVES to eat.
Soon we take a turn into Aida Refugee Camp, and the mood dramatically changes. On the surface, it’s not too different. There are still houses here, and even a school, but they are much more run down, and crowded. These families have been here for two, three, even four generations since they fled their homes in 1948, carrying only a few items and the key to their homes around their neck, assuming they would return within a few days. They never returned, but their children and grandchildren still carry the keys as a symbol of hope and of the right to return home.
In the camp, the story on the wall changes. A list of names appears, the names of innocent children killed by Israeli soldiers within the last decade. There are hundreds. Paintings of men unjustly arrested and never released line the wall. And then, the most gut- wrenching scene of all. A guard tower along the wall had been burned. We are told that from there, the soldiers had been shooting tear gas at the refugee children while they walked to school. The children got fed up with this harassment and decided to light the tower on fire. Next to the tower is a mural depicting Palestinians resisting their forced ghettoized existence by throwing stones, a blindfolded man being arrested by Israeli soldiers, and words that say, “We can’t live, so we are waiting to die.” Yet this artist could not be completely despairing, or the act of creation through storytelling would seem pointless.
The words of a familiar song come to mind:
“We are pressed but not crushed
Persecuted, not abandoned
Struck down, but not destroyed.
We are blessed beyond the curse
For His promise will endure…. ”
A young woman in the camp tells us that everyone, including the young children, stay awake throughout most of the night, out in the streets. The explanation? “Bad things happen at night. That’s when we get raided by soldiers, and people usually die. So we have learned to stay awake. We have trained ourselves to not need sleep.”
In the struggle and resistance of these people, we find Immanuel, God with us. Jesus also suffered at the hands of an empire. He lived and died under a military occupation. Now, 2000 years after his birth, his hometown is laid siege. As I walk along the wall, there is one question scrawled on the concrete that haunts me:
“Jesus is knocking… Will you answer?”